Back to the Swamp

Wendy paddling near Old Creek March 2015

After a 4-year absence, last week I visited some ivorybill sites along the Choctawhatchee River in Northern Florida.

From 2005 to 2009, I led a research team focused on definitely documenting Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the bottomland forest along the Choctawhatchee River. I wrote a book about the first year of the adventure (Ivorybill Hunters), and with my fellow searchers published a paper summarizing the sightings, sound recordings, and cavity observations from the first two years of the effort. Here is a link to the website we created at the time and haven't updated since.

Unfortunately, although we gathered a lot of evidence that ivorybills persist in the Choctawhatee River bottomlands, and I personally saw an Ivory-billed Woodpecker twice, we never got the clear photo or video (or carcass) that would have provided definitive proof of ivorybill existence. So, burned out, physically tired, and defeated, my key companions in the search Dan Mennill, Brian Rolek, and Tyler Hicks (and in the last two years Rusty Ligon) and I went back to being biologists and focusing on our careers. In December 2010, Brian, Allison Moody, and I camped at Bruce Creek for one last night in the swamp. Then, Brian moved to Maine, and I took a temporary job in Washington DC in 2013/14. All visits to the Choctawhatchee by my group stopped.

I must say, for a while, I didn’t miss it. I had made that 3-hr drive from Auburn to Ponce de Leon too many times over our 4-year search. I spent too many days paddling around the swamp woods and had too many arguments with colleagues about the how a big colorful bird could elude documentation. By the time we pulled out in 2009, it wasn't fun any more.

Funny thing about time and distance though--they make you forget the hardships and they sharpen the memories of the beautiful peaceful days paddling through the greatest wilderness I've experienced in the eastern US. Especially last year when I was stranded in the urban jungle of Arlington Va working for the National Science Foundation, I started to think about getting back into the swamp. So on Tues and Weds (March 24 and 25) this week, Wendy Hood (my wife) and I put two kayaks on my CRV and drove down to Ponce de Leon. We got to the swamp around 10 am on Tuesday and paddled up Old Creek to the site where Brian and I got a grainy video of an ivorybill in 2006. On Weds, Wendy and I paddled down Bruce Creek to the site of our original ivorybill detection, our base camp for the first winter search, and most of my ivorybill search memories. (If you are interested, you can read about these sites and other locations mentioned in this blog in my book "Ivorybill Hunters".)

It is now ten years since I first visited these sites. They seem just as magnificent as when I first paddled down the Roaring Cutoff and into Bruce Creek with Tyler and Brian in 2005. Actually, they are 10 years more mature and presumably that much more magnificent.

And, both Old Creek and Bruce Creek still have bark-scaled trees and big oblong cavities. It is really striking that I never see this sort of bark scaling until I get to the Choctawhatchee and then inevitably I will run into a few trees with classic scaling with tight bark stripped off of freshly dead trees to reveal the tunnels of beetles. The best scaling I saw on this trip was right at our old campsite. In 2005, we set up our base camp near the mouth of Bruce Creek on a bit of high ground with big spruce pine and oak. Last week, within 200 feet of the old camp, there were a few recently dead spruce pine and these showed what I think of classic ivorybill bark scaling with tight bark chiseled away to reveal the beetle tunnels.

Scaled bark on a recently dead spruce pine, Bruce Creek March 2015

Scattered around the swamp forest in both Bruce Creek and Old Creek there were also big oblong cavities. There was no way to actually measure the size of these holes, but they looked big--maybe seven inches in length--but again it is hard to estimate from the ground. One of the most interesting was a relatively fresh (probably a few months old) cavity in the same straight young cypress that had two interesting cavities in 2006. Those 2006 cavities are now almost completely closed up. The 2015 version is the first photo below.

A relatively fresh cavity in a solid young cypress, Bruce Creek, March 2015

A big, oblong cavity in a red maple in near Old Creek, March 2015

Cavities in dead snags near Old Creek, March 2015

It was a beautiful time to be in the swamp with the sound of newly arrived migrants like Red-eyed Vireos and Prothonotary Warblers and the cries of Swallow-tailed Kites overhead. We heard no kents. No double knock. We saw no ivorybills (and only 1 Pileated Woodpecker, although we heard many more pileateds). Ten years and nothing has changed in either the state of the swamp or status of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. It is nice to know, however, that whatever scales bark and cuts big oblong cavities in the bottomlands along the Choctawhatchee River still persists.

© 2015 Geoffrey Hill

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