Friday, July 31, 2009

Things that go Bump in the Swamp

Not so long ago in a swamp not very far away...

March 18, 2009. 7:00 a.m. CST


There it was, emerging from the din of titmice, cardinals, and other early spring dawn voices. I was in the middle of shooting a panorama of the placid sunrise scene on my video cam when I picked up on the target sound. As I swung the cam towards the direction from which the bams had come, I became vaguely aware that I might have half-heard but not quite registered the same sound a few moments earlier. I sat on full alert, cam pointed and recording; about ten seconds later they rang out again loud and clear:


A lot had happened since the first time I heard this sound in the woods, just over a year before and about 2 km southwest from where I now sat. Then it was surreal, disorienting, enervating, and freak-out producing. Now it was rather a more intellectual experience. The thoughts lined themselves up quickly:

"Wow, those are gorgeous double knocks, really loud, rich, resonant, woody, ringing, perfect cadence, right out of the textbook! Sound exactly like the ones I heard last month. Maybe I finally caught something on the cam?"

"Hmmm, it's still a few minutes before sunrise, I thought that damn bird was supposed to be a late sleeper, if that's even what is making these frikkin' noises."

"What time is it anyway? Right close to the top of the hour, maybe? Double hmmm... Scott is going to be out there with the double knock simulator, banging at the top and bottom of each hour. Thought he was gonna be a hell of a long way from me, though, like over a mile. Those sounded much closer than that. Plus they sounded great; his simulations (by his own admission) sound like crap. Didn't think he'd start this early either. I suppose his plans might have changed and his technique might have improved. Triple hmmm..."

The video cam, still running, picked up only the short summary of all these thoughts that I muttered out loud -- "I wonder if that was Scott?"

As I started digging around to get to my GPS and check the time, I began grumbling silently about those damned double knock simulations and how they just confuse the situation. I had first been exposed to them the previous April when the Cornell field crew had invaded our site for a few days. At the top of every hour they went off like a giant woodpecker-themed cuckoo clock. I just thought they were a bad idea that had no proven record of accomplishing anything in Ivorybill country, even if they worked to some degree in the tropics on other species. And, though it may have just been coincidental, after Cornell and their DK simulators stormed through our little patch of swamp, our detection rate dropped to nil.

With my GPS finally fished out of my pack, I saw that the time was about 7:02. It had been a minute or two since I heard the double knocks. What I had heard must have just been Scott's 7:00 a.m. simulations, dammit. I held the GPS up to the cam to get an accurate timestamp, spoke out loud for the camera my disapproval of DK simulations in general, and paddled onwards up the slough.

The sun was just breaking the horizon, as seen through the line of still-leafless trees that separated this oxbow from the Obion. There wasn't a cloud in the sky or the faintest hint of wind. It was a beautiful day to be out chasing ghosts in the west Tennessee swamps.

March 1, 2008

From: Scott Somershoe
Subject: IBWO search

Hey Bill,

I was wondering about your availability for IBWO searching in Dyer County over the next couple weeks. In very short, Wed I found extensive scaling and cavities, heard a very close (about 60 meters, max) double knock (very Campephilis compared to Pale-billed Woodpecker DK's from Mexico), single raps, heard some "toots" that I couldn't ID and saw a large woodpecker fly up from the location of the DK. Thursday morning Bob Ford and I heard a DK together from the same vicinity and Melinda Welton and I heard another DK just before sunset Thursday evening, also from the same spot.

I am not looking to get a lot of people out there and in the know at this point. Please let me know if you are available as we could use a great eye in the sky. The WMA is small, but there are some places that really need scouting and/or sitting watching, waiting and listening.

This e-mail from our State Ornithologist was not unexpected. I had learned through the grapevine almost two years before that there had possibly been some activity in Tennessee. The previous winter I had spent a couple of very cold January days in the field with Bob Ford, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stationed in west Tennessee, in some areas of interest in another part of the region. The story there had been the usual -- sightings from landowners and hunters, followup by Bob yielded some strange things heard and glimpsed. I had also explored on my own in some other areas that held what seemed to me by the usual criteria to be the most promising habitat in Tennessee, without coming across anything even remotely Ivorybillish. Scott and Melinda, neither of whom had I yet met in person, had put in a fair amount of survey effort in some of the large State-owned forest fragments along the Mississippi, also with nothing campephilish to report. But this new spot, in an unexpected location, looked like it might be something different. There had been a glimpse and three double knock encounters, in two instances heard simultaneously by two observers, all within barely more than 24 hours and less than a kilometer's distance. All this from experienced observers who had previously proven that they were capable of spending many, many days in the field without hearing even one little spurious double knock.

It seemed we suddenly had a "hot zone," right here in Tennessee. Whatever it was that had been happening in Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina, and other places, be it psychological, biological, meteorological, or whatever, it was now happening in the woods of Dyer County as well. This was clearly something I should jump on; the only issues were the usual ones of time and money. The amount of time involved was indefinite; there was talk suggesting that at least a little money might be forthcoming... so I geared up for the ultimate snipe hunt. When the schedules stopped juggling, we had agreed that I would meet Scott and Melinda at the site on March 10 for several days of exploring. And so I became the fourth, semi-unofficial member of the Tennessee Ivory-billed Woodpecker (or whatever it was) Search Team.

Next post in this series

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Lifting the Cone of Silence

Knock knock?

Who's there, dammit??????

The second longest-running "Knock-knock" joke in history, after Hamlet...

We who have been involved in chasing phantoms and things that go bump in the swamps of west Tennessee over the last year or two have agreed that there's little need for continued secrecy about our adventures. So... starting next month I will begin posting a retrospective journal about my own experiences on this Fool's Journey.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


As a birder, I have not really ever been a hard-core lister. I keep my lists, of course; now that I have my entire birding life on eBird I am presented with myriad list totals every time I go to my starting page. I even pay attention to some of these numbers. State lists have always seemed the most significant to me; as a local birder more than a long-range chaser I've always found the State list is a good key to how well you know your home turf and its regional context. Of course beyond a certain point it also tends to reflect heavily on how long you have lived in the state! The only list I ever put real serious effort into was my Georgia list, my home turf for most of the years from when I started birding in 1974 until 1991. That is the only tally for which I ever got in the habit of making midnight dashes across hundreds of miles of dark highways to try to relocate major-league rarities that had been reported just hours before. Just this year I have decided to start working on my Tennessee list, finally; but I am still at the point of making the tour of all the regular uncommon species. There are so many of these left for me to add to my birdie bingo card that I'm not putting the effort, time, or gasoline into chasing individual stragglers around our narrow but veeerrrryyyyy loooooong territory here. Since eBird, I also take note of my county lists for some selected spots; right now my list for my home county of Lewis (TN) is at 184; 200 is probably a very challenging lifetime goal for this tiny county with almost no wetlands. My Dyer County (TN) list has also been climbing as a side effect of some other recent activities (more on that in the not-to-distant future). My Dyer total has actually surpassed my home county at 189, thanks to being located along the Mississippi with a wide range of habitats. And for those of you who follow my blog primarily for that one specific reason, no, none of my ABA-area list totals include more than one species of large, crested woodpecker.

What most US birders consider the big number, the ABA area list total (Canada, 49 US States, Hawaii excluded, DC included, for those of you who don't play The Game) has not been a major target for me over my birding life. I used to follow it closely, then sort of closely, then vaguely, then not really at all. Eventually I just knew it was somewhere in the upper 500s but that was about it. But then along came eBird, and now I am presented with my ABA list total nearly every day. I was rather surprised to see that it was right around 590; there remained some uncertainty until I finished digging through my trucking notes and confirmed that I had indeed seen Gila Woodpecker, Gilded Flicker, and Scott's Oriole north of the border and not just in Mexico. So there I was with the number 591 teasing me. This was enough to get me to actually start digging around to see where I might be able to pick up a few new birds as close to home as possible; not surprisingly there weren't 9 easy tickies to be had within 800 miles. I far, far prefer to add a bird as a tickie by finding it where it lives; I want to see him or her (or ideally both) in its own world, not 3000 miles off course in a strip mall greenbelt. I already knew where my biggest motherloads of ABA lifers were lurking: Alaska, of course, and southeastern Arizona. Though I had spent nearly three weeks in Alaska in 1994, I was entirely in the Interior and the Southeast, leaving vast numbers of unchecked boxes in the west and north parts of that incredible and incredibly huge place. Alaska is also at present far beyond our price range. Southeast Arizona was another matter. My previous birding there consisted of one morning at Madera Canyon in 1991 when I slipped off from an eclipse-chasing trip with non-birding spouse and friends, and interstate highway roadsides during my trucking days. It is also a beautiful place, with plenty of things of interest to my non-birding but still very nature-oriented wife. So finally a few weeks ago we jetted off to Tucson for our 20th wedding anniversary, and it proved very easy to mix birding and non-birding pleasure for a week just as the monsoons were starting.

There was little doubt that this trip would finally push me over the magic 600 threshold; it was just a question of which species would be The Chosen One. Fortunately the list of possibilities consisted only of "nice" birds: good solid natives, all with a real regional flavor. It wasn't until I returned home that I got it all sorted out and determined that my 600th ABA area species was that gorgeous male Red-faced Warbler singing in the sun in a pine forest on Mt. Bigelow. He was a perfect bird for the job, too -- emblematic, right where he belonged, handsome, and a species I had been fascinated by when I first flipped through the Robbins guide 35 years ago and have wanted to see ever since. My wife's favorite birds of the trip, by the way, were the Yellow-eyed Juncos. This was another new one for me, and I had never seen a painting or photograph that prepared me for how striking, downright spooky and otherworldly those piercing yellow eyes in that jet black mask are! We started calling them "Devil-eyed Juncos" (affectionately, of course!).

It is exceedingly unlikely that a working-class "patch" birder like me will ever hit 700, hence this likely marks the final major milestone for my ABA list. This got me wondering what my other century marks had been, so I pulled out the data. I count the bird that was the Century Bird at the time I saw it, regardless of what splits and lumps later did to my list. So, here they are, the Magnificent Seven as it were, listed under the names they went by at the time I saw them:

1. Eastern Bluebird, January 1974, Fernbank Forest, Atlanta GA. Believe it or not, I actually remember this bird well!

100. Chestnut-sided Warbler, 29 April 1974, Fernbank

200. Bonaparte's Gull, 25 March 1975, Jekyll Island GA

300. Brown Towhee, 26 January 1979, Palo Alto CA (now number 301, California Towhee, nudged up by the Scrub Jay split)

400. Pink-footed Shearwater, 12 October 1980, Monterey Bay CA (now number 403)

500. Great Gray Owl, 20 June 1984, Hayden Valley, Yellowstone National Park WY (now number 509 -- a whole lot of splitting since 1984!)

600. Red-faced Warbler, 30 June 2009, Mt. Bigelow, Pima County AZ

The Great Gray Owl remains one of my most vivid memories of my entire life -- a great gray ghost cruising silently over the valley at dusk with not a road, trail, or other person in sight. It perched on a stunty lodgepole, looked me right in the eye, and then continued on with its life.

Wow, 25 years between 500 and 600... long strange trip, indeed!

Photo linked to from René Valdez Aves de México -- Bird Pics and More...

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