Monday, September 28, 2009

Dead of Winter, Ghosts Included

This was proving to be the first real winter that much of Tennessee had experienced in several years. A steady chain of storms kept me away from Moss Island for the rest of January and into early February. On January 28th an ice storm of legendary magnitude encrusted a swath from Arkansas into Kentucky with 1 to 3 inches of freezing rain. This caught the northwest corner of Tennessee, demolishing most of the power distribution grid in Dyer, Lake, and Obion counties. Moss Island received just a glancing blow; there were a lot of branches and a few trees down, but in comparison to what happened just a few miles farther north it looked untouched. As I would find later in the year, from Dyersburg north the tree damage was reminiscent of what we saw on the upper coast of South Carolina in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo. The big difference was that the ice storm dropped everything straight down rather than pointing uniformly to the northwest. But the overall impact was similar, near total stripping of all small to medium sized branches on most trees, with many topped or felled completely. The Great Ice Storm of '09 will be talked of for generations to come in these areas, I am sure.

I finally got in a few field days in early February, continuing with my rotation through the WMA. The results were much the same as in January -- large numbers of woodpeckers in an absolute sense, but still relatively low activity compared to the early spring of '08. A bumper crop of winterberries (the fruit of Ilex decidua) and poison ivy berries had drawn in hoards of American Robins and Yellow-rumped Warblers, and the Pine Siskin invasion had even reached this extremely pine-less corner of the South. But, of course, nothing campephilish, no encounters with the MIMDKWFTII. So far our early start on the season didn't have much to show for it, but I stuck with the strategy, hitting all the regions and keeping eyes and ears open.

Mid-February was also the time for the Great Backyard Bird Count as well as the Rusty Blackbird Blitz. Moss Island is good Rusty habitat, so I headed there for a day trip on February 14th. Sunrise caught me driving through Frog Jump, where a Rough-legged Hawk hung in the air over the highway. By then I was getting more accustomed to the strange biogeographic juxtapositions of the upper Delta region, and was able to just enjoy the bird without pondering the irony. I decided to spend about an hour in each of my defined regions, then head back home. I only came up with 35 Rusties, lower than what I often find, but the data come out the way the data come out. My woodpecker counts were improving a bit, with 16 Pileateds on the morning. On my way out, I came across Judy and her oldest daughter Beulah in their yard. Beulah is 17 and a very eager young outdoorswoman. Scott had equipped her with notebook, field guide, and camera just in case she came across anything.

Turns out she had come across something.

The previous morning, February 13th, she had hiked the ATV trail to Forked Lake. As she began to head back to the trailhead, a big black and white thing tore past her at breakneck speed. The account I wrote up at the time, based on my conversation with her, reads as follows:
She was walking back north on the Forked Lake ATV trail at about 11:15 (maybe she said 11:30) a.m. in the area that it crosses through the canebrake. She saw the bird flying past towards the north end of Forked Lake, moving very fast. She tried to get her camera up, but it was on power save and would not wake up fast enough. What she described was a bird that was bigger than a crow, black, and as she described it like the rear part of the wings had been painted white. The sketch in her notebook shows almost the entire rear half of the wings white, which would represent all the secondaries and most of the inner primaries. It also shows rather long wings. She didn't have time to note any other features, like crest, bill, dorsal stripes, etc. It's a story that has become very familiar over the last few years! The nature of the sighting, her description and her sketch are all spookily similar to the Harrison-Gallagher sighting of 2/27/04. She was confident that it had white all the way to the rear of the wings. She also commented many times on how fast the bird was moving. I didn't have my camera in hand when she showed me her sketch; I should have snapped a photo of it.

One thing I should add to that is that the bird was gliding the whole time of the sighting, without wingbeats. From what I gathered, it had been one fast swoop at pretty close range, with the bird banking as it passed her showing her its dorsal side. And in a flash it was gone.

Do I even need to repeat the mantra? All together now: What do we make of this report? Beulah literally grew up in these woods, and she has long been interested in their fauna. But, she's generally taken more of an interest in the bugs than the birds, and she's had little formal tutoring in the standard techniques of observational field biology. And once again we come across differences in language between the codified terminology birders are accustomed to and the more idiosyncratic ways that normal people describe things. This came up in the case of this sighting when Beulah independently told her tale to Melinda. Then she referred to a "white line on the back." The sketch she showed me distinctly indicated white bands along the rear portion of the wings. "Band" versus "line," "back" versus "rear." And, of course, like any normal person who has not been indoctrinated in rare bird documentation protocols, she looked at her field guide before drawing her sketch. I did observe that her sketch did not include much spurious detail, just a black bird with long wings and a big white band along the trailing edge, viewed from above. It boils down to what has become the standard unsatisfying Ivorybill sighting: bird seen very fast, no time to note anything but white secondaries, gone before the camera is ready to shoot. How much the brain can really take in accurately under those circumstances is always uncertain. It is also worth remembering that Scott photographed a White-winged Scoter on Rhodes Lake the previous March.

Still and all, it was something at least. Maybe things would pick up as we got into the second half of February. Dave Pereksta was going to be sacrificing his annual vacation on the Ivorybill altar yet again, and was due to arrive for two weeks at Moss Island (at his own expense) on February 23rd. I sure hoped we had some weather other than cold, rain, snow, and wind, and some exciting piciformic action to make his trip worthwhile.

Other posts in this series:


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