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IVORY-BILL SEARCH: ARKANSAS SOJOURN
by Harry Armistead
This report was originally posted on the Virginia List Serve, Harry has given us his kind permission to post it here on the Club Website.
A time of PB&J, Slim Jims, Hostess Ding-Dongs, and unopened, big cans of Dinty Moore beef stew (unopened because Marty Daniels masterminded a feast for us every night; de gustibus non est disputandum). Cotton Plant, Arkansas, February 19 - March 4, 2006. Bayou de View & Cache River National Wildlife Refuge areas.
The CONFIDENTIALITY agreement we all signed prohibits us from revealing any positive (or negative) information on whether or not we saw or heard the IBWO. Cornell will make an appropriate announcement after the present search effort ends this April.
I have just heard from the Cornell Ivory-bill Project Communications
& Marketing staff who have requested that I not include 3 paragraphs of
my original report and to not include small sections of 2 other paragraphs.
I hope that I have otherwise adhered below to what they would like.
2,648.8 miles, going, once there, and on the return.
It is my privilege to be a volunteer for the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology Ivory-billed Woodpecker Search Team for 2 weeks.
I must say, having been absorbed by (but not obsessed by -
the way some
are) IBWO for a year+, I am increasingly struck, almost on a daily basis,
with the byzantine subplots, suspicions, prejudices, estrangements even,
that imbue its rediscovery. There are some real characters involved. It
is a very human story and all of that is natural, easy to understand,
predictable even. Overriding any of this is the presence, hard work,
knowledge, intelligence, camaraderie, empathy, and good will of the many
good people involved.
"The best camouflage is motionlessness." Col. Richard H. Meinertzhagen, author of "Birds of Arabia", "Nicoll's Birds of Egypt", "Kenya diary", "Pirates and predators", "Diary of a black sheep", etc., and one of my heroes though at times he was a scalawag.
DRAMATIS PERSONAE: Thumbnail sketches. For the most part the length of these is commensurate with how long I have known them. I have known, in part, myself for 65 years.
Beth Wright: Beth is the Volunteer Coordinator for the Cache R.-Bayou de View crew. She is an excellent instructor, articulate, with boundless energy, of good cheer, and always there for counsel via the cell phone while we are in the field, and is often in the field herself. She has had an amazing variety of experience in the out-of-doors. This woman could run a corporation, and run it good. Problems come up, she confronts them, solves them. Bam!
Bob Ake: Retired chemistry professor, Old Dominion University.
Veteran world traveler, pioneered Outer Banks pelagic birding in the late 1960s-early
1970s. Treasurer, Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory (Bob, Bob Anderson [who
was at Cotton Plant 2 cohorts ago] and I were CVWO's 1st 3 life members). Does
surveys at Fisherman Island and Back Bay N.W.R.s. Big (BIG) St. Louis Cardinal
fan, does combined baseball (spring training)/birding trips to Florida. As with
me, loves classical music.
Bonnie Gall: Mother of twins, grandmother, member of the Oklahoma rarities committee, has a Ph.D. in chemistry. One morning this somewhat petite lady, at 0530 hours, announced: "We should leave in 15 minutes; we've been getting out there too late." Funny, she didn't SEEM like a drill sergeant.
Carl Perry. Present in spirit. Was to be part of this cohort but demands of his corporation and ailing parents prevented it. Engineer for Armstrong Tile near Lancaster, PA. Co-founder of the Cape Hatteras Christmas Bird Count. Companion of over 20 years on Delaware Big Days (May Runs), of which he was a main organizer. Has already been, on his own, to Bayou de View, White River, and Pearl River. Co-author/investigator along with Paul Sykes and Steve Holzman of studies of big woodpecker gouge marks and scaling.
Gordon Chaplin: A friend since early on in our high school
Freelance writer, author of "Joyride" (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan,
1982), "The Fever Coast log" (Simon & Schuster, 1992), and "Dark
wind" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999) plus, most recently, "A return
to the reefs" ("Smithsonian", February 2006, pp. 40-48). Has
worked for the Baltimore "Sun", the "Washington Post" and
"Newsweek". Over the years we have gotten into all sorts of trouble
together, been in various scrapes and mishaps.
Harry Armistead: Birder since 1949. Book collector & Philadelphia librarian. Regional editor of "American birds" (1979-1993), bander (1966-1991), Book Review Editor of "Birding" (1973-1986), compiler Cape Charles, VA, Christmas count since 1968, the Dorchester County, MD, spring bird counts (there are 2 each May) since 1966. Except as noted above, I have mostly stayed out of trouble. My son, George, leads birding tours for Field Guides, Inc. He used to be known as Harry Armistead's son. Now I am known as George Armistead's father.
Joe Eades: A safety and compliance officer for Monsanto in St. Louis. Joe is one of Missouri's top birders. Three years in a row he has seen over 300 species in that state. Joe has a troublesome leg and showed courage walking through the swamps, dragging canoes, carrying equipment. Cheerful, enthusiastic team member.
Marty (Martha) Daniels: Expert horsewoman, experienced raptor
bander, and manager of a large farm, Mulberry Plantation, near Camden, SC. Marty
is a descendant of the celebrated Civil War diarist, Mary Chestnut, who lived
at Mulberry. A veteran of years of Outward Bound adventures. An accomplished
cook, at the end of our sojourn Beth awarded and honored her with a custom-made
apron with original, signed art, emblazoned with, if memory serves, "For
Marty, Chef, Chez d'IBWO," a VERY nice touch. The rest of us mere mortals
were given attractive IBWO pins by Beth. Marty has had hip replacement and rotator
cuff problems, showed her usual gumption in this IBWO project, dragging canoes
and gallivanting about.
Terry Doyle: Wildlife Biologist, U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service at Ten Thousand Island N.W.R., Naples, FL. Terry was the most proficient of us with the project's technology and possibly the best outdoorsman of the group, navigating in the dark, and trekking through the woods. An accomplished birder who has also traveled extensively as well as been posted to refuges in Alaska. In Florida Terry has done extensive work studying manatees, including capturing them and fitting them with
LOW WATER. Water levels are low. Most of the stands are either above exposed ground or in shallow water. The current is still significant, helps when going downstream, gives you a little something to work against when going up.
BIRDS SEEN/HEARD BY SOME OR ALL OF US ALMOST EVERY DAY IN THE BAYOU DE VIEW WOODLANDS: Great Blue Heron, Wood Duck, Barred Owl, kingfisher, Pileated, Downy, Red-bellied & Hairy woodpeckers, flicker, sapsucker, chickadee, titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, creeper, Winter & Carolina wrens, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Swamp Sparrow & cardinal. Everyday flyovers there: white-fronted, snow & Ross's geese plus hundreds or thousands of Common Grackles & Red-winged Blackbirds. Along adjacent roadlands Loggerhead Shrike, Red-tailed Hawk, Eastern Meadowlark & Eastern Bluebird are common. I saw a few Ross's Geese every day.
PROLONGED FIELD WORK, 10-12 hours or so each day, lead to great views of wildlife going about its business, in its innocence, unconcerned about my or others' presence. As I age I become more sentimental about birds and animals and affected by their charm and behavior. How splendid to see an otter hunting. The turtles lined and piled up sunning on the logs. A Fox Squirrel going about its fussy regimen next to its tree cavity home at Blue Hole, grooming, then scratching, its hind leg a blur, then basking in the sun for an hour. Agile bats hunting low over the waters in the gloaming. A female sapsucker attending its sap wells at the base of a maple only 15 feet from the entrance to NW Dodson. Wood Ducks paired up, consorting on their courtship flights. At the SW Dodson Lake stand a Brown Creeper landing 6 feet away and working its way up a Tupelo trunk.
"Ye blessed creatures, I have heard the call
Ye to each other make; I see
The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee;
My heart is at your festival,
My head hath its coronal,
The fullness of your bliss, I feel" ...
IN THRALL TO BATTERIES AND CHARGES, straps, cords and carabiners.
INSTRUMENTATION provided by Cornell for each of us:
1. Cell phone, Nokia Cingular with 20 some numbers programmed
2. GPS, Rino 120 Garmin. Provides coordinates accurate to within 5 meters. Not good with elevation, which we didn't need anyway. My elevation at one point ranged from 100 to 25 or so meters and I didn't even move. Sometimes necessary to change GPS batteries 2X a day while in the field. Getting hold of the very small D-ring to open up the GPS would have been very difficult without my Swiss Army knife pliers.
3. Video digital camcorder, Canon NTSC Optura 50, mini DV, with its accompanying shotgun mike (with its own battery & on/off switch).
4. Big, car-type batteries in the stands/blinds which can be used with a sort of jump start rig to charge, or keep the charge, of the video cameras. Periodically these big, heavy batteries need to be taken back to the house so they can, in turn, be charged themselves. Fun to go up a ladder with
5. Various other gear: a compass, Ziploc bags, a notebook, laminated maps (aerial photographs, that designate launch sites, stands/blinds, and suspect woodpecker cavities), waterproof Cabela bags, data sheets et al.
1 through 4 require batteries or charging at regular intervals plus we all have binoculars and headlamps. Some have in addition their own cell phones and camcorders. In my case I also have hearing aids and change the batteries for THOSE every day.
Feb. 18, Sat. Gordon & I leave Philadelphia at 5 A.M. It will be 1,127.8 miles to Cotton Plant, Arkansas, but 97.3% of that is on interstates. Pick up Bob at Dr. John Spahr's house in Staunton, VA, 316 miles down range. Put 2 of my big bags on the roof rack of the car attached by shock cords; there is now JUST enough room for everyone else's gear, and everyone else. 719.7 miles today, much of it through the grand, ancient, rounded hills of western Virginia and eastern Tennessee. I have seen the Alps, the Cascades, the Sierras, Mt. Rainier, and the Grand Tetons, I've been up Pikes Peak, Mt. Evans, and the Jungfrau, but these old mountains today, low elevation though they may be, have a majesty as imposing as any. Lodge at Days Inn, Crossville, Tennessee.
Feb. 19, Sun. 408.1 miles today. From the Memphis bridge to
Cotton Plant there is nasty snow and ice packed down hard on the pavement. We
crawl along I-40, passing occasional 18-wheel trucks and other vehicles that
have skidded off the road. The worst ice is on small roads leading to our home,
the Robinson House. For some reason my car's 4-wheel drive does not
Feb. 20, Mon. Detailed instruction & orientation. Some likened it to army basic training, fifth grade, or summer camp. This is going to be a very tightly-controlled, highly-structured, and technologically-challenging project, something the advance literature did not adequately prepare me for. Some of this, let me tell you, Sweat Pea, I have trouble with, being a world class Luddite. My thanks to the others in my cohort, as well as (and especially) to Beth for helping me follow the bread crumbs and to Sarah Warner as well. In the afternoon we finally go afield to Apple Lake and the Dagmar Wildlife Management Area, do some walking and GPS work. Snow on the ground, ice in the swamp. Cold.
Feb. 21, Tue. Get out in the field late because - due to last-minute changes in the search team composition, we do not all have Cache R. N.W.R. use permits. South Stab Lake platform with Gordon. Drift/paddle down from Rt. 17 through the Hot Zone. Spend 11:15-4:45 on the South platform, which is covered with ice and snow. Gordon clears most of it off, like an NHL goalie getting the area in front of the goal squared away. Some of us today have to break through ice to get to the other platforms. Good looks at a River Otter and a Mink. Also 1 Gray Squirrel & 1 Beaver. My only 5-goose day with 20 Canadas, 1 Cackling, 160 white-fronteds, 5 Ross's & c. 2,000 Snows/Blues. I had 5 sightings of Ross's Geese, Bob had 8. In the Robinson House yard there's a male Brewer's Blackbird & 2 Barred Owls are calling in the distance.
Feb. 22, Wed. A rain day. We do not deploy. Bob, Bonnie & I practice with our GPSs, do a walk S of Robinson House, have a look at a sprucy Fox Sparrow. Some of us go in Marty's car to Brinkley, where we see a Fox Squirrel and an Eurasian Collared-Dove. Armadillo in the Robinson House yard, referred to by some as possum-on-the-half-shell. We buy various buttons, T-shirts, trinkets, doodads, and books in Brinkley, pick up freebies, most of these at the Ivory-bill Nest. Gordon gives me an autographed and remarked copy of Jerome Jackson's book. Stock up on food and beverages.
Feb. 23, Thu. Dodson Lake with Bob. Was on the NW platform. My only 3-owl day: 4 Barreds, 1 Great Horned (this species seems to call from the field edges of the bottomland) and 1 screech. 70 Greater White-fronted Geese, their flocks make rather neat, uniform V's as Canadas do, not like the rounded, more irregular formations of Snows. My first experience with GWFG is here, having only seen a few strays on the East Coast. Their call, 2 or 3 notes, easily-whistled in imitation of how they sound from a distance, is distinctive and unique. Speckle-bellies. 6 Ross's Geese sightings. Now that it is warming up, and the photoperiod is slouching towards equinox, the woods throng with morning song, in descending order of volume: titmice, nuthatches, Carolina Wrens, chickadees & cardinals. A woodcock (mud bat) at dusk at the Rt. 17 bridge. Coyotes, Spring Peepers, and Southern Leopard Frogs calling back at Robinson House.
Feb. 24, Fri. Paw Paw Lake with Gordon & Joe (in his own canoe). My only day with 7 species of woodpeckers. Good views of a Mink. Most of the day on the stand with Gordon but we did a lovely exploratory in the canoe for several hours down south of the lake and deep into Dagmar Wildlife Management Area, past where the last ribbons had been placed marking the "channel." Several big Beaver lodges. 3 Ross's Goose sightings. A Red-eared Slider in the water, my first "turkle" here, many more to come. A singing Winter Wren. The first mosquito. A woodcock ("Labrador Twister") at dusk at the Woodfin launching area. An armadillo by the road side on the way out.
Feb. 25, Sat. Day off. To Stuttgart airport with Bob. Overcast and cool. The route down is through country about as flat as I've ever seen. A muddy field that has been worked is full of white-fronted geese, seen at close range. The airport is a strange affair, some runways over 100 yards wide, other old runways overgrown, and with lovely areas off to the sides with nice growths of various grasses and low, little wet areas. There is just one person running the facility, which has a mounted Bobcat and numerous gamebirds. We put up 10 Short-eared Owls. The highlight are 11 Smith's Longspurs in breeding plumage. Bob investigates another mixed flock that has 25 birds, mostly Smith's but with some Laplands. We also see 2 Sedge Wrens, a Vesper and 165 (at least) Savannah Sparrows plus a few White-crowneds, 40 Eastern Meadowlarks (some singing), 3 harriers, 6 snipe, 2 Long-billed Dowitchers nearby, 975 Snows/Blues and 55 white-fronted geese. While there we see a corporate jet take off, the only aircraft on the move. Get back to Brinkley in time for the festival. After that Gordon takes off in the 'Osprey' for 3 days at White River
Feb. 26, Sun. Sunny, clear, 34-50 degrees F., winds NW 5-10-calm. Dodson Lake with Terry. I was on the NW platform most of the day but did canoe upstream solo to the 17 Powerline. Watched a Winter Wren very close by apparently fishing (There was an article years ago about WIWR fishing published in "The Kingbird"). 2 Red-headed Woodpeckers. Saw a Barred Owl flying around in mid-afternoon. Found a Water Locust - has long, nasty clusters of thorns all over the bark. Took my first photographs with the trusty, old, Nikkormat FTN - color prints. Terry & I returned to Rt. 17 bridge in near total darkness with small bats skimming and dipping in front of us only inches over the river's surface. Just N of the bridge a Beaver slapped its tail 4 times, real loud.
Feb. 27, Mon. Blue Hole with Joe. First Sharp-shinned Hawk. Barred Owl calls spontaneously in the sunshine at 10:30 and 3:30. Joe sees a Mourning Cloak and 11 kettling Sandhill Cranes. A striking pair of Hooded Mergansers shared the Blue Hole with me for an hour plus. Pair of Wood Ducks, too. We do a watch at a nearby cavity. Up to 66 degrees today with healthy S winds. 5 Red-eared Sliders sunning. Joe does extensive canoe trips. We lug a heavy battery in to the stand. Nice walk through upland area with fields, ponds, a long dirt road and many small oaks to get to the launch site. Mucho mosquito. In stand 7:45-4:45, cavity watch 4:45-5:45. I do not get bored or fidgety doing such lengthy stand watches. In fact, the day passes swiftly.
Feb. 28, Tue. Blue Hole with Marty. First substantial turtle count with 35 ISS (in sight simultaneously) but today Bob counted 183 turtles ISS at Stab Lake. Mosquitoes bad in the late afternoon. New birds: a Cooper's Hawk and a Bald Eagle. Later while outside talking with Beth another Bald Eagle flies N past the Robinson House.
Leaving Marty in the blind, I canoe up to the old railroad bridge, do a point count there. Then down Bayou de View to the S end of Blue Hole, where there are huge cypresses. Many of the cypresses in this area, we are told, are over 1,000 years old, 100+ feet high. That means they were 500 years or more in age when Columbus landed, already well established during the Norman Conquest. How about them apples? They were not logged, although most of the rest of the forest was, because timber cruisers had determined they were mostly hollow.
Marty sees an otter. Found a tiny fresh water mussel. Blue-headed Vireo up in a tree on the walk in to the launch area. Crayfish here make circular, raised mud structures with holes < an inch across that remind me of those of fiddler crabs that we see in the East Coast tidal areas. Also, a Sharp-shinned Hawk today. Take first shower in 12 days. Coyotes calling last night outside our house.
Gordon returns from 3 days in the White R. N.W.R. area: Sunday with those tending the automatic cameras in remote areas, Monday in a Jon boat, Tuesday walking a 10K transect with Jimmy McMorran. Gordon spent part of one day with Martjan while he did his laser-assisted, geometry-based measurement of several suspect cavities from ground level. He flies back East tomorrow where Liz will meet him at the Philadelphia airport.
March 1, Wed. Dodson Lake with Marty & Bonnie, the 3 of us each with our own canoe. An effort to keep up with the ladies, perhaps because there is more weight (!) in my canoe, perhaps because ... Up to 76 degrees. With the warming trend I changed to hip waders today and for the rest of our stay. Clear, windy. My first butterfly, a large Question Mark, very well-seen in flight and at rest.
Spent most of the day in the SW Dodson stand but followed long trail back to some fresh scaling. On the way there are small minnows in the pools, a huge vine I can only encompass 2/3 of with my hands. Nice look at an otter. Shirtless much of the afternoon. 19 turtles ISS. 3 Ross's Goose sightings. Terry gives me a jangle from S of Paw Paw Lake, where he is going to penetrate farther than Gordon & I did on Feb. 24. Somewhere down there is a heronry. There are a few big sycamores here at Bayou de View. Poison Ivy widespread but not rank, not much of a problem. Geese in apparent migration for the first time. My first swamp kestrel and Yellow-rumped Warbler. Terry saw snapping turtles mating today ("The love song of the turtle ..."). Sara Barker joins us for dinner. She is the one who "hired" us and is Elliott Swarthout's wife. A fine lady.
March 2, Thu. c. 54-65, breezy, windy, fair. With Terry to N Stab Lake platform. National Turtle Appreciation Day, as it were. Gene Sparling and 3 others in 2 canoes pass by the platform. The softshell turtles (only day I saw them) are really thin & disk-like, seen side-on resemble sand dollars or flying saucers in shape and have prominent snouts. Too windy to do A.M. point count (in 9 days afield I did do 16 of them).
Today saw the most fish rises, some jumping clear of the surface. As with other locations, every so often one hears the distant wails of locomotives, always stirring the wanderlust and memories of other places, other times. Terry observes that many (most?) birds of the swamp are cavity nesters: the woodpeckers, titmice, nuthatches, chickadees, prothonotaries, Wood Ducks, bluebirds, some of the owls. He spots an adult male harrier (Gray Ghost). I see a Mourning Cloak in flight across the lake. Barred Owl calling in bright sun at 2:37 P.M.
TURTLES ISS (In Sight Simultaneously) March 2. Hauled out and sunning almost all day long. Many of these are Red-eared Turtles (a.k.a. sliders) plus several other species I did not identify. However, a few Chicken Turtles, with their extremely long necks, are easy to ID (but how can they be "chicken" if they stick their necks out?). "and the little things creep out to patch themselves hovels in the marred shadow of your gift" -T. E. Lawrence, to wit:
48, 9:30 A.M.
104, 11:11 including 2 softshell turtles (sp.?).
140, 11:45, w/ 3 softies.
221, 11:56, w/ 5 softies.
272, 12:16 P.M., w/ 10 softies & 1 pile of 3 turtles triple-decker style.
267, 1:11, w/ 6 softies & several double-decker pileups.
231, 2:16, w/ 4 softies & 1 turtle hanging vertical on a 90 degree snag.
163, 3:09 w/ 1 softie.
101, 4:02, w/ 1 softie.
March 3, known to many as simply, Friday. To Dodson Lake with Terry. I'm on the MW platform most of the day, our last in the field, and 6th straight. See an arresting, bright yellow-green moth (?) in steady flight 5' off the ground, c. 2/3" long. Chilly, clear, starts at c. 40 degrees, windy, colder than forecast, am under-dressed. Turtles haul out anyway:
8 ISS, 12:28
March 4, Sat. Leave going out past the graveyard where 2 of the tombstones light up at night, past the house surrounded by dozens of defunct appliances and cars, past the pathetic, broken-down town of Cotton Plant, and past the homes of all the very nice people who live in this area. Bob and I take the inevitable photos of the Route 17 bridge (where a sulphur is working the embankment), bumble around Brinkley some, revisit the IBWO boutique, eat the obligatory Ivory-billed Cheeseburger at Gene's Bar-B-Que, and finally shove off at 1:15. As with the end of other minor adventures, I choke up a little as we drive off, when it finally comes over me that it's all over. Terry and Joe "split for Memphis, where they say all/Them swingin' cats are havin' a ball." So does Marty, less to have a ball than to revisit her nephew there. On the way out there's a Red-tailed Hawk every mile or so, including a handsome, very dark bird, a presumed Harlan's. 468 miles to Knoxville. Back at our motel room we discover at 10 P.M. that everything possible they could do wrong they did at the Wendy's takeout window. A new meaning for takeout.
March 5, Sun. Re-unite Bob with his car at John Spahr's in Staunton, VA. 646 miles to home, arriving just at sunset.
March 8, Wed. Philadelphia, PA. My mechanic, Benjamin: "Oh, Arkansas. You must have been looking for that woodpecker I've been hearing about on NPR."
DAILY ROUTINE AND DRILLS.
1. Rise at 0500 or 0445, go through the prep dance ("The feet mechanical go round a wooden way" - Emily Dickinson), make lunch, gobble breakfast, unplug whatever is being charged, make certain it's all in the waterproof packs. Get your gear into the right vehicle be it Cornell's or someone's POV. Make sure you have the key for the canoe lock plus the paddles, PFDs, and seats.
2. Take off in the AM half light and drive to the launch area. Set up gear in the canoe and launch. Turn on GPS, have video camera ready, cell phone within easy reach, binoculars handy.
3. Do your track to the blind or river course, check with your partner on rendezvous times. Beth did a good job mixing up the crews so we had different partners and went to a variety of sites. I do regret not spending a day sharing a canoe with Bonnie but got to go with all the others.
4. Do the assignments: bird point count in early A.M. and late P.M., cavity watch, a paddle up or downstream, do a day-long watch from a blind.
5. Return to launch area at last light, lock up canoe, turn off & disassemble gear, get it all into the vehicle. As dusk gathers into the bottomlands there is a certain dread that also comes, especially when faced with a choice of which watercourse to take - not always evident even in broad daylight - it's getting darker all the time, you're tired, cold, and hungry, but there is also exhilaration and excitement, too.
6. Leave big boots and other bulky or dirty gear in Robinson house garage, take other stuff inside, begin battery or cell phone recharging, shower or bathe, touch up and fine-tune the data sheets, do entry of your data from the day, file the data sheets, eat supper, wash dishes, hob nob, attend meeting to review the day's events and to receive assignments for the next day. Turn in, finally, but usually not until 10:30 or 11:00.
the SKY. Clearer and cleaner than many places back East. Orion's dagger and the Pleiades easy to see. Ursa Major and Stella Polaris hanging low in the North sky looking out from the front yard of Robinson House. "But the stars sing an anthem of glory that I cannot put into speech." - Robert Service.
SIGNS OF SPRING. Big choruses of Spring Peepers and Southern Leopard Frogs on evenings when it is warm, clear, and calm. The last few days the Snows and Greater White-fronted Geese begin their great run to their Arctic breeding grounds. Some patches of daffodils out. Maples budding with bees in attendance on some warm days. Hawthorns blooming along roadsides. Extensive beds of dark purple flowers in the fields; don't know their name; we have them back East. Loads of turtles sunning. Fish jumping. No snakes though. A few butterflies.
ON THE TREES. The lower parts of swamp trees, especially Tupelos, have rich growths of moss. Lichens cover much of the rest. Growing in random clumps, rather sparsely distributed, are attractive batches of Resurrection Fern, sometimes low near the ground, sometimes 80 or more feet up.
ARKANSAS NIGHT LIFE. Not an oxymoron. Robinson House, being near I-40, attracts various visiting firepersons. One evening, T. Lynn Scarlett, the Assistant Secretary of the Interior, comes to the house; she is impressive and sympatico. So do various folk from The Nature Conservancy (national headquarters), the Arkansas conservancy, and the Cornell Lab (in addition to those already posted to this area). Ron Rohrbaugh, Project Director, and Elliott Swarthout, Field Supervisor, were both there. We were treated to their PowerPoint presentation and were able to introduce ourselves, say a few words about ourselves in front of the distinguished visitors.
Scarlett spoke at the festival on Friday. As reported locally "President Bush is pushing for another two million dollars in the 2007 budget to help save the bird." cf: http://www.kthv.com/news/news.aspx?storyid=24248
One evening Gene Sparling, who made the original IBWO sighting, comes to visit. For a few days several of the White River N.W.R. crew stayed with us, including Jeremy Russell, Sarah Warner, Jimmy McMorran et al. These young folks are all hard-working, enthusiastic, intelligent, attractive, and sharp. In addition, they are courteous and respectful; they act as if WE have the stories to tell even though they've been on the ground in Arkansas for several months already.
At the Call of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Celebration (i.e., festival) in Brinkley most of us went to the banquet on Sat., Feb. 25. All of the main people involved with the re-discovery gave presentations, including Martjan Lammertink (Science Advisor), Jamie Hill (video team leader), Tim Gallagher (author of the book that relates all the recent events, "the Grail bird", a great read), Bobby Harrison, Gene Sparling (who made the original sighting), and David Luneau (who secured the video), and we got to see Elliott's presentation again and eat some unforgettable (read into that anything you want to) chicken.
BLACKBIRDS. This is blackbird country. Big flocks everywhere in yards, fields, and woodlands. Especially Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles. Huge evening roost right in front of the Convention Center in Brinkley. Brewer's Blackbirds not uncommon. Didn't see many cowbirds. No rusties.
COINCIDENCE. It's frequent in the birding world. Talking with Jimmy McMorran, it turns out he knows our friend, Brian Sullivan well, from San Clemente Island, and also my old Delaware Big Day colleague, Jesse Grantham. After the festival Sam Crowe, editor of the Cornell Lab's "All about birds", gives Bob and me a lift back to Robinson House. In the passenger seat is Bob Lanier from NE Texas, who Carl Perry and I had shown around Philadelphia and Brigantine N.W.R. over 20 years ago. At my family dinner on March 6, my son, George, revealed he had also shown Bob around some of these areas, about 10 years ago.
COMFORT. On several days I became temporarily cold enough to shiver, but only 1-3 times each of those days. My new, expensive chest waders kept everything from my waist on down snug and warm. The few times I got cold it was my upper body that was affected; usually if I have a problem in the past its going to be my hands and/or feet. However, on Friday, March 3 I underdress. After several motionless hours on the stand then, I dismount and lean against a huge oak on its sunny (and lee) side and am fine for the rest of the day. There was much talk before we went about how hard it is to stay warm. With this in mind I purchased various chemical foot and hand heat packs but didn't use them. If we had been there in December or January perhaps I would have. What I have heard is that, placed inside of gloves and boots, they do not receive enough oxygen to work very well.
ABERRANT PILEATED WOODPECKER. We were treated to photographs of a striking bird, almost entirely white (95%). cf.: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/ivory/field/from_field_html/whitePIWO I have heard of there being other leucistic PIWOs but not seen any documentary evidence for them.
8-HOLER. Some of the big cypresses have multiple woodpecker cavities, often within a few feet of each other. These look like Red-bellied-sized holes, seem old, with tree bark having started to grow around the holes (healing process?). One big cypress, which I photographed, had 8 holes within 15 vertical feet.
Some ARKANSAS DIFFERENCEs as opposed to the birds back home in the Middle Atlantic region. Loggerhead Shrikes are common. So are Ross's & Greater White-fronted Geese but Canada Geese are not. Brewer's Blackbirds are easy to find. Hardly ever see longspurs back East but we had 40 or so of 2 species at the Stuttgart airport. No American Black Ducks. Red-tailed Hawks are everywhere. But most everything else is about the same. However, we had very limited time to bird except in the bottomlands. It is nice to be back in country where there are Phillips 66 stations. It is also nice to see an old friend, Baccharis halimifolia bushes. I knew they grew in Oklahoma but was surprised to see some in eastern Arkansas (on the way in to Blue Hole, on the way to the Stuttgart airport, and a few other places).
DAILY BREAD. My usual breakfast of Frosted Mini-wheats and Clusters with a banana. For lunch PB&J. In between, variously, male Hershey bars, raisins, Toast Chee crackers, Slim Jims, water, canned iced tea, an apple, canned (ugh!) chicken (presumably), and pepperoni. For din-dins Marty's slow cookery (shrimp, rice, hot sausage, beef, various other entrees) plus, always, a salad. I avoided coffee except on days off.
HEALTH. Afterwards my legs, arms, back, and shoulders felt great from the moderate exercise. One day my right forearm, the side I favor while canoe-hauling, felt strained and slightly uncomfortable, but on the morrow was fine. No need for pain killers for muscle or back discomfort. My sinuses were good; didn't take a single decongestant the way I do regularly back East, but did use Ocean nasal saline spray. Only one nose bleed. GI tract?: steady as she goes. Only went in the woods once. A metal coffee can with plastic lid keeps your roll dry and well-formed until the big moment arrives, also prevents lint from getting over whatever else is in your sack of supplies. At home I have to get up once or twice at night. Here that became once or not at all. A couple of times each week I have flashing lights in an arc at the top perpiphery of my vision. For these and general eye health my optometrist has suggested Bausch & Lomb's Ocuvite PreserVision, essentially a big OTC vitamin pill with lots of A, C & E, copper and zinc. In Arkansas I did not have these flashes. Normally wearing big rubber boots all day lays me open to occasional muscle spasms in my legs. This only happens once here, perhaps the bananas helped, and goes away immediately when I stretch my leg. Lost some weight in spite of eating a lot, able to take in the belt a notch to its smallest setting. Some of us develop very dry hands, to the point of the skin splitting, probably due to exposure to the very muddy water. Lack of sleep led to occasional, fitful naps while on the stands, esp. if in the sun. Advent of new bird or animal or other noise always seemed to wake me up under such circumstances.
MISHAPS. Not aware of any. I didn't get wet or damage any of the equipment to my knowledge.
FINAL THOUGHTS. The routines for us volunteers could be simplified without compromising the mission. Faced with the data entry protocols one evening one of us, a sophisticated person, said "Gosh, this seems awfully klunky." The checkout sheet lists 36 things to do before leaving. As far as the skeptics are concerned, many of their issues are valid ones, yet there is an aspect of some of them that reminds me of Kenneth Starr or Javert. The search effort is impressive: a big crew at vast White River plus the field work within a 20km radius in the Bayou de View area. I hope an unmistakable video or photograph is secured soon. But otherwise I will still believe the IBWOs are there. There is something to be said for "faith-based ornithology." Two improvements that might be considered are to have kayak type paddles, which would help for the frequent times when someone is solo in a canoe, and to bang a few big nails in the trees supporting the blinds from which to hang things.
LIMITED LARGESSE. I don't know about you but I'm going to mail some contributions soon both to The Nature Conservancy and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.
THANKS to passengers Gordon & Bob for kicking in for gas, lodging, and food. Gordon laid on the wine and whiskey at Robinson House and also left me his Walmart vest. I actually made very little progress on the Jim Beam but somehow it got to be low tide there fast. Thanks to Marty for providing a fresh fifth. Terry left me his case of 100 some Slim Jims, depleted by only 10 or so. After getting home we got nice IBWO search team T-shirts and free membership in the Cornell Lab.
Some relevant WRITINGS by 2 of my favorite naturalists as annotated in my personal library catalog:
JOHN DENNIS.: The great cypress swamps. Louisiana State U. Pr. 1988. 142p. photographs by Steve Maslowski. hb. Another copy a gift from the author: "To Liz & Harry, with best wishes. John V. Dennis, Oct. 7, '01". ag. the SOUTHEAST. Dedicated to our mutual friend, Gary Williamson.
M. BROOKE MEANLEY: Blackbirds and the southern rice crop. USDI, F&WS, BSF&W (resource publication 100). 1971. 64p. pb. gift of the author. $0.35. BLACKBIRDS.
____. Natural history of the King Rail. USDI, BSFW(North American fauna 67). 1969. 108p. pb. inscribed: "Inscribed for my good friend Van, with fond memories of east Arkansas days. Brooke Meanley." 2nd c. AT R.F. RAILS.
____. Notes on southern marshes, swamps, and pineywoods. pa. 2001. 84p. pb. gift of the author. the SOUTHEAST.
____. Swamps, river bottoms and canebrakes. Barre Publ.
1972. 142p. hb. the SOUTHEAST