Saturday, September 18, 2010

September 18: Nocturne

Last night the Maine Birding list-serv posted several reports that a good nocturnal migration flight was in progress, so at about midnight I went outside to listen. There's just something really cool about hearing those high-pitched flight calls overhead in the darkness, knowing that there are clouds of birds up there making their way south. Migration restlessness, called zugunruhe--that undeniable, internal impulse to move south--pushes them onward. Invisible in the night, birds fly in fast flocks, trying to make as much distance as they can while winds are low and predators are few. These flocks can be so big that they show up on radar maps, big moving blobs on the screen referred to as "angels."

Some birders are so good they can identify what's up there just by hearing the birds' nocturnal call notes, which are often quite different from the sounds those birds make during the day. It is thought that they make these calls to keep the flock together, a way of saying, "I'm still here" to the other birds around them. Though I can't help but wonder if there isn't a little bit of uncontainable excitement mixed in, too: "Yay! We're all together and heading south again!"

I didn't hear more than a couple of chips from my yard because the rush of the river was so loud. But it was a beautiful night just to sit on the back step and enjoy the calm. The setting, waxing moon shone through the trees brighter than headlights. Jupiter too was large and bright, and with my binoculars I could pick out what I think were a few of its moons. The constellation Cassiopeia poised just above Jupiter, over my roof. I kept expecting to see a cat or a skunk wander through the yard. I wondered what I would hear or see if I threw down a tarp and spent the night in my sleeping bag back there. But I didn't. Eventually I went back inside where the lights were on, and the only thing visible in the dark windows was my own reflection. But as I lay in bed trying to fall asleep, I imagined the soft wingbeats of angels steadily passing over the house all night long.

Angels fly southward
tonight, passing overhead.
Big moon lights the way.

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