Friday, September 04, 2009

Zebras Playing Clarinets

"We were just coming in the road where you come in to the woods, and it flew right in front of us!"

Gordon and Judy were telling the tale in tandem as I stood in their dining room. They had been the second post-flood vehicle to make it in the road, arriving about 6:00 p.m., which was just about an hour ago as we stood there. They were anxious to get home before anyone else did, fearing thieves and vandals taking advantage of the vacated house and premises. And rightly so, based on my own experience that same evening just a short ways down the road.

"It stopped on that twisted round tree about 60 feet in from the road." He stopped the car and told the rest of the family to get out and keep an eye on the tree where it had landed and immediately shuffled around to the back side of the trunk. The camera was still packed in the back of the car; Judy tried to find it but wasn't able to get to it fast enough. They all saw it fly off a couple of minutes later. Both Bob Ford and I heard the same story about this part -- "When it flew it banked and you could see all that white, all the way down the back, and a red head." He and Judy both stressed how big it was, "bigger than a woodpecker." They don't consider this bird to be a woodpecker, leaving that category for things of Pileated size and smaller. The bird flew out of sight, according to Gordon and Judy at breakneck speed. Gordon said it "didn't fly like a woodpecker, it just goes hard and straight without that up and down." Judy was amazed at how it just went right off through the woods at top speed, steering around every twig and branch without skipping a beat, contrasting it again with "woodpecker" flight. She laughed that she knew why it was going extinct, that flying like that they must kill themselves ramming into trees at full throttle all the time.

Just after it got out of sight, Gordon said they heard "that sound it makes." He's described this call before, coupled with a sighting at Rhodes Lake about a year or two earlier. He said the call was one note, on a level pitch, not "broken up like a woodpecker," and "kinda eerie." He and Judy said they had read it was supposed to sound like a tin horn, but that wasn't right. They agreed it was lower than that. I asked Gordon if he could name a musical instrument that might be a better match. He thought about it a good bit, then answered:

"I'd say maybe a clarinet would be the closest."

Through all this informal debriefing I'd been careful not to give them leading information, as had Bob also been when he talked to them separately the next morning. But after Gordon told me this I asked him if he had ever read the old tales that said you could imitate an Ivorybill's call with a clarinet mouthpiece. He and Judy both looked surprised and said they'd never heard that before.

After telling their tale, I told them mine of the drunken would-be boat thieves. Gordon is a former deputy sheriff who had worked undercover vice and still sports a chest-grazing goatee; he was not at all surprised. We figured they were probably checking to see if the house was still vacant, and finding that it wasn't they headed on down the road to see if there were any other easy pickings. He called in to the county sheriff and the refuge manager, giving them the plate and description. Word came back to me the next day that the manager, Carl Wirwa, was furious and wanted to know right away if they ever showed up on the site again so he could bust their sorry behinds.

And now time for the eternally recurring question: What to make of their sighting?

I keep in mind that we birder sorts have learned a very particular way of seeing birds, along with our own language for describing them, and that normal people don't share these. We have probably all had the experience of someone giving us a description that might sound like a dead ringer for (as an example) a redpoll, only to have it turn out to be a chipping sparrow when we finally see the bird. Plus there's the phenomenon of having one promising sighting, and then following that up with a bunch of overeager mis-IDs. And there is especially the parallel phenomenon of rarity bias: When you present someone with the choice of two possible explanations, most people are emotionally drawn to the more exotic, exciting, special, rare, and unlikely option. Many people, including all competent birders, learn to resist this and, as they teach in medical school, think "horses" when they hear hoofbeats, not "zebras." But in the minds of the general public, zebras tend to greatly outnumber horses. Just about every old-time hunter, fisherman, or swamper in the south seems to have tales of Ivorybill encounters to tell when you get to know him or her well enough. Hence I fully understood that the vocalization they heard might have been a coincidental wood duck or something else, not the the bird they saw at all, and the flight they describe might just be normal Pileated flight seen through the eyes of someone who hasn't actually looked that closely at Pileateds before. Hell, the bird they saw might not have been any kind of woodpecker at all. But those two things -- the flight and the call -- did get my attention. Though I was definitely skeptical, I was certainly intrigued enough to change my plans for the next morning. After all, once in a blue moon it really does turn out to be a zebra; otherwise we birders would not spend so much of our lives sorting through thousands of peeps, gulls, and sparrows.

April 23, 2008

I wasn't going to retool my whole approach based on a non-birder sighting, no matter how excited they may have been. But it was easy enough to take an early morning walk west from the barn on the main road towards the levee and Great River Road. I set out at 6:00, right about sunrise, creeping along and listening closely. It was both a noisy morning and a quiet morning. Noisy in that this stretch of road proved to be an excellent migrant trap and the still-flooded woods were full of all the same sorts of sounds I had experienced yesterday evening around Rhodes Lake; quiet because there were still none of the anthropogenic background bangs, clunks, and such from off-site. It was another of those clear, calm mornings.

At 7:01 what sounded to me like a good, solid double knock of the MIMDKWTFII type rang out from due west of me. I guessed the distance at about 300m; this put it in the flooded woods, maybe 100m north of the road, and quite close to the spot of yesterday evening's report. My skepticism was significantly dented by this. I picked up my pace, trying to strike the balance between speed and the ability to hear. I also continued to survey the background sounds -- no "river noises," no highway traffic, and there's no highway bridge in that direction. And no more double-knocky sounds either. I sent a text message to Scott (enough cell coverage for SMS, not enough for voice) while I continued to hear nothing. His response was a surprisingly curt "did you record it?" I texted back that I had no sound recording equipment, to which he responded "we need something documented." Still stinging from the Cornell-ARU incident, it seemed. Of course even if I had been in possession of a sound recorder, it likely would not have picked the sound up. I was walking slowly, not sitting still, so even if the device had been running it probably would have mostly recorded the sounds of gravel crunching and clothes scraping. We weren't going to get a sound recording unless we had another series of double knocks, not just isolated individual DKs. This would allow time to get the device operating, stationary, and pointed in the right direction. So far there had only been one series heard (by me on 3/11/2008); who knew how long it would be until the next time?

As the minutes wore on with still no more suspicious sounds, the creeping uncertainties grew. Unlike the 3/21/08 incident at Rhodes Lake, all I really had was a compass direction. There was no second bearing from an observer at a different location to triangulate distance. I guessed 300m, but that was of course based on an assumption that the sound was inherently similar in volume to my previous encounters -- "I prove A by assuming A." Could it have been much louder and off-site? Unlike the 3/11/08 series, I had not had the opportunity to hear and closely study the sound multiple times, listening for all the audio clues as to its true distance and nature. All I could say was that it didn't "sound" that far away, but I could not give more specific reasons. I was now learning first-hand about the difficulties of knowing what to make of single-observer, one-time, apparent "double knocks." Still, though my perceptions were all I had, I could report and record them just the same. What weight if any to give to this on down the road could and would be decided later.

My doubts were ramped up about a half hour later when the county road grader came rumbling down the road from the direction of Great River Road. Could that have been the source of the sound I heard, perhaps while it was in transit down the highway from another spot, or being offloaded from a trailer up on the levee? I suppose; just the same as any other off-site mechanical noise, that is not what it had "sounded like" to my ears. More than that I really could not say. As the grader continued past me, out of sight, then returned shortly headed back out to the west and off the WMA, I followed it with my ears. No double-knocky sounds. About 8:00 a series of "river noises" began. At least I could eliminate them; they were as usual loud and distinctive, and clearly had not been in progress at 7:01.

I finished my hike to the levee and back to the barn at 8:30 a.m. I loaded up in my kayak and headed northwest into that same patch of woods between the road and the lakes, this time afloat. There are many areas with fairly large trees in here, which proved to mostly be sugarberries and cottonwoods with only a few oaks or other hardwoods. There were also large areas of willow and scrawny silver maple around the lakes and sloughs. The most impressive stands of trees were actually the ones fairly close to the road, as well as along the western fringes west of Cocklebur Slough and south of Mitchell Lake. I heard no more double knocks and saw nothing out of the ordinary, as has become par for the course. Same-day follow up on suspicious activity yields... nothing. As I had noted the other time I visited this area on March 20th, there is a high level of woodpecker activity, as high as anywhere else I had seen at Moss Island. With the flickers and sapsuckers having vacated for the season we were now down to five species, however. There were also plenty of passerine transients around; for the day I found 20 species of warblers.

Still no zebra.

A club I should join?

Other posts in this series:


At 8:14 AM, Blogger cyberthrush said...

Always troubling that the bulk (though certainly not all) IBWO sightings involve seeing red crests, indicating the clear possibility of Pileated. It seems a fair assumption, though not necessary, that if IBWO have persisted the last 60 yrs. it is by maintaining a somewhat even distribution of male/female population, and yet only a small percentage of sightings are evidenced as females. In some ways, failing to see the head color is almost better than noting it is red, which will always buttress the skeptical case of it being PIWO!
Nonetheless, interesting story.

At 3:29 PM, Blogger Bill Pulliam said...

I haven't gone into much detail about the reports from TWRA staff and the residents there that happened before our "official" search started, in part because it's never clear how much weight to put on these sorts of sightings by non-birder outdoorsmen and -women. But there have been descriptions of black crests; Judy describes seeing two birds flying together over the treeline near the barn, the front bird with red crest, the rear bird with black crest.

At 4:06 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

To a non-birder like me, a big woodpecker with a red crest looks like a big woodpecker. One without a red crest (and seen from a distance) may not look like a woodpecker and therefore not be seen as one.


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