Mobile Search Team Travel Log

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Members of the mobile search team paddle off into the sunset. Photo by Nathan Banfield.

Tuesday, April 29: Summer Jobs

From: Nathan Banfield

Tim and I both left in the early morning light for our long drives home. I am heading home to Missouri to leave my gear before driving to Cornell to drop off a van and supplies. I will spend a few days at the Lab of Ornithology before flying back home. All of us have plans for the summer. Lance is spending the summer working with Belted Kingfishers in New York. Marjie is working for the Alaska Bird Observatory banding birds, and Tim is going to spend the summer birding around Michigan. I am going to head to northern Wisconsin for a month and help my old boss, Dr. Walter Piper, with the long-term Common Loon research he has been doing. After that I am heading to Alaska to spend the summer working with seabirds on the Pribilof Islands in the middle of the Bering Sea. I wonder what other cool adventures and interesting people I will come across!

Common Loon feeding chicks in Wisconsin. Photo by Nathan Banfield

Monday, April 28: The Long Drive to Arkansas

From: Nathan Banfield

Tim and I made the long drive back to Arkansas with a much-needed stop at Mellow Mushroom for dinner. This pizza place ended up being one of our favorite places this season. I unloaded some gear in Arkansas at the Robinson House while Tim got his long-rested car up and running.

Sunday, April 27: Lots of Data

From: Nathan Banfield

Tim and I spent the day entering data, organizing, and packing.

Saturday, April 26: So Long, Lance

From: Nathan Banfield

Bachman's Sparrow. Photo by Nathan Banfield

Lance and I left in the middle of the night to get him to the airport. Lance was a great help on the search this season. I was glad to have had him on the crew. Marjie was also a great help and we have been missing her since her departure last week. After dropping off Lance, I headed back through the Apalachicola National Forest. I stopped in a few areas and listened for Bachman’s Sparrows. Finally, I heard a couple and spent an hour or two photographing them before heading back.

Friday, April 25: Huge Trees on the Chipola

From: Nathan Banfield

Large pecan tree. Photo by Nathan Banfield

We packed up, split up, and went exploring. I came across a section I remembered visiting last year and wandered deeper into the forest. I am really impressed with this area, which has some of the largest trees I have seen in this region—large oaks, huge pecans, and a few scattered large cypress. One pecan tree I came across is probably the largest that I have ever seen. It is quite a nice area. In the early afternoon we all met up farther downriver to make our final float out for the season. After making it back to the landing we headed into Port St. Joe and had a great Mexican dinner.

Thursday, April 24: Graham to Chipola

From: Nathan Banfield

We spent the morning and early afternoon exploring the Graham Creek area and paddled down to our canoe take-out spot. The habitat was OK but not what I was hoping for. We drove around to the other side of the river and put in at a landing on the Chipola River.

Harvesting a waterlogged log! Photo by Nathan Banfield

For our last excursion I wanted to make a one-night camping trip at the junction of the Apalachicola and Chipola rivers. Chris and I were really impressed with this area last year after making a quick float through it. As we were dropping off a vehicle farther downriver, Lance and I saw several guys pulling a huge bald cypress log out of the water. We’re told divers search the murky depths of the river to retrieve sunken logs that were cut many years ago. These logs are still worth a good deal of money.

Lance and I met up with Tim and we all spent the evening floating to our chosen camping spot. But we discovered it was full of cockroaches so moved to a new spot, bearing in mind a bad experience that Lance had with cockroaches laying eggs in all his stuff. Our new camping spot wasn’t much better and I cleared a large area of leaves away from my tent hoping to keep the roaches away. Tim slept in his canoe. We went from our best campsite yesterday to the worst, on our last day in the field!

Wednesday, April 23: Graham Creek

From: Nathan Banfield

Driving to Graham Creek in the early morning, we encountered a thick blanket of smoke along the way. We learned it was a “controlled” burn that got out of control. Luckily it was south of our destination and when we put into Graham Creek we enjoyed a nice paddle. We saw nesting Prothonotary Warblers everywhere. The day was pleasant and we ended up camping on some high ground along the Apalachicola River. I think this may have been our best campsite of the season.

Prothonotary Warbler. Photo by Nathan Banfield

Spotted Sandpiper. Photo by Nathan Banfield

Tuesday, April 22: Sneaky Clapper Rail

From: Nathan Banfield

Lance and I headed back to Apalachicola where we met with Alan Knothe. He gave us some insight into an interesting area along Graham Creek off of the Apalachicola River. Lance and I then birded around the coast, picked up groceries, and got ready for our trip now that we knew where we were going. In the evening Lance and I walked in the cord grass along the coast just outside the Buffer Preserve housing for some evening birding. With just a hint of light in the sky we were startled by Clapper Rails calling almost right under our feet. Not being able to see them through the grass we sat back and waited. Shortly after, we enjoyed seeing a Clapper Rail walk slowly across a small opening.

Monday, April 21: Searching for Gull-billed Terns

From: Lance Ebel

We went to Apalachicola to meet with Alan Knothe, ornithologist for Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, but he wasn’t in. Instead we went searching for Gull-billed Terns and worked on data entry and our travel log.

Sunday, April 20: Heading to Apalachicola

From: Lance Ebel

We packed up all of our gear and made the long drive to Apalachicola where we had arranged to stay at the St. Joseph Buffer Preserve housing. Nathan said it was the nicest place they stayed in last year. The constant coastal breeze was comforting and many shorebirds were zipping around within sight of our front window.

Saturday, April 19: Turtle Guy

From: Lance Ebel

Nathan returned in the morning after getting Marjie to the airport for her journey home. He spent the day retrieving autonomous recording units we still had out.

Tim and I went into the south section of Ward Bayou WMA with Will Selman, a very knowledgeable biologist studying yellow-blotched map turtles. He showed us where he has done a lot of his work. We found some areas of interest that had good structure and more mature trees. Will showed us the different species of turtles on that stretch of river. We caught and observed a yellow-blotched map turtle. It was good to hear Will’s perspective on his work and we talked about conservation and biology on the way back in to the landing.

Later that night we all went out to The Shed, a barbeque restaurant. We listened to a local band and enjoyed the atmosphere of a true down-south eatery.

Friday, April 18: Frogs

From: Lance Ebel

We found some promising habitat in the Ward Bayou WMA yesterday so we returned to the eastern-most section of the area again today. We found a huge number of Yellow-breasted Chats in one section but saw few birds during the rest of the day. I watched a Gulf Coast box turtle that evening and listened to a wide array of frog songs as the night air grew heavy. The forest was patchy because it had been logged a few decades ago. Some of the trees were still intact and were very impressive.

Thursday, April 17: Yellow River

From: Lance Ebel

Nathan and Marjie packed up in the morning and headed off to the Yellow and Blackwater Rivers in Florida. What they found was relatively poor habitat and lots of Chimney Swifts flying overhead. Tim and I went to Pascagoula Wildlife Management Area in the morning then concentrated on the eastern portion of the WMA during the afternoon. Bird activity was low and a large storm with tornadoes was brewing, so we had to cut the day short.

Wednesday, April 16: Life Savers

From: Lance Ebel

Marjie and Nathan went off by canoe to access an area unreachable on foot, while Tim went to a new area close by. I went to a new patch of forest that had good cane patches and I looked around at all the warblers in hopes of spotting something new. The area had many deep sloughs that were impassible.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. Photo by Nathan Banfield

TLC for a tangled heron. Photo by Nathan Banfield

Later that night, Nathan and Marjie had a great story to tell. Nathan found a Yellow-crowned Night Heron caught in a fishing line on a tree branch over a bayou. He had to stand on the seat of the canoe on his toes to reach the bird. As he was trying to free it he realized he would have to cut the line. But when he lowered himself back into the canoe, it started drifting with the current and the branch he was leaning on broke. Nathan took a face-first plunge into bayou but climbed back into the canoe and cut the bird loose from the wire. He radioed Marjie to meet him and he paddled upstream using one oar while he held the heron in the other. Between the two of them, they were able to untangle the wire from the bird’s wing along with a fishing hook embedded in the joint of its wing. They released the heron and it flew away. They were elated to have saved the bird from certain death. People tie these baited fishing lines to tree branches over streams, rivers, and bayous and leave them there. The water levels fluctuate so much that often hooks are left hanging several feet above the water and end up snaring birds and other animals.

Free to fly again. Photo by Nathan Banfield

Tuesday, April 15: Scarlet Tanagers

From: Lance Ebel

Nathan and Marjie went to Peavey Hammock, the area Tim and I had been working in over the past few days, to finish up the vegetation plots. I went to a section of mature hardwood forest far to the north and Tim went even farther north. The woods were very still during most of the day. Nathan, Marjie, and Tim all saw Scarlet Tanagers for the first time this season.

Summer Tanager. Photo by Nathan Banfield

Northern Rough-winged Swallow. Photo by Nathan Banfield

Monday, April 14: More Pileated Woodpeckers Nesting

From: Lance Ebel

Nathan and Marjie headed off to an area named Deep Slough while Tim and I went back to Peavey Hammock to work on vegetation plots again. I watched a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers going in and out of a nest cavity close by and later saw a group of wild boar feeding in the underbrush.

Sunday, April 13: Fly a Kite

From: Lance Ebel

Tim and I headed back to Peavey Hammock. We split up and walked through the area, assessing the bottomland hardwood forest. The trees were impressively large, the forest was intact, and there was a lot of standing dead wood. I saw a Mississippi Kite for the first time this season. Bird activity was low, but it was a relaxing day with cool winds and lots of sunshine. Nathan and Marjie were well north of us along Black Creek.

Saturday, April 12: Cuckoo

From: Lance Ebel

Nathan, Marjie, and Tim head into an area of the Pascagoula Wildlife Management Area called Peavey Hammock. They were all quite impressed with the size of the oaks and sweetgums. Marjie saw our first Yellow-billed Cuckoo of the season. Birds were singing everywhere and we saw Indigo Buntings darting for cover along the trail.

Friday, April 11: Getting Dangerous

From: Lance Ebel

Tim and I woke in the morning and headed to Rufous Flurry landing where we would start a day-long float to retrieve the autonomous recording units installed a few weeks before. The day was clear and many birds were singing. In addition to finding a large number of birds, we saw many species of turtles including softshells, maps, and sliders. At one point we came upon an area overrun with cottonmouths and we had to be very careful to avoid them. They were swimming through the water, hanging in the brush, and falling out of the trees! And to make things worse, poison ivy is starting to come out in full force. In some areas it makes up most of the vegetation. The day was an adventure, and we were tired by the time we met Nathan and Marjie at the landing.

Thursday, April 10: A Day of Blue Birds

From: Nathan Banfield

Blue Grosbeak. Photo by Nathan Banfield

We picked up packages at the post office and prepared to spend a week back in the Pascagoula. Outside the Ward Bayou Headquarters we were treated to four kinds of blue birds: Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Buntings, Eastern Bluebirds, and Blue Jays.

Wednesday, April 9: Woods Full of Birds

From: Nathan Banfield

Marjie and I headed off to explore the nice bit of forest we saw yesterday evening. The forest was full of birds! Prothonotary Warblers and Red-eyed Vireos greeted us the moment we stepped out of the van. Shortly afterward, we saw a Summer Tanager and Hooded Warblers. Later, Marjie saw a Wood Thrush which was also a new bird for us this spring.

Tim and Lance checked some areas farther south. They had difficulty finding good habitat but did stumble across an interesting patch of forest. That evening we started our drive back to Pascagoula. On the way we stopped at Lambert’s Café and enjoyed the atmosphere. Whenever you want a roll they just toss it and you have to catch it!

Tuesday, April 8: Aucilla River

From: Nathan Banfield

We enjoyed the fast Internet connections at the hotel in the morning and then drove to the Aucilla River. We spent the day driving around looking at habitat and anything else that seemed interesting. We found a great deal of the forest was owned by a logging company. Whenever we found some interesting patches of forest, they quickly turned into clear cut areas. The varying topography featured a mixture of pines, maples, oaks, tupelo, and cypress. Unfortunately, most of the land was privately owned. In the evening, Marjie and I came across a thin strand of forest along the Aucilla, south of I-10. We found lots of poison ivy. The bird of the day was our first Eastern Kingbird of the spring.

Monday, April 7: Heading Back North

From: Nathan Banfield

After getting everything loaded into the van we started our drive north to Florida’s Aucilla River. We ended up staying in a hotel that night.

Sunday, April 6: Limpkins

From: Nathan Banfield

Scurrying fiddler crabs. Photo by Marjorie MacIntosh

Got a slow start after our long day on the Dry Tortugas and started getting everything ready to head back north. In the middle of the day Lance, Marjie, and I went to see if we could find a Limpkin. We headed toward Naples and along the way I saw a huge iguana run into the forest. After stopping in a few places we spotted two Limpkins near a canal. One foraged along the bank while the other gave its haunting call.

It was a hot day so we stopped off for some ice cream and headed on to Tigertail Beach. Fiddler crabs ran along the shoreline ahead of us and we had to avoid stepping on them. Sunset was closing in as we watched Semipalmated Plovers, Least Sandpipers, Western Sandpipers, Dunlin, Black Skimmers, Reddish Egrets, Willets, Black-bellied Plovers, Stilt Sandpipers, Least Terns, Snowy and Great egrets, Great Blue Herons, and a Wilson’s Plover search for food. The day ended with throwing a Frisbee around in the twilight. It ended up being a very enjoyable evening!

Saturday, April 5: Dry Tortugas

From: Nathan Banfield

Brown Noddy. Photo by Nathan Banfield

Tim, Marjie, and I left around 2:00 A.M. to catch a boat to the Dry Tortugas National Park. We arrived at Key West around 7:00 A.M. and flew to the island. Magnificent Frigatebirds soared overhead along with Brown Noddies and Sooty Terns. Near the big, old Spanish fort we found little migrant activity. We spotted a Gray Kingbird right away, which was exciting.

The rest of the time on the island we walked around the fort taking photos of Brown Noddies, Ruddy Turnstones, and frigatebirds. Marjie and I also took a quick swim in the crystal-clear waters. From shore we could see breeding Masked Boobies on another island. This was just a quick trip and we wished we could stay longer and camp on the island. But it was definitely interesting to see this unique place. On the drive back we saw the tiny key deer, about the size of a large dog. We also saw a few White-crowned Pigeons fly overhead.

Friday, April 4: Data Day

From: Nathan Banfield

Today we worked on travel log and got our data organized and put together. Tim, Marjie, and I are getting ready for a trip to the Dry Tortugas—a group of small islands off the Florida coast.

Thursday, April 3: Rare Orchids and the Night Visitor

From: Lance Ebel

We met with Mike Owen for our hike into the southern end of the Fakahatchee. He took us to an area where they are monitoring guzemania, a tropical plant that is in danger from an introduced weevil. He showed us many epiphytic plants, including some of the rarest orchids in the world. One of particular interest was Epidendrum floridensii. Mike told us that this orchid is much rarer than even the ghost orchid, with less than 50 plants discovered in Fakahatchee, compared to 318 ghost orchids. We saw the peculiar vanilla orchid, along with others like rigid orchid, night-scented, and roller coaster orchid (I think Mike made up some of these common names). We found a few dead red maples infested with cerambycid beetle larvae in three stages of development. One cypress that survived logging in the 40s had a few huge cavities but they were deformed from the chewing of other creatures.

Dingy orchid. Photo by Lance Ebel
Rigid orchid. Photo by Lance Ebel

Later that evening I woke to a high-pitched, two-note call very close to my tent. I peered out the mesh window of my tent and saw two Florida panthers! I didn’t see radio collars on them. I watched as the larger male lay down in the grass10 feet from my tent! The female was calling and pestering the male. I believe she was in heat. She repeatedly lay on her belly beside the male in a butt-in-the-air posture, while calling to him every 10 seconds or so. He didn’t really seem interested. At one point, I shifted my hand on my sleeping bag and it made a barely-perceptible “shoosh” sound. The male immediately focused on the tent and watched me for a few minutes. Then the female walked off down the power line that runs adjacent to the highway, and the male soon followed. I could hear their footsteps in the wet grass as they powerfully and smoothly pushed on into the darkness.

Wednesday, April 2: Rest

From: Lance Ebel

We took the day off to write the travel log, get our data all together, and REST. We arranged to meet Mike Owen on Thursday morning.

Tuesday, April 1: The March Ends

From: Lance Ebel

We were exhausted but decided to head north again and see how far we could go. Mike Owens had called and wanted to meet the next day, so we decided to at least get to a more accessible area to meet up with him. We watched birds in the early morning and then packed up camp. I released the rat snake after taking some pictures, and we began hiking back towards the jeep. We made it to the last gate where the familiar “momma” ‘gator watched over five little black-and-tan miniatures. I tried to get pictures close up but when mom took notice and headed toward me I decided leaving would be more enjoyable. We eventually made it to the jeep and took off our packs with great relief.

Monday, March 31: The Forest is Alive

From: Lance Ebel

It was a great relief to find a swamp lake to the south in the morning because we were plumb out of water. After trying to clear some of the way to the next camp site, we broke camp and headed farther south into a very remote area of the preserve. We camped close to the lake and gathered water, causing some concern among the southern leopard frogs.

Yellow rat snake. Photo by Lance Ebel

As we headed out I watched many Pileated Woodpeckers in the area along with an assortment of other species of birds and reptiles. I found the habitat to be good but we seemed to be getting into an area of smaller trees. I had marked a spot that looked good from the air, so I headed to that area. Tim found a good area to listen and climbed high into an old mahogany tree to get a new perspective on the forest. I think the mosquitoes actually carried him up there but he wouldn't confess to it. I caught a beautiful yellow rat snake that was hanging in some vines. It was the first time I had ever seen this reptile and I was amazed at its beauty. I don't think the feeling was mutual.

We met at camp just before dark, and started filtering water. A Northern Waterthrush plucked minnows out of a rapidly-shrinking pool a few yards from our camp. Five-lined skinks rustled through the dried palm fronds. Green treefrogs conversed with Barred Owls. It was a good day.

American Crow. Drawing and photo by Lance Ebel

Sunday, March 30: A Tough Hike

From: Lance Ebel

Red-bellied Woodpecker. Photo by Nathan Banfield

I woke to the familiar call of a Pileated Woodpecker—I had missed my alarm! I swung out of my hammock and packed my daypack with water and food. I headed south, hoping to find the path of least resistance to our next camping spot. The forest was thick and bird activity was sluggish after 9:00 A.M. so I began cutting a path to make our backpacking easier later in the day.

Back at camp we commented on the lack of migrants, which we had been looking for all day. Actually, we weren’t seeing much bird activity at all. We packed up again and headed off to the next site. This hike was extraordinarily difficult, and we rested many times before making it to the next area with good habitat. Our camp site was a cypress stand with an understory of head-high ferns. We hung our hammocks and headed off into what seemed like a scene from Jurassic Park. I hiked south and marveled at the deep swamp forest. Moving quickly was a necessity because the mosquitoes were close behind and absolutely ferocious, but without my pack that was no problem. The night was as still as a memory as we cooked up some food on Tim’s handmade pop-can stove.

Saturday, March 29: Swamp Jungle

From: Lance Ebel

We split up in the morning and I went south to find a way deeper in the forest. Bird activity was low and by mid-morning it had stopped altogether. We met back at camp at 11:00 A.M., packed up and headed south. Temperatures were in the high 80s and with 60 pounds of gear, water, and food on our backs, and no trail, we were sweating buckets in 10 minutes. After half an hour of climbing through the “swamp jungle,” we slumped down for a rest and realized that we had a lot farther to go. After drinking a lot of water, we heaved our packs back on and headed off to find a good camp. Two hours later, we couldn't go any farther, so we set up camp in a good section of mature forest. We went out that afternoon and surveyed the habitat. Again, we split up, heading off in the four cardinal directions.

Friday, March 28: The March Begins

From: Lance Ebel

We headed into Fakahatchee early in the morning. First we went to the southern portion of the preserve to see what the access was like. Access to the center portion of the forest was our main concern and, without any trails there, we wanted to find the easiest way in. Though the southern part of the forest had some very good habitat that consisted of 70-year-old cypress, maples, palm, and mahogany, we were still many kilometers from the center. We decided to go into the northern section and hike south. We spent the afternoon hiking to our first campsite deep within the cypress forest. Lightning bugs sailed into the calm night sky like floating embers to a symphony of mosquitoes as we swayed above the damp ground in our hammocks. 

Thursday, March 27: Cottonmouth!

From: Lance Ebel

Fakahatchee Preserve biologist Mike Owens. Photo by Lance Ebel

In the morning, we went into the northern section of the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park to search, and also to determine the best point of access for a backpacking trip. We arranged to meet Mike Owens, a biologist at the Fakahatchee preserve. He gave us a permit to camp within the preserve and some insight into what we might find. We finally got everything prepared for the trip after at least five days of planning.

In the early afternoon we checked the Bear Lake area just north of Big Cypress which seemed to have some good habitat when we saw it from the air. Access to the area was difficult but we found a trail that seemed to lead in the right direction. We walked most of the afternoon trying to reach some good habitat. We saw many scraggly pines and not much intact forest. We also came uncomfortably close to a cottonmouth that was miles from water. You have to be on the lookout at all times here.

Wednesday, March 26: Airborne Again

From: Nathan Banfield

Marjie and I were able to get on another flight over the region today. Now that we have a good feel for the place, we can locate areas of good forest more easily. Tim and Lance did a little habitat exploration on the ground.

Tuesday, March 25: Rainy Respite

From: Nathan Banfield

A day of heavy rains kept us from doing much. It is always nice to have an unexpected day off. Working nearly every day from sunrise to sunset starts getting exhausting, especially with the hot temperatures and the increasing amount of daylight. But we all start to get antsy to be doing something pretty quickly.

Monday, March 24: Rack Attack

From: Nathan Banfield

Marjie and Lance headed off to the Picayune Strand and had difficulty finding any good habitat. Eventually they came across nice forest when the canoe rack on the jeep broke again. They strapped it up as well as they could and brought it back to the Panther Refuge. We got lucky and a worker on the refuge welded it back together in return for a couple of beers. Tim and I walked into the Deep Lake area and followed slightly-flooded areas to stay out of the thick vegetation.

Sunday, March 23: Easter at Ease

From: Nathan Banfield

Didn’t do anything special for Easter, but we all relaxed and enjoyed a day of catching up on personal stuff. Saturday, March 22: Coming Clean From: Nathan Banfield It’s another day of washing clothes because we have only one washer!

Friday, March 21: Salt of the Earth

From: Nathan Banfield

We spent the day cleaning our gear and clothes, which were covered in salt. We needed to make sure we cleaned our equipment, especially the metal parts, because they were all starting to rust. We had a wonderful meal of grilled salmon and vegetables with sweet potatoes for dinner. Lance thought it was one of our best meals of the search.

Thursday, March 20: Up Close

From: Nathan Banfield

Great Blue Heron. Photo by Lance Ebel

In the morning we packed up and stopped by an area in the Everglades where Cape Sable Seaside Sparrows are often seen. We were able to hear and see one way off in the grass. The wind was extremely strong again and it seemed to keep a lot of the birds down low. We moved on to the Anhinga Trail where it is easy to get really close to herons, Anhingas, cormorants, Purple Gallinules, and other birds and wildlife. It is crazy when you can just walk right up next to a Great Blue Heron without it really caring that you are there. We met again with Sonny Bass and talked about our adventures and the wildlife we saw on our trip. He was extremely interested in our Tufted Titmouse sightings since they seem to be extremely rare in the Everglades. We then started back to our Panther Refuge housing with a quick glimpse of Common Mynas in the city of Homestead.

Wednesday, March 19: Huge Waves and Strong Wind

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

The winds seemed a bit lighter the next morning when Nathan and I canoed out with Brian and Susan. But when the stars slowly started to disappear and the sky became lighter we were again faced with strong southeasterly winds and an unforgiving incoming tide. It seemed we could only move the canoes inches at a time. We were exhausted by early evening when we finally met up with Lance and Tim, who were still recovering from their strenuous paddle. We were too exhausted to make the three-hour drive back to the Florida Panther Refuge so we camped another night.

Tuesday, March 18: The Never-ending Long Journey!

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

We’d experienced some difficult winds and tides this week but today it became much worse. The winds picked up from the southeast and hit us head-on during the 35-plus kilometer journey back to our vehicles. Tim and Lance headed out a bit earlier than Nathan and I because we’d gone out to look for the frigatebird again in the morning. We ended up seeing three frigatebirds, but we lagged far behind the rest of the team as weather conditions worsened.

Magnificent Frigatebird. Photo by Marjorie MacIntosh

Lance and Tim put in an awesome effort and paddled for 15 hours to get back to the vehicles. Nathan and I decided to stay another night, hoping the winds would calm down. We met a nice couple, Brian Pendleton and Susan Stein, who had actually camped next to us the night before. They kindly offered to let us stay with them at another chickee. Susan and Brian made great company for the evening and we learned about their canoeing adventures across the country.

Monday, March 17: The Winds Begin!

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

Playful dolphins. Photo by Nathan Banfield

On all of our exploratory routes today we saw manatees and dolphins. Nathan even got a really close look at some dolphins as they fished and swam by his canoe. We fought strong tides as the evening closed in. The wind picked up and made travel even harder. Usually the winds become calm at nightfall but this time they only got stronger and Lance, Nathan, and I fought the waves through the dark on our paddle to camp. The good thing about the wind was that it kept the “no-see-ums” away from us at the campsite. At times our faces, arms, and any other exposed skin felt like they were on fire from insect bites. Often we’d wear another shirt over our heads and wrapped around our faces.

Sunday, March 16: Secretive Mangrove Cuckoo

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

From the chickee this morning I heard a Mangrove Cuckoo making its strange throaty vocalization. Unfortunately, it only made this sound once and we were unable to pinpoint where it was coming from. Later, Lance heard the cuckoo again as he paddled away from the chickee. He could not find it either. Apparently these birds are not often seen, even when heard, because of their habit of sitting quietly in the center of a mangrove. Still, it was exciting to have somewhat of an encounter with a bird we have all been waiting to see.

We paddled south again and started on our way back. Tim took the river route while the rest of us went along the ocean and the bigger mangroves. The waves picked up while I made my way around the point and I paddled my heart out to get out of the way of the swells and lurking sharks. It took me several hours to make it to some protected areas of mangroves. Nathan fought the swells too, but only after stopping at a sandbar to check out a Black Skimmer, American Oystercatchers, and Semipalmated Plovers.

American Oystercatcher. Photo by Nathan Banfield

Black Skimmer. Photo by Nathan Banfield

Saturday, March 15: Large Tarpon

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

We left our campsite of the past three nights to head north for another river system and camping chickee. The ocean was calm and peaceful, which will not be the case on the way back tomorrow. Tarpon were huge and abundant in the small river channels. Every once in a while you could see their massive bodies roll through the water, their fins looking almost dolphin- or shark-like. I wouldn’t be surprised if some were six feet long.

Friday, March 14: Loggerhead Sea Turtle

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

Nathan and Lance headed north to scout some more territory while Tim and I stayed near camp and explored some of the areas we had seen on the way to the campsite. Nathan and Lance found some areas in the north with bigger mangroves. Lance had an amazing encounter with a loggerhead sea turtle while he was canoeing by the ocean at the mouth of a river. Nathan also found a Red-bellied Woodpecker excavating a nest in a large white mangrove.

Thursday, March 13: Nesting Pileated Woodpeckers

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

Big creepy-crawly. Photo by Nathan Banfield

We spread out for another full day of bird watching. Nathan saw a ton of Pileated Woodpeckers today and found two nests. He watched the birds excavate and believed that one pair was incubating. We made some interesting discoveries about the habitat. Lance and I saw a Cerambycid beetle at our campsite. We all noticed that the mangroves had more standing dead wood than we could remember seeing in any other place we have been. The hurricanes that come through the area create a constant supply of dead wood. In some areas the mangroves completely die off. As he was canoeing back that night, Nathan saw a Belted Kingfisher roosting on a branch overhanging the stream. He was lucky enough to get a quick photo of it as he passed by. We all listened to Chuck-will's-widows that night near our camp. It is interesting to find these birds out here in the mangroves.

Wednesday, March 12: Mangrove Forests

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

We packed up and got out of the chickee very early hoping to see the frigatebird before it left its roost. Unfortunately, it had apparently abandoned the island during the night. Nonetheless, we were exhilarated by the morning exodus of hundreds of White Ibis, Tricolored Herons, and Little Blue Herons roosting on this tiny island. After most of the birds left we spotted a Peregrine Falcon sitting alone on the island.

White Ibis. Photo by Nathan Banfield

We split up and took different routes to our next campsite. We found the birds most frequently encountered were those we saw en masse early that morning, along with Prairie Warblers in full song all over the place, and Great Crested Flycatchers making quite a racket from the tops of the mangroves. Nathan had a big warbler day. He saw Black-and-white, Yellow-throated, Palm, Yellow-rumped, and Prairie warblers, as well as an American Redstart.

Prairie Warbler. Photo by Marjorie MacIntosh

In the evening, we all talked about the quality of the habitat. We aren’t sure whether it could or did support Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. The mangroves surely did not come anywhere close to matching the size of the really nice old growth bottomland forests that are still out there, but perhaps the structure of this ecosystem could be right. We found that quite a few Pileated Woodpeckers and Red-bellied Woodpeckers make a home in the mangroves. Still, it was so exciting to be in a new place and see dolphins, manatees, and the new birds of this ecosystem. Lance even saw a saltwater crocodile paddling to our camp that evening.

Tuesday, March 11: Frigatebird

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

Sonny met us at the boat launch and brought us and our canoes two-by-two out into the mangroves. While we were waiting at the landing for Sonny to take out the second load of canoes and gear, an American Crow sneaked into our gear. The crow ripped open a bag of Tim’s Doritos and flew off with a bill full of chips. He came back looking for any chips still on the ground after we repacked the gear. He found a few and Nathan got a nice shop of him flying off with another full bill. I also took photos of a Red-bellied Woodpecker nest I found in a palm tree.

The Doritos-stealing crow. Photo by Nathan Banfield

Once we squeezed all of our stuff on what appeared to be a chickee (camping shelter on stilts) made for two, we spent the late part of the day investigating the habitat in the area and discovering this fascinating new ecosystem. What we found was a place entirely different from the bottomland swamps we’ve been in so far this season. We walked through obstacle courses of mangroves and watched the outgoing tide quickly turn a flooded forest into a dry one.

We saw dolphins hunting near camp and I caught a quick glimpse of a manatee. Lance and Tim spotted a Magnificent Frigatebird going to roost on a tiny dead island in the bay where hundreds of other birds made their roost. Over dinner we chatted with our neighbors on the chickee as they fished in the dark. One of them caught a five-foot lemon shark and we all watched excitedly as it thrashed about while they unhooked it.

Monday, March 10: Fun in the Everglades

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

We met as a group with Sonny Bass, Wildlife Biologist for Everglades National Park. He gave us the rundown on everything he knew about traveling in the area—from birds to tides to crocodiles. He stressed, though, that very few people spend time in the mangroves. Many fishermen and canoeists travel the waterways, but they don’t actually go into the mangroves and very little scientific study has been done in them. This meant that even he didn’t know exactly what we would find. This comforted us. We knew that if the mangroves proved to be poor habitat, we could offer some insight into what birdlife could be found there.

Royal Tern. Photo by Marjorie MacIntosh

Because it’s so difficult to get into much of the larger strands in Big Cypress, and because we were waiting for a permit to camp in Fakahatchee, we decided to explore somewhere different for fun. It is nice to take a break by doing something a little different. We viewed this as a vacation trip. Sonny also kindly offered to taxi the group and our canoes and helped keep us from having to do a long day’s paddle. We gladly accepted and set up camp in the Everglades before venturing out the next day. Evening birding around the campground yielded Stilt Sandpipers and a Great White Heron.

Sunday, March 9: Preparing for the Everglades

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

We spent a half day in the field. Lance headed for the Deep Lake area while Tim, Nathan, and I went back to the Fakahatchee. After the trips today and yesterday we realize how little of the surface of the Fakahatchee you can scratch in a day trip. A backpacking trip would be the only way to get deeper into the habitat. We left at midday to prepare for our trip to the Everglades.

Saturday, March 8: Tropical Forest

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

Lance, Tim, and I drove to the Fakahatchee to wander around for the day. On the way in Lance and I got a look at a gorgeous male Painted Bunting and saw a couple of others dart through the bushes. Walking in the forests of south Florida often feels like walking in a tropical jungle. Seeing those buntings with all of their bright colors in this vibrant green forest made this place seem even more tropical and exotic. We saw several warblers including Black-and-white Warblers, Northern Parulas, and Prairie Warblers.

Thursday, March 6: Fly-over

From: Lance Ebel

Florida mangrove forest from above. Photo by Nathan Banfield

Tim and Marjie headed off to the Sweetwater area to scout some of the more remote strands of swamp forest. Nathan and I met up with Lori Oberhofer, a wildlife technician for Everglades National Park. We took off in a small single-prop plane, expertly piloted by Leonard Unzicker. We flew over many areas that held more mature swamp forests, including Fakahatchee, the western side of Big Cypress, and the Sweetwater strand. The best stand of forest was in Fakahatchee, where a large patch of contiguous timber stretched for many miles, unblemished by roads, buildings, clearcuts, and other evidence of human activity. A mix of palms, deciduous trees, and pines made for a well-structured forest. Egrets, Wood Storks, and American White Pelicans dotted the landscape. We were surprised to see an interesting area of mangrove trees when we flew over part of Everglades National Park. The size of the area and the size of the trees are making us look into this area as possible suitable habitat for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.

White Ibis and Snowy Egret. Photo by Lance Ebel

Wednesday, March 5: Alligators are Scarier

From: Lance Ebel

Marjie, Tim and I headed out to the Deep Lake area to scout some swamp forest strands that looked like they might contain suitable ivory-bill habitat. These strands are isolated islands in a sea of marsh and scrub, so getting to some areas was very difficult. Tim saw White-winged Doves, Marjie spied a Least Flycatcher, and I saw Purple Gallinules and Glossy Ibis. I also found many sets of panther tracks along the trail. Nathan met with biologists from Fakahatchee, and then headed to the Sweetwater Swamp strand to canoe into some mature swamp forest. Alligators swam under and around his canoe and even bumped into the paddle! You have to watch yourself in these swamps…

Tuesday, March 4: Mosquitoes are Scary

From: Lance Ebel

The morning exploded with birdlife as we walked through trails in the Panther Refuge. Marjie and Nathan went to a thick mangrove forest near Collier-Seminole State Park. Dense clouds of mosquitoes made the work especially difficult. I saw many species of warblers including the striking Yellow-throated Warbler and the Ovenbird. We went to meet Steve Schulze, a biologist working with panthers in the refuge. He gave us lots of good information and great habitat-specific maps. Later, we drove to Corkscrew Swamp.

Monday, March 3: Florida Panther Refuge Home

From: Lance Ebel

Black-crowned Night-Heron. Photo by Nathan Banfield

This morning we looked for Snail Kites. After searching the extensive marshes for an hour or so, we came up with some great looks at two kites searching for apple snails while swamp buggies roared nearby. Even a specialist can be quite adaptable, and these kites shrugged off the intruders and kept their focus on the snails. Because it’s been a dry year here, their food supply must be limited. This can lead to poor nest site availability and sparse resources, which results in lower productivity for this endangered raptor. We took a short detour on a side road that led us close to some interesting strands of swamp forest. We then headed to our new living quarters in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. After getting settled in, we caught brown anoles (a type of lizard) and planned our scouting trips for the next day.

Sunday, March 2: Burrowing Owls

From: Lance Ebel

Today our mission was to see Burrowing Owls in Cape Coral. We went to a parking lot recommended to us and it wasn’t long before a feathered dirt clump emerged from a hole less than five yards from the parked van—the familiar ground-dwelling, long-legged owl had arrived. This is one of the few remaining active burrows in a declining population. The owls kept watch on the sky, on the lookout for hawks.

Burrowing Owl. Photo by Nathan Banfield

After photographing the owls, we headed off for Big Cypress. As we drove in, the canals were lined with American Alligators, Great Blue and Little Blue Herons, Snowy and Great Egrets, Anhingas, and Double-crested Cormorants, among others. We camped at Monument Lake and played a game of Frisbee before dark set in.

Saturday, March 1: Scrub-Jay Jaunt

From: Lance Ebel

As we drove, we started noticing a change in climate. The entire day was spent driving, but just before dark, we made it to Oscar Scherer State Park, and went in to see the threatened Florida Scrub-Jay. We quickly found three or four birds and enjoyed watching them. Most of the birds were color-banded, and we wondered how it would be to work with these scarce, lively birds. It was a good end to the day.

Friday, February 29: The Journey Begins, Again

From: Lance Ebel

With a long drive ahead of us, we readied our gear and set our sights on Florida. We had been talking for quite some time about the things we might discover in Big Cypress. No member of the team had been to this area, which set it apart from most of the other areas we surveyed. Our first day of driving put us in DeFuniak Springs and after a dinner of pizza at Mellow Mushroom (a team stand-by at this point), we rested and prepared for another long travel day.

Friday, February 29: The Sunshine State

From: Nathan Banfield

We piled everything in the vehicles and started our long drive through Florida—probably 800 miles or more. I am excited about going down to Big Cypress since we talked about it quite a bit last year. Southern Florida is one of the few places in the U.S. that I have never been.

Thursday, February 28: A Free-Flowing River

From: Nathan Banfield

The Pascagoula River is a long, free-flowing river, which is the reason for the dramatic rise of water levels. Hopefully, it will stay that way, but Lynn told us about a company that is trying to divert water away from the river. I wish sometimes we’d pay attention to what we have done wrong in the past and leave things alone. But instead we try to control everything, only to find out the problems we caused a few years later when it can’t be undone.

We finished up with data and getting all our gear packed. We decided that the high water would make it hard to continue to search the area. So we are heading to Big Cypress National Preserve in southern Florida.

Wednesday, February 27: Dry

From: Nathan Banfield

With the rising flood we stayed dry in the headquarters catching up on data. We did spend a couple of hours in the afternoon walking to a bluff in the Ward Bayou WMA where we got to see our first Swallow-tailed Kite of the season.

Tuesday, February 26: Danger Evacuation

From: Nathan Banfield

We awoke in the early morning to lightning everywhere. We waited in our tents for the storm to pass. We had a long discussion about what we should do about the rising waters and decided to pack up our gear to be ready for a quick departure. We headed out into the forest intending to come back to camp that evening. If the water continued to rise or flood our camp we were going to have to make the 20-km float out in the dark.

Lance empties rainwater from the canoe. Photo by Nathan Banfield

In the middle of the afternoon I got a cell phone call from biologist Lynn McCoy warning us about flooding. He said he moved our vehicles away from the raising water which was already lapping at the floor boards. We owe Lynn one for all his help! He also told me that the water levels were expected to rise 22 feet. I asked what the water levels were at now. He said 12 feet. That’s when I knew we needed to get out pronto! Luckily I was able to reach Tim, Lance, and Marjie and our evacuation began. Tim and I made it back to camp, loaded our two canoes with gear and cruised downstream where we met up with Lance and Marjie. We sped along on the fast-flowing current to get to the landing and our Jeep. The entire road to the landing was under water. Marjie and I hiked across the bridge to the top of the hill where Lynn had moved the vehicle and drove back to the headquarters to get the van. When we got pack we found Lance huddled around a small fire he’d made. Tim was across the river at Billy Joe’s house boat. We packed up our gear and drove around to pick up Tim. Billy Joe then fed us with honey, homemade sausage, and tea. We survived!

Monday, February 25: Day of Woodpeckers

From: Nathan Banfield

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Photo by Nathan Banfield

I spent most of the day in a canoe going through my patch. The rising water has created several new streams cutting into and around my patch. The habitat that we are in is really nice. There are large trees and lots of standing dead wood. The Pascagoula didn’t receive near the damage that the Pearl River did. There are also large areas of cane. This is certainly much nicer to walk through than blackberry. The woodpecker activity was extraordinarily high. Pileated Woodpeckers were calling and drumming from every direction. Red-bellied Woodpecker and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were on every other tree, it seemed. This was certainly one of the most active days for woodpeckers that I have ever experienced.

Sunday, February 24: Increasing Water Levels

From: Nathan Banfield

We split up to explore four different patches today and Marjie soon noticed rising water had turned our campsite into an island. Tim and I went downriver by canoe and pushed our way through blackberries and deeper streams of water. We eventually found ATV trails which helped us move around our patches. Both Lance and I saw a Red-headed Woodpecker in our patches and Lance saw a Pileated Woodpecker at a tree cavity. Marjie made an amazing dinner of coconut rice with shrimp and green beans. Lance and I voted it as the best meal we had all season long. Water continues to rise!

Saturday, February 23: Start of an Adventure

From: Nathan Banfield

We spent the day getting groceries, packing our gear, and floating down Black Creek to an area of higher ground that looked like a good campsite.

Friday, February 22: Pascagoula

From: Nathan Banfield

Today Tim and I headed to areas along Black Creek with Don McKee. Don is a great birder who lives on Dauphin Island in Alabama. He brought us fresh donuts in the morning. Lance and Marjie went off to explore areas along the Pascagoula River east of our location. We were surveying slightly north of the area searched last year. It is one of the more interesting areas to search throughout the south. I think Don was impressed with how we walk through water and blackberries thinking nothing of it. When we got back to the headquarters that evening we invited Don to stay for dinner and we had a nice evening of relaxing and talking.

Thursday, February 21: Good Day to Travel

From: Nathan Banfield

We finished packing and cleaning the bunk house and said goodbye to Louisiana. Kenny Ribbeck with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries was very helpful in organizing places to stay and access to boats here in the Pearl and in the Atchafalaya.

Storms moved in on our drive over to Ward Bayou Wildlife Management Area along the Pascagoula River in Mississippi. We were met by Lynn McCoy, biologist for the WMA. Lynn is dedicated to preserving the area and its wildlife. I made him tell the others how he discovered gopher frogs on the management area by walking through chest-deep water with a sound recorder to prove the species was there.

Wednesday, February 20: Fork-tailed Flycatcher

From: Nathan Banfield

We finished up the last few morning point counts and got most of our data entered in the computer. We headed out south of New Orleans to the town of Alliance. A Fork-tailed Flycatcher had recently been found here roosting with several Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and lots of Western Kingbirds. We came across a Say’s Phoebe hanging out with the group of flycatchers. Maybe there is something about the abundance of plantation orange trees in the area that attracts them.

Fork-tailed Flycatcher. Photo by Nathan Banfield

Tuesday, February 19: Birds in Twos

From: Nathan Banfield

Osprey mating dance. Photo by Nathan Banfield

We were finally able to get a motorboat, which helped enormously as we finished up the rest of the point counts along the East Pearl River. I dropped Tim off along Interstate 10 for a float down a section of the river to the south to the takeout at US 90. Tim finished his day early and waited for us for several hours before we were able to come by and pick him up. Four Barn Owls roosting under the bridge kept him entertained. He also came across an eight-foot ‘gator sunning along the bank.

After dropping Tim off, I took Marjie down to a few point count sites before heading upriver to a few harder-to-reach spots. I did stop briefly to take pictures of an Osprey pair courting near a nest. After completing my counts, I headed back for Marjie and Lance. When we found Lance we saw a pair of White Ibis sitting in a tree along the bank. It was a day of twos—perhaps the birds are pairing off for the breeding season. Lance took off alone in the van this morning to a creek along the East Pearl River to do point counts along the way, and then meet up with Marjie and me later. His day was a nightmare of downed trees, brush, steep banks, and blackberries. Several times he had to carry the canoe up a six-foot climb. But when I met up with him that afternoon he was in good spirits—maybe just relieved it was all over!

February 9-18: The Pearl

From: Tim Baerwald

We spent a little more than a week at the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area near Slidell, Louisiana. It was, without a doubt, the hardest week of searching we have had this season.

The reason we were at the Pearl is because of a long-term population study to see how woodpeckers respond to the increased amount of dead timber after a hurricane. In 2002, Zeiss Optics sponsored a team of searchers here that looked for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. At that time, they also did woodpecker point counts at the top of every hour. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has had a team of technicians here every year since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, doing the same point counts during the same time period. Nathan warned us about this place and now I can see why.

A nightmare forest of thorns. Photo by Nathan Banfield

Before Katrina, the Pearl River WMA was allegedly easy to walk through, and had some beautiful habitat. But since Katrina it has become a giant blackberry patch, interspersed with many dead trees at, or just below, chest height. The blackberries here are the thickest and tallest I have ever seen. You step off a trail and take a few steps only to find yourself facing a wall of thorns 10 feet high, stretching as far as you can see to either side. When you have a point count 200 meters into this bramble nightmare that you have to begin in 20 minutes, you have no other option but to take out your machete and attack the wall. After 20 minutes of work you find you've only covered 50 meters, your arms and face are bleeding, and there are tree trunks in front of you that are too high to climb over and too low to crawl under. Welcome to the Pearl!

Not having the Jeep for almost the entire time we spent at the Pearl made everything that much more difficult. Organizing how to get to all the point counts with one vehicle became a challenging puzzle. Some days there were fierce thunderstorms which also hampered point count efforts. Strong winds and a heavy downpour wiped out Lance’s tent—somehow he managed to get it standing again. Nathan is surprised at the amount of severe weather this year compared to last year. It seems like every week we have a day of storms, heavy rain, tornado warnings, lightning, and strong winds.

Dark-eyed Junco. Photo by Tim Baerwald

One day, while in Bogue Chitto National Wildlife Refuge, Nathan, Lance, and I headed out to some point counts in the area. Nathan took the blackberry-choked path he searched last year which he says was the worst of all. His knowledge of the area and secret paths helped him find his way much easier than either Lance or I could have. Lance met a local man along on the road and talked with him about getting to this area by pointing to the location on a map. The guy said you can get there, but you would need three days. Then Lance said he was waiting for Nathan to get out of the forest and showed the guy where he was at. The guy then said with a stunned disbelief, “And you’re going to wait for him?” He must have thought that it would have been days before Nathan would make it back.

Eastern Bluebird. Photo by Nathan Banfield

Red-bellied Woodpeckers, White-eyed Vireos, Northern Cardinals, Orange-crowned Warblers, Pine Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, American Goldfinches, Swamp Sparrows, and White-throated Sparrows where common throughout the Pearl. We also came across Gray Catbirds, but seeing them through the brush was often difficult. It didn’t actually seem like we did a lot of birding when we were trying to get to our point counts because of the extreme difficulty of moving through the thorns and brush. Lance saw one Black-bellied Whistling Duck on the fly overhead on Feb. 18, while canoeing on the river. While I was birding with Justin Bosler and Dave Roth (Part of the Louisiana State University team) we spotted a Dark-eyed Junco that is likely the Cassiar subspecies of the Dark-eyed Junco complex. Cassiar is lighter than an “Oregon” Junco, but darker then a “Pink-sided” Junco. Marjie saw a male Northern Parula on the East Pearl River. Lance also saw a group of about 60 Eastern Bluebirds fly through. Looks like spring is on its way.

Friday, February 8: Without a Jeep

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

Nathan and Lance spent most of the morning trying to figure out what we could do about the Jeep. Unfortunately, it looked like it would cost several thousand dollars to replace the rear axle and would take a week to repair. We squashed all our things into the van along with two more people and finally drove to the Pearl River. We met a crew from Louisiana State University conducting their own ivory-bill search.

Thursday, February 7: Broken Down Again

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

We paddled out of Dead Lake and headed to our house to pack up and get ready to leave for the Pearl River. We hoped to arrive in Louisiana that evening, but the Jeep suffered another serious breakdown. The Jeep’s rear differential broke, causing the rear wheels to stop spinning. Tim and Lance skidded off the Interstate and into the median but were unhurt. We had the Jeep towed to the nearest town and got a motel for the night.

Wednesday, February 6: Too Calm After the Storm

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

In the morning we waited for the storm to subside before going back out to our patches for one more day of searching. We thought the storm might have brought in some interesting birds, but we all came back with little news to report.

Tuesday, February 5: Saved by the Platform

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

Brown Pelican. Photo by Nathan Banfield

We spent another day searching the area. No ivory-bills today, but there were a couple of Brown Pelicans roaming the area. Our campsite was in an area that had floating covered platforms for group camping. We set up our tents on the nearest platform and rigged up some tarps to keep out the wind and the rain. Another storm arrived in the middle of the night and the pouring rain sounded like rocks hitting the metal roof of the platform. Lighting flashed and thunder rumbled. In the wee hours of the morning the rain began to blow in from the unprotected sides of the platform and we had to rearrange ourselves to keep dry.

Monday, February 4: Tapping Into My Inner Woodpecker

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

he Dead Lake area had patches of good habitat and some really bad habitat. I spent the day in some of the good areas. There were quite a few very large trees, including lots of sweet gums and quite a few oaks. As I was measuring one large oak I tapped into my inner woodpecker somehow and heard bugs scratching around underneath the bark. I thought this was a very good sign. Perhaps I’m coming close to tapping into the psyche of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Well maybe not, but I’d like to think so.

Meanwhile, the patches the rest of the team were surveying turned out not to be great habitat, though there were some smaller patches of good stuff in there. On the way back from their patches, Tim and Nathan got some great photos of Forster’s Terns perched in the middle of the river.

Nathan gets close to the tern. Photo by Lance Ebel
Forster's Tern. Photo by Nathan Banfield

Sunday, February 3: Back Into the Mobile

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

We paddled into the Dead Lake Island area of the Mobile River and set up camp.

Saturday, February 2: Free Day

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

We were surprised by the arrival of some new friends. A family had just arrived for the weekend and two more were coming! Since the hunting season is over, we didn’t think anyone would be coming to stay, but Dawn and Eric Rochester and their daughter Josie told us that they come up in the off-season with their friends and family, just get away.

Friday, February 1: In a Fix

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

Today we headed to Mobile to get the Jeep’s canoe rack fixed. The day was full of phone calls and visits to mechanics and welders. It seemed no one could help us. But by the end of the day we found a humorous welder a couple of towns over who was willing to do the job. He fixed the Jeep in less than an hour while we listened to his jokes and watched bluebirds fly around his shop. We stopped for a nice meal before getting back to the house late that night.

Thursday, January 31: A Gannet and a Breakdown

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

We held off leaving for our next camping trip because a severe storm was expected to hit. We took advantage of the calm before the storm and headed to the coast for some evening birding. We saw Common Loons, Horned Grebes, and Laughing Gulls. The highlight was a Northern Gannet soaring over the ocean. We were heading home, trying to beat the evening storm, when disaster struck. The custom steel canoe rack on the jeep snapped and the canoes were left dangling off the back. We pulled over, sorted through our gear, and rigged a way to hold the canoes on the jeep so we could get back to the house.

Wednesday, January 30: Moving Out

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

Today we moved from our luxurious accommodations to another more modest house owned by a local hunting club. We prepared ourselves for another camping trip on the Mobile delta.

Tuesday, January 29: Where have you been?

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

Splitting up the team and the obstacle course of logs were challenges, but the big disappointment came from the lack of good habitat. Apparently our alternate site was not as suitable for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers as our first choice had been. There just weren’t many large trees, and there were some large clear-cut areas. Nonetheless, we saw some cool stuff, including a ton of Red-headed Woodpeckers and White-breasted Nuthatches.

During the second leg of the journey, the river proved to be less riddled with debris and Nathan and I made it to the van by late afternoon. “Where have you guys been?” Tim and Lance had been waiting for three hours, but we were happy enough to get back just as it began to pour, the beginning of a big storm.

Monday, January 28: Split Up

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

We awoke and broke camp to embark on our 60-kilometer journey downriver. Tim and Lance got an early start, while Nathan and I left later in order to stagger our search efforts. The Sipsey turned out to be a challenge. The water was still low and there seemed to be downed trees across the river every hundred meters. The river became a great game of dodge the tree: paddle, paddle, duck, push, pull, turn, turn, TURN! Pulling a canoe full of gear over logs and even having to portage at one point were the hardest parts for me. I couldn’t match the speed of the guys in this task. Thankfully, Nathan was there to assist me (though sometimes he just laughed at me and took photos). By the end of the day we were separated by darkness and several kilometers of river covered in downed trees. We decided it would be best to set up separate camps rather than paddle in the dark. Nathan and I had the stove and Tim and Lance had the pots, so we settled for cold food on this cold night and went to bed early to keep warm.

Marjie has a new hat. Photo by Nathan Banfield.
An obstacle course of fallen trees. Photo by Nathan Banfield.

Sunday, January 27: To the Sipsey

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

We drove to the Sipsey River to begin our paddle downstream. Much time was spent trying to figure out the best place to park our vehicles and get access to the river. We decided to paddle down a section of the Sipsey bordered by a large patch of Alabama Forever Wild property. We put in and set up camp.

Saturday, January 26: Chores

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

We spent the day shopping and preparing to leave for a paddle down the Sipsey River near Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Friday, January 25: “Marj Rocks!”

From: Lance Ebel

After a long, cold stay at Douglas Lake, we rounded up our gear early and headed off to celebrate Marjie’s 25th birthday. For dinner, we went to a Mexican restaurant that Martjan and Utami had eaten at before. They raved about how good it was, so we were excited to give it a try. The food was excellent, and afterwards we had flan, a type of custard dessert. Marjie donned the birthday sombrero, and everyone seemed happy to be together. Then we bought supplies to make brownies with ice cream to finish out the birthday celebrations.

Thursday, January 24: “A good day to be sick”

From: Lance Ebel

Cozy by the campfire. Photo by Lance Ebel

As I was snuggled in my tent, the rest of the team faced cold temperatures and freezing rain, making for a slow and challenging day in the field. Despite the weather, Black-and-white Warblers and White-breasted Nuthatches were seen. Everyone looked forward to a hot meal and a warm fire. Nathan commented that warblers don’t seem to be as prevalent this season compared to the previous ones, as we slurped up a delicious tuna casserole. This was the first real meal I had eaten in two days, and I was feeling better.

Wednesday, January 23: “Creepy”

From: Lance Ebel

After a short walk into my patch, I started to feel very weak and realized that I was becoming sick. I finished my vegetation plots and headed back to camp, stopping every 50 or 100 yards in exhaustion. I spent the rest of the day and evening lying in my tent, occasionally sampling the conversation going on at the campfire. Martjan saw four Brown Creepers—the highlight of the day. Tim identified both gray and bird-voiced tree frogs in camp.

Tuesday, January 22: “Good Oak”

From: Lance Ebel

A nice stand of hardwoods in Douglas Lake, Alabama. Photo by Martjan  Lammertink

With a change in the winds, water levels rose considerably overnight, but luckily the water table remained constant. A flock of about 85 Fish Crows sounded very odd from far off, but as they drew closer I realized what they were. After a nice foraging flock passed through my area, a Sharp-shinned Hawk landed nearby and then hastily took off toward the moving flock. Wrens were everywhere.

Martjan, Nathan, and I found some good habitat in our patches, with some of the biggest oaks I have seen so far this season. We also saw some good-sized sweetgums and other associated tree species. In general, we were impressed with the area. Nathan, Martjan, and Tim say this area is similar in structure to Congaree National Park.

Marjie cooked up some tasty fajitas, with s’mores for dessert.  

Monday, January 21: “Hot Potatoes”

From: Lance Ebel

In the morning, Marjie spotted a Yellow-throated Warbler near the lodge before we headed out to begin a three-day camping trip at Douglas Lake. Finding a dry campsite was a bit of a challenge because of the high water table, but eventually we found a reasonable spot. I made goulash and sweet potatoes a la campfire, and we organized our plans for the morning.  

Sunday, January 20: “Icy Hot”

From: Lance Ebel

The new habitat around the lodge yielded Brown-headed Nuthatches, a new bird for the season. We met Roger Clay at Hubbard’s landing to scout some of the more interesting areas we had picked out from the aerial photos.

It was very cold and clear, and we were all bundled up like outrageously huge marshmallows. Those extra layers made walking through the woods very difficult, and after the first mini-exploration we were shedding layers and starting to sweat, which made the boat riding even colder.

The habitat offered medium-to-young tupelo and some scattered cypress on the lower flooded regions, and some nice oaks and sweetgum on the higher ground. Roger offered us candy pecans as we frequently passed kingfishers and Great Blue Herons.

Saturday, January 19: “Southern Hospitality”

From: Lance Ebel

The Coastal Land Trust cabin offers the crew a bit of welcome luxury after weeks spent living in tents. Photo by Nathan Banfield

The weather that greeted us in Alabama would follow us throughout our first week of camping on Douglas Lake. Cold winds and intermittent rain made the colors of the hills come to life. We were amazed at the beauty of the lodge—a great relief after the long drive. Nathan, Martjan, and I went to meet Roger Clay, a wildlife biologist for Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, to look over aerial photos of the surrounding river basin. We were introduced to his captive indigo and black pine snakes, and his wife’s pecan-grahams. A delicious curry dish and a little TV made for a comforting night.

Friday, January 18: “Sweet Home Alabama”

From: Nathan Banfield

Woke up early and got the van and jeep packed. We headed to Alabama and noticed a huge difference once we arrived at our housing accommodations. Randy Roach with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had arranged a lodge for us, owned by the Coastal Land Trust. This is by far the most luxurious housing we’ve had, with a fully-equipped kitchen, washer and drier, and multiple showers. The lodge is in a quiet spot in the pine woods with a nice view over a lake. We are definitely spoiled with this one.

Thursday, January 17: “Leaving the Atchafalaya”

From: Nathan Banfield

We headed out early this morning so we could get back and start packing for our next stop: Alabama. In the evening Lance, Marjie, Tim, and I headed to the climbing gym one last time for some vertical exercise. When we got back, Utami made Indonesian fried rice for dinner.

Wednesday, January 16: “Cold Rain”

From: Nathan Banfield

Rain came down steadily through the night. We huddled in our tents, hoping the downpour would end. Eventually, I got up and saw Marjie sitting out in the rain looking out over the water. I flipped over a canoe against a tree and we sat under it watching the rain come down and felt the temperatures plummet. Just before noon the rain stopped and we got ready to head into the field. Lance and I canoed north and explored for good habitat. It looked like more of the same except for a few clear-cuts that we passed.

Tuesday, January 15: “Cramming In”

From: Nathan Banfield

Because of hunting activity in two of our four designated patches, we decided to not go back for safety reasons. As a whole, the forest here is much better than I have seen through much of the Atchafalaya, but Pileated Woodpecker numbers seem really low. One day I encountered only two. The habitat consisted mainly of cypress, pecan, green ash, tupelo, willow, and swamp privet. Some of the pecans and ash were fairly large.

Photo by Lance Ebel

Martjan found a Red-breasted Nuthatch and got pictures of it moving up and down trees. Last year we did not see any Red-breasted Nuthatches and this is the second one we’ve seen this year. Marjie saw the first one in Texas. It’s exciting to see all the birds that we are coming across this year.

Lance used his invisible skills to get within 20 feet of a deer today and got some really nice photos. He certainly knows how to be quiet when tracking down wildlife. What’s funny is that Lance has been seeing deer everywhere even though many of the hunters we met hadn’t seen one in a couple of weeks.

Monday, January 14: “Shoot, Shoot, Bang, Bang”

From: Nathan Banfield

Tim and Marjie had a difficult day because hunting activity was extremely high in their search area. One hunter warned them to be sure they were very visible in their blaze orange gear to reduce the danger of being hit. In the end we decided not to continue searching those areas.

I did not come across any hunters myself, and found some pretty impressive habitat I wasn’t expecting to find. There were lots of large Nuttall’s oak although this patch of land is fairly small. I hope it will be left alone and not get logged.

Sunday, January 13: “Moonlight Paddle”

From: Nathan Banfield

We packed up our gear for a camping journey into Indian Bayou north of Henderson Lake. We picked up food supplies and got to the landing in late afternoon, knowing we were going to have a night paddle. Darkness fell as we searched for dry land, though there was a little light from the moon. Baby Palung really seemed to be enjoying his first paddle in a canoe! The habitat on the way in seemed extremely poor. Tim and I both headed farther up the canoe route with flashlights, trying to find a suitable camp site, and ended up backtracking to a piece of higher ground we saw earlier.

Saturday, January 12: “Rusty Blackbirds revisited”

From: Nathan Banfield

Martjan brought us Canon digital SLR cameras and Sony HD video cameras on loan from the National Geographic Society. The cameras will improve our ability to document an Ivory-billed Woodpecker if we come across one.

Western Kingbird. Photo by Tim Baerwald

In late morning we headed out to the D.O.E. Canal once again to show Martjan the Rusty Blackbird hotspot we found. We discovered nearly two-thirds of the floating vegetation mat was gone but about 200 Rusty Blackbirds were still using the area. A Western Kingbird, first seen here on January 2, was still hanging around and Tim finally got his much-coveted first look at the species and took some pictures of it. We headed into an area where Lance and Tim heard a few possible double knocks one evening. We split up, alternated in making double-knock imitations, and listened until late evening before heading home in the dark.

Friday, January 11: “Baby on Board”

From: Nathan Banfield

L-R, Martjan Lammertink, Utami Setiorini, and baby Palung. Photo by Lance Ebel

Martjan Lammertink, his wife Utami, and their newborn son Palung are visiting for a while. Martjan and Utami were on last year’s mobile search team, and Martjan still oversees our activities as project scientist.

Today we headed out to scout some areas in the northern part of the Atchafalaya. There were hunters everywhere with camps set up on the small patches of public land that we were able to find. I dropped off Lance and Marjie in a couple of small areas that seemed less populated and explored as much of the surrounding habitat as I could. This area is much drier than the southern Atchafalaya, but with so much hunting going on right now, it’s not really safe to be in the woods.

Thursday, January 10: “Tornado Warnings”

From: Nathan Banfield

Today we awoke knowing that the weather could be a problem. After looking at the radar in the morning, we decided we’d wait for the weather to clear, but it never did. Tornado watches and warnings were issue for the surrounding area. It would have been dangerous to go out on the river in this weather.

Wednesday, January 9: “Mystery Solved”

From: Nathan Banfield

Ash-throated Flycatcher. Photo by Tim Baerwald

I headed up to Indian Bayou to meet with Neil Lalonde of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to look over maps and access points. Indian Bayou is west of Sherburne Wildlife Management Area, on the other side of the Atchafalaya, not far from Lafayette. Neil was very helpful and showed me a canoe trail through Indian Bayou. He told me that the area consists mainly of cypress and willow, but there is also an area of hardwoods that has not been cut for 80 to 100 years.

Marjie, Lance, and Tim headed back out near the D.O.E. Canal. Tim and Marjie relocated the mystery Myiarchus flycatcher Tim saw earlier in the week. He was successful in getting more photos of the bird, which he studied in depth. He discussed his photos with others, did quite a bit of research online, and ended up concluding it is an Ash-throated Flycatcher. Lance explored and scouted more surrounding area by boat and found no habitat of interest.

The others made a nice dinner and baked a wonderful birthday cake for me in the evening. Tim and Lance did an awesome job decorating the cake with an Ivory-billed Woodpecker made out of icing.

Tuesday, January 8: “Southern Climbers”

From: Nathan Banfield

We all spent the day working on the travel log, entering data, cleaning, and doing laundry before heading to the Lafayette climbing gym (Rok Haus) in the evening. I have really gotten into rock climbing, especially bouldering, over the past several years and the others seem to be finding a passion in it as well. Unfortunately, there are no boulders or rocks in the swamps. So we head to the nearest gym to get some physical activity and take a short break from work. Marjie has also been showing us some yoga. We actually did some yoga with the young laundromat attendant before going to the climbing gym. We have been trying to set aside days in which we get some sort of physical activity to keep us in shape for the rigors of Ivory-billed Woodpecker searching.

Monday, January 7: “The Rusty Blackbird Mother Lode

From: Tim Baerwald 

We spent the morning poking around the immediate area before packing up the camp. Nathan and I went up to the Department of Energy Canal to see if we could get some better photos of the Rusty Blackbirds. As the sun rose, large flocks of Rusty Blackbirds started filling the tops of the trees. When sunlight hit the tops of the trees, they dropped down in one gigantic mass to the floating weed mat—more than 800 Rusty Blackbirds started feeding! Rusty Blackbird numbers have been dropping dramatically, though the reasons are not entirely clear. We hope by keeping good records of their numbers and locations we can get a better understanding of their wintering habitat requirements and numbers. During the winter, they seem to prefer to stay in or around flooded bottomland swamps. They have a unique feeding style—hopping along any exposed substances in flooded areas, such as the floating vegetation mats.

Rusty Blackbirds. Top-left photo by Tim Baerwald. Lower-left photo by Martjan Lammertink. Right images by Nathan Banfield.

Last year the mobile search team saw a total of 305 Rusty Blackbirds over 5 months with the highest one-day total being 98 birds in the Duck Lake area. As the day progressed, the blackbirds started to split up and forage along the bayou shores. By the time I showed up, “only” about 400 Rusty Blackbirds where still feeding on the mat. We also saw a Tricolored Heron and Wilson's Snipe.

After packing up camp we made the 20-km trip back to the boat ramp—we just made it with what looked like a few spoonfuls of gas left in the tank!

Sunday, January 6: “The Myiarchus”

From: Tim Baerwald 

As I was exploring today’s patch, I came upon five river otters feeding on a large fish and resting on a log. I watched them for about an hour as they groomed themselves and played around. After the otters left, I saw 2 flocks Greater White-fronted Geese fly overhead, each with more than 30 birds. We haven't been encountering as many geese since we left Texas.

Foraging Pileated Woodpecker. Photo by Nathan Banfield

Later, while investigating some chip notes coming from a dry hammock of land, I found a nice passerine flock. While watching this flock, I was surprised to see a Myiarchus flycatcher land in front of me. Its call was a loud, slightly burry, uprising, whip, or whep.  I took a few pictures of it, but still haven’t identified it down to the species level yet. 

Nathan explored an area with a lot of dead wood and found Pileated Woodpeckers in high numbers. The pileateds seemed to be feeding very low in the tupelo, or on dead snags with tons of woodpecker work already evident, and on small, scrubby swamp privet. Some of the dead wood was crawling with ants and appeared to have been dead for a long time—no recently-dead trees in this area, which is what ivory-bills like.

Saturday, January 5: “Encounters With Nutria”

From: Tim Baerwald 

Nathan set up four two-kilometer patches and each of us took turns searching them. We plot the vegetation to map the structure and habitat in some of the bottomland river basins. The habitat in my patch was mediocre. There were more passerines here than in the more mature habitat I saw yesterday. Bird highlights for me were 2 White-eyed Vireos, 1 Orange-crowned Warbler, 2 Pine Warblers, 10 Yellow-rumped Warblers, 2 Common Yellowthroats, 2 Purple Finches, and more than 250 Tree Swallows.

Nathan counted more than 1,700 Tree Swallows today!  Marjie estimated she saw more than 800 of these birds. Last year the mobile search team saw thousands upon thousands of Tree Swallows migrating one morning. It seems like Tree Swallows are really drawn to the Atchafalaya area.

Mammals also seem plentiful. During the day we've seen raccoons, possums, nutria, beaver, and river otters. Lance had a close call today while sitting quietly in his canoe with a blaze orange vest hanging up beside him. A nutria (a large, semi-aquatic rodent) came up alongside his canoe. While he was watching, a guy in a motor boat came in and fired at the nutria. Lance yelled to let the man know he was there. The boater was very apologetic and explained that the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries offers $5 a tail. Nutria are an introduced species and have really spread throughout the Southeast.

Supper this evening was spaghetti, minus the French bread because it got left back at the compound.

Friday, January 4: “Indigo”

From: Tim Baerwald 

We all split up to search separate patches for the day. Marjie saw male and female Indigo Buntings, a nice find for this time of year. Range maps in National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America fifth edition, shows a small wintering area not far away in southeast Louisiana.

A male Pileated Woodpecker in its wild, wooded habitat. Photo by Nathan Banfield

Nathan snuck up on four Pileated Woodpeckers foraging closely together on the same dead snag and took a few pictures. I saw three Least Sandpipers feeding with Killdeer and Rusty Blackbirds on the muck in the D.O.E. Canal. The habitat Nathan and Lance explored was poor in most areas. The forest I was in consisted of mostly small to medium tupelos with the occasional large cypress snag. Marjie also found some fairly nice habitat.

Thursday, January 3: “Hot Stew”

From: Tim Baerwald 

We headed into town for more supplies, planning to camp and search near the D.O.E. Canal. In late afternoon we set up camp near the spot where we’d seen all the Rusty Blackbirds. Temperatures were supposed to drop to the twenties overnight, so Lance made a tasty stew which kept us warm as the temps fell.

Wednesday, January 2: “Land Ho”

From: Tim Baerwald 

Today we scouted some areas north of Duck Lake near the D.O.E Canal. We found a nice looking campsite on high ground with plenty of room for our tents. Nathan and I explored some channels by boat, looking for areas with reasonable habitat for our searches. Lance and Marjie took a canoe and went to check some areas off the D.O.E. Canal.

American Pipit. Photo by Tim Baerwald

The forest in this area has more than two feet of water throughout, which makes searching these areas by canoe easier. Another benefit is that we can move more quietly and approach many of the animals in this area more closely.

Lance and Marjie spent some time watching hundreds of Rusty Blackbirds foraging on a dense mat of floating vegetation with American Pipits, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Killdeer. In the flock they spotted a partially leucistic Rusty Blackbird with white in the flank and mantle feathers. Then, to make things even better, a Western Kingbird showed up, snagging flies along the sunny north shore. Ever since reading Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway, I’ve wanted to see a Western Kingbird, but living in Michigan, I never had. So we went back to the spot hoping I could get a glimpse. But despite our best efforts, we were unsuccessful in relocating the kingbird today.

Tuesday, January 1: “King Rail, King Rail”

From: Tim Baerwald 

We headed out early today to areas north and east of Duck Lake to check the habitat, hoping once again to find a good campsite. Today we decided to split up and explore by canoe. This way we could explore more successfully even though the bayou is full of vegetation that is difficult to get through.

In the area Marjie and I explored, we found the forest to be mostly stunted cypress and button bush. Nathan and Lance liked the part of the forest they searched because it contained more cypress and tupelo and was quite dense.

Bottomland forest of cypress and tupelo. Photo by Nathan Banfield

Early this morning we had a surprise sighting of a King Rail. It flew low right in front of us across the small channel we were canoeing. Other birds seen included four Bald Eagles, four White Ibis, a Common Yellowthroat, Pine, Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped warblers, a Blue-headed Vireo, and more than 50 American Pipits feeding on the dense mats of floating vegetation choking some of the channels. Nathan and Lance came across nine Neotropic Cormorants mixed in with large groups of Double-crested Cormorants on Duck Lake.

Monday, December 31: “No Camp”

From: Tim Baerwald 

We headed out for a camping trip around Duck Lake in the southwest portion of the Atchafalaya. I found the habitat younger than I was expecting since the crew last year judged this one of the better areas encountered in the Atchafalaya. I think the habitat area was also smaller than Nathan remembered from the previous year. Nathan mentioned that the number of Pileated Woodpeckers is high around Duck Lake although other woodpeckers are few or absent altogether. While we were on the way out to Duck Lake, a Roseate Spoonbill flew over us—the first we’ve seen this search season.

Water levels were up three to four feet following recent rain storms. That made traversing the bayou channels easier, but we still found it difficult to figure out which channels were passable. Many channels don’t seem to exist on the map. Searching for a campsite proved to be extremely difficult, which is what the team found last year, too. There is almost no dry land and what land we did find was either extremely brushy or too small for camping. Along with the overwhelming amount of private land, there was little hope of finding a reasonable camping spot. Eventually we came back in with our gear and spent New Year’s Eve at the compound.

Sunday, December 30: “Office Work”

From: Tim Baerwald 

A day of getting groceries and putting gear together for a camping trip to the Duck Lake area.

Saturday, December 29: “Back from the Holidays”

From: Tim Baerwald 

Started out slowly today because of late-arriving flights. We spent the day organizing gear and entering data.

December 23-28: A Christmas Holiday

From: Nathan Banfield

Vermilion Flycatcher
Photo by Nathan Banfield

Marjie and I headed down the Texas coast to spend our few days of Christmas holiday birding down in south Texas. After driving through the night we got a few hours sleep and headed into Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Right away we found a couple Vermilion Flycatchers and a Couch’s Kingbird. Along the coast Snow Geese and Northern Pintail were abundant and we even had a great sighting of a Gull-billed Tern. Shorebirds, herons, and ducks were scattered all along the coast. From the top of the observation tower that evening I heard the trumpeting call of a Whooping Crane and saw their heads poking out of the taller grasses.

After another night of driving we got to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and went exploring. There is something cool about seeing the bright colors of Green Jays and kiskadees flying around on Christmas morning. Marjie was picking up life birds around almost every corner and really loving it. We also spent a good part of the day talking on the phone with family and friends. After spending that evening unsuccessfully trying to find an Aplomado Falcon we headed to Boca Chica Beach to camp.

Kiskadee, photo by Nathan Banfield

Green Jay, photo by Nathan Banfield

Leaving that next morning while driving along the Lower Rio Grande NWR I got a big surprise as an Aplomado Falcon cruised right beside the car window! It was an awesome experience! There were hawks and kites everywhere on this broad grassland area.

Bobcats ahead! Photo by Nathan Banfield

We headed to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge to find chachalacas everywhere. I really liked seeing Least Grebes again. While we were hiking back just after sunset, a very brightly colored bobcat trotted along the trail ahead of us. Another grayer bobcat showed up and the two interacted while we looked on in awe. The second cat walked slowly toward us at one point, then sat in the middle of the trail and just watched us watching him and taking pictures. Eventually he found us boring and decided to look for supper that evening and we decided to look for some food as well at a nearby local Mexican restaurant.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Photo by Nathan Banfield

That night we hiked into Bentsen Rio Grande State Park’s camping area. In the morning we were delighted with all the birds as we walked around the park. I got a nice photo of a Golden-fronted Woodpecker munching on grapefruit. We met a lot of friendly people who were interested in our Ivory-billed Woodpecker searches and had many interesting conversations with them. We even got a token of good fortune, a small stuffed Ivory-billed Woodpecker, given to us by Carol Navarro from the World Birding Center.

We got a great look at a Gray Hawk and watched Allen’s, Black-chinned, Ruby-throated, and Buff-bellied hummingbirds zip around the World Birding Center’s feeders. That night we got great looks at a Pauraque and walked around listening for owls, hoping to hear or even see a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, but ended up with a great look at a screech-owl that landed 15 feet away from me.

Early the next morning we headed back to Baton Rouge to pick up Tim and Lance from the airport because their flights were moved back a day, and even then they were delayed significantly. We were finally able to pick up Tim after midnight. Lance, Marjie, and I went out for dinner late that evening and brought back Tim a huge chocolate piece of cake from the restaurant when we picked him up. We ended up pulling into our headquarters at Attakapas Wildlife Management Area after three in the morning.

Sunday, Dec. 23

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

After packing up all of our stuff for the trip we drove back to Baton Rouge to get what remained of Nathan’s camera (it got run over in the laudromat parking lot yesterday) and headed out for the long drive to South Texas.

Saturday, Dec. 22

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

Nathan and I dropped Lance and Tim off at the airport to fly home and visit their families for Christmas. We stopped in Baton Rouge to do some laundry before we rushed off to spend our Christmas break birding in South Texas. Unfortunately, Nathan had a major photographic tragedy at the laundromat. His camera somehow ended up on the ground of the parking lot where it was run over. The laundromat employees found it and Nathan may be able to get it fixed.

Friday, Dec. 21

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

The air the morning after the storm was thick with moisture and the resulting fog gave the swamp that eerie feeling you might imagine from a swamp in the movies. We spent the first half of the day searching and then returned to break camp at lunch time. The water levels had risen due to the storm, but we were still unconvinced that we could make it to the Jeep at the Atchafalaya Bridge, so we packed up and paddled upstream to where we started. Unfortunately the rise in water levels was accompanied by stronger currents and it was a bit more difficult to get to the van. Once we got back, retrieved the jeep, and packed up all of our stuff, it was pretty late and we were famished. We rewarded our efforts with a delicious Thai dinner in Lafayette. We didn’t exactly fit in at the restaurant with our camouflage and knee boots, but the staff didn’t seem to mind and the food was worth it.

Thursday, Dec. 20

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

Today was stormy. I was still feeling sick, so I took it slow and hung near camp. Tim, Lance, and Nathan went into the refuge again. It began to rain midmorning and the sound of the rain allowed me to sneak up closely on two foraging Pileated Woodpeckers.  Quickly, though, the winds increased and the shower became a thunderstorm.  I was glad to only be a kilometer from camp, and I retreated to my tent to sleep away the storm and my sickness.

Nathan takes shelter beneath his canoe.

Unfortunately the rest of the team was as far from camp as they could be, so they had to make do. Nathan made a rain shelter by flipping over his canoe and crawling underneath.  From his shelter he had a magical wildlife experience as three river otters emerged, and he was able to photograph and video them foraging along the banks of the creek in the fog and rain.

Tim discovered a small lake during the storm and was enthralled to find a great diversity of ducks. He crouched in the vegetation and patiently counted them as the rain fell. He counted 16 pintail, 2 Greater White-fronted Geese, 40 Wood Ducks, 25 Mallards, 15 Green-winged Teal, and 8 Hooded Mergansers. The rain stopped and the fog cleared from his scope. Finally Tim was able to get a better look and he stood in disbelief. They were all decoys! Well, at least the Hooded Mergansers were real. Sorry Tim.

Wednesday, Dec. 19

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

Just my luck. Our first real camping trip and I get sick!  I spent most of the day sleeping off what I hope is just a bug. Nathan tells me that last year he and other members of the mobile search team came down with what he called “swamp hack.” He made it sound pretty bad and long-lasting, so I really hope I don’t have it.

I did set out on foot east of the camp for a while and found some nice big trees and saw a huge flock of Boat-tailed Grackles. The others made it out to farther reaches of the refuge to explore more habitat. Nathan continued to earn his title of “sparrow master” by finding several species along the pipeline road, then headed south to the Des Ourses swamp where he found some poor habitat consisting of young cypress trees. Lance headed way down the Bayou Burron and saw tons of woodpeckers, especially pileated. He did a series of double-knock imitations and got a response from at least two Pileated Woodpeckers each time. In the evening I felt really lucky when the rest of the team made me food and tea to help nurse me back to health. Thanks, guys.

White-throated Sparrow
Photo by Nathan Banfield

Swamp Sparrow
Photo by Nathan Banfield

Tuesday, Dec. 18

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

Young raccoon
Photo by Marjorie MacIntosh

Today we split up and headed out into the woods. We had mixed feelings about the habitat and whether it would be suitable for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Most of the area was quite nice, filled with lots of bottomland hardwoods including good sized sweetgums, green ash, several oak species, and some big swamp cottonwoods. However, the refuge was filled with people. Houses and private property surround the refuge, roads cut across the landscape, and power lines often tower above. The woods were filled with a rainbow of flags from hunters.

Despite being heavily used, we did see a lot of wildlife in the area. As I walked along an ATV trail I spooked a couple of young raccoons that quickly scurried up two small trees and tried to blend into the scenery by keeping absolutely still. I took a few photos and had a minor cute attack.  Meanwhile Tim was having a good duck day, spotting Green-winged Teal, Mallards, Wood Ducks, and a Gadwall. Lance got to watch a woodcock take a bath. Here’s his account:

While canoeing out of Bayou Burron I noticed a waddling shadow meandering through the fog that had collected along the water’s edge. It was a woodcock, poking here and there aimlessly. The stout bird then waded out into about four inches of water, rather curious for a bird that stands only so high. He would push his head and long bill under the water, and then dip the rest of his body rhythmically behind it. After a few dips, he hopped to the shore and spread out his tail, running each feather through his bill. After this, he fluttered his feathers so forcefully that it lifted him several feet off of the ground! He repeated the process a few times before taking off for some unknown hideaway.
 In the evening we shared our stories over a huge pot of shrimp green curry, a specialty of Chris McCafferty’s from last year’s mobile search team. It was so delicious that I personally nominate it as the official food of the mobile search team. I don’t know exactly what it would mean to have an official food but I hope it means it will be a camp regular like it was last year. I think the others agree.

Monday, Dec. 17

From: Marjorie MacIntosh

Barred Owl
Photo by Tim Baerwald

Today we set off on our first real camping trip of the season in Sherburne Wildlife Management Area. We arrived expecting to put in at the north end of the Big Alabama Bayou campground where we parked our van. We dropped off the Jeep farther down at the Atchafalaya Bridge. But as we began our paddle to what would be our center of operations for the week, Bayou de Glaises, we soon realized our plan would not work out. The water levels were much lower than they were last year and our canoes hit bottom in some spots. Night fell as we set up camp and our Barred Owl neighbors questioned us as we set up our tents, “Who cooks for you?”  This night it would be Tim, who cooked his favorite for us:  Spaghetti-Os and potatoes. We all decided that we didn’t quite have the affection for Spaghetti-Os that Tim has, but were happy to have some warm food in our stomachs and be ready for another day in the field.

Sunday, Dec. 16

From: Lance Ebel

Sunday was a day of preparation for our camping trip in the Sherburne Wildlife Management Area. We worked on our travel log, data entry, and organizing gear for the trip.

Saturday, Dec. 15

From: Lance Ebel

With a long day of driving and scouting ahead of us, we made our way to the Lake Maurepas area, east of Baton Rouge. We were informed that the area had some nice looking bottomland habitat along I-10, and resembled the Bayou De View area in Arkansas. We drove along I-10, seeing nothing but dwarfed cypress and weather damaged stands of willow.

Common Moorhen (left) and American Coot, photo by Nathan Banfield

We came upon a wetland area teeming with birds, so we stopped to take some pictures and watch the animated antics of moorhens. We saw many birds here, including coot, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Tricolored Heron, and Fish Crow. We then headed north on a side road where Marjie and I were left with a canoe to make our way down the Chinquapin channel toward Blind River. We saw Mottled Duck on the canal, and talked with some local hunters along the way.

Tim and Nathan put in farther east on Black Lake, and paddled south down Blind River where they found a flock of 100 Rusty Blackbirds. The habitat was extremely poor in this area, resembling an overgrown briar patch more than a bottomland hardwood forest. I was slapped in the nose by a branch during a 200-yard portage between Alligator Bayou and the river. When we finally made it through the thick swamp to the river, we were covered in mud, and I had a bloody nose. We paddled against a stiff wind for an hour after dark.

Hungry and sore after a long day we headed into Baton Rouge and went to a very lively Cajun restaurant with dancing and live music. The food, lively atmosphere, and a friendly waitress were what we needed after a long day.

Friday, Dec. 14

From: Lance Ebel

We had a lot of boating planned for the day, so we started very early. We entered Flat Lake and found a forest of drowned cypress stumps, so we had to turn around and try to find another access point. We were soon stuck in a hidden mud flat, and as we were push-poling and paddling our way out, we saw a small boat approaching with two local people in it.

“Y’all stuck?” they shouted. We yelled back “No!” because just then we got into water deep enough for the motor. The other boat turned to leave, but not without one last remark from one of the passengers: “Y’all STANK!” We looked at each other in disbelief as the boat surged off, but then burst into laughter.

After dropping off Marjie and Tim with the canoe on the north end of Flat Lake off Bayou Sorrel, Nathan and I headed up the Intracoastal Waterway to the Bayou Pigeon area. Due to low water levels, we became hopelessly tangled in a crawfish trap. After untangling ourselves, we boated for a couple more hours through poor habitat. The amount of hunting traffic on Bayou Pigeon was extremely high. Boat after boat cruised by with the occasional ATV strapped aboard. Tim and Marjie also found poor habitat in their area, but did come across a large flock of American White Pelicans. After we all joined up again we made our way back to the launch, well after dark.

White Pelicans. Photo by Nathan Banfield

Thursday, Dec. 13

From: Lance Ebel

We woke early and drove to the northeast side of Lake Verret for canoe access to Elm Hall Wildlife Management Area. A number of people reported the area contained some of the largest cypress trees that Louisiana has to offer. We split into two teams—
Tim and me in one canoe, Nathan and Marjie in another. Tim and I headed across Lake Verret to a more southerly channel, while Marjie and Nathan cut through the northwest section and headed through some smaller channels choked with vegetation.

Tim and Lance search by canoe. Photo by Nathan Banfield

Tim estimated that a large flock of white pelicans contained 350 birds, and the dense mat of white was in stark contrast with encroaching rain clouds. The storm rumbled in the distance as we watched a large kettle consisting entirely of Bald Eagles. An alligator swam away from our canoe as the rain began to fall. Soon the rain was coming down in full force.

On the other side of the swamp, Nathan and Marjie watched a Little Blue Heron forage in the heavy rain shower. We meandered through the area, spotting herons, Anhingas, and eagles. Tim and I saw a huge alligator, and later met up with Nathan and Marjie. We then headed out to beat the darkness. At the edge of the lake, we noticed a Peregrine Falcon passing by with stiff wingbeats. The water was calm and as we paddled back to the jeep our headlamps occasionally caught the red glare of an alligator eye. Unfortunately, the habitat was not nearly as good as we’d hoped it would be. The cypress trees looked cool, covered in Spanish moss, but were still not at any great size.

Wednesday, Dec. 12

From: Lance Ebel

Today Marjie, Tim, and I headed north to check out a few spots that reportedly have good habitat. Nathan waited for local biologist Tony Vidrine, to make plans for exploring the Sherburne Wildlife Management Area.

As we cut through the fog, a large stick lodged in the boat’s propeller. I cut the engine and we pulled up the motor to remove the branch, but when we tried to start it up again it just made whirring noises. I dug into the engine, found it was a problem with the solenoid on the starter, and got it fixed. We drove straight back to the dock fearing we might have engine trouble again.

Back at the compound, Nathan found we’d have limited time in the Sherburne WMA because of hunting season. We could only be there December 17-28, most of that during Christmas break.

Guy suggested that we check an area in which a local had reported “a woodpecker that was making a constant, loud racket.” We switched to a much larger boat with a 75 hp motor and went up to this area only to find the habitat was quite dismal. So we headed east on Bayou Pigeon. The habitat remained rather poor for ivory-bills. We planned on walking south, farther away from the water, but soon ran out of daylight.

Tuesday, Dec. 11

From: Lance Ebel

Great Egret
Photo by Nathan Banfield

To get used to handling the boat, Marjie, Tim, and I went off on a scouting run south through Cypress Bayou. The small engine sputtered to life and we cautiously gurgled through the intricate water passages trying to avoid submerged logs and thick black mud. In two minutes we were stuck and had to push hard to free ourselves. We eventually made our way to a larger, deeper channel.

We surveyed the quality of habitat along the edge of the channel, finding recently logged and/or weather damaged stands of willow, sycamore, sweetgum and scattered oaks with an inconsistent understory of cane and briars. Dead wood was small and scattered. Water levels in all of the side channels were too low for our boat, but some were passable by canoe. Cormorants exploded from a lone snag as we motored our way home.

Later, we all went to a climbing gym in Lafayette—a first for Tim and me, though Marjie and Nathan both have climbing experience. We had a lot of fun and the exercise was a great way to refresh ourselves.

Monday, Dec. 10

From: Lance Ebel

We woke Monday morning to the hum of machinery from across the road, a sound that would soon slip from our consciousness due to its constant presence. Marjie, Nathan and I all spent the night in our tents—the first time we’ve used them this season. Tim was sprawled in the back of the van.

We met up with Guy Patout, the technician who runs the “compound,” which is really a humble field house surrounded by an eight-foot steel fence. We looked over a collection of boats for traveling the Atchafalaya River and chose a flat-bottomed, steel-welded aluminum craft with a 25 horse-power, two-stroke engine.

Guy also showed us his extensive collection of bug poisons. After we questioned their necessity, Guy released several “bug bombs” into the attic and an avalanche of red wasps poured out and buzzed around the compound as we sat wide-eyed in the van. We took off for Morgan City where we washed our clothes and bought supplies. We returned later to inspect the aftermath of the bug war, and made plans for the next day.

December 9

From: Nathan Banfield

On Sunday, December 9, we packed up and headed out to Louisiana and the Atchafalaya River. On the way we stopped and had some wonderful pizza in Lafayette since the Thai restaurant I am familiar with was closed that day. We pulled into the Attakapas Wildlife Management Area headquarters late that evening—we’ll be based here for the next month.

November 28

From: Nathan Banfield

We finally hit the road late Wednesday morning for the start of our journey. We are changing things up a bit this year, starting in Texas and working east. Our first stop took us to Little Sandy National Wildlife Refuge north of Tyler, Texas. The refuge has restricted access and is also part of a hunt club. We were informed of this area through Jim Neal and Cliff Shackelford with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That evening Jim led us into the middle of nowhere to a secret Mexican restaurant that he loves, where we discussed Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, Little Sandy NWR, and other habitat in Texas.

Texas bottomland forest. Photo by Nathan Banfield

The next morning we headed out to spend our first day in the woods. Woodpecker activity started up and we saw Red-bellied, Downy, Red-headed, and Pileated woodpeckers, Northern Flicker, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker within 10 minutes.

I was really impressed with the habitat at Little Sandy. It reminded me a lot of Bayou Cocodrie National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana. Both areas are relatively small and I wish there was more of that kind of habitat. There are lots of large oaks and sweetgums. Many trees are above 100 cm diameter at breast height. We don’t find bald cypress anywhere in the refuge, but there are several scattered areas that contain large green ash. What is really impressive about the area is the amount of standing dead wood. The structure of the forest resembled that of a virgin mature forest. The openings in the canopy give sunlight to the forest floor, allowing the regeneration of the oaks, sweetgum, and ash. The woodpecker densities are high. The Red-headed Woodpeckers love the abundance of oak acorns. This is one species we didn’t see a lot of in the bottomland forests last year, so it is a treat seeing them in such high numbers. Cliff and Jim were very helpful in showing us around and taking us to see some of the larger trees in the area. Highlight birds of the day were a few Purple Finches and a couple of Rusty Blackbirds.

That evening we drove down to the Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge, northeast of Houston, where we met with John Arvin who helped us during last year’s search in Texas. The area was easier to get around in than the Big Thicket area we visited last year since it does not have the same heavy hurricane damage.

I spent the next day traveling around with John, seeing access points to several areas while Marjie, Tim, and Lance headed out on their own in the northern end of the Trinity River near Highway 787. They ended up finding some really nice scaling in the crown of an oak. Several days later, while Lance was watching the tree, he saw a Pileated Woodpecker come in and start scaling and working on the tree. He observed it using strong lateral blows from side to side, scaling off large pieces of bark.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck. Photo by Nathan Banfield

Marjie and Tim spent a day scouting out an area near Highway 105 and found some decent habitat. Tim had a big bird day in the area because of the diverse habitat. He came across Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Tricolored Heron, White Ibis, Snowy Egret, Anhinga, Sedge Wren, Woodcock, Eastern Screech-Owl, Wilson’s Warbler, Osprey, Bald Eagle, and American Pipit, to name a few. The next day Lance saw several coyotes and one came within six feet.

The next day Lance and I searched through some marginal habitat southwest of Marjie and Tim in an area near where I believe the last Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were collected in Texas. Lance and I scouted a couple days later through other areas of the refuge to see what kind of habitat we could find. We spent our evening in an area close to the river that had patches of nice trees mixed in. The next day we all spent the day in this same area. I saw an Empidonax flycatcher that I could not confidently identify. I also came across a small pond that was loaded with Gadwall, American Wigeon, Wood Duck, and a few Mallards.

On our last day in the field in Texas, we went down to the southern part of the Trinity River NWR complex but were unable to go out because of duck hunting going on in the woods. We spotted a Wood Stork and several Neotropic Cormorants. Overall the habitat was reasonably good throughout the Trinity River but was somewhat fragmented. The amount of dead wood varied, but no single area had an extensive amount.

November 25

From: Nathan Banfield

I arrived in Arkansas at the Robinson House on November 25 with a green van from Cornell. I was very excited to have a green van this time versus the bright red one the mobile search team used last year—hopefully it will keep us a little more camouflaged. I spent the evening talking with Marty Piorkowski (one of the project coordinators from the Lab) and getting things ready for the upcoming search.

On Monday, November 26, my friends for the next five months would be showing up. What was the new season to bring? Last year’s mobile search team forged great relationships. I consider Chris (McCafferty), Martjan (Lammertink), and Utami (Setiorini) very good friends. I will miss them deeply this year on the search! But now I will get to enjoy three new friends for five months of nonstop togetherness. I’m looking forward to seeing what kinds of adventures and wildlife will head our way.

Mobile search team (L-R): Nathan Banfield, Marjorie MacIntosh, Tim Baerwald, and Lance Ebel.

I picked up Marjorie MacIntosh at the airport and we spent the rest of the day walking in Memphis, waiting for Lance Ebel’s plane to arrive. It ended up being delayed until after 10:00 at night. The three of us arrived at the Robinson House near Cotton Plant, Arkansas, after midnight. Team member Tim Baerwald had already arrived after driving straight down from Michigan. I met Tim as a volunteer in Congaree National Park in South Carolina last spring and was impressed with his birding skills. We decided he would be a good fit on the mobile search team even though it may be a challenge getting him to like anything other than SpaghettiOs!

We all spent the next day organizing and packing up the van and the same Jeep Wrangler we had last year. We are going to bring four canoes along for the ride this year, especially since Martjan and Utami are going to stop by for a couple of weeks in January. They are also planning to bring Palung, their first child, who was born September 22.