We head for the Smoky Mountains full of confidence: the Kentucky Warblers may have proved to be elusive, but every source suggests that our new quarry will be more forthcoming. The Canada Warbler is known to be a particularly aggressive bird, likely to respond quickly to our calls; the American Redstart is a common and easy-to-find species. We will catch them easily while enduring less moisture and fewer mosquitos than before.
We pass many dangers on the way.
The weather forecast is mildly concerning, calling as it does for thunderstorms every day, but we assure each other that weather prediction is far from a perfect science.
When we arrive in the mountains— well, we can’t be sure that we have arrived, although certainly the road has been climbing. All we can see is fog.
Never mind; the clouds must clear sometime, right?
We find no sign of our birds the first day. The second day, huzzah! A Canada Warbler in our hands before 10am.
Much encouraged, we go on to catch… nothing. The fog does not lift. Periodically it rains on us. There are more mushrooms and millipedes here than I have ever seen, luxuriating in the damp. One of my rainboots develops a leak.
One day, a pair of cautious canine faces peers over a ledge at us as we set up the mist net. They disappear, and a few minutes later are back, inspecting us from a new angle: one brown face, one spotted. The brown dog decides to say hello.
The spotted dog runs straight through the net and, spooked, disappears, but the brown dog is unperturbed.
The spotted dog returns but hangs back shyly. Her collar says SISSY among the various GPS components.
We pack up the net and hike on, and the dogs come with us.
There is no sign of the dogs’ owner, and they seem perfectly happy to accompany us. When we give up on the birds, again, and return to the trailhead, I text the number on the brown dog’s collar to check that the dogs are not lost.
“Where are you?” comes the reply. “Can you keep them with you? I’ll be right there.”
Keeping the dogs with us is not a problem, especially when we share our lunches with them. Even nervous Sissy calms right down after food.
Their owner, when he arrives, explains that he took them “running hogs” three days ago and they were too excited to come back. “I got one still out there somewhere,” he says unconcernedly. “One time they were gone two weeks.” The GPS collars are meant to help him locate them, but the wet weather seems to be interfering with the signals.
Hunting with hounds is, of course, illegal in the state park.
We are rather sorry to see the dogs go.
Sometimes the clouds clear for a few minutes in the morning or the evening, taunting us.
We start to question our sanity, as local hikers and eBird alike assure us that our birds are common here. We hike farther and farther. One evening, a raucous baying of many hounds comes closer and closer to us until the dogs are there among the trees, giving us dubious looks and trying to move us along out of their hunting grounds.
We find other wildlife; the Smoky Mountains have not become the sole domain of hounds.
A young black bear comes out of the bushes nearly as full of friendship as the lost dogs, and seems disappointed when we are unwilling to be his buddies.
Our last day is a partial day: we have to leave for the airport by 10am to catch our plane. It is the first clear morning we have had, so we go out netting anyway, not expecting anything.
And the Canada Warblers come to our calls.
So, of course, does a dog.
Like rumors made flesh, the Canada Warblers are suddenly there, where they are supposed to be; and we don’t have enough time.
We leave with samples from five Canada Warblers and zero American Redstarts. This is the kind of bad luck you ought to expect from field work, to have five straight days of thunderstorms keeping your birds hidden: but we didn’t expect it, because we only had five days, and we were optimistic.
We don’t have nearly the samples we had hoped to get, but this is a large, collaborative project. We can still hope that our few samples will fill in a little piece of the puzzle.