For the Birds Radio Program: Night Sounds
One of the great joys of spring is taking a walk in the evening as darkness falls. If you’re out there at exactly the right time, the western sky will have an ashy glow, the smoldering remains of a fiery sunset. As the glow is smothered by descending darkness, we trade visual pleasures for auditory ones. We can hear a variety of frogs–spring peepers piping, wood frogs quacking, and chorus frogs sounding as though someone were scraping a comb with their fingernail.
When it’s precisely dark enough, woodcocks that hid in the woods all day start making a soft ‘’peent.” They wait until it’s so dark that they’re virtually impossible to see. I used to spend a lot of time searching for them, triumphing at even a glimpse. Now I more appreciate a woodcock’s desire for privacy. I still search the sky for a silhouette when I hear chittering wings overhead, but no longer need to sneak in to see where they land. These Greta Garbos of the bird world thrill us with their performances, but when finished, they “vant to be alone.”
A soft winnowing sound from up in the night sky is a snipe, making the sound with erect tail feathers. Unlike woodcock, snipe often perform during daytime–sometimes even at high noon-but it takes time and practice to see them, too, high in the sky. In the darkness, you simply imagine them up there, their long, long beaks seeming to pull them through the sky.
Ruffed Grouse drum in the darkness, sometimes all night long, and like woodcock yearn for privacy. Both species seem to rebel against the parental stricture that children should be seen and not heard, and now to be absolutely contrary they want to be heard but not seen.
This time of year grouse are so hormonal that they may drum throughout day as well as night, so there is no reason at all to stumble through the night woods to get a glimpse at them. If you hear a nearby grouse in daylight, move toward the sound while the grouse is actually drumming, and stop dead in your tracks whenever the grouse stops. A grouse’s pectoral muscles are made up of mostly white muscle fibers, which have a very fast twitch but build up lactic acid and reach exhaustion soon, so a grouse is incapable of flight for a few minutes after a performance. This makes them exceptionally wary, and if one hears or sees your approach, he will quietly skulk away. You won’t even realize he’s gone for many minutes. The grouse doesn’t pay attention to anything during the actual act of drumming, so that is when you move. While you’re stopped, waiting for him to start up again, use binoculars to scan every fallen log within view. As a grouse rests up between performances, he holds still, relying on cryptic coloration to protect him from prying eyes. When you finally see one, watch as he suddenly pulls himself erect, his feathers parting at the line where the pectoral muscles separate from the belly. He flaps slowly at first, but quickly builds up speed until his wings are a blur. Once you’ve tired of watching, it’s most courteous to sneak away the way you approached, quietly, just during performances. At night, of course, it’s almost impossible to sneak up on one in the dark–a flashlight is a dead giveaway for a grouse–but you can see the drumming grouse in your imagination.
April and May flow with avian hormones, and robins often sing all night long. We hear one or two other songbirds as well–a Hermit Thrush caroling, White-throated Sparrow whistling, or Le Conte’s Sparrow whispering in the grass. A Barred Owl or Great Homed Owl may hoot, and if we’re exceptionally lucky, may hear a sound exactly like a truck backing-up–a Saw-whet Owl. As darkness envelops the world, these sounds of the night continue–our reassurance that even when we can’t see her splendid sights, earth is a lovely place to be.