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The Great Voice

Sunday, June 5th. With Paul Rodewald, a birding companion from my college days, I’m listening for birds along a country road in Adams County, down in far southern Ohio. It’s not yet dawn. A Chuck-will’s-widow is singing its head off. We hear another in the distance. A Purple Martin calls as it flies over in the darkness.
    “Let’s try for Eastern Screech-Owl.”
    I whistle an imitation of the bird’s whinny. Right away, a bird answers. Then another. And another.
    It’s a lovely night. It’s muggy, of course, with partial overcast. I can see just a few stars though the haze and cloud cover. But—oh, man!—the fireflies! There must be thousands of them. Thousands!

Sunday, June 12th. Now I’m with Marcel Such and Joel Such, perhaps the best teen birders in Colorado. We’re up in the Flatirons, a dramatic formation at the base of the Rocky Mountains. Sunrise is still two hours away. Common Poorwills are singing their serene songs. A Violet-green Swallow is twittering in the starlit sky above the ponderosa pines.
    “Let’s try for Northern Saw-whet Owl.”
    I whistle an imitation of the bird’s tooting. After a minute or so, a bird answers. It’s soft at first, then louder, then totally berserk. It gets another saw-whet going. Now they’re both spazzing out.
    What a marvelous night. It’s clear as a bell, with the Milky Way arching gloriously straight across the night sky.

The lowlands of the Ohio River valley…the steep foothills of the Rocky Mountains…You would be excused for thinking they have nothing in common. True, they are different in a great many ways. I hope I’ve succeed in getting that point across.
    But there is one thing they share in common. It’s a bird. It’s a bird that, in recent years, I have come to regard as the great voice of the nighttime hours in early summer. It’s a bird that sings louder than a Chuck-will’s-widow, more spastic than a Northern Saw-whet Owl. If it wants to, it can sing a song as evocative as that of an Eastern Screech-Owl or a Common Poorwill. It can sound like practically anything it wants to; I’ve heard it give notes that might be mistaken for the calls of martins and swallows.
    It can be heard over a large swath of the United States. It sings in the humid lowlands along the Ohio River, as I’ve said, and it occurs in great plentitude along the slopes of the Rocky Mountains; and it flourishes in many other habitats in North America.
    It sings throughout the daytime hours, but it’s really in its element at night. I’m not talking about a warm-up act for the “dawn chorus.” I’m talking about singing in the middle of the night—midnight, two in the morning, whenever.

Click here to listen to the great voice of summer nights.
Sound recording by © Lang Elliott–Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America.

Indeed, it’s the Yellow-breasted Chat. Catch him while you can. Across the mid-latitudes of North America, the show is pretty much over by the second week of July. It’s worth dragging yourself out of bed for his great performance. Moonlit nights are the best of all. And we had a full moon the other night. This coming weekend—June 18th and 19th—should be outstanding, with a bright moon rising an hour or so after sundown and staying high in the sky all night long.

I know where I’ll be at 2:00 a.m. tomorrow.

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