~ Featuring Matthew the 'Twig' Largess, Arborist, and Grace 'Sunshine' Lentini, Naturalist ~
We flew out of Providence, RI to Tampa, FL on Wednesday Feb. 24th. Thursday morning we awoke to cool weather in the 40's, which is cool weather for central Florida, and headed to Clearwater Beach to adjust to our new environment and plan our upcoming search. Grace was photographing seabirds and seashells, she is an amazing photographer, extremely intelligent, and an expert birder. The Twig's return to Florida was emotional and full of gratitude. Later that afternoon Twig and Sunshine headed inland to Winter Haven, FL as their base camp, arriving late at night on the 25th. Friday morning the 26th, Twig and Sunshine headed to Green Swamp Wilderness in Polk County in search of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker. This forest had a population of Ivory Billed up until the 1930s before they were shot and collected as the virgin forest was logged. The gate at the front entrance was locked so we ended up hiking in the southern part of the trac to get a feel of the environment. The forest had a Cypress stand but it was too small for the Ivory Billed and it wasn't a very good habitat for existing birds. It is a beautiful area. We were both amazed at central Florida's beautiful scenery and gorgeous lakes. We also cited Sandhill Cranes and heard the cry of many red shouldered hawks. We then headed south to Frostproof, FL to the Arbuckle Lake Wilderness. We went south on rt. 27 and ended up going through a 50,000 acre orange grove, towards the Arbuckle Lake.
We ended up interviewing locals of the bird, any sightings of the bird and ended up on a campground on the Arbuckle creek that was full of backwoods hunters and fisherman that knew a lot about the region. I hired a backwoods guy named David and his boat for the next day. He's a retired Green Beret and his flat bottom guide boat was perfect for our upcoming search. Saturday the 27th we awoke to temperatures in the mid-30's, extremely cold weather for this region. We met our guide David and headed south down Arbuckle Creek. It was like a trip back into Jurassic Park - the forest was the greatest old growth i had ever seen - I was shocked and amazed - thousand year old cypress trees, teeming with all kinds of life. The boat was great for birding - a lot of room and chairs for all of us. David had some great tales about his years in the military, a veteran of many wars in the back line. He was a character out of war movie, and had the weapons and know how to prove it. The creek has extensive old growth forest on either side, and is connected to 160,000 acres, next to a military bombing range and a high security prison. Most locals in Florida didn't even know of the area. The lake has very few houses on it and the creek is wilderness beyond belief. Here it was where Gracie saw 'the bird' coming from the bow of the boat. It had strong wing beats, it was black and white, it cut through the forest along the side of the boat and did a bank turn and flew about 15 feet above the stern of the boat. I got a great clear view of the bird. It was black with a lot of white, but no red at all on the crest. After the sighting I interviewed David and was amazed that he said he saw the top hat, which ivory billed experts know as the crest, and it was black. the bird was only 10 inches long and looked very young. I'm glad Gracie was there, because she was so cool and collected, and kept everything in perspective. This sighting was unexpected and a moment I will never forget.
Was this a juvenile Ivory Billed Woodpecker? We are now working with Ornithologists with descriptions of this sighting to rule out any other possibility of another. But twig, sunshine and Rambo, all have agreed that the bird was a woodpecker, black and white with no red, had strong direct flight and was something that none of us had ever seen in the wild. If this sighting is of a young ivory billed, it means that there is a viable population. We spent the rest of the day on the river into the late night, it got so dark you couldn't spot your hand in front of your face. David had a headlamp and saved the day. This was one of the greatest days of my life. I was sad and it was hard to leave this holy forest. Grace was such a great partner and team member on this trip. to me it was ivory billed that we saw, to her it could have been anything, and she wants to further investigate.
On the 28th, the temperatures were in the 40's and we headed back to hike in the Wales Ridge State Forest, which connects to Arbuckle wilderness. It stands at 80ft elevation, one of the high spots of southern Florida. This pine forest reminded me of the pitch pine barrens in Cape Cod. It is very closely connected to the bottomland of Arbuckle creek. the original forest of Florida had more ivory billed than any other place on earth, and this region had the greatest population at one time. this rare woodpecker species, the largest in North America, exclusively nested in old growth bald cypress swamp trees and fed in the pine forest during the day. This habitat is unchanged for generations.
Sunday afternoon we went back to the area of the sighting and spent hours waiting for the bird's possible return. The Twig ventured off the boat to the swamp forest towards cypress trees, which had a giant nest hole, 2/3 up the canopy. It was near the area the bird emerged from. This has to be one of the oldest cypress trees in the world. This tree surely predates any non-Indigenous people on the continent. This area is now top-secret scientific search study area. Had a meeting with Rambo and his troops, and they are not only arming themselves with weapons but also now with cameras. I predict the rediscover of the ivory billed in this region and feel that this area needs to be studied further in the upcoming days and weeks ahead. That night, Rambo had given us all headlamps, and we headed down the creek I could not believe how many green spider eyes there were, red eyes of the alligator, white eyes of the wild boards and white tailed deer. Ancient forests have so much more light than logged areas do. Twig and Sunshine had strong emotions of leaving the area. This trip was life changing and spiritual. Trees are cool and so are all of you. Ivory Billed Woodpeckers forever.