Sunday, October 04, 2009

Here We Go Again

Phantom thunderbird strikes again...

Over the previous year I had listened to a fair number of recordings of real double knocks from known Campephili. The double knock I had just heard from across the lake was absolutely perfect, textbook, archetypal. It had been crisp, rich, resonant, woody, sonorous, dead-on for cadence, and freekin' LOUD considering that the near edge of the forest in that direction was about 500m away diagonally across the lake. As happens at these times, my mind started racing. The first thought was, "Is that Dave?" I knew Dave had a recording of Pale-billed Woodpecker double knocks on his iPod, which was connected to a portable amplified speaker thingy. He had demonstrated it to me the day before. At top volume it sounded like "pop-pop" and might be audible from 100m under perfect conditions (which light rain and a 2 m/s wind from the other direction were not). It was hard to imagine that he could be blasting it so loud and with such perfect reproduction. Besides, he and Scott had just driven past me headed back to the barn a half hour before. There's no other road. It's been raining. How the hell could he have gotten way the f' back over there in the roadless forest across the lake?


Holy crap! Exact same direction, exact same apparent distance, exact same sound. It was a double knock series! It had only been something like 10 or 20 seconds since the first one. Extremely fast decisions were needed. Do I try to get it on tape? Because of the rain I did not have the video camera at the ready. Do I try to get closer? Do I tear off into the woods on foot to try to track it down? Would a crappy recording of a distant double knock submersed in the continuing sound of raindrops on the roof of my truck really accomplish much at this point?


The third double knock, again only about 10 or 20 seconds after the preceding one, again exactly the same direction and exactly the same sound, settled the matter. I needed to get closer. I started the truck and drove to the other end of the lake as fast as I could. At the end of the road I lept out and set the camera recording in the direction the double knocks should be coming from, now only about 200m away. Nothing. Not a creak or tap to be heard.

I still had nagging doubts about the origin of the three double knocks I had heard. Strangely, it was their perfection that bothered me. I knew Scott had a double knock simulator; I didn't know if he had it with him on this trip. But how could he or Dave possibly have gotten back over there? Could they have looped around the other end of the lake, off-trail, in the rain? That just made no sense at all considering that the last time I saw them they had been hurrying back to camp to get away from the rain. By now the rain had entirely stopped, and the sun was even hinting that it might break through.

Not long after I got to the end of the road, the squirrel hunter returned to his truck, parked about 50m from mine. He started to drive out, but stopped when he saw me sitting on my tailgate, and started chatting with me. I caught the whole conversation on tape; the first part is pretty amusing in context and it's included at the beginning of the video clip below. I asked him if he had seen anyone else in the woods over there recently, which he had not. He had gotten a squirrel with the one shot I heard, and that was the only shot he had fired all afternoon. I told him I had heard some weird sounds over there and wondered if there could possibly be someone from our crew still in the woods. He confirmed he hadn't seen anyone, and couldn't remember having done anything himself other than firing his gun just the one time that would have made any loud noises.

That seemed to settle it. The Moss Island Mystery Double Knocker (Whatever It Is) was indeed back.

I stayed on watch until dark, hearing no more signs of the MIMDKWTFII. I was treated to an avian spectacle after sunset as hundreds and hundreds of ducks, mostly Mallards, streamed overhead, all in small groups, all headed the same direction, filling the sky. There's some rather indistinct footage of this on the video clip below as well. Finally in deep dusk I got in the truck and drove back to the barn. Scott and Dave were there, relaxing before dinner. They had been there all along, of course; they went directly there after I saw them drive past in the rain back at the lake. I told them my tale.

Scott commented later, as did "Jacob," that I didn't seem as excited this time as I had been in 2008 after my first (and last) encounter with a double knock series. Well, it had been a long year, and now I knew what came next. More correctly, I knew what almost certainly did NOT come next: quick followup resulting in nailing down the bird, accomplishment, satisfaction, and progress. More likely what came next was a whole lot of followup yielding a whole lot of nothing. Jaded, sure, but I think we all have gotten hard and green after the last few years.

Two parts of this encounter most interested Scott. First was the geography. I had not been entirely clear in my mind on the details of the two encounters in 2008 that were had by Cornell staff (Dave's brief glimpse and Leighton's double knock). It turns out that they were quite close to the spot from which the double knocks I had just heard had originated, as was Scott's very first double-knock-and-brief-glimpse encounter in 2008. All told, there had now been four possible detections on four different dates, by four different observers, and in two different years within about 100-200m of each other.

The other thing that really got Scott's interest was the very close proximity of the double knocks to the gunshot. There was only a minute or less and maybe 100m of distance separating the two. I would love to tell that squirrel hunter, who joked about Ivorybills completely out of the blue, that when he shot his supper he might have been standing only a hundred yards from one! It seemed like too much of a coincide-ence to just write off as a coincidence. There seemed a very real chance that the MIMDKWTFII had been prompted to do its DK thing in response to a nearby gunshot.

Scott of course now wanted to run through the woods blasting a .22 everywhere he went. On a more serious note, it strongly suggested that maybe we should give that damned double knock simulator a try. Scott may have heard a double knock in response to the simulator in 2008, I had just heard a double knock series that was possibly triggered by a gunshot. Loud man-made noises in the woods might have some merit in this quest. We would just have to decide how to make use of this possibility.

The rest of the video for 2/24/09 -- the conversation, the sunset view from my lookout, the ducks:

Other posts in this series:


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