Friday, August 14, 2009

Ghostly White

Mass Invasion, day 1

March 20, 2008

Another beautiful morning in the swamp. The water levels were up several more feet from my first visit, but this time I had my kayak. I hadn't been able to find the right paddles, however, so I was making do with an improvised contraption (that could be straight from the Red Green Show) involving two ordinary paddles, a piece of PVC, and some duct tape. I was working my way along a grand irregular loop through the northwest corner of the forested part of Moss Island. Paddling through flooded forest has its challenges, the first of which is that the forest floor floats. So, you may be hovering a meter or two above the ground, but so are all the logs. It makes for a lot of zig-zagging and strategizing.

The birds were out in force on this crisp, sunny, calm morning. Woodpeckers of seven species were drumming, vocalizing, and putting in appearances everywhere. The Wood Ducks were in full hormonal rush as well; several times I saw a peculiar flapping in the canopy, finding that it was a Wood Duck straddling the entrance to a cavity, bracing with its tail woodpecker-style, and flailing its wings slowly in the air as if for balance. The forest floor birds were out also. They were foraging around in the floating mats of logs, twigs, and dead leaves, gleaning for food exactly as they would have been doing had this debris still been resting on dry ground.

There were something on the order of 20 other observers spread out through the woods along with me, some on foot, some in boats. Four Cornell volunteers and their crew boss, Marty Piorkowski, were camped out on site around The Barn, as was I. Scott was joined on the forces in uniform by about a half dozen other folks from TWRA and FWS. All these official sorts were complemented by a gang of assorted experienced birders from middle and west Tennessee that Scott had invited along. This crew included quite a few very well respected birders; I thought it spoke well of the regard they must have for Scott hat they would take time off from work and make the long drive to Dyer County to help him on this insane mission!

Scott had parceled out his crew in an effort to spread people over the whole WMA, with a somewhat heavier concentration in the putative "hot zone" around Rhodes, Hushpucket, and Forked Lakes. As many people as possible were camera equiped, just in case. It was a bit daunting to realize that even with a crew this big, and in an area this small, we were still nowhere near saturation coverage. Large areas of forest remained many hundreds of meters away from any observer. Still, the weather was ideal, and our detection rate over the last few weeks seemed to give us good odds that somebody would find something. The plan was for us all to reconvene at lunchtime, compare notes, and redeploy for the afternoon.

The corner of the WMA that I was covering, what I would come to call the "northwest woods," was almost terra incognita to us of the "official search." The far northwest corner of the WMA is situated on yet another oxbow lake, Mitchell Lake. The USGS topo indicated that it was the only open water in this vicinity. I quickly discovered that things were more complicated than this. It turns out that since the topo was last updated, two more lakes have opened in the same neighborhood. One of these I figured out was the feature I had heard called "Cocklebur Flat," and had evidently been the scene of one of the strange woodpecker flyovers reported by the TWRA staff sometime in the previous year or so. The second is a large, handsome lake surrounded by good hardwood forest that seems to have no name at all. I eventually began calling it "Flycatcher Lake" for my own purposes, after the day in May when I was alternately serenaded by Olive-sided and Willow Flycatchers as I floated there. So much territory, so many lakes, so many trees, so many places to hide, even in just this one small forest fragment.

My long paddle around all these mystery lakes yielded a heap of woodpeckers, but nothing beyond the expected seven species. My morning's tallies were 8 Hairies, 22 Downies, 37 Redbellies, 13 Pileateds, 8 Sapsuckers, 12 Flickers, and one sole Red-headed. I returned for the lunchtime rendezvous, hoping for big news from someone. But, one by one each crew returned with nothing to report. Not nothing, really; lots of birds had been seen. Dave Pereksta, one of the Cornell volunteers and a FWS biologist in southern California, had found an extremely early Kentucky Warbler; his photo of this bird wound up gracing the regional report in North American Birds. But no double knocks, no sightings, no kents, no sign of the target bird. After lunch, during which we admired a squadron of White Pelicans overhead, our assignments were all reshuffled and we headed back out. I returned to the scene of my first crime again, a long sit near Hushpucket Lake. In contrast to the morning, the afternoon was very quiet. Woodpecker activity was a small fraction of what it had been earlier in the day. After the long slow sit, we reconvened again to trade stories.

Dave Pereksta had that look. He had seen a ghost. Not much, just a glimpse, a tale that had become far too familiar in recent years. While traversing the flooded ATV trail from Rhodes Lake towards Willow Flat, a big woodpecker flushed and flew rapidly across the trail ahead of him, disappearing into the forest not to be seen again. He hadn't seen much, couldn't give a whole lot of details, but he seemed pretty certain that he had seen the bird flash too much white, and in the wrong places. He did not seem to be disseminating this tale too widely, so this might be news to some who read this who were actually there on that day. Scott asked me quietly what I thought of Dave's sighting, and I couldn't do much more than shrug. Dave is a well known and respected SoCal birder, as well as a veteran of multiple tours of duty with Cornell in Arkansas. He had some audio encounters in Arkansas the first search year that had been taken seriously by the Cornell crew. But, a brief glimpse without definitive field marks remains just that no matter who it is from; another piece of intriguing information that stimulates interest and enthusiasm but establishes nothing definite. Other than Dave's sighting, there was nothing else reported for the day.

Some folks headed to Dyersburg for hotel rooms, some headed home, and Scott, the Cornell crew, and I returned to our camp at the barn. Tomorrow morning we'd do one more deployment with those who remained.

Scott in his kayak, the Tropical Fish. He painted it forest green shortly after this photo.

Other posts in this series:


At 2:20 PM, Blogger Tommy said...

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