Friday, March 18, 2016

Whip-poor-will Road (an account)

In birding there are, as some know, wonderful moments. They happen all the time. But sometimes there are multiple moments that accrete into a singular experience that defies words. "Magical," perhaps? Cheese. But why bother looking for words where none are needed?

Anyway, such an experience was had this morning in Knoxville as I sat in my car at the end of a silent, forested road to listen for a whip-poor-will. It was just before dawn. And while I sat there, glancing at a dark blue sky bordered by black trees, I was lulled into a peaceful state of mind, my breath the only sound for a million miles.... I was about to close my eyes when suddenly a pair of Barred Owls began conversing in the woods to my left. The exchange was brief, yet energetic. Owl romance? Maybe. But I won't speculate as to what they were discussing; that is their business.


For a time things were quiet again after the owls stopped vocalizing (with the exception of a cardinal, whose periodic yawning of a few notes sometimes broke the silence). And then, something unexpected—a low, confident hooting. A Great Horned Owl. I say "unexpected" because the Barred Owls were very close, and the former have been known to kill the latter. I found myself scowling at the bloody-feathered thought when suddenly a friend drove up and shut off her lights. I quickly got out of my car, and together we listened for the whip-poor-will.


By now all the owls were quiet, and the dawn chorus was rising: cardinals, robins, a phoebe. I hated to check the time but I did anyway (I am what I am) and saw that it was 7:09, nine minutes later than when the bird was reported the previous morning.

We cupped our ears anyway, kept listening. Nothing.

And then, at the strike of 7:11, of which a nightjar knows nothing, we heard him: That unmistakable churning out of "whip-poor-will whip-poor-will whip-poor-will" into the purple air. It rose off the wooded slope and elbowed its way through the dawn chorus to greet our ears.... The song only went on for about a minute.

But it went on forever, too.

eBird report: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S28377954

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