Monday, October 12, 2009

Onward in the Fog

Kenting, kenning

Through the rest of early March, only a few more days of field work happened and none of it by me. Classic early spring weather seemed to be bringing rain, snow, and/or wind on the majority of days.

By this same time in 2008, we had tallied something like 5 or 6 double knock detections by four different observers, with less effort. For 2009, it stood at one detection by one observer, if one only counts the actual birders and does not include Beulah's reports. There seemed to be two apparently contradictory patterns that our 2009 result (singular) pointed out. First, obviously, was that the MIMDKWFTII might be present, or at least was present on one occasion, in 2009, but it was much less active than in 2008.

Second, however, it also seemed to validate the reality of the 2008 "hot zone." We had collectively made an effort to spread our time more widely in the WMA than in 2008; I for one had concentrated on dispersing myself as close to uniformly as was practical. And still, when our 2009 detection finally came, it was smack dab in the middle of the nexus of activity from 2008. So, it did finally appear that the 2008 "hot zone" was not just an illusion created by concentrated effort, but reflected a real pattern of the activity of the MIMDKWFTII. Hence, strategies and priorities were readjusted, and we were back to concentrating on the Hushpuckett-Rhodes Lake corridor with reduced (but still non-zero) effort in the other sectors.

And, of course, there was the matter of the gunshot. As much as I disliked it, there was a case to be made that if the double knocker would double knock in response to a gunshot, then there might be value in using the double knock simulator. My only public comment about this to Scott was "just make sure we all know where and when you will be doing simulations so I don't waste time tracking you."

Underneath all the strategizing, there were other issues brewing. For one, if you look back in my blog archives for March of 2009 you will see one great big massive ball of confusion that was hurtling through the online ibwosphere at the same time, which by virtue of an odd series of events wound up selecting this self-same Little Red Blog as its ground zero. This had no direct relevance to our Tennessee work, but it was consuming a great deal of my own time and thoughts, and behind-the-scenes seemed to be building to some sort of crescendo that was not necessarily going to be a positive thing. Directly on the Moss Island front I was acutely aware of the days ticking off since that grizzled squirrel hunter shot his .22 in the woods east of Rhodes Lake on the afternoon of February 24th. One can start to feel directly responsible for the followup to something like that, and take each passing acampephilitic day as a personal failing. It can also be difficult to hush the internal whispers of paranoia, the thought that the rest of the crew is beginning to doubt your reliability, veracity, and sanity, regardless of what might actually be said, done, or thought.

March 17, 2009

Finally the weather, schedules, and unreliable household vehicles had cooperated and I was back on site. I had arrived after dark the previous night; the last 36 hours before I left home had been tumultuous in that other Ivorybill arena surrounding Steve Sheridan's photograph. The distance measurements had been independently confirmed, the mystery bird was the size of a Red-headed Woodpecker, all of this was still secret. Most others who were privy to this information seemed far more charitable that I and continued trying to figure out the impossible gyrations or incredibly unlikely errors in image processing that could have created that image without malice or mendacity. Misanthropic ol' me thought the answer was simple and obvious: if the distance numbers are right then the image is faked. This had been my position for over a year; now that the "if" was satisfied we proceed to the "then." Regardless, I had a bunch of blog postings that were now at best moot and at worse blatantly misleading that needed to be tagged, flagged, and edited to reflect the new info; but as this new info was still secret it was not my place (yet) to be the whistleblower and I just had to leave them as they were. All told, under these circumstances, it had been blissful to head west into the land of no internet and no cell coverage for a 48-hour escape from the turmoil.

Scott had a birding pal of his, Ryan from Kentucky, along for the ride; between them, me, and Melinda we were four. Scott also had the double knock simulator. The plan was that he would do 5 simulated double knocks separated by 10 seconds, starting at the top (:00) and bottom (:30) of each hour. On this day he was planning to be way up in the northwest near Mitchell Lake, while I was going to be in The Spot east of Rhodes Lake, so he should be far, far out of my earshot. I drove out from the barn before sunrise, getting out of my truck at the end of Rhodes Lake Road at about 6:45 a.m. with sunrise scheduled for 7:05 a.m. I took a bit of time to gather my gear together, as I had pretty much just thrown on my clothes and jumped right in the truck from my tent without a whole lot of advance prep. Once I had my stuff collected, I set off towards the sill.

And, for the first time in my life, my "kent" alarm went off.

As is the case for many birders who grew up chasing feathery things around the southeastern U.S. in the 1970s, I had the Singer Tract Ivorybill audio recording burned into my DNA. For 35 years, whenever I had been in any kind of coastal plain bottomland forest there was always a "kent detector" running in the background of my mental processes. Considering where I had lived and some of the things I had done for a living, this process had logged thousands and thousands of hours without a single hit. Until now.

Through the fog, from the direction of the east shore of the shrub swamp, south of the sill, a distinct kent-like sound had just come. I picked up my pace and continued listening. A minute or two later, it came again, and the "kent" alarm once again tripped. It was not close, a couple of hundred meters. I was, surprisingly, not getting hyped up about this. For better or for worse, one thing we had all learned over the last few years is that there are a very large number of things that can sound kent-like. True, I had never been aware of having heard any of them before, but that was irrelevant. The kent had proven to be no more distinctive or diagnostic than the double knock. The most suspicious possibility for the culprit behind what I was hearing was a Pied-billed Grebe. There had been courting and singing grebes around Rhodes Lake for weeks. At the distance from which I had heard the kent-like sounds I could not tell whether they were coming from lake altitude or tree altitude.

I continued towards the sill at a fast walk, and heard several more of the kent-like sounds. As I rounded the bend and got onto the sill with a better view towards the apparent source, I also got the video camera running. I knew, of course, that even if the camera recorded something that was spectrographically identical to the Singer Tract kents this would establish nothing, as the Ivorybill "kent" is really just a rather generic high-pitched "honk" and can be matched very easily on a sonogram by many other things. It didn't matter; predictably, once I got a clear view towards the direction of the kents, and had the camera running, I heard no more. Nor did I hear or see a Pied-billed Grebe in that direction, but that means little.

After a sufficient time of staring across the shrub swamp into the foggy woods while hearing and seeing nothing, I headed onwards on the original plan. I hiked to a permanent deer stand that I had found earlier in the year, and enjoyed the view from it for a good portion of the morning:

While headed back for the lunch rendezvous, I debated what to do about the morning's kentings. They really didn't amount to much; on the other hand we had so little going on it seemed a shame to just dismiss anything no matter how small. So I waited until the entire gang of four was gathered and then told the story, complete with piles of caveats about not putting much significance to it. Melinda immediately came up with the Pied-billed Grebe hypothesis as well, to which I agreed, and the lunchtime chatter went off in other directions. Of course the paranoia whispers kept pointing out things like "oh yeah, THAT did wonders for your credibility." Now, the facts that none of us had ever actually heard a grebe "kent," nor had ever heard of such a thing, nor had any of us previously heard anything else "kenting" at Moss Island were, in the surreal Ivorybill parallel universe, irrelevancies.

I split the very quiet afternoon between the southwest woods and the "canoe trail." Ryan had departed after lunch, just leaving the three of us camped on site overnight. That evening we had a discussion about what the future plan should be, since Moss Island seemed to have dramatically cooled off. We talked about expanding to adjacent areas, that sort of thing; we also discussed whether there was any reason to maintain secrecy given the lack of activity this year. I did feel the need to point out that we were in fact not entirely without detections for 2009, I had heard a double knock series just three weeks before, a reminder that seemed to be met with something akin to "yeah, whatever." More internal paranoid whispers.

I had already been pondering that I was in danger of becoming the Tyler Hicks of Moss Island, the one who seems to keep getting detections when no one else does and hence becomes the target of suspicion and derision. I now had the only detection for 2009, and my two double knock series were the only reported detections of that sort for the entire state of Tennessee, ever. All others had been individual double knocks in isolation. This could become a problem. After that evening's conversation I decided that I might need to give serious consideration to actually choosing not to report anything else I might see or hear unless I got it on tape. An additional undocumented encounter would do little or nothing to change the situation, anyway.

On that note, it was off to bed, or at least off to sleeping bag. Tomorrow's plan was for Melinda to sit on the Rhodes Lake shore while I paddled Willow Flat. Scott would start at "the turnaround" on the road west of Rhodes Lake and head north into the woods, doing his double knock simulations on the :00/:30 schedule as he went. Ever forward in the quest for the Hope Eater.

Other posts in this series:


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