Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

An Invisible River of Birds

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

An Invisible River of Birds

Article excerpt

It's bedtime, 10 o'clock, but I can't sleep. Something is tugging me outside on this cool autumn night. I get out of bed, grab a down sleeping bag, and settle into the hammock in the backyard.

Jupiter gleams over the silhouette of a spruce tree at the edge of the field. Constellations shimmer and the Milky Way spills across the sky. Aspen leaves patter in the breeze, then everything falls quiet.

I have spent many warm summer evenings in the hammock, listening to gray tree frogs and a Swainson's thrush sing in the dusk and watching fireflies until the mosquitoes drove me inside. I would welcome those mosquitoes now, anything to have summer back: the long bright days, peonies in bloom, our woods and fields full of birds. I dread the long months of deepening cold and dark, the leafless trees and snow-slicked roads, the interminable Maine winter.

"Tzeeep?"

A small, high sound nicks the silence. I sit up.

"Tzeeep?" There it is again. "Tzeeep ... chip!"

The sounds are coming from overhead. Flight calls. On this calm, clear night, songbirds are migrating. They utter flight calls, scientists believe, to keep tabs on each other in the dark. I can't see the birds or tell their flight calls apart, but I know they're up there: sparrows and thrushes, grosbeaks and buntings, vireos and warblers. Each species has its own distinctive call, most of which are beyond the range of human hearing. I can hear only a tiny fraction of the birds aloft.

Unlike songs, which are lush and loud and all about territory and mating, flight calls are terse, to the point. I imagine the birds' conversations:

"You there?"

"Yup."

"Where?"

"Over here."

"OK."

I wish I could see all those birds above me, flashy songbirds like indigo buntings and Baltimore orioles, scores of streaky brown song sparrows, and dozens of jewel-toned warblers: northern parulas, black-throated greens, magnolias, and all the rest. I shine a flashlight into the sky. A few white moths flash in the beam, but no birds. …

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