Evidence of Things Not Seen
As dusk turns to dark, when the last hint of red is disappearing in the west, we drive down a dusty two-track close to the east branch of the Maple River. We stop close to a clearing in the scrubby second growth forest, a place where there are just a few stunted oaks and acres of thigh-high bracken fern.
We’ve come to try our luck calling out whip-poor-wills. It’s been years since I’ve seen the bird or heard its song, one I associate with the very beginnings and ends of summer nights in the northern forest. The name is supposed to sound like its call—and perhaps it does. The call does begin and end on strong notes, but that softer middle area—the “poor”—seems to be made of many notes, playing off each other in a pattern of harmonics that defies words.
When the sky is almost dark, we play our recording of a whip-poor-will call. Nothing happens. In a couple of minutes, we play it again. Nothing. And, then, not 30 feet away, a call, louder than our recording. We play back once more and the bird starts singing rapidly, with barely a breath between songs. There’s a second bird off to our left. Two more behind. A fifth starts singing a little farther away, back behind us to the south. All of them are singing loudly, almost aggressively, as if they are daring us to come into their territory. We play the recording a couple of more times, hoping a bird will come out and dive-bomb us, so we can get a glimpse of its black profile against the slightly lighter sky.
But they are content simply to sing at us. Their song surrounds us for fifteen or twenty minutes. And then they all stop singing at the same time, as if on cue. We never see one of them.
By Keith Taylor