Friday, May 19, 2006

Searching For Ghosts Along the Neches

Yesterday morning Don Carrell and I canoed the Neches River from the (unnamed?) county park at the end of Craven Camp Road down to the Highway 96 bridge at Evadale. Don is working as a volunteer in the Big Thicket Preserve, and is also involved in the Texas search for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.

The river was running high with a good current, and it only took us a little over two hours to cover the distance. We had to navigate around floating wood and submerged tree limbs, but they were easy to avoid and we didn't encounter any serious obstacles. Traffic was light - we only passed one other boat on our trip. Didn't see any other people (although there were many fishing shacks on floats tied off along the edges of the channel, the legality of which we questioned). It wasn't buggy and the weather was perfect, maybe even too perfect since I got a slight sunburn. All in all a beatiful day to be on the river.

The Neches River has been a focal point for Ivory-billed Woodpecker search efforts. I wanted to see what the habitat was like and whether or not it had the potential to support Ivory-bills. Of course we were also looking (and listening) for any sign of their presence. I can report that on this short trip nothing of the kind was found. We saw some nice habitat, although it's hard to tell how extensive the forest is from the river channel.

Birding by canoe is a challenge. It's hard to do anything besides canoeing while you are in a canoe. When you want to stop the current doesn't, and it's not easy to study a bird while trying to turn a canoe in a moving stream. So you tend to go with the flow and see what you can. For me it's mostly an auditory experience. Don's higher frequency hearing isn't good (although he noticed low sounds like the rumble of distant traffic ahead of me), but his vision is sharp. While I was busy listening he was spotting birds that I would otherwise have missed.

Particularly common along the river were Northern Parulas. I made a rough count of about 100 singing males. White-eyed Vireos were almost as ubiquitous, and Yellow-throated and Red-eyed Vireos were also heard all along the river. Prothonotary Warblers were surprisingly numerous - heard 40-50 males, with several seen in the streamside vegetation and flying over the water.

Woodpeckers were either being quiet or were simply scarce. We had only a few each of Pileated, Red-bellied, and Downy Woodpeckers. Our brief encounter with a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers illustrated how difficult it would be to observe and photograph Ivory-bills from a canoe. I frequently played Ivory-bill calls where the habitat appeared to have potential, hoping for a response. There was none.

We flushed a few Wood Ducks and Spotted Sandpipers as we made our way downriver. Other birds detected in low numbers included Red-shouldered Hawk, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Acadian Flycatcher (heard about 10), and Great Crested Flycatcher. Our most interesting bird was seen before we even got the canoe into the water - a Swallow-tailed Kite flying across the river at the county park (where I had Mississippi Kite last summer). Considering the late date it was probably part of a local breeding population, not a migrant passing through.

Last night it was finally announced that the past field season in Arkansas produced no new evidence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Sad but not surprising.


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