McCurtain County Wilderness:
It's "a real trip"!!
(c) copyrighted by Cyndie Browning 2003

     Last Sunday afternoon (Feb 2nd), six other OK-birders and I followed
Dave Arbour in caravan from the McDonalds in Broken Bow to the McCurtain Co. Wilderness Area in extreme southeastern Oklahoma.  Our quarry was the only population of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers in Oklahoma.  If you read Dave's post on OKbirds last Sunday night, then you already know we found the birds.  But if you haven't been there yourself, then you don't know the pleasures that await you on this very special field trip.

     Believe me, it's "
a real trip"!!

     When we first met Dave at McDonalds, my friend
Brenda Carroll asked him how much walking there'd be.  Dave explained that there wouldn't be much walking; in fact, we'd be riding most of the way.  First, we'd drive some 20 miles north of Hwy. 259, turn east at the sign pointing toward the Wilderness area, then drive another 15-20 miles of dirt road to the lakeshore where our guide for the afternoon, Brandon Brown, would ferry us across the lake on a pontoon boat, and from there, we'd board a pick-up truck with benches in the truck bed where we'd sit during the entire tour.  "Ridin' in the lap o' luxury."

     Yeah, right!! and if you believe that, there's this big orange bridge in California for sale.... cheap!

     The drive to our rendezvous with the pontoon boat seemed to take an hour or more, the last half of it in the eye of a swirling dust cloud thrown up by Dave's 4-WD vehicle running ahead of us on the dirt road.  Upon boarding the pontoon boat, we found 2 rustic-looking benches on the deck.  They reminded me of those X-legged benches you find in picnic table sets for your patio, only these had padded backs on 'em, the padding only "a little" torn up.  There was one bench on each side of the boat and only gravity held them in place.  I had just sat down very tentatively on a bench so as not to tip it over backward and toss myself in the drink when Brandon suggested that we all come to the stern (where he sat, piloting the boat) so the bow would rise up off of the muddy shore and he could then back away from the bank.  Actually, we had to move around quite a bit to balance the boat and shake it loose from the mud, because with all of our weight in the stern, the prop was only diggin' a hole in the muddy bottom and we weren't goin' anywhere.  Eventually, tho', we got the weight balanced and the boat backed up, then idled our way across the lake to the opposite shore.  The smoothest, easiest ride of the whole trip.  We also watched a
Bald Eagle soaring overhead during our crossing.

     Upon landing on the opposite bank, Brandon left us for a few minutes and returned backing a big ol' American-made pickup truck down the hill toward the lakeshore.  He and some o' the men carried both benches off the boat and loaded 'em into the truck bed, one on each side---facing each other, in other words---and then clamped 'em in place in an apparent attempt to minimize their movement (and ours!) during the ride.  Clearly, the idea was that the invited guests (that would be us) would ride "in style" in the back of the truck, seated on these benches.  So we clambered up into the truck bed, arranged ourselves on the benches, and hoped for the best.

     First of all, there wasn't much to hang onto.  For the most part, I wrapped one arm around the back of the bench.  Second, our butts were lined up on those benches at the height of the sides of the truck bed, which means our heads were sitting higher than the roof of the cab.  Before getting in the truck, Brandon warned that we "might want to watch out for low-hanging tree branches" even tho' he tries to avoid 'em (yeah, right.... now, about that big orange bridge!!).  The first couple of branches wapped a few of us pretty good but by the end of the tour, we'd figured it out so that whenever one of us would see a low-hanging branch ahead, we'd holler "Tree!" and everyone would bend forward into the airplane-crash posture so as to avoid being knocked in the head by tree branches.  Before too long, the 7 "invited guests" who had been strangers to each other when they'd first climbed aboard the truck, were bonking our heads together in companionable good humor as we ducked to miss tree branches, and bumping butts and grabbing each other's arms and knees in an effort to hang on as we rode over the bumpy road.  Y'see, that's the third thing:  this was NOT a paved road.  Instead, it was a dirt track about the width of the truck, cut with deep ruts from rainwater run-off, often tilting
toward the falling-off edge of the road (where there was NO guardrail!) instead of in toward the mountain, littered with boulders and tree trunks that Brandon plowed over as if they were mere speed-bumps.  (We all laughed later on when somebody noticed and pointed out the PikePass attached to the windshield.  Could this be the turnpike from hell??)  Brandon and Dave Arbour rode in relative comfort and safety(!!) in the cab o' the truck while we "invited guests" held our lives in our hands, literally, riding "in the lap o' luxury" in the back.

     Not to mention the power chainsaw that skittered around the floor of the truck bed as we bumped and heaved our way up the mountainside, threatening to take off a foot if it got up any momentum until I wedged it behind one of the 2x4's that braced the picnic benches in place.

     Not to mention that Brandon said he'd stop to look at birds wherever we wanted as long as we "banged on the roof of the cab" to indicate we wanted to stop.  We'd bang, he'd lurch the truck to a brake-squealing stop, the birds would fly.... well, suffice it to say, we didn't see very many birds that day. ~:-)

     Not to mention that Brandon seemed to have a talent for stopping the truck where the tailgate was as high off the ground as it could get (relative to the rest of the truck).  Have you ever tried to stand up on your dining room table by just stepping up onto it, with nothing to hang onto for leverage??  I tell ya, if it hadn't been for Bob Funston climbing up ahead of me and then giving me a hand-up, I might still be standing there on the trail, wonderin' where everybody went.

     We rode over a couple of creeks where the trailer hitch under the rear bumper ground into the rocks as Brandon gunned the truck's engine to get across the water.  We offered to get out and walk across but apparently Brandon didn't hear our pleas, and some of the men (who know about these things) began watching for oil slicks after we'd gained the other side of the creek, hoping the truck wouldn't break down and leave us to walk back down the mountain to the lakeshore where the pontoon boat (and relative safety) waited for us.  I recall Clara Muret remarking on our way up the mountain that with all the places she and her husband have paid to bird, she thought it wonderful that we could be guided into the Wilderness to see the Red-cockaded WP's "for free."  But before the end of the tour, we began wondering if Brandon takes us in for free, then charges if we want to be led out again. [hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha

     But once we arrived on top of the mountain where the Red-cockaded WPs were, we began enjoying ourselves.  The slight wind rushing through the treetops over our heads provided a heavenly-music backdrop to the lush and beautiful forest scenery.  We stopped at the first "cluster" of trees regularly inhabited by the woodpeckers and Brandon began explaining the lives of the birds to us.  For the most part, they only nest in short-leaved pines that are at least 70 years old.  As I understand it, at about that age, the trees begin to show the effects of something called "red heart disease" which softens or decays the core of the trees to a point where the birds have an easier time chiseling out their nestholes.  As Brandon said, "if you were going to chisel a hole into a tree with your nose, wouldn't you want a softer tree?"  The McCurtain County Wilderness Area contains some of the oldest trees in all the wooded areas of Oklahoma, some of them several hundred years old, and it's the last place in the state where sizable stands of short-leaved pines provide Red-cockaded WPs with suitable habitat.  It's also the farthest northwest range of the woodpeckers.

     Brandon explained that the Wilderness Area is under a lot of pressure from the logging companies in surrounding SE Oklahoma, NE Texas, NW Louisiana, and SW Arkansas because it holds onto these very old trees and won't let the loggers in to harvest them or the hardwoods that grow in among 'em.  He also explained how fire and cutting down trees manages to keep this old forest fairly stable, not only for the woodpeckers, but also for deer and all the other critters who live there.  In places where fire is not allowed to clean out the underbrush, hardwood trees tend to move in, setting their seed quicker and growing taller, shutting out the sun from the ground, eventually choking out all the grasses and the pine seedlings so that the ground between the trees is bare and offers no food for any woodland creatures.  By cutting down the hardwoods and burning the underbrush on a 4-year cycle, grasses soon cover the ground, offering grazing for grazing animals and also clearing the space between the pines for the woodpeckers to fly.  We clearly saw the difference between the areas where controlled burns have opened up the forest floor to grasses and removed the tangled underbrush, and the areas where the oaks, etc. are choking out the sunlight.  Nothing grows on the ground there but more oak trees.

     As for the birds themselves, there are 10 "clusters" of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers in the Wilderness Area.  There have been a few more clusters in the past but the count seems more-or-less steady at 10.  Each "cluster" (or "clan," as Sibley calls them) is composed of 2 mated adults plus 1-3 other younger birds who do not mate.  Therefore, there are---at most---only about 50 Red-cockaded Woodpeckers in Oklahoma.  (Brandon calls them "RCWs" and for the sake of brevity, so will I.)  And things aren't looking up for those numbers to increase, either.  Altho' there's plenty of suitable RCW habitat in the Wilderness, some of it created by the ODWC in its forest management system, each of the presumed 10 nests produces---on average---only 1 healthy fledgling out of the 4 eggs laid.  In part, they believe the hatching rate is so low because the population is ingrown; with RCW populations so far flung across the southeastern United States, the gene pool in each forest is dwindling and consequently the healthy birth rate is dropping.  There's no way for, say, healthy adult birds from Sam Houston Nat'l Forest in Texas to get to Oklahoma naturally, to interbreed with the Oklahoma population, and thereby introduce new genetic bloodlines into the Oklahoma birds.  And if one of the mated birds dies, the other may stay around---especially if it's female---and mate with another adult, but they know of one female who died a year ago where the male stayed for a little while and then left, permanently, leaving that "cluster" without a mated pair of RCWs.  Brandon also told us about one female bird they got recently from another forest, who stayed in the area where she was released and bred with one of the adult males.  She produced 4 eggs and all 4 hatchlings fledged!!  So much for the introduction of new bloodlines, eh?  However, because the RCWs are an endangered species in their entire range, and the various populations too far apart from each other to intermingle naturally, even those forests with larger populations than we have in Oklahoma are reluctant to send healthy adult RCWs from their own limited stock to Oklahoma's seemingly dwindling population, deeming it to be "throwing good money after bad."  And it's already been decided that the ODWC won't remove eggs from the RCW nests and artificially incubate them elsewhere, so it would appear that sooner or later, Oklahoma's population of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers will die out.  Brandon explained to us that, for the moment, anyway, they're providing the healthiest habitat they can to the birds who are already here and hoping for the best.  Meanwhile, they continue to manage the forest with fire and tree-cutting, to keep the whole forest healthy for ALL the creatures who inhabit it, not just the woodpeckers.

     Altho' the RCWs do chisel their own holes in trees, the ODWC helps them along by cutting square holes into the pines and inserting a bluebird nesting box in each hole, then filling in the cracks around the box so that a human can barely tell it's an "artificial" woodpecker nest, but the birds themselves don't seem to notice the difference at all. 
Pileated Woodpeckers are in the habit of taking over RCW nestsites and enlarging the holes to accommodate their larger size and thus appropriate the nest for their own use.  (It must work for them because we saw at least _4_ Pileateds that afternoon.)  Brandon showed us the upside-down U-shaped metal cups installed by the ODWC over the RCW nestholes to dissuade the Pileateds from trying to make the entry holes larger.  Another threat to the woodpeckers comes from small hawks such as the Amer. Kestrel we found perched on a bare oak near the one Red-cockaded cluster we visited.  Kestrels are not above raiding a nest to dine on the eggs or nestlings.  I noticed Brandon taking careful note of which tree that Kestrel was perched in that day so he could come back later in the week and cut it down.  He said when a Kestrel takes over a cluster "neighborhood" like the one we were in, the RCWs leave.

     We bumped around the forest for a couple hours, exploring the woods, the creek bed, and an old trapper's cabin built in the late 1880's, and then, when Branton asked, we unanimously decided to return to the one RCW cluster area where he knew the birds would return to bed down for the night as the sun began setting.  (Each clan leaves its nesting cluster of trees to feed elsewhere in the forest everyday; what's funny about that is, it's very likely that other clans come to the cluster where we were waiting, to feed in those trees while the clan that inhabits this cluster is away.  Brandon explained that this occasionally makes for territory squabbles in the woods, but at the same time there are also areas of the forest apparently designated by the birds as "no man's land," where more than one clan of birds may feed together without such territory squabbles.)  Each of us found a tree to lean up against and lounged on the ground, waiting, some dozing, some talking quietly, Brenda focusing her telephoto lens on a particular nesthole, hoping for a good photo when the birds arrived.  After about half-an-hour, Brandon said, "well, they oughta be here any minute," and very soon thereafter, 3-4 Red-cockaded Woodpeckers announced their arrival with a call that sounded to me like short, vehement blasts on police whistles.  I had teased the others on our way up the mountain that this trip was bound to be 2 hours of getting there following by 30 minutes of frenzied birding.... and I wasn't far wrong.  Suddenly, the air seemed to be filled with RCWs.  Well, no, not really---but when 3-4 o' those little guys (larger than a Downy WP, smaller than a Hairy) arrive with all that racket and begin flitting about in some kind of a "thank-god-we're-home-for-the-night" excitement, it feels like an "air-ful" of woodpeckers.  Brandon suggested that some of them would feed at one tree or another until they felt it was safe to enter their nests for the night, and a few of us moved around to the other sides of trees, hoping to see the birds in their nestholes.  Some tried to capture the birds on camera, altho' I remember Wally Whaling saying that what he really needed to get a good picture in the rapidly fading sunlight, was the 8" lens he'd left at home.  And finally, after about 20-30 minutes. Brandon called everyone back to the truck and we left the birds in peace.

     On our way back down the mountain, we came upon a herd of some 2 dozen feral hogs, with 10 or so little "pig puppies" in among 'em.  Nothin' cuter than naked baby pig butts, altho' I wouldn't want to tangle with any of those mature adults.  Tusks this long, y'know?

     Anyway, it was "a trip!!" in the truest sense of the word, and I enjoyed it.  Our trip-birds included
Bald Eagle, Turkey Vulture, Amer. Kestrel, Double-crested Cormorant, No. Flicker, Downy and Pileated WPs, E. Bluebird, Amer. Robin, White-breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Wren, and 3-4 Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.

     By the way, if you get lucky enough to reserve yourself a spot on one of Dave and Brandon's RCW trips, be sure to allow yourself an extra 30 minutes or so to visit the Broken Bow City Park.  On Hwy 259 through Broken Bow, at the next traffic light with the Sonic on the SE corner, turn left (east) at the light and follow the road around thru the right-angle turn where you'll find the park nestled behind athletic fields and a church.  A lovely little lake and concrete picnic tables and benches scattered around, it's a very pleasant area to eat your lunch.  In just half-an-hour, I got _18_ species of birds there, including Fish Crow,
Brown-headed Nuthatch, Pine Warbler, and singing House Finches, all yearbirds.
February 9, 2003
Thought you'd like to see what
Red-cockaded Woodpecker habitat looks like, a-way up in the Wilderness.  Brandon stands in the center of this picture (with
his back to me, wearing a red cap), explaining the life of RCW's to my friend Brenda Carroll and the rest of us.  Notice the broad silver metal band around the
tree just to the right of Brandon's head.  That metal band marks a tree which is
now or has been an active nesting tree.
It also helps deter snakes and other critters from climbing the tree and disturbing the nest(s).