I’ll be posting Frank Wiley’s report on his recent visit to the Project Coyote Search Area in two parts. Below is his account of his first day in the field.
I was contacted last month by Bob Ford, a biologist with the USFWS in Tennessee, about a possible visit to the Project Coyote study area sometime in early October. After some back and forth, we agreed that the weekend of the 9th would be best for both of us. Bob has visited the area in an unofficial capacity on a couple of previous occasions; he is a skilled birder, with a Master’s Degree in Wildlife Science. His focus has always been on birds and bird-habitat relations, especially in bottomland hardwood environments. All that aside, Bob is a great guy to spend time with, and an all-around skilled woodsman. He arrived on the evening of the 8th, having spent the earlier part of the week fishing in South Louisiana with some of his colleagues with the USFWS.
October 9, 2015:
We arrived at the study area at dawn, shouldered our packs and entered the forest. This particular spot is in the northern sector, and provides the easiest access to the area that we informally call Jurassic Park from a road that passes through the surrounding uplands – thus cutting out over a mile of fairly difficult foot travel at the beginning and end of the day. We were barely out of sight of the truck when I heard a rapid ticking sound in the leaf litter near my feet. I thumped the ground with my walking stick and was rewarded when a Copperhead about 18” long moved due to the vibration. Only a moment before, it had been completely invisible, camouflaged by the surrounding leaf litter. We stopped for a few moments, took a few photos and left the little guy to go about his business.
We hiked a fairly difficult three quarters of a mile through the bottom, crossing several deeply incised sloughs and secondary creek channels. The area was extremely dry; there’s not been a significant rain event since early July, when a series of severe thunderstorms passed through. Stealth was impossible, the dry leaf litter making it sound like we were walking on Corn Flakes. We made it to the main channel, and walked beside it until I found the top of a sweet gum tree that had blown down during Mark Michaels’ last visit. (It had green leaves and no sign of insect infestation when it fell in April.) We had speculated that there was at least a decent chance that ambrosia beetles would infest the two main forks of this top over the summer, and hopefully attract large woodpeckers. The smaller of the two forks did not disappoint. Not only had it been infested with beetles and larvae, the bark had been stripped from 60% or more of the branch. The scaling, in all respects fit the very narrow set of parameters that Mark and I have come to believe can be considered diagnostic as the work of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker – that is, extensive scaling on a freshly dead/dying tree with very tight bark, large (silver dollar or larger sized) bark chips that have clearly been removed with one or more powerful strikes, and little or no damage to the underlying sapwood.
When Mark first spotted this top on April 21, we both felt it was important to get a camera to this location to watch for woodpeckers. With this in mind, I had brought one of our new “Plotwatcher Pro” HD time lapse video cameras with me. I found a nearby tree that gives the camera a nearly perfect angle for recording any succeeding visits to this downed top by a woodpecker – both the stripped part, and the part that is almost untouched. We have high hopes for this camera in this location. It will take a photo every 5 seconds from 6 AM to 7 PM every day for three months or more according to the manufacturer.
While we were stopped, we took the opportunity to perform an ADK series and run a couple of playback sequences. During the quiet period, we neither heard nor saw anything suggestive of IBWO, even though there was a lot of activity from other woodpecker species.
As the main stream through the bottom is at a lower level than I have ever seen it, we took full advantage of the opportunity, and crossed at a location where the banks were eroded in such a way as to allow us to get in and out. Remember that the stream bed is incised approximately 15′ into the surrounding ground, so one has to be careful in choosing a crossing point, even with the stream completely dry in places. We did an “M” shaped transect that involved about 3 miles of difficult to negotiate terrain. The dry sloughs and incised cutoff channels are much more common in this area, making traversing the terrain much more difficult. We stopped at lunchtime and at two o’clock performed ADK series and playbacks but heard nothing suggestive of ivorybill activity.
At one point, I was walking near a large tree, paying more attention to the canopy than where I was putting my feet, when I happened to glance down. I quickly hopped to the side, because my left foot was about 3″ from the head of an enormous Canebrake Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus atricaudatus). Bob backpedaled about 5 quick steps and asked, “Where’s it at?” Like me, he was very impressed with the size and apparent health of this beautiful and potentially deadly predator. Bob later said that he reacted the way he did because, “If it was big enough to startle you, I didn’t want to get too close…” We took a number of photos while the big guy (we estimated his length at nearly 5′) lay placidly with his head on a root buttress, clearly waiting on a convenient squirrel to pass within striking distance. He seemed totally unconcerned with our presence as we circled him (I got quite close several times) making photos. Finally, I just couldn’t resist and asked Bob if he wanted to hear him buzz. I gently poked him with my walking stick a few times. After the third poke, he rattled a bit, and coiled into the “OK, I’m pissed, now leave me alone” position. For those who’ve been dying to know, the answer is, “Five, and a button…”
We exchanged a happy high–five at having encountered this big guy and continued going about our business, leaving him to go about his. Truly an awesome and exciting encounter.
As the day wound down, we worked our way back to the stream, having explored about two and a half to three miles of ground that no one associated with Project Coyote had explored previously. The forest is of outstanding quality with many superdominant trees, mostly sweet gum and Nuttall’s Oak indicating a mature, healthy, and beautiful swamp forest. We crossed, and made our way back to the truck, feeling good about a productive and enjoyable day in the field.
As I mentioned earlier, Bob had spent the first part of the week with some of his USFWS colleagues fishing in south Louisiana. They were successful in bringing home some Redfish and Speckled Trout, both game fish that are exceptionally tasty. When we got in, we cleaned up, and I fried up a good mess of both kinds, along with steak fries and hush puppies. Bob liked my fry mix so much that he brought two ziploc baggies of it home with him for future use. I can make more. Got to teach them folks from up north how to cook!
Mark here pointing out that Bob’s from Tennessee, hardly up north from where I sit. Stay tuned for Part 2.