Monday, August 31, 2009


Copulation bustin' out all over...

April 22, 2008

Over the previous two weeks, Scott and Melinda had both spent additional time in the field, watching the sight lines gradually fill in with leaves and hearing the woodpeckers quiet down as the nesting season got underway. Neither had any encounters with the MIMDKWTFII, nor any sightings of strange woodpeckerish creatures. My time had been occupied with the rest of life, punctuated by e-mails containing copies of Reconyx images with blurry blobs in them. These were coming alternately from the now-infamous Illinois freelancers and from another locale that has not yet chosen to make any of their findings public. It's a bad sign when an attached image has to come with detailed instructions on even finding the object in question in the frame; I was growing to really dislike Reconyx images!

I had arrived at the turnoff from Great River Road about 11:30 this morning, finding Bob's truck parked just off the levee. The water had dropped considerably since the beginning of the month, so I gave it a "test wade" to check the depth. The lowest part of the road to the barn was right at the beginning; I knew if that was workable I'd be clear for another mile. I never got deeper than about 10-12" and the road surface felt stable and firm, so my truck and I went for it. No problem. I was obviously the first vehicle in since March -- as I continued on to the barn I had to stop every 100m or so to move logs out of the road. I got to the barn around 12:30, with big dark clouds approaching from the west. I stayed at the barn to set up camp while the downpours passed, wondering if Bob had managed to get out ahead of the rain.

About 2:00 p.m. the weather cleared, so I put my kayak in at the edge of the swamp and paddled to Rhodes Lake. I spent the rest of the afternoon around the south end of the lake and exploring a bit back into the woods. The swamps were extremely noisy. Between turtles, beaver tails, branches falling, etc., there were banging, cracking, splashing, and slapping sounds all over the place. This was a recuring theme through the week -- high background level of noise from which possible woodpecker sounds had to be sorted out. Plus, in mid-afternoon it was obvious that Highway 88 reopened as the bangs and bumps from traffic on it resumed. Nothing double-knockish jumped out from all this background noise. The most unexpected and false-alarm triggering sound was a new one on me: copulating Wood Ducks. When the drake mounts the hen he beats his wings hard, making a short rapid series of rather loud slapping sounds against the water. It seemed the south end of Rhodes Lake was the site of the local Wood Duck love-in, as these sex-slaps were ringing out with distracting frequency. They did not resound through the woods for hundreds of meters as the sounds from the MIMDKWTFII did, but they could turn your head if you were within 100m of them or less.

Now that they had leafed out, the trees were identifiable to species. I discovered why I had not been able to recognize the species I mentioned earlier that grows tall (but not straight) around Rhodes Lake with often a lot of dead wood near its summit. I had not recognized them because I had never seen such huge ones before -- they were black willows (Salix nigra). Most of the other trees in this area were red and silver maples (Acer rubrum and A. saccharinum), with southern hackberries a.k.a. sugarberries (Celtis laevigata) dominant on the higher ground. A maple/willow forest is indeed not even remotely what is thought of as ivorybill habitat; though as I said already these were the tallest and most impressive black willows I had ever seen. It certainly provided good woodpecker habitat in general, however; the willows and silver maples are short-lived pioneer trees and these individuals seemed to be approaching the end of their life cycles. I would later find that this "overmature" maple/willow association was widespread through the sloughs at Moss Island, growing where I would have expected a cypress/tupelo association. Cypress was restricted to isolated sprouts and a few big "cull" trees; tupelo was nonexistent as far as I could tell. The simplest explanation for this pattern is that the cypress sloughs were logged out completely in the early 20th Century and this pioneer bottomland hardwood association had grown in to replace it. The pioneers were now starting to die off, likely to be replaced by red maple, green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) and hackberry. Cypress did not seem to be making a comeback.

I returned to the "put-in" (the point where Rhodes Lake Road emerged from the water as it left the forest) at dusk, beached my kayak, and walked back to the barn to retrieve my pickup. A small white pickup holding two men and one woman passed me headed in the opposite direction (towards my boat) as I walked out. Almost immediately after they got to the edge of the swamp, I heard the klunking sounds of my kayak being messed with. I hurried to the barn, knowing that if I had my truck I'd be able to block them from getting away on the single-track, mud-bordered road. As I neared the barn there is a spot where there is a clear line of sight back to the put-in. I could see that one of the guys was off playing with my kayak, meanwhile the other had the woman bent over the hood of his truck and was doin' th' nasty. I sped on to my truck and drove back there as fast as the muddy road allowed. By the time I caught up with them, everybody's pants were pulled back up, they had loaded my boat and paddle into the back of their truck, tied the kayak in, and the one who hadn't been preoccupied with the business over the hood was wearing my PFD. They were drunk as skunks. They babbled lamely about "well hell how was we 'spose to know whose stuff it was?" to which I gave the obvious answer of "You f'ing SAW me walking up the road a hundred yards from the f'ing boat, who the f' did yo think it belonged to and where the f' did you think I was going?" (I left out the natural conclusion to this statement, "you f'ing drunk-ass morons!"). The woman joined in with "I told you it was his stuff, I told you he was coming back for it, I told you to leave it alone!" which didn't do much to help their case. They unloaded my boat, cutting the bow line since they were too drunk to figure out how to untie the knot, then made to get back in the truck and drive off. I stopped the one who was still wearing my PFD and said "What about my life vest?" He acted surprised; he might have been drunk enough that the surprise was real, and said "Oh, is this yours too?" I answered "What the f' do you mean is it mine too? It was stuffed up inside my f'ing boat, who the f' do you think put it there?" He gave me the vest and they jumped in the truck for their getaway. Apparently my impression of a pissed-off Charles Manson successfully intimidates the local rednecks. To paraphrase a biker acquaintance, it's amazing how effective an angry look and a lot of facial hair can be. A healthy dose of profanity doesn't hurt, either. As they drove off I wrote down their tag (TN plate, 833KKT, Lauderdale County), then loaded up my gear and headed back to the barn.

On the way I stopped at the house to talk to the residents. They had returned just an hour earlier after having been flooded out of their house for a full month. The house itself does not flood, but all road access gets cut off. In their younger days they just waited the floods out, but the daddy of the family, Gordon, had developed chronic health problems so they were no longer comfortable with being stranded. Gordon and his wife Judy had some pretty interesting stories of strange woodpeckers they had seen and heard in the woods there over the years; Gordon in particular had some very intriguing descriptions of vocalizations he had heard coming from these strange woodpeckers. I knocked on their door to see how things were going and tell them about the would-be thieves in the neighborhood.

I was immediately greeted by cries of "We saw the bird!"

Other posts in this series:


At 4:39 AM, Blogger Dave Nolin said...

Great story, LOL

At 2:23 PM, Blogger cyberthrush said...

ehhh, did you run across any banjo players in them there woods, Bill? ;-)
...and you don't look like no Charles Manson to me; Kris Kristofferson... maybe.

At 8:26 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I always thought the main hazards to Ivory-bill searchers were alligators, poisonous snakes, and abundant mosquitoes. I guess they're not such a big deal compared to drunk rednecks.

At 8:52 AM, Blogger Bill Pulliam said...

Actually, joking aside for a second, the real hazards in those swamps are the ones faced by outdoorsmen and -women everywhere: drowning, hypothermia, falls, firearms accidents, and vehicle accidents either in the field or on the way there and back. The wildlife barely even rate as hazards.

At 10:50 AM, Blogger Cotinis said...

A great piece of writing! The whole incident reminds me of what a good friend of mine (a Tennessee native, with the accent to prove it, and, incidentally, a Ph.D.) says whenever I contemplate an expedition to the backwoods Appalachians: "Better take your bow!"

On the subject of wilderness safety, I recommend that all read Patrick McManus's great essay (in A Fine and Pleasant Misery) on the three most dangerous things in the wilderness (1-cigars, 2-logging trucks, 3-know-it-alls).


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