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The unusual song in the darkness

Whip-poor-will as seen in the woods. Note the brown feathers, small bill and big eyes. (Photo by Michael Drummond)

The evening is clear and calm. Temperatures are mild and no mosquitoes accompany me as I walk to the lake. I’m walking at about a half-hour before sunset and in these conditions, many of the daytime songbirds are still lingering with their songs. As I walk through the yard, I hear the late-day melodies of our local robin. (I’m sure that it nests somewhere in the yard, but I have yet to find it.) Also songs are coming from chipping sparrows in a pine tree and the phoebe that has a home in the barn.

As I proceed through the woods on the way to the lake, a couple of warblers, the ovenbird (“teacher-teacher-teacher … ”) and the black and white warbler (“we see, we see, we see”) give their sounds, too. I pause to listen to the flute-like song of the hermit thrush deep in the forest.

This woods is also wearing its May floral outfit. Trees are leafing at a tremendous rate and it looks so different from a few days ago. On the forest floor, the bellworts, both large and small, along with violets and wood anemones are in bloom, catching the needed sunlight before being shaded. And a whole new batch of fern fiddleheads has emerged here, too. While approaching the edge of the woods near the shoreline, I note that the small trees of wild plum, Juneberry, pin cherry and elderberry are all holding white blossoms. Just a few inches above the ground, the low blueberries open their bell-shaped flowers as well.

The sun is behind the trees when I reach the dock. A loon calls in the main part of the lake and far off in the distance, I hear some sandhill cranes and Canada geese. (The geese in the nearby swamp have just had their eggs hatch and earlier today I saw six goslings with the adults.)

As the darkness gathers, more things happen in this aquatic world. Painted turtles that have been basking on a shoreline log drop into the water. Gray tree frogs and leopard frogs join the abundant spring peepers with their breeding calls. (I have heard toads elsewhere and I expect them here too soon.) A muskrat and its larger cousin, a beaver, swim along the shore seeking snacks hidden by the darkness. A great blue heron flies over in search of a site for some night fishing while the resident spotted sandpiper goes off to a sheltered roost.

In the twilight following the setting sun, I watch several ducks, wood duck, ring-necked duck and mallard, flying by. The first barred owl of the night gives its call (“who cooks for you”) is answered from another part of the woods. Almost exactly one half hour after the time of sunset, local big brown bats circle over the water for feeding. Using their erratic flights, they catch smaller insects that I cannot even see.

It’s been an eventful evening, but nothing beyond what is expected on a spring night at this location. But then I hear a surprise. From the woods beyond the bay come a repetition of clear loud whistles, going on for dozens of times. I have heard this song before at other places and it is easy to identify. I’m listening to a whip-poor-will’s song.

Whip-poor-wills are brown-colored birds of about 10 inches long. Nesting on the ground in the forests, they are not likely to be noticed by us and this camouflage can allow them to go undetected even if we get close. The birds sit still for most of the day, but come out after dark to sing after others have ceased.

Other nocturnal birds also make sound or songs, but not like that of the whip-poor-will. Finding a desired perching site in the trees, they sing their rapid chant of “whip-prr-weel” (emphasis on last syllable) that has been interpreted as “whip-poor-will,” leading to its name. Not only is the song loud, it is often repeated perhaps hundreds of times. With a small bill and a wide mouth, they pause occasionally to feed on insects. If the spring night is mild with moonlight, they may sing on-off all night, maybe still going on in the predawn darkness.

Birds belong to a group known as nightjars and include several kinds around the country. Being active singers at night, they carry names as poor-will, chuck-will’s-widow and paraque. Most live in the south and our best known member of this group is the nighthawk. Whip-poor-wills are residents of sandy open forest and though present in the region, they are very uncommon in the woods that I walk. Populations have fallen in recent years due mostly to habitat destruction. I had not heard one here in many years.

It was a delight to listen to this unusual song in the darkness, but as I expected, this one was just a traveling migrant. Though it sang with gusto, it got no responses and it moved on. The next night, also clear and mild, was devoid of this energetic songster. I’m glad to have heard it when and where I did. Maybe someday (some night), whip-poor-wills will return.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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