Monday, September 21, 2009

2009 Tally Ho!

Big white birds!

January 12, 2009

I had just crossed the county line from Obion to Dyer on Highway 51 when I caught the two big glowing shapes in a large borrow pit off to my right. A couple of swans, it seemed. Something about the scene just said "Trumpeters" to me even on first glance. I think the sight of a pair of swans on a small lake in a westernish-looking landscape triggered flashbacks from my years in Yellowstone, where Trumpeter couples were a frequent and memorable sight. I pulled off on the shoulder, reminded myself I was in Tennessee not Montana, and trained the scope on the birds. I was greeted with a pair of big honkin' jet black bills on a couple of snow-white, straight-necked swans, the smaller of which sported a yellow collar around its (presumably her) neck. Damn, they really ARE Trumpeters! I vaguely knew there were just a small number of recent records for Tennessee, and sort of remembered that there was a reintroduction program to our north. Whatever, wild or not, they were a regal pair.

I had spent a long morning birding around Kentucky Lake with Mike Todd, whom I had left at the overlook at Britton Ford in the Big Sandy unit of Tennessee NWR looking at five species of geese practically in one field of view. I fished out his cell phone number and gave him a call to get out the alert about the swans. I had to move on from the birds after snapping some crappy images, as I was due to meet Melinda at Rhodes Lake for the first evening watch of the 2009 season at Moss Island. Fortunately Mike was able get to the birds before dark and get some excellent photos of them. In the end the collar traced back to the reintroduced populations in Wisconsin. As the reintroduced birds are generally now considered established, wild, and countable by the various records committees of the Great Lakes states, it remains only to be seen what the Tennessee committee will eventually decide. If accepts them, it turns out they will be the first "wild" Trumpeters tallied in Tennessee in over 100 years.

So, having restored one extirpated species to Tennessee's official list, it was time to go try to add another!

I arrived at Moss Island about 3:00 p.m., after an absence of 7 months. It was, of course, a very different place in January 2009 than it had been in June 2008. Most fascinating to me was that the water was far lower than I had seen it before. Large amounts of dry land had appeared in the sloughs. Upon reaching the end of Rhodes Lake Road, I actually saw the sill for the first time ever. Previously it had only been a line of trees emerging from the water, or at most a vague lightness barely visible through a couple of feet of turbid blackwater. Now it was high and dry, a single-track graveled ATV road. I also took note of what appeared to be many downed trees and large broken branches all through the woods. In the gray winter leaflessness the broken wood shined like beacons signaling "Future Woodpecker Smorgasbord!" It had been a stormy summer and autumn, most notably when the remnants of Hurricane Ike passed up the Mississippi Valley in September. Even in our neck of the woods that storm had downed some trees; Moss Island had been about 200 km closer to the track. Many of the trees seemed to be broken and felled to the northwest, an appropriate direction to be Ike effects.

Melinda arrived at about 4:00 p.m., and we sat together out in the middle of the sill watching and chatting quietly while being entertained by beavers on the lake. That's the big drawback of being in the field in pairs; the temptation to chit-chat is great. The overall mood of the crew going in to this year was upbeat; we were getting an early start on the season, and if the MIMDKWTFII was still in the area we felt like we might have a fair chance of spotting it, WTFII. Kind of like opening day of the baseball season -- everyone has hope. Over the coming months most will have it slowly stripped away from them.

It was a quiet evening out at the lake. There was only a smattering of woodpecker drumming and vocalizing, just three Pileateds, a handful of Redbellies, and one each of Downy and Hairy. The highlight was the occasional flocks of Snow Geese passing over, a phenomenon that would keep up for the next couple of months. At dusk I returned to the barn to set up camp. This year I was planning on being at Moss Isand a good bit more, at least twice a month, thanks to more travel and expense money from Scott, and a less-used more reliable pickup I had bought in December. I had decided to leave my tent set up at the barn full time, along with some basic field gear, to make my frequent comings and goings easier. I could hook up to electricity, which made the long winter evenings pass more easily.


Over the next couple of days Melinda and I spread our effort around the WMA. The goals for 2009 were to first determine if there even was any suspicious activity at all this year, and second to see if there was any notable spatial or temporal pattern to any activity there might be. Well, of course, primary would be to see and photograph an Ivorybill, but that was miles beyond the objectives that structured our daily routine!

It turns out that Moss Island isn't all that bad of a place to go birding in mid-winter. The south fields had grown up into excellent grassy oldfield habitat. Though this was obviously not the place to look for Ivorybills, I gave it an hour or so at midday and some scoping at dusk, yielding a LeConte's Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, and Short-eared Owl. The days in the woods were good for generating high counts. I think this must be the continental motherload for Winter Wrens at this season, as I tallied 23 over three days. The woodpecker tallies were 17 Redheadeds, 55 Redbellies, 6 sapsuckers, 20 Downies, 7 Hairies, 29 flickers, and 23 Pileateds, still relatively low numbers compared to the abundances I found in March last year.

Neither Melinda nor I came across anything suspicious on the Ivorybill front. In the long solo evenings in the cold tent I had plenty of time to think about last year's results and this year's strategies. A big question for me was (assuming the double knock phenomenon was real, whatever it might actually be) whether our "hot zone" was a real pattern of activity or just a reflection of our distribution of effort. I decided I'd try to address this quantitatively, at least at a rough level. As a first step towards this I came up with five subdivisions of the Moss Island forests for tallying up detections and effort. For my own record keeping purposes I also added two non-forested regions. The divisions I came up with are based as much on points of access as anything else, and are marked on the map I posted earlier. The list is:

1. Northwest woods. Moss Island Road west of the barn, north through Cocklebur Flats to Mitchell Lake.

2. North central woods. From the barn eastwards, north of Rhodes Lake Road and west of Rhodes Lake. Mostly accessed by hiking or paddling the "canoe trail" east from the Barn. Also includes the western half of Willow Flat.

3. Rhodes Lake area and south. Areas surrounding Rhodes Lake, as well as the southeastern half of Willow Flat and the shrub swamp and forest south of the sill.

4. Southeast woods. Forked Lake, Hushpuckett lake, forested areas and ATV trails south of Rhodes Lake Road and east of Goosepen Road.

5. Southwest woods. All forests south of Moss Island and Rhodes Lake roads and west of the end of Goosepen Road.

6. Central Fields. Open and mixed areas along Moss Island and Rhodes Lake roads.

7. South Fields. Open areas along the southern parts of the WMA.

In 2008 all our detections had been in regions 3 and 4, except for my dubious double knock from area 1. Most of our effort had been concentrated in those two regions as well. On my return home I would try to tally up how many person-hours of effort we had put in in each region and each month. I thought the comparison to detections might be revealing.

The intrepid swamper in the Okefenokee in 1987

Other posts in this series:


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