Sandhill Cranes and Pitcher Plants
Several days ago I had occasion to be discussing with a fellow Mississippian the lingering effects of Hurricane Katrina. The conversation drifted off to the Pascagoula River Basin as opposed to the Pearl River Basin: the Pearl River being hard against Louisiana to the west and the Pascagoula east, next to Alabama. Both empty much of Mississippi’s rainfall directly into the Gulf of Mexico. The bayous and swamps and pine savannas push far inland astride both rivers.
I first saw a Mississippi Sandhill in the late ’60’s. A brother-in-law and I were taking the ski boat up to the Poticaw Landing boat dock to get it into the water before the rest of the family got there. The giant bird almost exploded from underneath my feet. “What the hell is that?!” I must have said. I heard my brother-in-law laughing at me from the boat ramp. I’m sure I was watching boats on the water and not where I was walking.
“One of those big cranes,” he told me. “There are only fifty or so of them left. … We don’t see them much anymore.”
I checked this week. In 1975 when the Mississippi Sandhill Crane NWR was established there were fewer than forty of the birds in the wild. Today there are around one-hundred thirty. Most of the eggs from breeding pairs are collected and sent up to Laurel to be hatched and the young birds subsequently returned to the wild.
The Mississippi Sandhill is different from their more numerous migratory cousins that are seen throughout the mid-west and the plains states. The Gulf Coast birds are “resident” creatures, not free to go in search of new ‘digs.’ By 1975 their habitat was nearly gone. Since then, it has been rigidly managed.
The refuge was established for the protection and recovery of the endangered Mississippi Sandhill crane and the restoration of its unique habitat, wet pine savanna (pitcher plant bogs). The pine savanna has a rich herbaceous flora and includes some of the highest plant diversities, particularly carnivorous plants, in North America. The two go hand- in-hand: Sandhill cranes and pitcher plants!
The more visible plants are the insectivorous pitcher plants, sun dews, dew threads and butterworts. Terrestrial orchids such as grass pinks, yellow-fringed orchids and rose pogonia orchids grow on the fibrous root masses found in the bogs. Mosses and a variety of plants such as fly poison, white-top sedge, pipewort, yellow-eyed grass, bunch lily, crow poison, red root and many more grow in these bogs.
If you are on the Mississippi Gulf coast and have a need to get away from the casinos and the tee shirt vendors, take Exit 61 off I-10, just north of Gautier ( Go-shay, if you are local. ) The MSC NWR Visitor Center is just on the north side of the interstate. Be sure to take your camera.