Monday, November 09, 2009

Where Do We Go From Here?

The potato harvest is still coming up short...

After two field seasons at Moss Island, plus additional work at other sites in previous years, we Tennesseans have no more to show for our efforts than anyone else. The Federal money is drying up; State money has never been a very large pool; personal resources are of course always quite limited. The 2009 results were just enough to ensure that it will be very hard for us to simply abandon that patch of swamp and leave the situation dangling forever. But we'll mostly be working on private time and what small portion of the schedules of our full-time professional government wildlife biologists that can be allocated to this work.

For myself, I think I will concentrate just on the period from late February into March that has been the source of most of our encounters in both previous years. I'll probably just set aside a couple of weeks to be in the field full-time, and hope I get lucky. But the bigger question is, what should I actually do with my time? What have we not tried? What, of what we have tried, has "worked," at least sort of?

There are a few basic things, of course. Sitting still or paddling and walking quietly has been what has yielded nearly all the encounters. Time spent surveying structured transects, servicing equipment, or trying to "cover ground" by paddling or hiking at more normal speeds does not seem to count. And of course always being ready with the video camera; of the three instances when I heard double knocks in series, only once did I record anything and that was purely fortuitous. I think we can perhaps learn something from some techniques employed by hunters: they focus single-mindedly on their quarry, not being distracted by other tasks, and they always have their weapon at the ready. Clearly, from all the stories of near-misses, "Luneau moments," and things recorded purely by accident, Ivorybill hunters across the region have often been falling short on these measures. I've been figuring out the idiosyncrasies of my particular camera, and have learned how to keep it on standby all day without draining the battery, with 0.5 sec lead time needed to start capturing images, and with focus and shutter speed already preset.

But, of course, even if I had been on the ready like this for all of 2008 and 2009, I still have yet to actually SEE anything that I would have needed to shoot with the camera! Scott, Dave, and Allan all had only very quick encounters that would not have allowed them time to "get the bird" even with only a second or so of necessary lead time. Is there anything else we could be doing to increase the encounter probabilities?

Two other primary tricks used by hunters are attractants and geographic bottlenecks. The only attractant that has been widely used as been the simulated double knock. Even in the tropics when used with common species, its success rate has been variable and modest at best. It's nothing like what you get when, for instance, you play an Indigo Bunting song at a territorial male Indigo Bunting! Is this just a function of the behavior of the genus, or does it reflect on the inaccuracies of the sounds coming out of the double knocker as compared to the real thing? Bottlenecks have not necessarily been widely employed, and perhaps we should spend more time looking at aerial photos while thinking about a wide-ranging, obligate forest interior species. Interestingly, several riparian corridors converge on the southeastern corner of Moss Island, very close to our Rhodes Lake "hot zone."

The one final thing which has actually been effective at Moss Island is simple person power. Days when we had four or more people in the field were substantially more likely to yield something. Pulling this together with the other thoughts above, I can think of three strategies for the limited time in 2010. First, just siting in the woods east of Rhodes Lake, trying to stay awake, waiting for something to happen. Second, studying the maps further and exploring some of the surrounding areas that the riparian corridors connect to. Third, arrange a couple of weekend "big sits" to fill the "hot zone" with stationary, alert, equipped observers for a couple of days. None of this is new; but having perhaps narrowed down the season and location better it might improve the odds a small bit.

As for the grand scheme, Moss Island is just a microcosm of the larger pattern. Everyone remains in limbo, finding too much to just quit, not enough to conclude anything. If there really are Ivorybills behind any of this, there seem to be an extremely small number of them. This makes the quest simultaneously almost futile and even more important. No one knows how to proceed, and everyone seems to be shutting down or scaling back. This will mostly leave the freelancers on their own in the field, plus the occasional chance encounter, rumors from hunters, and similar things. If the beasts are still out there, they have managed this far without our direct assistance; indeed, "being found" has never really helped these birds. The Singer Tract got clearcut just the same, after all. In the Big Woods the birding community has shown a marked preference for image artifacts and incredible space-time bending white bleed over a living Ivorybill. A metaphysical sort might wonder why the critters would even bother with showing themselves to us for all the good it has ever done for them!

And now, 31 blog posts later, I'm afraid this is where I have to leave the tale. Thank you all for reading (slogging through?) to the end.

Someday, somewhere, somehow, someone has GOT to see whatever the hell it is that is making these double knocks.

Other posts in this series:


At 8:55 AM, Blogger onthecoyle said...

Here are my two cents: Limit your time in the field to a few hours around sunrise and a few hours around sunset, and then rest during the day. If you have any DK encounters, early or late, focus on that specific location and stick with that area for the duration of the trip.

This is assuming that the bird will reuse the same roost hole (why not?), and when on the move, it doesn't just move randomly. If there is a useful lesson from hunting, it might be to be patient with the hot spot. Avoid bringing randomness back into the search by giving up too soon on any past DK encounters.


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