The Music of the Night

Nocturnal birding is an experience quite unlike typical daylight outings. Without the benefit of clear vision to locate and identify targets, it is often necessary to step outside one’s comfort zone and rely on auditory cues or brief, dimly-lit views. It can be a challenge to clinch satisfying encounters when the primary human sense is so limited. That being said, most of the species that come out after dark are truly remarkable creatures that are worth the extra effort. The distinctive vocalizations of many nightbirds are just as impressive a reward as an actual sighting of the vocalizer, some arguably more so. Fleeting glimpses in the gloom lend an air of mystery to the shadowy quarry, and every once in a while it’s possible to get lucky with a little artificial light. Combined with brilliant astronomy study prospects and the increased activity of mammals around dawn and dusk, “after hours” birding is a very appealing, entertaining option for a nature walk!

Although I’ve been keeping up with my eBird resolution of at least one checklist per day, the vast majority of my observations in the past few weeks have been brief surveys on my commute to and from work. I was looking forward to mixing things up a bit during my weekends. After regaling Miriam with this year’s Superb Owl stories, she suggested a predawn expedition to try for the birds before they headed to bed. We found ourselves in South Shore Suffolk in the wee hours of the morning, and we enjoyed a reasonable degree of success with our goals. I picked out the deep, resonant hoots of a Great Horned Owl singing in the distance when we stopped in Patchogue. Moving on to Brookhaven, close Screech-Owl encounters were a surprise treat just before sunrise. A tiny shadow stealthily flew out of the woods to perch directly above our heads, searching for the source of my intruder impression. When it returned to the forest across the road, it began a chorus of whinnying along with its unseen partner. I always appreciate the opportunity to watch these nocturnal predators going about their lives in such close proximity to our own homes. I’d love for this owl luck to hold out on my imminent trip to Spain!

Miriam and I made a few more stops in the morning on our way back to Nassau, but rain and sleepiness sent us home by midday. Conditions were similarly damp the following weekend, drizzling throughout the afternoon while we tried again for the Pileated Woodpecker frequenting the Jayne’s Hill area in Melville. We paused for a delightful and delicious happy hour at Rustic Root, buying time as we waited from the sun to set and the forecast to improve. When we emerged from the pub we found that the rain had indeed stopped. My co-pilot had a very specific target in mind for the evening, so we headed off to Stillwell Woods Park. Listening intently as we walked out the trail, I thought I heard quiet kissy sounds coming from the skies over the field ahead. I stopped, and Miriam froze with anticipation. We both strained our ears for any confirmation of my suspicions. “PEENT.”

Collective Scolopax

Mild evenings on the cusp of spring see the American Woodcock’s glorious return to the stage. The recent warm weather had us hoping to connect with the weird woodland waders, and we had apparently stumbled upon one of the first performers of the season. These cryptic forest dwellers can be exceedingly difficult to track down during most of the year: eBird currently contains no other records anywhere on Long Island for 2018 so far. When breeding season rolls around and the males start sky dancing, it’s an entirely different story. Miriam was positively giddy to be reunited with her favorite bird, and we spotted the charming soloist fluttering past us several times during his display. He eventually quieted down and retreated to the brush, leaving us alone in the darkening meadow. I wish him good fortune when rival males and interested females join him at the courtship site.

The buzzy love song of the woodcock is just one of the iconic voices of the nocturnal soundscape of spring. As winter fades, forests and wetlands are filled with the lively chorus of nightjars and the bizarre cries of rails returning from the south. Owls hoot, trill, and shriek to defend their territories, while tree frogs, foxes, and raccoons lend some non-avian talent to the mix. And high above it all, if you listen carefully, you can hear the myriad calls of countless nocturnal migrants riding the winds northwards on their journey home. After a long winter without this vibrant night music, I’ll have front row tickets when the show finally begins anew.

Year List Update, February 17 – 123 Species (+ American Woodcock, Double-crested Cormorant)

About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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