The Secret Of Bird Calls On a Fall Night

IT'S Friday night, 11 o'clock. My husband Jeff and I are perched in our smooth white chairs, mugs of hot chocolate in our hands. We're out on our tiny deck. It's chilly and still, the kind of crisp autumn evening that seeps into everything and makes all that it touches seem like part of a big wonderful secret.

``Black-throated blue warbler,'' Jeff says as a sweet ``seep'' note pierces the air from above, dulling the thin chorus of summer's few remaining optimistic crickets.

It's difficult to grasp the idea that literally hundreds of birds will sweep over us tonight - warblers, herons, grosbeaks, shorebirds, thrushes - all part of fall's nocturnal migration. As I sit huddled in my wool coat, their voices through the night sky leave no doubt as to the spectacle taking place.

A buzzy ``zwirp'' passes high above us, quickly followed by another. ``Common yellowthroat,'' Jeff points out. Rose-breasted grosbeak, veery, and Canada warbler are next in rapid succession.

Although I hear their calls, the identities of these feathery migrants would be lost to me if it weren't for Jeff. To identify a bird flying overhead at about 40 miles an hour based on a cryptic call note seldom given during the day is something I'm only beginning to attempt.

``Swainson's thrush,'' he says, cocking an ear to the heavens. ``Hear them? Someone told me once that they sound like spring peepers.''

I nod in agreement as dainty ``peeps'' spill here and there from the air. My gaze turns skyward, as though my eyes could filter out the darkness and allow me to see the bird whose nocturnal voice of autumn sounds so much like a sure sign of spring.

I see only stars - they are balls of white fire tonight - and a few swirls of clouds like smoke. There is the faint hum of a plane I cannot see. Still I wonder how many passengers are aboard, where they're going, where they've come from.

``Did you hear that?'' Jeff asks in a hushed but excited voice. Just enough light is coming from the house across the street to see the thrill on his face. ``I'm pretty sure it was an upland sandpiper!''

Immediately, I straighten in my chair. I know that upland sandpipers are few and far between in this region of upstate New York, so I close my eyes and listen, hoping that another will grace us with its fleeting presence.

I hear another Swainson's thrush and what I'm quite certain is a warbler of some kind.

I hear other calls, too, but none that belong to upland sandpipers.

Soon the calling lapses. While Jeff is still listening intently for the next ``zwirp'' or ``tweep'' that could sound any second, my attention has wandered to the house beside ours, where light has just filled one of the rooms. A woman appears in a teal-green bathrobe. I recognize her as the same woman I've seen so many times by light of day out on her own deck, hanging laundry or just sitting. She slides the window closed and draws the curtains. For a second or two her room is the hazy red of a sunset. Then it's black as night.

A nasal ``quock'' approaches. It seems only as high as the hemlock at the edge of our lawn.

``Green heron,'' Jeff says.

It croaks again as it passes. It's not a pleasant sound. ``Hard to believe a noise like that could come from a bird,'' I say, half joking.

Jeff chuckles. ``It's definitely distinctive.''

I set my mug on the wooden railing and stand to stretch. A dog is barking in the distance now. Its thick, heavy bark makes me think of a German shepherd.

I try to imagine what the dog is barking at. In my mind, I see a raccoon prowling near a garbage can at the end of someone's driveway. Then it's a cat I'm seeing, a black cat with white paws, stealing across a lawn and disappearing into some shrubbery - a cluster of yews, perhaps.

The porch light clicks off at the house across the street. Suddenly, the night is impossibly dark. I turn to Jeff. He seems completely oblivious to the fact that we're now immersed in almost total darkness.

``That's either a chestnut-sided warbler or a Wilson's,'' he says.

For a moment or two I feel disappointed with myself for missing those call notes.

As I replay our time out under the night sky, I realize I've probably missed more than a few others as well.

I'm forced to ask myself why it is that observing seemingly inconsequential actions - a plane flying over, someone closing a window, a dog barking - is so satisfying to me, so much so as to keep me from focusing on the nocturnal flight calls I had come outside to learn and enjoy.

My disappointment slowly fades as I realize that perhaps the little details of our day-to-day lives are not so unlike the nocturnal migrations of the birds.

I wonder if by noting even the simple closing of a window, I'm somehow nearer to understanding the vast connectedness of things. That maybe what sent those passengers to the plane, that called the woman to the window, and stirred the dog to bark is the same thing that pulls the birds through the darkness of the night sky, and Jeff and me out to our doorstep on a brisk, autumn evening.

As I settle back into my chair, letting the night touch me, I cherish the thought of being part of that big, wonderful secret.

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