Quest for the Lord God Peckerwood (Part 1)

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It’s a sunny afternoon on the day after Thanksgiving, and we’re driving deep into the Arkansas Big Woods on a quest for the largest and most elusive woodpecker north of the Rio Grande, known to locals as the Lord God Bird, and no doubt to the few birders who have spotted it here as the Holy F***ing Shit Bird: the ivory-billed woodpecker. In other words, we are combing the puckerbrush for peckerwoods.

At the wheel is my brother Mark, who teaches geography across the river in Mississippi and thus can sometimes be counted upon to get us where we want to go. Also with us are my sister-in-law Luz, an artist with a sharp eye and an imagination to match, and my nine-year-old niece Eva, whose enthusiasm for nature is infectious albeit occasionally deafening. We got off to a late start this morning, due to the lingering effects of the previous day’s over-indulgence. And we’ve just spent a couple hours at the very educational and family-friendly visitor center of the White River National Wildlife Refuge, which includes a display on the ivorybill courtesy of the Big Woods Partnership.

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We followed a new trail still under construction below the visitor center through an impressive stand of very large oaks and tupelos down to the banks of the White River. I was especially struck by the thick understorey vegetation, which included many white oak saplings. In Pennsylvania, white oak regeneration has declined drastically over the last century, apparently as a result of fire suppression as well as from overbrowsing by deer. According to the signboards along another nearby trail, the area hasn’t been wildlife refuge land for too many decades, and I wondered if the forest composition doesn’t reflect a culture of burning among the much-maligned peckerwoods – the people, not the birds. According to the Wikipedia, peckerwood

is used as a pejorative term and was coined in the 19th century by southern blacks to describe poor whites (white trash). Blacks saw blackbirds as a symbol of themselves and the contrasting redheaded woodpecker as a representation of whites. They considered them loud and troublesome like the bird, and often with red hair like the woodpecker’s head plumes. This word is still widely used by southern blacks to refer to southern whites.

In 1979, the USDA’s Southern Forest Experiment Station in New Orleans published Southern Woods-Burners: A Descriptive Analysis, which characterized “veteran woods burners” as a “disadvantaged culture group with antisocial tendencies.” The authors found that some 40 percent of the 60,000 wildfires that occur throughout the South every year are intentionally set. But regardless of what Smokey the Bear would have you believe, frequent, low-intensity ground fires can help perpetuate the more fire-resistant oaks (or, farther south, longleaf pine savannas) while helping to provide the standing dead trees that are so essential to a balanced forest ecology – especially one that includes large woodpeckers. In the wet forests along the fringes of the swamps, I imagine that flooding, whether by beavers or otherwise, is the major killer of trees. But on Saturday we would see some undeniable evidence of the importance of burning to local woodpecker biodiversity.

The afternoon sun is already sinking into the treetops as we wind our way south through a maze of gravel roads. Mark spots the flaming red crest of a woodpecker in the trees off to our left and slams on the brakes, but it turns out to be a pileated – a bird we are both quite familiar with because it’s common on the family farm back in Pennsylvania. “That’s O.K., I can still use a good pileated photo for the blog,” I say, but it takes off before he can even roll his window down. We stop instead at one of the numerous camping areas that line the road and spend a few minutes admiring the bald cypress trees before resuming our journey.

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When we reach the end of the road, we feel as if we are indeed deep in the wilderness. There’s one other vehicle in the parking lot, an old pickup. It’s still hunting season here, and the trails are open to hunters with ATVs. But by the middle of December, those trails will be closed to all motor vehicles, and then the ivorybill searchers will have the 160,000 acres of the refuge pretty much to themselves.

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It’s very quiet. I am reminded of a line from the Delta bluesman Big Joe Williams – “a thousand miles from nowhere.” In fact, this area on the west side of the main stem of the Mississippi is culturally and geographically part of the inland delta – locals refer to it equally as the Delta on both sides – with the difference that a much larger proportion of it is still wooded. The timber crews came through early in the last century, but much of the area was never clearcut, simply high-graded, and some stands of cypress in the deepest part of the swamps were ignored altogether. As readers of my earlier post “Learning from the ivorybill” will understand, it’s these big trees that I am mostly here to see; I have few illusions that I will be lucky enough to actually see an ivorybill. This also constitutes a logical extension of my Delta Blues pilgrimage. Like levee camps, lumber camps were important as places where musicians from all over met and mingled, trading songs and techniques and helping to spread the blues across the South in the decades before the “race record” industry got underway.

The White River Refuge was established to protect migratory waterfowl at the point of their greatest concentration in North America, so perhaps it isn’t too surprising that a presumably small population of resident ivory-billed woodpeckers were overlooked. As the decades went by, the impact of hunting- and fishing-related tourism became more and more important to the local economy. In the 1980s, the wealthy planters of Mississippi wanted to build a bridge across the river to carry their cotton west into Texas, but they were stopped by popular opposition, which focused on the need to protect wildlife habitat and the wilderness character of the White River refuge. And it was Governor Bill Clinton himself – a peckerwood if there ever was one – who pushed for the reinvention of Arkansas as “the natural state,” Mark tells me. Last year, when ornithologists announced the rediscovery of the ivorybill here, it was a vindication of that vision. Though the best sightings have been a little farther north, in the more accessible area we’ll be visiting tomorrow, the White River refuge and adjacent woodlands have yielded the best sound recordings of ivorybill calls from the autonomous recording units (ARUs) that have been posted here.

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It’s been very dry for the last few months; we find it easy walking along the fringes of the bayou. In contrast to last season, when the water was high, this year, the ivorybill searchers are probably having a hard time finding a place to put in a canoe. The cold is keeping mosquitoes and cottonmouths at bay, though I had kind of hoped to see the latter. Mark wants to leave time to drive out before dark, a concern which is also a limiting factor on how well the refuge can be canvassed for ivorybills, who are most active in the hour or two before dusk, according to Tim Gallagher (see my review of his book The Grail Bird here).

So we only have time for a brief walk, but in that time we find several hollow logs and trees and a wonderfully grotesque snag – more evidence of why this is such great wildlife habitat. Black bears, who like nothing better than to den in hollow trees, are common here, whereas they only show up in Mississippi on rare occasions when one swims across the river. There are also persistent reports of mountain lion sightings. Luz looks on a little apprehensively as her daughter pushes her way into every homey-looking cavity she can find. We listen in vain for a double knock or the tooting of a child’s tin horn.

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To be continued. The second, fourth and sixth photos are by my brother Mark.

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