The Pong Bird
Riverdave's Journal
June 7, 2009

          I love it when life presents a new mystery!  In the spring of 2007 I began to hear an unusual animal call in the evening, coming from behind my cabin, on parkland that slopes down towards the Eno River.  At that time, I started referring to it as the “Pong Bird,” as its vocalization seemed to have a ringing, bell like quality.  After a couple of weeks of hearing the call from my back porch, I asked my wife to come out and confirm that it wasn’t just my imagination. She heard it too. That was a relief, as confirmation in the realms of mystery is very important!

          Finally my curiosity got the best of me. One evening I grabbed a flashlight and headed into the woods at dusk in the direction of the call.  Fearful that leaves crunching under my feet might frighten the creature, I walked slowly. The calling animal moved ahead of me downhill and eventually ended up next to the river, perhaps forty or fifty feet up in the tree canopy. By then it was dark.  I aimed my flashlight upward and carefully searched through limbs and foliage but spotted nothing. 

          The moment I turned off my flashlight the critter called again, this time from the opposite bank of the river.  Then it proceeded to make its way up the opposite hill and I heard its call disappear over the distant south ridge. I returned from my escapade covered with scratches and spider webs from navigating the forest off-trail at night.  At least I had confirmed that the animal was probably a bird, as It had crossed the Eno River without a splash.

          As summer 2007 came upon us, it became apparent that the Pong Bird’s favorite time to call was around four o’clock in the morning on moonlit nights.  When all else was quiet outside, I could hear its call with more clarity and i realized that it had a descending, two note vocalization, and was not as bell-like as I had originally thought.  One predawn morning I heard it on the street side of our house for the first time and then it began to slowly move up our street.  I woke my wife and we raced out with a miniature tape recorder and followed it up the street a ways to where it promptly reentered Eno Parkland. 

          Once again, I stood directly underneath it but could not spot it with a flashlight.  Its call echoed in the forest to such a degree that I was beginning to think that this ventriloquist animal might even be somewhere on the ground, but this time I was holding a recorder!  Then I heard what sounded like a swoosh of wings above me as something headed off down the hill deeper into the night forest.

          My wife and I returned home excitedly and carefully listened to our new recording.  We decided to send it to a birding friend, Jeff Pippen, who is a researcher at the Nicholas School of the Environemnt and who maintains a popular nature website.  He posted our recording on his website and invited the public to comment.

          We received a couple of dozen responses from folks all over the United States.  Fox, deer and immature owls were the most frequently offered suggestions.  Just when I was resigned to agree to the theory of an aberrant call of some immature owl species, I sent the recording to a regional owl specialist at UNC-Charlotte.  He claimed that the Pong Bird’s call did not sound like anything he had ever heard in his long career of Piedmont avian research.

          As cold weather came on in the fall, the Pong Bird ceased to call - or  perhaps gisappeared.  The mystery was still unsolved.  But in May of 2008 it was back!  This time I was determined to rally a team of sharp birders to stake it out with strong spot lights and finally get this mystery animal identified.  But before I could organize, I realized that the creature was not calling any more.  By summer it continued its silence, so I gave up hope for the season, perhaps forever.  I had let the “big one” get away. 

          One day in late fall of 2008, a friend who lives just a couple of miles away tipped me off that she just saw a peacock wander into her yard. She mentioned that in North Durham there are several farms that raise exotic birds.  I felt that this was one last direction of Pong Bird inquiry that I needed to follow - the possibility of an escaped exotic bird.

          But a dozen phone calls later I had hit a brick wall, as none of the North Durham farm exotics seemed to match the call of the Pong Bird. I gave up my quest towards the end of 2008 after only hearing the Pong Bird several times that year way back in May.  Perhaps the prodigal bird had found its way back home - wherever that might be!  A tropical migrant?  My tantalizing mystery was proving to be very evasive ...

          But I’m now happy to report that as of Spring 2009, the Pong is back yet again!  It began calling from the exact same location where I first heard it two years before - just down the hill from our house in the direction of the Eno River.  I recently played my previous year’s recording to a friend who lives in a neighborhood upstream by the Eno River several miles away.  He claims that he has heard it on occasion near his house as well.

          So, my fellow citizens of Durham, I invite you to help solve the mystery of the Eno Pong Bird!  Has anyone else out there heard it or have any new hypothesis or avenue of inquiry to follow?  My Pong Bird recording can be found on Jeff Pippen’s Nature Page with the following link:  On jeff’s bird page, note the heading “Mysteries ...”  and then click on the highlighted ”“mystery night vocalization.”  Have fun with this one!
Photo by Riverdave: Moonlight by the river is the chosen habitat of the calling Pong Bird ...