Monday, May 30, 2011
I wake this morning to the sound of tree frogs.
Warm, heavy air has been spread over the Ohio River valley like a scratchy wool blanket that I would peel back and crawl out from underneath, if I could.
The weight is almost stifling—the dampness on my skin, constant.
But in the hush of dawn, those few brief moments before daylight brings the rustling of leaves and the chorus of songbirds to these woods, I recall the sounds of northern Michigan—the birds heard only, not seen.
And I remember in a dream the richness their simple song can bring to a cool and silent night.
Just beyond NettieBay Lodge, our home-base for a week of Birding & Botany in beautiful Presque Isle County, a narrow gravel lane draws a straight line north past woods that give way to water, then become woods once more. Thick and brushy, an undergrowth of alders rims the single-lane road. Peering past them, white cedars with buttressed bases can be seen standing in several inches of dark swamp water. As daylight fades, the dim woods become darker still.
The sounds from beyond the road’s edge are sharp and strong as we walk past—a veery’s strident call.
Soon, the distant song of a whip-poor-will is answered by another, much closer, who sings faster and stronger, from deep within the alder thicket. This narrow lane with its dimming light is the only opening in these very dense woods--the perfect place for the wide-gaped birds to wait and snatch some tasty moths drawn to this clearing in the brush.
High overhead, against what little faint blue remains, an almost imperceptible twitter betrays the dusk display of a woodcock. Around the sky he tumbles on whistling wings, then drops to the ground in a small, grassy clearing beside us to resume his courtship dance for the benefit of one we cannot see. We leave his persistent peent at the edge of the dark woods and wander further down the road.
The sound of frogs has grown loud and shrill. Spring peepers fill the wetland. Gray tree frogs’ calls resound all around. Here, amidst the foreign, I find the familiar—what I know so well of the warm spring nights spent beside my vernal pool. Yet, to listen for birds at this water’s edge, their calls are overpowering.
Stepping away, we wander slowly back to the car and roll softly down the lane, windows down, combing the night air, soaking in the sounds of northern Michigan. The whip-poor-wills are now perched at the road’s edge. In the moonlight, their red eyeshine eerily flashes in the headlights of our approaching car as they grab insects from their posts beside the road and cross in the beam of our light to the other side.
Lake Nettie is calm and still beyond the door of my cabin. Beneath a clouded moon, the mournful call of a pair of nesting loons spreads across the 278-acre lake. Perhaps more than any other sound, it is theirs that, to me, captures all that is wild and pure of the north woods.
A call, like the others of this night, that is rich and distinctive, revealing of its place.
A call that with it brings a cool breeze to a dream in an Ohio River valley summer night.