Friday, August 07, 2009

Down the Rabbit Hole

But I don't want to go among mad people...

March 11, 2008

The problem with staying in Dyersburg, other than the hotel cost, is the nearly one hour drive to get to Moss Island. By the time we were in the field and ready to deploy, it was well after 7 a.m. Scott and Melinda headed off in the canoe as previously planned. I set out overland on foot along the ridge trending south from the point where the road met the water, the place which became known as "the turnaround." For a while I could hear the other two chatting and working their way off through the sloughs; gradually we fell out of easy hearing range of each other. It was a picture postcard late winter morning, with clear skies, cool but above freezing, and a near calm wind, drifting almost imperceptibly from the south and east. As I worked my way generally towards the south I stopped and sat several times along the shore of a very pretty flooded slough that lay just east of the ridge I was traversing. The ridge itself was more of a broad flat plateau. In some places the understory was very open, in others there were thick canebrakes.

At around 9 a.m I intersected an ATV trail adjacent to a shallow, minor slough. The scribbled comment in my notebook gives the Lat-Long and reads "Slough - nice, much woodpecker activity." There had been a good deal of drumming and vocalizing from the woodpeckers all morning; at this point in the journey it picked up even more. On my one visit to the Big Woods in Arkansas a couple of years before, the thing that had struck me most (after the size of the trees) was the incredibly high abundance of all species of woodpeckers. Ever since then, I have always taken particular and hopeful note of times and places where I encounter similar woodpecker hotbeds. The ATV trail was going more or less my way, as I had no particular destination or route in mind, and I began following it.

The trail meandered south-southeasterly, pulled away from the slough, and rose slightly into an open canebrake. At this point I barely registered a loud banging sound in the distance to the southeast. At first I did not really key in to it, as there had been frequent noise from distant gunshots, bridge whumps, barge sounds, and the like off to the west. It did not at first jump above the background of bangs. A few minutes later it repeated, and that time it pulled me up to a stop and caught my attention as a loud double "bam" sound. It gave the impression of being very loud, and very distant. I thought it a bit curious, not much more than that. However, I considered that I was supposed to be out here listening for double knocks, and that had been some kind of double banging sound, so I gave my attention to it. It seemed much louder than I would have expected any possible woodpecker noise to be, but I still decided I should hear it better. I left the ATV trail and headed southeasterly overland in the general direction of the sound. In a few minutes I heard it again, clearly and with my full attention this time.

What I heard was two very loud, closely-spaced "bam" sounds, the first "bam" loudest, the second following quite closely after the first. My curiosity was definitely tweeked, as this is of course the classic Campephilus pattern. Still, though, it was so very loud, unreasonably loud to be from a bird. I continued towards the sound trying to be as quiet as possible, hearing it maybe two or three more times as I travelled. I was not yet taking it seriously enough to be noting exact times and locations of each recurrence; I expected it would probably turn out to be some off-site mechanical sound, perhaps construction or farm noise. In one instance I heard only one single "bam," but all the other occasions seemed identical in cadence: two bams, consistent close spacing in time, first notably louder than the second. Each pair was separated from the others by several minutes.

My efforts at stealth were spoiled by a flock of 50 or more turkeys in my path, who began running and flushing and calling loudly ahead of me. Shortly past the turkeys, I came upon the head of a lake and realized the "bam" sounds were coming from the far side. There appeared to be no way across or around the lake, so I just sat on the west shore right at the northern end of the lake, watching and listening. Within a few minutes the "BAMbam" sounded again, across the lake, to my southeast. I had apparently covered a good deal of the distance between myself and the source as it now sounded much louder and much nearer than it had at first, but it remained beyond the far shore, perhaps 200 meters or more from me. At this point strange things began happening in my head. There was a Pileated drumming a bit farther south along the far lakeshore. The quality of the Pileated raps, and the way it echoed, were very similar to the individual bams in the BAMbam. But the BAMbam was much, much louder. My scribbled note made while I sat there reads "Phenomenally loud." Two woodpecker-like raps, very closely spaced, first rap loudest, preternaturally loud... um... uh... knot begins to form in stomach. Jeeezus frikkin' Kryst is THAT the double knock everyone has been going on and on about for all these years?

On schedule, a few minutes later, it rang out again. I took in all the sounds that were coming from across the lake. There were the usual bird sounds, two Pileateds drumming back and forth at each other, the murmurings of the turkeys. I strained to hear if there were any clearly man-made sounds, anything suggestive of a boat, a construction site, voices, motors, doors, squeaks, anything. There was nothing. It sounded like a flooded, unpeopled wilderness over there. And again, one more time, came the BAMbam, ringing like an axe striking a tree, or like a 2x4 tossed from a truck onto a sheet of plywood, the loudest sound in the woods, consistent to the point of being nearly identical each time. It wasn't a bridge whump. It wasn't a gunshot. It wasn't a boat ramming a tree, unless it managed to do it exactly the same way every time, in the exact same place, without making any other noises in the interludes. From how far I had travelled since the first hearing (maybe 500m) and how much closer it seemed now, there didn't appear to be any way for it to be a distant off-site noise. Here from the lakeshore the sound was clear, crisp, clean, not muffled or muddied by traveling and reverberating through a kilometer or more of forest.

Somewhere between the second and third BAMbams I heard from the lakeshore, the freakout happened. I allowed the thought that I might conceivably, possibly, at that very moment, in the 21st Century, be sitting only a few hundred meters away from a real, live, flesh and blood Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Staring across the water into that patch of forest, contemplating that this legendary beast might actually be perched just out of view, just there, just across that lake, was a sensation that is difficult to describe. It was otherworldly, exhilarating, and disorienting; it was also tinged with a strong dose of fear and the sensation of "Oh sh*t, I am in trouble now." There was rather a significant voice in the back of my head saying "Maybe we shouldn't even tell anyone about this; do we really want to deal with the repercussions of that?" Of course, I had been called in to the project in the hope that I might have just such an experience, and report back on it in full, so tempting though it may have been, this last option should not really be on the table.

After the third set of BAMbams heard from the lake, I worked my way south along the shore, hoping to get closer to the source and possibly get a second bearing to triangulate the location. However, I did not hear any more. Whatever the source was, it had stopped entirely. There was not even a hint of anything more from that direction; nor was there any hint of any human-caused sounds either. I remained along the lakeshore for about another hour, by which time it was nearing 11 a.m. We had a scheduled lunch rendezvous back at the turnaround, so I began the hike out. On the way I had plenty of time to review, relive, reconsider, and reevaluate what I had heard.

To my surprise, a big part of me rather strongly hoped to find an easy alternative explanation. What kept running through my head was that if I couldn't explain this away, I was about to become One Of Them -- the people who have had an encounter with something they think may have potentially been an Ivorybill, but are utterly incapable of proving it. The thought of how much easier it would be to just forget all about it and come out of the woods saying "nope, nothing to report" also continued trying to resurface. Those that read this who believe that anyone who could think that this bird could possibly still exist is just a ridiculous, unscientific fool might find this next thought oddly contradictory; but in the end I let the empirical scientist win out, accepted I had heard something that I had no ready explanation for, and I would report exactly what I had heard as best as I was able to document something for which no corroborating evidence existed.

On my hike back, two particular things concerned me the most. The loudness of the bams remained disconcerting to me. It was hard to believe that a bird was making such a huge sound. As I said to Scott and Melinda later, birds are made of fluff and air, how could one possibly make such an enormous noise? I also remained worried that I might have simply heard some mechanical noise from beyond the site, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. I only had my recollections of the map; I had not packed the map with me. I reached the road and the turnaround, and waited for Scott and Melinda to return from their mission. They arrived a little after noon; I of course immediately asked them if they had heard anything; they answered that they had not. I replied, "We need to have a long talk, because I did."

I described what I had heard, and they reconstructed that during the period I was hearing the "bams" (which lasted for about a half hour) they had been at Rhodes Lake, listening carefully much of the time. We checked the maps, and determined that my listening post had been at the north end of Hushpucket Lake, a wonderfully lyrical name. From there the closest spot from which the sounds could have come if they were from machinery or construction was just across the Obion on a small dead-end road. This was over a kilometer from my location on the lakeshore. If the sound had originated there, Scott and Melinda would have been about the same distance from it as I was. If this had been the case, it was hard to imagine that they could have failed to hear it at all considering that it was very loud and very obvious from my location. I also found it hard to believe that what I had heard had been that far away, considering how crisp it was. The echo from the mystery BAMbams was short, as I mentioned earlier quite similar to the echo from Pileated drumming that was coming from just across the lake in a similar direction. It was not a long, trailing echo such as from a gunshot a mile or two away. This still left the concern over whether a bird could realistically make a sound that loud. Scott and Melinda reminded me that Tanner had reported that Ivorybill double knocks could be heard for over 1/2 mile (800m) under ideal circumstances, and circumstances that morning had been very close to ideal. Scott told me that the double knocks he had heard in the site in the previous weeks had seemed much louder than Pileated drumming to him; he described the one he heard at close range as about the loudest thing he had ever heard in the woods. Looking at the maps we also noted that one double knock that Scott and Melinda had heard together from Rhodes Lake was coming from the same part of the forest as the sounds I had just heard.

After that discussion, I decided I should probably not consult any other descriptions, recordings, or references until after I wrote a full report. It did seem clear, though, that what I had heard was very similar in quality and magnitude to the sounds that had been heard three times previously within the same small area during the previous two weeks by Scott, Melinda, and Bob.

We all three returned to the Scene of the Crime on Hushpucket Lake that afternoon, and again the following morning. We sat, we listened, we watched, we waited. But what I would eventually come to call the Moss Island Mystery Double Knocker failed to put in another performance. On the afternoon of March 12th, I headed home while we all continued to ponder what it all meant and what to do next.

Other posts in this series:


At 10:04 PM, Blogger coyote said...

Hi Bill:

Don't let it get you down...Your blog made me smile. EVERYBODY says it sounds like "someone beating a tree with a __________." (Insert your weapon of choice here: i.e. baseball bat, ball peen hammer, sledgehammer...I personally think it sounds rather like a double-bit axe...)

The thing we all have to keep in mind, is that no matter how good the encounter (I personally hate the word "sighting"), is that the folks who want to believe will keep an open mind, the (I'll refrain from epithets about intelligence and "field time") skeptics will be skeptical, and the true believers will believe...

You heard what you heard, and there's no more or less to it than that. Thousands and thousands of words, some thoughtful, some intelligent, some kind-of "off the wall", some skeptical to the point of derision, and some quite vitriolic on both sides of the fence, have been bandied about concerning this iconic creature. All those words will be rendered worthless by the hunter, fisherman, or maybe even a really dedicated birder who comes forward with that vaunted photograph...The contention of the skeptics can be proved easily enough too...Let's just destroy the forests of the southeast again...Then they can be certain that they're right...


At 10:16 PM, Blogger coyote said...


A wonderment. You said that there was maybe some type of construction in the area. When a dump truck empties, and the tailgate slams against the empty bed, there is a double-rap like cadence. However there is also a hollow "booming" sound that accompanies it. From personal experience, this sound can carry for more than 3 miles...But it doesn't really sound much like a classic double knock either, it just has that ONEtwo cadence...


At 6:51 AM, Blogger cyberthrush said...

I'm still a bit surprised that no one (so far as I'm aware) has ever set up recording equipment in a NON-possible IBWO deep woodland (say in New England) to see how many (if any) kent-like or double-knock-like sounds appear on tape over some extended period.

At 9:14 AM, Blogger Bill Pulliam said...


I'm not sure that is hasn't been done, but like you I haven't seen any results from any place it has been done. I do know that the labs that process ARU data charge a fairly substantial sum for their services, which is understandable considering that it is not a trivial task to go through hundreds of hours of audio.

There'd be some limits to this; New England would not be the best choice. You'd want areas with high abundances of other woodpeckers, especially Pileateds. You'd also want similar habitat complete with gunshots, bridges, barges, beavers, lakes to create echos, etc. In other words, you need a southeastern coastal plain swamp. How do you decide what areas in this habitat are "controls," in this situation?


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