Monday, August 24, 2009

High Water

April 2, 2008


There they went again. Every time the Cornellians let loose with the double knock simulator, the first one always made me jump in the instant before I reminded myself what it really was. At the beginning of the day I found them quite exciting, but by midday I had begun to find them a bit disturbing. They went off every hour on the hour, 7 simulations 10 seconds apart,. After a few cycles of that I started to worry about any real bird that might be in the area -- what would it make of this sudden invasion of double knockers?

The first set I had heard were late, coming at 9:15 instead of the scheduled time. Hence it took until the second or third whack before my pulse slowed back down. The resemblance between the simulated double knocks and what I had actually heard on March 11 was close enough to give me even more reason to get all goose-pimply about that first incident. The simulations were not dead ringers; the "real" sounds I had heard had been notably louder and more resonant -- more boom and less whack, as it were. But it was a pretty good approximation. Assuming that the simulator had been designed by experts to give a reasonable imitation of the real Campephilus double knock, that made the MIMDKWTFII all the more engrossing. Over the course of the day as I heard the simulations at the top of each hour, I also noticed that they were less consistent than the "real" series I had heard on the 11th. The spacing between the knocks was not so precise, and there were some distinct "double klunkers" in the mix where something obviously went wrong with the swing of the striker and the sound that came out was a serious dud.

I had arrived the previous afternoon, laden with gear for three or four nights in the field. The water was much higher than on my last visit, and it took me several hours to shuttle my heap-o-crap from the Great River Road to the barn. The road into the WMA was about 50% flooded, so I alternately pulled my kayak behind me as a barge, then carried all my stuff across the dry stretches, portaged the boat, and repeated the cycle. It took a whole lot of iterations of this before I had tent, sleeping gear, food, water, and boat all transfered the mile from my truck to the camp. A small tent city was already set up in the lawn around the Barn, as the Cornell Crew had arrived the day before (there's a happy group photo at the bottom of the linked page; about half of that crew made the trip to Moss Island). Scott had assured me that on teardown day there would be a john boat and an outboard to shuttle all the gear back out to the levee, so I wouldn't have to repeat the slog. The one remaining glitch was getting my truck to safe parking. By all accounts any vehicle left parked along the levee road overnight would be broken in to and stripped by morning, if it was still even there. So the plan was that at the end of the first day Scott and I would caravan to the motel in Dyersburg where he had home base set up, I'd leave my truck there, and he would give me a ride back to Moss Island the next morning.

After getting camp set up I then headed off in the kayak towards Rhodes Lake. On the way I encountered Allan Mueller who was waiting for Scott, and Scott who was happily floating on the edges of Rhodes Lake. As it got to near 5:00 p.m. Scott and I headed back out the flooded road. I kept finding myself busting my ass to try to keep up with Scott, until I realized he was half my age and a jock and there was no point in even trying! There was only one road anyway, we'd all wind up in the same spot. So it was just hike, wade, hike, wade, repeat, back to the vehicles and onward to the Comfort Inn for an overpriced bed.

This morning, Scott and I had arrived at the Barn around 7:30, and found Tonya waiting for us with marching orders. Unfortunately we were short one radio, so I headed into the swamp incommunicado. I spent the day floating and paddling quietly around Forked and Hushpucket Lakes, racking up huge woodpecker tallies -- 35 Redbellies, 24 Downies, 16 Red-headeds, 7 Hairies, 9 Sapsuckers, 23 Flickers, and an incredible 28 Pileateds. Just one species lacking, sigh. That Pileated total would have to represent damn near theoretical maximum possible density for the species! Whether or not this would be marginal habitat for an Ivorybill, it was clearly core habitat for every other species of woodpecker of the eastern deciduous forest biome. I also tallied "blond bearded guy in canoe" passing within 50 m of me as I sat on stealthy watch twice during the day; this turned out to be Abe.

The areas I was paddling through represented the terrain from which three of our detections of the MIMDKWTFII had emanated. I had not actually entered these woods before. One of my primary objectives for the day (aside from gettin' th' frikkin' bird) was to see these forests up close. The trees were not impressively large, but there was indeed a lot of dead wood. In particular there seemed to be one species that grew tall but not especially straight, with distinctive bark, that tended to have a lot of dead wood near the top. Good spots for making double knocks from, perhaps? I didn't recognize what species of tree this was, however, in its leafless state.

At 5:00, after I had been floating in Forked Lake for several hours, I noticed that there were no 5 p.m. double knock simulations. I took this as a sign that it was time to head in for the day. I paddled along the road to the edge of the swamp, beached my kayak, and hiked back to the barn. I rounded the bend and came in sight of the house and the barn and got very confused.

The Cornell tent city was gone. Approaching moderate freak-out, I continued on down the road. I was relieved to find Tonya, Abe, and Leighton sitting on the back porch of the evacuated house. They explained that Scott had cancelled the next day's field work because of forecasts of severe weather, and the crew was bugging out for Dyersburg for at least the next 36 hours. And, of course, as I had been radio-less they had not been able to tell me this and had to just wait for me to come out of the woods on my own. I just kind of stood there dumbfounded and snarling trying to figure out what the hell I was supposed to do now. Staying there alone for two days with no communication, no vehicle, behind a mile of floodwaters, and no other people within 8 miles of me did not seem tenable. I was also a bit miffed that the plan had been scrubbed because of a FORECAST for possible severe weather. One thing I had learned as a trucker, you don't make plans around weather forecasts more than a few hours in advance. Trying to outsmart the storm was just as likely to land you smack in the middle of it when, as was inevitable, 6 or 12 hours later the forecast shifted. What you did was you made your plan, and you prepared for and responded to the adverse weather when, where, and if it happened. After all it was Tennessee in early April, of COURSE there would be some big thunderstorms around! One might also ponder which was actually safer in a tornado: a tent in an open lawn or a motel in a state without building codes? It was too late then to do anything but gripe about decisions already made (which I did, loudly, to the point that I think the Cornellians might have been getting afraid of me...).

The only course of action was to hurriedly pack up my heap-o-crap and 4 days worth of supplies, slog it all back out to the road, and ride back to Dyersburg with the gang. Fortunately the Cornell crew was well-hardened after a long season in the Big Woods, so they made a very capable tear down crew and team of pack mules to help get all my junk out to the levee in one trip. Only my boat was left behind. I could not see spending the next day and a half in the Comfort Inn, particularly since I was not yet entirely confident that money for reimbursement would really be forthcoming; I'd wound up eating my expenses for the little bit of work I had done on 2007. I decided I'd just head out the next morning, retrieve my boat, and drive home. At least I had one good (if Campephilusless) day in the field to show for my effort, and renewed confidence that we really might not be entirely wasting our time on this quest.

Once in the motel I just wanted to get clean, dry, and calmed down. I headed straight for the shower; on emerging I heard a knock at the door. Pulling on my jeans, I found that Leighton apparently had been picked or volunteered for "go asked the scary pissed-off local guy if he wants to go get dinner" duty. Maybe they figured I'd be less likely to attack a fellow longbeard (cue the music: "There is a brotherhood of beards! A benevolent brotherhood of beards!"). Finding a shirt that did not smell like a wet horse, I decided to join the crew.

Earlier, Tonya and the guys had mentioned to me back at the barn that Scott had a possible encounter he wanted to talk to me about; I hadn't been able to give it much attention in the scramble over what to do with my heap-o-crap. Now, gathered around the table at one of Dyersburg's collection of standard-issue freeway exit chain "family restaurants," one of the first things Scott asked me was "Where were you at 9:18 this morning?" I pointed at Abe and said "On Forked Lake listening to his double knock simulations." Scott and the rest of the crew looked puzzled, because the sims were supposed to have been at 9:00. Abe explained that he had been late because it had taken him a while to find a suitable tree and get set up. Now Scott looked concerned. He had heard a distant but clear double knock at 9:18 by his watch. He had been stationed about 1km west of me, which would have been about 1200m west of Abe, and to him the sound seemed to originate from his south, about 400m away by his estimate.

Now we had a conundrum. Simulations at 9:15 (finishing at 9:16) by my GPS time, versus DK heard at 9:18 by Scott's watch. Both timepieces were in general accurate to within a few seconds of each other, as Scott regularly synchs his watch with his GPS. Sound coming from due east versus from due south. Strange things do happen with perceptions of the directions of sounds. I know in my case, since my right ear still has the hearing it had when I was 18 but my left ear has the hearing of the middle-aged man I actually am, faint sounds can be frustratingly difficult for me to localize unless I get to hear them repeatedly. Scott is still a spring chicken, however, and all my time with him indicated he didn't have any of these hearing problems. Plus, 400m is not all that distant for a sound this loud. Scott was completely confident both in his time stamp and the direction; Abe and I agreed on the start time for his simulations and that it had been the standard series finishing after one minute.

Yet again, what do we make of this? Did Scott hear a response to the simulations? Or did he hear an echo or misjudge the direction by 90 degrees, combined with inaccurate timekeeping on somebody's part? Or was it some other coincidental sound that happened to do a good imitation of a double-knocking woodpecker and happened to come 2-3 minutes after the simulations? If Scott did hear an independent sound, then he did not hear the simulations at all. Would a woodpecker respond to a simulation that is too faint for a human to notice? This is part of the problem with the simulations. Whether or not they have ever triggered a response from an Ivorybill is unknown. But they do complicate the interpretation of sounds that are heard around times when they are being conducted. In theory this can be dealt with by having all field parties in real-time radio contact; in reality finding easily portable field-worthy radios that work reliably through over 1 km of forest without a repeater has proven difficult (perhaps impossible). This is not the last time this issue would come up.

After that discussion I had settled down enough to be sociable. One of the other bits of the conversation from the evening was related by me last year (in somewhat obfuscated terms) in this post. By now it should be clear what birding milestone I would consider having permanently inked into my body. For the record, by the way, I remain ink-free (dammit). The gang hatched a plan for how they were going to spend the forecast rainout; I won't spill the beans on them for fear of damaging their reputations irreparably but it sure as hell was not the sort of thing I was keen on doing. It sounded like they were not planning to get out in the swamp for another day or even two, which confirmed my decision to just go retrieve my boat in the morning, call it a wash, and head home. Which I did.

Rhodes Lake Road

Other posts in this series:


At 1:18 AM, Blogger thehoatzin said...

So, in summary no IBWO.

At 4:26 AM, Blogger Bill Pulliam said...

If you are actually interested in the point of this, and you follow through to the end of the tale (which will take another month or two at this pace), you'll find that the theme of "what does it all mean?" will be developed more with each step. At the end of the saga I will have some pretty specific and in some cases pointed things to say, and some (likely controversial) conclusions of relevance to the entire search process across the region, not just in Tennessee. Again, if you are actually interested I welcome you to come along for the ride, but please don't whine about "aren't we there YET???" along the way or I might drop you off at the next gas station.

On the other hand, if (as seems more likely) you are just interested in firing off grade-school pot shots from the peanut gallery, go right ahead. I won't be bothering to respond to any more of them, however. You might find it more satisfying to go heckle your elected representatives face-to-face at a town hall meeting somewhere; you might even get on TV.


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