Woodrat Podcast 35: Creatures of the night

spring peeper, northern saw-whet owl, and American woodcock
Spring peeper, northern saw-whet owl, and American woodcock

It may feel and sometimes even still look like winter out there, but spring is on the march (so to speak). This is perhaps most evident after dark. Join me and some other folks for a night-time ramble through the March woods and wetlands of Central Pennsylvania. We’ll listen to a woodcock, a saw-whet owl, some creature whose identity I’m not certain of, spring peepers, and herpetologist Jim Julian from Penn State Altoona. Julian, an expert on seaonal wetlands ecology, leads the annual Vernal Pool Tour of the Scotia Barrens, sponsored by the Clearwater Conservancy. We all squish about looking for wood frogs and spotted salmanders on a cold and rainy night.

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Photo credits, l-r: Norman Walsh (CC BY-NC), Dave Darney/USFWS, Tom Tetzner/USFWS. Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence).

Pivot point

What made the ancestral timberdoodle decide to haunt the woods’ edge instead of the shore? My mother surprised one this morning up above the old dump and watched it for a while: the oddest walk she ever saw, she said. With every step, its chest throbbed visibly, as if with some uncontrollable emotion. I went to look for it after lunch, and it flew before I spotted it on the ground. I followed it up the old woods road, camera at the ready, my eyes riveted to the spot where it landed, but each time it flushed before I could distinguish the mottled brown of its feathers from the brown leaves, which were lifting and turning over in the wind. I’ve never had the sharpest eyesight.

I noticed as I walked back that there were still a few patches of snow on the powerline right-of-way, sheltered by the thick green laurel. Up on the ridge, the wind roared and died, roared and died, not quite as regular as ocean surf.

After Stravinsky, can anyone hear the phrase “rite of spring” and not feel a shiver of strangeness? Tonight at sunset, we will be almost equidistant from this morning’s sunrise and tomorrow’s. And at dusk, if the winds die down, the woodcock will position himself out in the field with his long sandpiper’s bill pointed at the sky and project his nasal longing into the heavens, again and again. Then he’ll launch his fat body several hundred feet straight up and fly in wide ascending circles, his wings twittering like a flock of sparrows, before plunging again to the earth. What if happiness were a pivot point you could occupy, even in the presence of unfulfilled desire? Would you try to make a fulcrum in your breast? Would you throw your voice as far as you could, and then go after it, secure in the knowledge that what goes up must come down? Would you haunt the brushy edges of the night?