By Bruce Beehler
May 5, 2015 Blog #13 of my North with the Spring journey:
After my second visit to Texas’s High Island and the Bolivar Peninsula, I headed back to Louisiana to the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge. This is where Cornell’s James Tanner studied a population of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the late 1930s, and I wanted to visit the McGill Bend of the Tensas (pronounced “Ten-saw”), a 7,000-acre tract of mature bottomland forest. This time I would be there during peak migration.
Accompanied by the refuge forester, we made our way there on an all-terrain vehicle—quite an experience for me, plowing through deep mud and thigh-deep blackwater into what is probably one of the wildest forest patches in the the South. Although dominated by oaks — overcup, cherrybark, water, nuttall, and willow — the forest also has many other types of trees, including American and cedarbark elm; sweet gum; green ash; sassafras; hackberry; honey and black locust; and persimmon.
Birdsong came from every direction—Pileated Woodpecker; Prothonotary, Swainson, and Kentucky Warbler; Summer Tanager; Great Crested Flycatcher; Carolina Wren; Tufted Titmouse; and many others.
Back in the Bottoms
Mature bottomland forest has been significantly reduced in the lower Mississippi over the past 150 years. The last of the virgin stands were cut in the late 1930s. Good bottomland forest is probably less than 1 percent of its original extent—having been replaced by rows of milo, rice, cotton, and other crops. To spend a whole morning in this huge tract of big forest took me back in time.
Pine Capital of Arkansas
About two hours north of Tensas lies Crossett, Arkansas. I visited Crossett to do some environmental education work in partnership with my corporate sponsor, Georgia-Pacific. I saw flooded bottoms with cypress, upland stands of pine, and everything in between — including a loblolly pine 62 inches in diameter and more than 130 feet tall. There are not many trees like that left in Arkansas!
Much of the landscape in Crossett is planted pine monoculture to feed the Georgia-Pacific mill that makes paper products. It’s a very distinct landscape from what I encountered at Tensas.
Little Woodpecker of the Pines
Just west of Crossett, where the Saline and Ouachita Rivers pass through the landscape, the bottoms are flooded in spring. High waters inundated part of my campground and many of the roads of my next destination, Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge.
I came to spend time with a colony of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. The woodpeckers are scattered through the old pine savannas of the refuge, which manages its pine stands for the birds through periodic burns of the understory to keep the forest open.
This sort of habitat management is common for a wide range of rare species, including the little Red-cockaded, a habitat specialist listed as near-threatened. But there is hope: Thanks to fire management across the woodpecker’s range, its prospects are brightening.
Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.