Monday, July 03, 2006

The Search Continues...

On Thursday, June 29th, Don and I did some more exploring in the Jack Gore Baygall Unit of the Big Thicket Preserve. According to Don we are the only volunteers actively involved in this project at present. My work schedule doesn't allow me to spend much time in the field, but unlike most of the weekend warriors that attended the orientation meeting I live relatively close to the Big Thicket and don't have to travel very far.

Don wanted to check out an area on the northwest boundary of the Jack Gore Baygall Unit. We followed a rough ATV track to a park service picnic area near the Tater Patch (incorrectly labelled Potato Patch on park maps). The “road” was narrow with dense brush pressing in, but Don didn’t seem to mind the branches scraping the sides of his truck. I wouldn’t have driven my vehicle in there – I value the paint too much. This “road” ends in a cypress swamp, at the edge of a large expanse of protected bottomland forest that extends east to the Neches River. Because of information that Don had received from locals we were interested in exploring this area, but access was difficult. First we had to cross a muddy baygall and then find a way across Black Creek. Because of recent rains the creek was up. Rather than attempt a crossing we just bushwhacked north along the edge of the swamp. We saw some nice habitat with big old trees. Noticed a few tall cypresses riddled with woodpecker holes (Pileated, from the look of them), but again found no evidence - auditory, visual, or forensic – of there being Ivory-bills present.

Don is a volunteer in the Big Thicket Preserve, and his days are divided between bird banding and searching for Ivory-bills. He’s done much more exploring than I have, and is more optimistic about the possibility of the species persisting in the Big Thicket. He’s been talking with local people who claim to have seen Ivory-bills in the past. From these conversations he’s concluded that an area of high priority is the north end of the Jack Gore Baygall Unit (which extends considerably farther north than indicated on the park map). Don has received permission to go onto some of the private land outside the preserve in this area.

When I’m birding with Don I try not to be too discouraging, but I’m really pessimistic about our chances of finding anything. I also doubt the ability of local property owners and hunters to differentiate between a Pileated and an Ivory-bill. These people aren’t birders. They haven’t documented their purported sightings. Among birders it is generally accepted that identifications of rarities will be questioned and even challenged, but outside the ornithological community this sort of inquiry can come across as rude, and tends to make people defensive. So rather than potentially antagonize anyone, the claimed sightings go unexamined. About a report of Ivory-bills nesting several years ago near the Tater Patch, all I know is that the observer was able to distinguish the birds from “indian hens,” a colloquial name for the Pileated Woodpecker. Not knowing the Pileated Woodpecker by its common name doesn’t inspire much confidence in the identification.

If there are Ivory-bills in this area, finding them is bound to be very difficult. To start with, aside from Timber Slough Road there aren’t any proper roads or trails. Streams and baygalls are frequent obstacles. The vegetation can be almost impenetrable (there’s a reason why they call it the Big Thicket!), and in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita there’s fallen timber everywhere. I wouldn't go in there without a compass or GPS. It would be very easy to get lost.

I always carry my digital camera with me, but as Don has pointed out, even if the bird still exists, getting a photo of one would be extraordinarily difficult. In forest like this it’s hard to get a decent view of a bird unless it’s reasonably close. You hear many more birds than you actually see. Pileated Woodpeckers are frequently heard but seldom seen, and getting a good photo of one would be a real challenge. Assuming Ivory-bills to be every bit as wary as Pileated Woodpeckers and much rarer, unless you knew the location of a nest or roost hole, getting a photo would be next to impossible.

Here’s an odd coincidence. At the Tater Patch I photographed a Southern Leopard Frog. It was a new amphibian for me. When I got back home later that day I was surprised to find another Southern Leopard Frog sitting at my front door. I’d never seen one before, and then I see two on the same day, many miles apart! Here's a photo of the one I saw in the Tater Patch.And here's the one I found back at our house. Looks like it has a piece of a plant stem stuck to its head.After having a look at the Tater Patch we spent some time along Timber Slough Road. Don showed me where he had heard a series of double raps...only to discover that the bird making the sounds was a Pileated Woodpecker. Our best bird sighting there was a singing male American Redstart. It was hot but we walked as far as the river, where we saw 3-4 Mississippi Kites soaring. Only one other vehicle passed us on the road.


At 4:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe you should try Mary Scott's Ivory-bill Psychic? (hey...just kidding)

I envy you. I grew up near such habitat. Even if you don't find Ivory Bills, it's still a good excuse to get out there!

At 2:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Swampblog, Swampblog, tail on it's hat
Nobody knows where the Swampblog is at
Swampblog, Swampblog hidin' in the glen?
He runs away to blog again


Where you at, Swampblog?


Post a Comment

<< Home