For the Birds Radio Program: Hale-Bopping Along with the Birds

Original Air Date: March 21, 1997

Laura gives tips for enjoying night birds under a comet-lit sky.

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Last week I drove home from Knife River, MN, up the shore a ways from Duluth, about 9 pm, under an inexpressibly lovely night sky, the stars bright, the northern lights streaming down, and just above the tree line, the comet Hale-Bopp, alive with glowing head and sparkling tail.

This comet has been coursing through the northern sky for weeks, but will be reaching its maximum brightness and intensity during the first 10 days of April. Comets are said to throw the universe out of kilter, and it seems that Hale-Bopp is really having a serious effect on the lives of some of my friends. A couple have fallen down, several have lost loved ones, and a few have suddenly and inexplicably found new loves—even President Clinton’s universe toppled, or at least he did, under the influence of the comet. Perhaps while the comet is about, we should say that people hobbling on crutches are Hale-Bopping along.

Comets may or may not really have an effect on earthly matters, but they sure enhance the nighttime birding experience. April is the best month for nighttime birding, with owls hooting and woodcock skydancing and snipe winnowing, and imagine how this year’s avian show will be enhanced by Hale-Bopp! The March 23 partial eclipse makes the show even more spectacular. And both birds and comets are loveliest through binoculars.

To thoroughly enjoy the splendors of both birds and comet, choose your night-viewing places with care. In evening, the comet is in the northwest, so choose woodcock fields on the north or west side of a dark country road. This way you can see skydancing timberdoodles spiraling heavenward in the glow of the comet. The fewer the trees in the background, the more likely you are to see the comet, especially as the sky darkens, because the comet comes lower and closer to the horizon as the night wears on. Study up on the sounds of the night with tapes or CD’s–my favorite is Lang Elliot’s Guide to Night Sounds, which features frogs and toads as well as owls and other nocturnal birds.

Using a recording, you can practice your owl hoots by day, and then drive along county roads by night, searching the sky as you do your best imitations. Even if no owls hoot back, the comet will make your night memorable.

Long ago, the only way people could measure night-time migration was to train a telescope on the full moon, and count the birds flying past. Calculating the percentage of the sky covered by the moon, ornithologists could even extrapolate to estimate the total migration. Now we use radar to directly measure the migration magnitude, but that spotting scope method should be even more fun if you can divert the scope now and then to the comet.

Hale-Bopp will be leaving earth’s view in several weeks. This once-in-a-lifetime delight is too wonderful to miss. So the next time the evening sky is clear, get out there and savor the avian delights and celestial spectacle together.