Saturday, July 5, 2008

After-Sundown Companions

"Heights by great men reached and kept were not obtained by sudden flight
but, while their companions slept, they were toiling upward in the night."

—H.W. Longfellow

Night rides are a great escape from summer's heat and are always thrilling—especially all-night brevets, where reaching the dawn serves as reward for one's nocturnal toils. On brevets, many of us find by nightfall that our group has become stretched out so sparsely along the route that the ensuing nights often grow lonesome. Those quiet backroads, deep in the Carolina woodlands, can however be truly excellent company along with the moon, wind, trees and nocturnal wildlife. Deer, with their poor sense of roadway etiquette, have proven problematic to a few unlucky randonneurs (Hi Chet! Hello Cindy!) and even much smaller critters can challenge one's bike handling skills. Thankfully the bears seem to be more elusive, but I'll wager that the tandem could take down a small one if they earnestly put their minds to it, and replace those E-6s with infrared. Keep those hunting licenses up to date!

Three night creatures offering far more pleasant company come to mind. All three of them are night birds with distinctive songs that call out their own names loudly, clearly and persistently, allowing us to connect with them while keeping our eyes on the road. They are: the bob-white at dusk and the whip-poor-will and chuck-will's-widow on through the night. If we are enjoying a full moon, mocking birds may trill the night long too. Though they do not monotonously repeat their own names, you should be familiar with diagnostic triple repeating of extensive repertoire of mimicked songs.

J. J. Audubon says of the Chuck-Will's-Widow (The 'Widow and Whip' are both "Nighjars", aka "Goatsuckers"):

"The sounds of the Goatsucker, at all events, forbode a peaceful and calm night, and I have more than once thought, are conducive to lull the listener to repose…Their notes are seldom heard in cloudy weather, and never when it rains."
I'm told that the whip-poor-will always hatches ten days before the moon is full—how's that for proof of a creature's splendid connection to the night world?

Doubtless, many of you have learned to identify these birdsongs around the time you learned to form sentences, but others riding amongst us were raised in cities, or even places outside the eastern United States, and it occurs to me that they just may be missing out on the comfortable recognition of these guardian angels of night travelers, these unseen forest dwellers who seem to follow the weary traveler mile after mile and hour after hour with audible encouragement to keep our minds clear.

Despair not, you of such pitifully deprived upbringing, is here to enlighten you. I've grabbed three .wav files, converted to .mp3 and saved the bobwhite here, the whippoorwill here and chuck-will's-widow here that I might serve to further facilitate your education and night-cycling enjoyment. You will never ride alone in the woods again, at least not this side of the Mississippi.

Should you ever chance to pedal on down to the deep south, Louisiana and Mississippi are possessed of the loudest nocturnal insect choruses. The neighborhoods of insects create auditory waves that run back and forth through the wood lots. I have had no entomologist confirm it, but I’d bet these choruses are a prelude to reproduction. I will leave that to the insects, but in two weeks I will be investigating whether the cacophony of insect calling and the silent phosphorescent calls of lightning bugs, so prominent in my memory of Louisiana and Mississippi, also extend to Arkansas.

Now, dontcha wanna go for a ride tonight?


bullcitybiker said...

Wow- what a great post Adrian. Thanks! I'll listen more closely then next time I'm out after dark.


AHands said...

I'm glad you liked it!

The bob-white (aka quail) is mostly heard at dusk and dawn.

David Winick wrote that whip-poor-wills are, in his experience, rarely heard north of Harnett County (south of Raleigh--down there by Buis Creek), making the whip-poor-will more of a 600km bird on our brevets. I know I've heard at least one of these three a lot out between Jordan Lake and Morrisville--but my brain is pretty tired by that point. I read that they like to hunt for bugs on dirt roads at night, but never noticed if there were gravel roads or driveways nearby when I heard them.

Jerry says they heard all these on the "Capitols of the Confederacy" permanent along with a few notable others including the Pileated Woodpecker ("two led us down a road for a hundred yards or so with their striking plumage and 'tropical' sounding call"). That's not a night-bird though--good thing too, because it'd be a shame to miss that plumage, and that call might scare me off my bike at night. You can hear the pileated woodpecker's song here

Jerry mentioned another daytime bird that is very, very plentiful throughout the U.S.--the mourning dove (note that's "mourning" as in sadness, not "morning" as in dawn, hence the Prince song, "When Doves Cry"). These birds forage for seeds on the ground (not bugs) and when you ride by they will fly up to perch on a wire, but they look like they're really struggling to fly--a great thrashing of wings barely able to lift their big bellies into the air and they make a funny fluttering sound when flying. You can hear both the mourning dove's perched cooing and her launch fluttering sound in this .mp3 file

Ravi wonders why I would ask an ETYmologist about insects (fixed, thanks!)

Apertome said...

Great post -- and yes, it does make me want to go and do a night ride ASAP ... now, perhaps!