For the Birds Radio Program: Leonids

Original Air Date: Nov. 20, 2001

Laura and Russ watched the meteor shower on November 18.

Audio missing


On Sunday, November 18, my alarm clock awoke me at 3:30 am. I peeked out the window to nothing but blackness. The sky was overcast, so I rolled over and went back to sleep. But something impelled me awake at 4:30, and this time when I looked out, the sky was dotted with diamond stars, flashing and sparkling. So I woke up Russ. He grabbed a blanket and pillow, I grabbed my binoculars, and we headed out the window onto our porch roof. We positioned ourselves to block the streetlight from view with our knees and settled down to watch the show.

The last time we saw a meteor shower was a few Augusts ago, when we watched the Perseids from an Illinois park. That time the visual delights were accompanied by an avian soundtrack featuring Great Horned and Barred Owl families, a somnambulant robin, and the seep call notes of early warbler migrants high above. But by November, avian hormones are at low ebb, and we didn’t hear a sound until a truck turned down the street to drop off the bundles of Sunday papers my daughter would soon have to deliver. It was strangely balmy for mid-November. Although I hadn’t put on socks, much less shoes, our single blanket kept us plenty warm. A day later, when the temperature dropped dramatically, swans started migrating in earnest. We had traded swan music for heat. I don’t know if it was a fair trade-off, but Russ seemed to think it was.

Virtually every experience I’ve had watching a lovely astronomical event is inextricably woven in my memory with a bird or two. I remember an April night up on the Gunflint Trail listening to a Boreal Owl and watching a woodcock peenting on the shoulder of the road as northern lights streamed overhead. I remember watching the Hale-Bopp comet slowly change position in the sky as I accompanied Boreal Owl authority Steve Wilson on a night-long census in March 1997. The comet hung over the trees as we snowshoed into the forest toward a distant Boreal Owl’s calls. The bird didn’t seem disturbed by our presence, and we watched it for several minutes as Steve figured out which aspen held its nest cavity. The owl occasionally moved from branch to branch between calls, and for one lovely minute or two I could see the owl and the comet in my binoculars at the same time.

The Leonids this year were more spectacular than any meteor shower I’ve ever seen before. I saw a couple of the meteors shoot across the sky in a long arc. Most traced a shorter but equally brilliant path. A few must have been bound straight for our section of earth before burning up in the atmosphere-these didn’t seem to move but rather to suddenly appear, brighten quickly, and then disappear. There were several times when we saw two or three at the same moment.

Russ, not being a birder, has no fundamental instinct that prompts him to take binoculars wherever we go. Though there were no birds to see, I was glad I had mine. Binoculars show too small a chunk of the sky to be useful in seeing meteors zip by at high speed, but some of them leave a trail of stardust, and that was lovely to see through birding optics. To the naked eye, these meteor trails seem to just fade away, but through the binoculars I could see them twist into different shapes-spirals, loops, and wishbones-before disappearing.

Without bird music to keep it occupied, my brain kept playing Perry Como singing “Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket, never let it fade away” in a weird duet with the Jets from West Side Story singing “got a rocket in my pocket.” As lovely as the Leonids were, somehow bird song in the background would have definitely improved the soundtrack.