The Wild Night
An early start
I hate getting up early — it is far too tiring — but I like being up early. That’s when I see and hear lots of cool stuff. The former is a bit of an impediment to an ornithologist and the latter may show that I occasionally get past it. The same held true this past weekend when I helped lead a night outing for The Wild Center in Tupper Lake.
We started the outing the prior evening with a delicious dinner and some entertaining presentations by Wild Center staff before I headed home for a few hours of sleep. The 2 a.m. alarm came early but I stumbled around, grabbed my gear, and was out the door and at the Center for 3 a.m. — when everyone was arriving for muffins, fruit, and other snacks. I was happy to take some of the brownies that were left over from the previous night. I don’t drink much coffee and prefer my caffeine in the form of chocolate.
Wild Walk at night
We all (there were 16 participants signed up) made our way to Wild Walk, where the plan was to camp out and listen to the world around us wake up. People spread out and listened to the quiet of the night, and those of us who were leading the event quietly discussed some of what we heard or hoped to hear that night. We could already hear green frogs, mink frogs, and Alder Flycatchers calling from the Raquette River, and one of the biologists set up recording equipment to listen to bats so we could determine what was flying overhead.
A night walk to the oxbow
After a few minutes it became clear that there weren’t too many bats flying, so two of us gathered folks who wanted to take a walk to the Raquette River oxbow, from which most of the sounds were coming. As we got closer we could hear the frogs more clearly, and we soon heard an American Bittern pumping its territorial call. We stopped to listen in the still darkness.
Mist hung in the air at the oxbow overlook as a growing golden light silhouetted the river landscape across the water, and we filed quietly onto the wooden platform and listened. Our bird list lengthened with every passing minute as more and more species joined a chorus of unseen singers in the dim light. Song Sparrow, Eastern Kingbird, Common Yellowthroat, Swamp Sparrow, Alder Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe, Red-winged Blackbird, and Mourning Dove all ushered in the morning as if celebrating a momentous event. That may well be true — night can be a scary time for birds, and making it through unscathed could be cause for joy.
And while we could have stood on that wooden platform listening for hours, we had come down from Wild Walk in hopes of finding a Barred Owl, so I broke our silence and began to hoot. My calls echoed around us, but we heard no reply from any owl — only a few angry call notes from Hermit Thrushes and American Robins. Then a chorus of coyotes erupted for a few seconds and everyone listened intently to their nighttime discussions of voles, hares, and other exciting finds. I continued hooting for a few minutes longer and then paused for us to listen again to the shadowed choir from along the river.
Just then a Barred Owl — a male — hooted loudly just up the slope in the woods. It had evidently flown in quietly while I was hooting! He was joined by his mate and the two produced a cacophonous duet from the trees. They kept hooting and we walked along the trail, hoping to catch a glimpse of them in the trees. We walked to the second oxbow overlook for a better view as scolding Blue Jays, Robins, Hermit Thrushes, and a Belted Kingfisher cursed our disturbance of their world. But the owls remained hidden and unfortunately we were never able to spot them in the gloom. But we all had front row seats for their concert, which lasted for at least 20 minutes. It was mesmerizing, and we listened transfixed as the light grew on the eastern horizon.
The owls finally moved on, calling from further back in the woods, and we walked back up to Wild Walk to watch the sunrise. We arrived as a brightening circle of color pushed further and further up the horizon until the orb of the sun finally broke into the sky. All around us the trees were full of singing birds as Red-eyed Vireo, Northern Parula, Ovenbird, Cedar Waxwing, and Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Blue, and Black-throated Green Warblers stirred their voices. The day had officially begun.
We all stood listening to the music of the rising sun, many folks standing alone to take in the spectacle while I pointed out the species we were hearing to the folks nearest me. Once again, I think we could have stood there for hours. The sunrise and sunset are so quick, so fleeting, that I have often wished I could freeze those moments or somehow stretch them out 10 or 100 times longer than they actually last, giving me a chance to soak them in, to bask in the serenity they offer, and yet at the same time to wander through twilight woods and find the many animals which are active at that time of day. I think everyone’s thoughts somehow ran on similar themes.
The sun’s dominance grew in the clear sky and we eventually made our way back to the museum building, where we polished off more of the morning’s snacks and chatted about our days ahead. After all, with such an early start we still had plenty of time left to enjoy the day by exploring the world around us.