I had occasion, in my previous life, to work for a couple of supervisors who truly belonged in their administrative positions — because they were utterly incapable of dealing with the intricacies and realities of field work. When I was younger, this resulted in terrific head-butting, but after a while I caught on to the concept of what I call “malicious compliance.” After a couple of horrid dust-ups resulting from following their instructions exactly, I was most often left alone to go be a field monster with my guys and get the bad guys rounded up.

Some of these actions were not pretty but a few were utterly fun and amusing. One of my favorites involved a silly piece of bureaucracy known as a Significant Action Report. The concept of the SIR was admirable.

Whenever something was important enough that it might generate interest from the press, endanger people or involve other agencies, an SIR sent to the central office kept the leadership from being blindsided.

It took only a matter of weeks for this noble intent to transmogrify into a mandatory report to be submitted after every weekend before 9 am Monday. The fact nothing meeting the criteria happened was irrelevant — every lieutenant with weekend duty had to complete an SIR before the captain woke up Monday.

There was another downside. As soon as the reports reached Albany, they went straight to the press office, and out to the various media. And so it came to pass that we had a really significant case that actually deserved an SIR and I did not do one. It involved the dumping of some fairly toxic substances — various colors of printing ink — in large quantities in a wooded area. We had worked out where it had to come from, who did it, and were waiting for a judge to wake up and issue a search warrant.

Sure enough, by 7:30, I got a call from the captain demanding an SIR. I told him about the case, said we were in the middle of the investigation, that I would have it wrapped up before noon, but any leaks to the press would blow the case.

The pictures were vivid and dramatic with the bright colors, an irresistible draw for a TV crew. I was chewed out in no uncertain terms and ordered to get an SIR to him. On speaker phone for everyone in the State Police barracks to hear, his final statement was, “I am ordering you to get that report with those pictures up to me within 20 minutes. I don’t give a (expletive) that you told me about it. I want an SIR in black and white. Understand? Black and White!!”

I did a cursory report and sent it to him complete with the pictures, which I had copied in black and white so they looked like nothing more than a muddy spot in the woods. I then ignored the radio until we had someone in custody.

The TV coverage had some color dramatic shots — on the 6 o’clock news. When the inevitable chewing out by command staff occurred, I truthfully reported I had been following specific orders.

There is another black and white thing that is a lot of fun; probably more than messing with the captain. I encounter this little guy quite often when I am working in the woods. It is the aptly-named black and white warbler.

These tiny birds, no more than 4 or 5 inches beak to tail, are streaked with front-to-back black and white bands. They live in deciduous forest environments and, unlike most of the warblers, tend to prefer stands for more mature trees. They really like the hemlock stand I am fattening up to build a barn.

Black and white warblers are found throughout most of North America. They nest from the mid-Atlantic to northern Canada and Alaska and the majority of them winter in Florida. Some go as far as the Caribbean and coastal South America. For such tiny balls of fluff, a huge one weighs half an ounce, and they are terrific fliers. Most of their migration is done after dark. Some have been found as far away as southern California and the British Isles. Unfortunately, as nocturnal migrators, large numbers are killed by striking radio towers, high rise buildings and wind generators.

They are surprisingly hardy, often being one of the first species to arrive in the northern breeding areas and sometimes not leaving until snow arrives. As testament to their toughness, while most passerine birds only rarely live to do their second migration, one hardy black and white warbler female was tagged as a juvenile in Pennsylvania in the 1950s and recaptured in the same area in the 1960s — 11 years and 3 months later!

Black and white warblers are distinctive in a couple of other ways. Their “warble” is a thin, high-pitched two-syllable note repeated four to 10 times. It is described in most books as “wheezy” but it actually sounds more like wiping a wet cloth across a piece of glass. The call may not sound like much to us, but it is a genuine war cry. Males utter it continuously as they aggressively drive, not only other black and white warblers, but virtually all other small birds away from their nesting site.

Nests are small cup affairs often on the ground but sometimes as high as 2 feet if there is a stump hollow. Eggs hatch after 12 days of incubation and young leave the nest 10 days after that. They cannot fly and continue to be fed by the parents for as much as a week before left to their own devices.

There is an interesting adaptation in the black and white warbler. Their legs are more robust than one might expect and the hind toe is greatly elongated and strong. This enables the birds to work up and down the trunks of trees much like a nuthatch and unlike any other warbler species. This is also the derivation of some of the common names for the bird: striped creeper and black and white creeper.

They eat nothing but insects. Exploiting the niche of bark crevices may be why they can support their migration pattern. Birds depending on mobile insects must leave to follow the food source but the black and whites can continue picking them out of their bark refuges right to freeze up.

Even in the world of the black and white warbler, not everything is black and white. ...

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Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.


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