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


At 5:03 AM, Blogger Dave Nolin said...

Way back in 1978 I did a stint for the Youth Conservation Corps in northern Mississippi. One of my co-workers was from Memphis and he swore he and his father had a good look at a pair of ibwos at a certain wildlife management area in Western Tennessee. I've always figured he saw pileated even though he claimed to know the difference. Hmmm...

Dave Nolin


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