04 April 2014

Louisiana

The rest of my break in Louisiana was quite hectic. Caroline worked, and I tried to keep up on school work that felt so distant. We continued to go walking around town quite a bit, and just enjoyed our time together. My friend Kevin, one of the few people I've kept up with since High School, drove over from Houston to spend time with us as he had never experienced Louisiana before. So, we took him to one of my favorite places: Boy Scout Road in Big Branch National Wildlife Refuge.

Big Branch National Wildlife Refuge

The Longleaf Pine-Freshwater Marsh ecotone in Big Branch is one of the most unique forests one can bird in. It is strange watching "Myrtle" Yellow-rumped Warblers and Pine Warblers forage in the trees while you are flushing Sedge Wrens from beneath the boardwalk and listening to the agitated calls of a King Rail. We continued on, pushing towards Lake Pontchartrain, but were unfortunately unable to view the distant city of New Orleans due to fog. On our walk back however, we were rewarded by amazing views at a close family group of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. These endangered birds are locally common in native (and properly burned) pine savanna, and the one bird most people come to Big Branch to see. Interestingly, the scientific name of this southeastern USA endemic is Picoides borealis - a name drawn from the forests far to the north. In the early days of ornithology, many localities were confused, and it was likely that this southern bird was accidentally labeled as being from the far north, and named after its 'habitat'.

Picoides borealis
Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are most easily identified by their broad white cheek patches and raucous, squeaky calls.

After exploring the swamp, we headed south to New Orleans and enjoyed the French Quarter for a few hours before Kevin had to return to Texas.

In all, it was a good trip, but time always seems to pass too quickly, and before I knew it, I was back in Kansas, trying to get back to work.

Gone Fishin'
A fishing spider eyes potential prey in Caroline's front yard.

29 March 2014

Mississippi

I could tell she was excited, but I could still hear the hesitation and fear in her voice. It quavered slightly as we discussed our plans, and a pang of pain went through my spine. Was I making her uncomfortable? Was I forcing her to do something she didn't want to do?

"I'm just a little scared," she explained as we looked at the map. "I've never been backpacking before."

I smiled, and told her I had tried to account for everything, but that what we were doing was going to be an adventure. Luckily for me, her desire to explore and to go camping overwhelmed her fears and hesitation, and it was not long before we were off to southern Mississippi.

Though not far from where I lived in Louisiana for so many years, Mississippi was a place I had seldom ventured. I had been just over the border to places such as Clark Creek and once to the Homochitto National Forest, but otherwise, it was just an area I ignored. Many areas of the state have poor birding coverage, with many 'blank spaces' on the eBird coverage maps, and some of Mississippi's counties are among the least birded in the country. As Caroline lives to close to Mississippi, I always enjoy traveling there, and when I discovered that one of the largest wilderness areas on the Gulf Coast was in the De Soto National Forest, it seemed obvious what we should do for the first part of our trip.

And so, not long after I arrived in Louisiana, I found myself departing to the east with Caroline, and we set off on our Mississippi adventure.

Our first stop was the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge. A bird that most people don't know, the critically endangered Mississippi Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis pulla) is largely restricted to two small patches of wet pine savanna in southeastern Mississippi. Needless to say, it was a bird I really wanted to see! However, luck was not with us during our visit. We had a great bird list, but crane was not on it. We did, however, enjoy a beautiful walk through the pines together. Caroline pointed out some carnivorous plants to me, and we walked amicably through the broad, open woodland listening to Brown-headed Nuthatches and Pine Warblers.

Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge
Wet pine savanna in Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge. This endangered ecosystem was once much more widespread along the gulf coast.

Sarracenia alata
A Pale Pitcherplant (Sarracenia alata) in the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge. These carnivorous plants are local but widespread in the American south.

After exploring the wildlife refuge, Caroline and I headed north into the heart of De Soto National Forest. There, we proceeded to enter Caroline's first ever roadless area: the Black Creek Wilderness.

Black Creek Wilderness

After crossing the Black Creek Wilderness boundary, we found ourselves in a fascinating mix of Longleaf Pine and deciduous trees. Northern Parulas sang from the dense Magnolias, and Carolina Chickadees called along the trail. There were several sections within the forest that had been damaged by Hurricane Katrina and the damage was still evident, and other areas where recent treefalls had blocked the trails. Thankfully, I had my machete with me, and was able to clear a new trail through the undergrowth.

We camped approximately 3 miles from the car within the forest, and were awoken the next morning by the sounds of spring. A very vocal and territorial Louisiana Waterthrush acted as our alarm clock, and a distant Prothonotary Warbler chimed in as well. As we hiked out, we enjoyed great views of a Swallow-tailed Kite as well. We plucked the occasional ticks off of our clothes, but, for the most part, it was near impossible to see Caroline without a smile.

We returned to the car and reloaded up our gear, and Caroline mentioned that she looked forward to backpacking again. I smiled, and realized it had been a very successful trip.

I'll cover the rest of my spring break in the south soon. To be continued!

Black Creek Wilderness, De Soto National Forest
The trail in Black Creek Wilderness, Mississippi.

20 March 2014

Equatorial Guinea: The Final Days

The last day we spent in Río Muni was spent at the namesake estuary in the far south of the country. The weaving brackish water forms the border between Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, and we were excited to see what sorts of birds we could turn up.

As the day progressed, however, we began to wonder if we were going to make it there at all. Our guide called us, apologetic, and stated that he was having trouble reaching our driver. When they did finally show up, we were two hours behind schedule. Though we had a nice laid back morning of porch birding, we were very excited about seeing more of the country. We wound our way south along the newly constructed roads, and eventually found ourselves in the port town of Cogo. Here, Obama negotiated on our behalf as we sought a way to enter the estuary. Birding in the town was surprisingly productive. A point blank Hamerkop flew along the shore, and flocks of African Green-Pigeons passed overhead. Most surprisingly, a lone Red-chested Swallow foraged over the downtown, providing one of the only records of this patchily distributed species for the country. Additionally, a Black Sawwing, a bird I had not seen since my days in South Africa, flew continuously back and forth from an island in the bay, making us believe that there was a nest nearby.

Eventually, we managed to secure a boat, and headed further out into the estuary, into a region known as Cuatro Ríos. Where four large headwaters come together, these placid waters glistened under the green hills, and the cool marine air made us feel at ease.

Gabon, as seen from Equatoguinean waters in the Río Muni Estuary.

From here, we drifted through the currents, and eventually found ourselves along a fantastic mudbank. Hamerkop, Marsh Sandpipers, Woolly-necked Storks and Pink-backed Pelicans kept us enthralled, and such gems as Giant Kingfisher, African Royal Tern and Palm-nut Vultures kept our eyes glancing skyward. We became so distracted that we did not realize that we had, in fact, drifted into Gabon! Upon realizing our error, we returned back Cogo along the shore, and from there headed back to Bata for our return to Bioko.

A Hamerkop (Scopus umbretta) resting along the Río Muni in northern Gabon.

A Palm-nut Vulture (Gypohierax angolensis) checks out our boat as we drift too close in northern Gabon.

Woodland Kingfishers (Halcyon senegalensis) were abundant throughout the country, and commonly nested in towns. This individual, however, was photographed in Altos del Nsork.

The next day, we headed up the highest mountain in Equatorial Guinea: Pico Basile. As we wound our way up the mountain, I reflected on everything that had occurred during my trip. It was incredible how much I had recovered from my illness, and birds that were once completely foreign to me were suddenly familiar. We finally stopped approximately two-thirds of the way up the mountain as our driver was scared of continuing higher, saying that the bus might not be able to handle the drive. So we began to walk around and enjoy the sights, and soon found ourselves enjoying some of the best birding we had had the entire trip. Babbling Evergreen-forest Warblers skulked in the brush, bizarre Green Longtails sang from the vines, and one of the only Willow Warblers ever seen in the country made a brief appearance along the road. We stopped and watched a male Klaas's Cuckoo surveying the mountainside, listened to the raucous calls of the Great Blue Turacos echoing through the trees.

The confusingly named Dusky Flycatcher (or alternatively, Dusky-brown or African Dusky Flycatcher, Muscicapa adusta) is a familiar bird from southern Africa. However, a very disjunct population resides in the Cameroonian highlands and on Bioko. This individual foraged actively along the road and afforded excellent views for us to study it.

Just a few hours later, I sat on the plane, and watched the Equatoguinean coast disappear below me. We all smiled, discussed the best parts of our trip, and slept as much as we could. Our pilot expedition had worked out fantastically well, and we knew enough to plan for a full-scale expedition. I am happy to say that, come November, I will be returning to Equatorial Guinea on a National Geographic-funded expedition, and will be able to unravel more of the ornithological mysteries in this fascinating country.