Time in the Pines

Seriously, how has it been 11 days since the last post?! A weekly update is starting to seem unmanageable, but we promise we are thinking about you all constantly.

Since we last updated you about our progress, we finished our work in the Piney Woods region of Louisiana, saw a lot of great birds, and learned a little bit about southern culture and environmental inequality.

First things first, what are the Piney Woods? Well, they are a series of forests that are largely comprised of Longleaf pines with some Loblolly pines mixed in, and a sparse to dense undergrowth of grasses and deciduous shrubs and trees. When these forests are healthy, the undergrowth is minimal and honestly looks like a beautiful park-like setting. When they are not healthy, the undergrowth crowds out young pines and the forest begins to transition towards deciduous forest.

The health of these forests were largely maintained by seasonal wildfires ignited by lightning strikes. These fires would kill most of the undergrowth, leaving behind young fire-resistant pines, as well as mostly grasses and small shrubs to accompany the >80ft tall pine trees. However, a long history of fire suppression has allowed many of these forests to become unhealthy.

The bird community varies quite a bit between healthy and unhealthy pine forests. In the unhealthy forests, we heard Yellow-breasted Chats, Wood Thrushes, White-eyed Vireos, Northern Cardinals, and Carolina Wrens. Great birds, but more characteristic of deciduous forests and not really species that rely on Piney Woods. In healthy Piney Woods, we saw some vireos, cardinals, and wrens, but we were mostly treated to Pine, Prairie, and Kentucky Warblers, Brown-headed Nuthatches, Northern Bobwhite, the federally endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, and plenty of our focal species, the Bachman’s Sparrow. This bird community is very unique to the Piney Woods and treated us to plenty of awesome photo opportunities and beautiful dawn choruses!

Getting to experience what we did has become somewhat difficult. Over the last century or so, urban sprawl, the timber industry, and fire suppression has left behind roughly 3% of true, intact Piney Woods. With this, many of the species who rely on this habitat are also of conservation concern. The last remaining, healthy intact forests are almost all protected in state and national forests/parks. We encourage you to get out and visit them!

In nearby Alexandria, we visited communities that have felt the impacts of the logging of Piney Woods, but in a different way. Local creosoting plants which treat lumber to protect it from rotting, have introduced toxic chemicals into the environment, sickening neighbors and even forcing the closure of a local elementary school.

However, after speaking to several community members, many in the community aren’t sure who to blame and some go so far as to outright deny these claims, though sometimes not without a little financial incentive. It’s quite a complex situation that may never be fully untangled or rectified.

The parish that we visited is also one of the poorest in the state and does not pay for garbage pickup. Because most residents can’t afford this, many burn their trash in their yard, while others choose to pile it up on their property. This seems to be the biggest concern of citizens and has prevented many from continuing to fish and/or swim in local fishing/swimming holes, while also creating or aggravating underlying health conditions.

However, we also heard encouraging stories and met beautiful people. Complete strangers welcomed us onto their porches to tell us stories of growing up wild, running through fields of grass, wading through streams, camping with family, and watching birds in their yards. One woman we met, who never learned to read or write, captured her life in a series of scenes she’s drawn over the last 60 years. These drawings paint a vivid image of her life and her connection to the outdoors. She has since published these works in a book.

Currently we’ve made our way out of Louisiana and are stationed in the bottomland forest ecosystem. These forests are simply unreal! Think flooded woods of Cypress and Tupelo (a.k.a. swamps), woodpeckers everywhere (maybe even the elusive ‘Lord God Bird’), and of course, our focal species, the golden swamp bird.

We look to update you soon with stories of this new ecosystem and the birds and people we meet along the way!