Monday, August 17, 2009

"Did you hear that?"

Incident at Rhodes Lake

March 21, 2008

For the final big sit this morning, I requested to be somewhere on Rhodes Lake. Though I had been hearing about it for three weeks, I had not yet actually seen this lake. Scott assigned a total of six people in five boats to the Rhodes Lake area -- himself, me, Melinda, and Marty Piorkowski each in individual kayaks, and Dave Pereksta and another Cornell volunteer, Rich, together in a canoe. It was a long paddle out to the lake along the road, with several portages, so we didn't all get on station until around 7:30 a.m. We spaced ourselves out around the lake, with a concentration at the south end near the sill and ATV trail. I was positioned at the east end of the sill; Dave and Rich were at the west end of the sill, and Scott was a short ways northwest of them on a high spot on the road that allowed him to get out of his boat and have more stability for shooting photos. Marty was on the northeastern shore a good ways north of us, and Melinda was roving in the woods between Rhodes Lake and Willow Flat. Each boat around the lake had a radio, but communication didn't always reach between everyone. Meanwhile, a half dozen or more other people who had remained for the second day were scattered elsewhere around the WMA.

As soon as I had reached the lake I realized why it had quickly become a favorite stakeout spot. It provides nice open vistas and good travel lines for sound from forests in every direction; it looked like the perfect place to spot *something* flying over the lake. The weather was fair, but the wind had picked up from the day before. It was blowing almost directly out of the south at about 5 to 10 m.p.h. This isn't terribly strong, but it is enough to begin to have an impact on ear birding. Marty was the most exposed, being in the open on the leeward shore of the lake with a several hundred meter fetch of open water to windward. I was moderately sheltered, tied off to a buttonbush and listening for anything suspicious. Upwind from me was about 300 m of open flooded shrub swamp, a narrowly tapering triangle of widely-spaced buttonbush and swamp privet with much open water extending southeastwards below the sill, bordered by forest on both sides.

As the morning progressed, a notable racket of aggitated Pileated Woodpeckers began from the forest down near the far end of the narrow shrub swamp. From my lookout spot at the west end of the sill, this was almost due south and directly upwind. There was extensive rapping and vocalizing along with some drumming. I could see the occasional bit of movement in the area, all of which proved to be Pileateds. After just over an hour and a half on station, the still-controversial incident happened. My notes read:

"9:05 a.m. Very loud double, [compass] bearing 179, first [rap] clearly much louder. Loudest rap, bang, boom of the morning by far. Not echoing like gunshot."

I immediately called on the radio "Did you hear THAT?" Melinda responded with an emphatic "yes!" as did Scott. Marty sounded dejected and answered that he could not heard anything over the wind. Dave gave a rather non-commital, uncertain response that they had heard something. The sound had come from the same direction as the Pileated ruckus. The quality and timing of the knock was very similar to what I had heard on March 11. My impression initially was that it was not quite so loud, but thinking more about it later, the relative loudness between the double rap and the similarly distant Pileated drumming was comparable in both incidents. The biggest difference was that the second knock this time was much less loud than the first; on the earlier series in each case that I heard them clearly the difference in power between the two knocks was not so great.

I remained on station listening closely, hoping that this would prove to be the beginning of another series. At 9:12 a.m. there was a single rap from the west (not south) that was notable but not nearly as loud as the earlier one. Scott called this single out on the radio; he was probably closer to it than I was. To my ears it was not at all as remarkable as the first one; Scott agreed. A half hour after the double knock, it was clear that whatever I had heard had been a one-time phenomenon, not the start of something grander. I began paddling slowly in the direction from which the knock had come, hearing and seeing nothing noteworthy. Even the Pileated activity had ceased. At about 9:52 I heard some gunshot-like noises from the southeast, and at 9:54 and 9:55 two separate double whomps that sounded like a truck on a bridge, also to the southeast. These bridge whomps were very different in quality than the double rap, sounding more distant and muffled, with both whomps equally loud. The traffic on Highway 88 was audible continuously from that same general direction from south end of the shrub swamp.

As the morning wound down, we reconvened to compare notes yet again. It turned out that only I had heard a double rap; the others had heard only a very loud single rap. Scott and I triangulated the bearings from which the sound had come from our two locations, and mapped the source as having been exactly where it appeared to have been to me: 300m due south of me, at the southeast corner of the shrubby opening. That location by itself would appear to rule out gunshots and mechanical sounds; it would have been hard for a person at that location to not be noticeable, and it was not a distant off-site sound. Looking at our positions revealed an interesting pattern. I had been closest, and directly downwind. I was the only one who heard two raps. Rich, Dave, and Scott had been only slightly farther away, but significantly farther askew from downwind; they heard a loud single rap. Melinda had been about 600-800m away from the source and in the forest, but like me directly downwind; she heard a very distant but very distinct loud single rap. Marty was closer than Melinda (about 500m) but also off the wind direction and fully exposed on the lee shore of the lake; he heard nothing.

Scott and Melinda both felt the quality of the knock was consistent with the double knocks they had heard in February, but without the second rap. The Cornell canoe had different opinions. Dave remained very non-commital and hesitant; when I had the chance to ask him about it privately much later he said that he had not felt that he was really keyed in to the sound and was uncomfortable saying much other than that he had only picked up one bam, not two. Rich was much more adamant. He was insistent that the sound could not have been a double knock and could not have been a bird. He thought it was some loud mechanical sound from a mile off site; when we pointed out the triangulation indicating that it had in fact been just a few hundred meters from him and indubitably on-site in the flooded forest he suggested that it must have been some human noise like someone ramming a boat into a tree. I pointed out that I we knew where all of our crew were, no one had been near that location, and there had been no sign of any other boaters near there or anywhere else in the WMA that morning. Still, he was having none of it and was as certain that there could not possibly have been a second rap as I was certain that I had definitely and distinctly heard a second rap. The contrast between his certainty and Dave's hesitance was interesting.

Disagreements would just have to remain unresolved, as it was time for everyone to pack up and head home. The Mass Invasion had only added to the mystery and confusion about what, if anything, was going on in that swamp.

Looking south from my station across the inundated shrub swamp below Rhodes Lake

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