Bill Michalek | Earth Spirit Board Member
It was a balmy August night, well past midnight. A friend and I were camped alongside a lake in the Adirondacks Mountains, and he shook me hard awake from a sound sleep, asking frantically, “What IS that?”
I sat up and listened, wondering and worrying if perhaps a black bear had found our food bag.And then I heard it – a series of hoots, barks, and laughs that sounded very much like a of troop of monkeys, calling from the dark above our tent. I dug out the spotlight and shined it through the mesh, scanning the trees until I saw one of the callers – not a monkey, but a Barred Owl. There were others nearby, and we were fortunate enough to get to listen in as they continued hooting to each other, likely settling territorial disputes. A cousin of the Great Horned Owl Barred Owls are smaller, lack ear tufts, and, as the name suggests, have brown, vertical breast bars.
If you’d like to hear a Barred Owl for yourself, you don’t have to travel all the way to the Adirondacks to do it. Common throughout the eastern US, it’s likely there’s one living within a few miles of where you’re sitting right now. It’s a species that is capable of about a dozen different sounds, but its most common one is a series of hoots that sounds similar to the phrase, “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you aaaaall?”
Besides the Barred Owl and its related species, there are numerous other critters making noises in the woods at night. Just as we can study the tracks of wildlife to learn who is around when we aren’t, we can spend time familiarizing ourselves with the nocturnal vocalizations of local wildlife that we can’t always see. Whether we’re on a nocturnal hike or waking up in the middle of the night to listen to the sounds drifting in through the window, the sounds we hear can reveal who is sharing the nearby natural world with us.
For example, as the sun sinks below the horizon and twilight settles in, a walker in our northeastern woods is often treated to a sublime symphony from our various species of thrushes, (a group that includes the familiar backyard American Robin). Seldom-seen but often heard, the Hermit Thrush and the Wood Thrush are two nearly robin-sized birds with brown upper parts and spotted breasts. They have similar and breathtakingly beautiful flute-like calls. The Wood Thrush’s most common call sounds like a rising “ee-oh-lay” while the Hermit Thrush’s song begins with a clear, introductory note and ends with softer tones that seem to sigh “ah purity, purity.”
As the twilight fades and night takes over, the sounds of our local frogs become more prominent near wetlands. Two of the most common species are the Green Frog and the Bullfrog. Greens sound like the pluck of a broken banjo string, while the Bullfrog’s voice is often described as a deep, vibrating “jug-o-rum.” Another voice you might encounter is that of the Gray Tree Frog. Often emanating from up in the trees, their call sounds somewhat bird-like, but once you get to know their voice – a bubbling, vibrating trill – it’s hard to mistake it for anything else.
But what about the mammals? A nighttime walker may frighten a wary whitetail deer, causing it to emit what many refer to as a “snort”, but if you’ve ever heard the sound, you might agree that’s it’s better described as a “wheezing blow”; the sound of air forcefully and suddenly expelled from their nose and mouth, alerting other deer to danger. Two other mammals in our area also make startling nighttime sounds. The Red Fox and the Northern Raccoon both have similar vocalizations that often get confused for each other. An alarmed fox will make a raspy bark, while raccoons fighting will give off high-pitched, chattering screams.
The noises above are just a small sampling of what you might hear coming from the moonlit woods and meadows around you. I’m hoping that reading about these various vocalizations will get you itching to take a nighttime hike sometime this summer. Years ago, I came across a quote that went something like, “Every child needs to experience the woods, well past their bedtime.” I’ve never been able to track down the source of those words, but don’t you think that the word “child” might just as well be replaced by the word “person”? Don’t all of us, at any age, benefit from being in the woods, well past our bedtime?