Search This Blog

Friday, June 28, 2013

Bullbats Visit the Valley…

cotton candy clouds                  Summer

At evening, nighthawks, as if on roller coasters, climb through the bleeding sky, hang a moment upon it, then hurtle earthward, wrest a sonic boom from the startled air, and soar aloft again.

Growing Up Riparian

T.M. Johnson

I’m in the habit of observing birds that visit our property; however, you would be mistaken if you think I’m an avid birder: I own no spotting scope, safari jacket, or take to the field, binoculars swinging from my neck like an ocular pendulum. I’m not preoccupied with compiling a “Life List” of birds I’ve seen. In general I’m just fascinated by wildlife (less so, I’ll admit,  if it’s twice as big as I am) and that includes birds, certainly. In my pictorial field guide Birds of Washington checklist, I have checked fifty-two avian species observed at our feeders, in bordering trees and shrubs, just passing through, over, or in the case of a terrified wood duck hen, in our chimney flue. Late fall, winter and into spring we hang feeders and keep them well-stocked with birdseed. A year ago, spring ,we added a finch sock which attracted pine siskins and led to one more check mark in the field guide. The hummingbird feeder is on duty year round except for winter days when the temperature is below freezing. Those nights I bring it inside so it won’t freeze solid and break.

My checklist grows annually, it seems. Two years ago a male Lazuli bunting had a three day stopover at our feeder (haven’t seen it since). L. BuntingLast summer I stepped out on the back deck and was startled by a large, hulking turkey buzzard squatting in the backyard. Immediately I retreated inside, quickly took my pulse and temperature and when nothing seemed amiss, I took out my field guide checklist and checked the box “Buzzard, Turkey.” For two months this spring a male red-breasted nuthatch darted back and forth between feeder and maple tree, and I checked off this little streamlined darter, also.r.b. nuthatch

                                    *                    *                    *                    *

9:00 p.m. I’m strolling the garden. Deluges of Biblical proportions have kept me housebound the past two days. This evening the air is fresh and still. A cotton candy sky coats the horizon a gauzy pink, spinning wisps of pastel across the blue. Then I hear it…somewhere overhead a faint “bwwooooooooom.” The sound is not concussive, but a gentle sound, like something softly tearing a strip of sky. The noise does not disturb but complements the evening and the peace of the garden. The sound echoes in memory; I recognize it instantly and scan the sky for its source. For some moments I see nothing. Then suddenly the familiar flutter of wings high in the sky off to the west and I see the bird. Higher it climbs with erratic wing beats, spiraling upwards and upwards as if ascending an invisible staircase. As the bird strives higher, I know what is about to happen: a bit of suspense, then the bird tips over, folds its wings and plummets downward in a steep arc. Down, down it falls, buzzes another erratically flapping bird and abruptly swoops skyward again, away from its mate. I listen for the booming noise as the bird brakes and the wind whooshes through its wings but the distance is too great and the sound is not repeated. I hear it only once. But once is enough to jolt the memories loose….

…of those still summer evenings in Eastern Washington when we  were kids and sought reprieve from the day’s heat and our oven-like bedrooms by hiking a half mile to a vantage point on a hill above the riverbank. There we’d stand as the air cooled, gaze into a sky afire with sunset, and watch the nighthawks swoop and boom. High above our heads the birds would climb, their distinctive “peeeenting” cry signaling their location like a beeping satellite. We would enjoy their aerobatics until the sky grayed and the stars winked on, and then begin the slow walk back home to our simmering bedrooms.

“Bullbats,” they’re called in some regions of the country, perhaps because of the booming sounds they make. In ancient times nighthawks were thought to be goat suckers, to suckle and feed on goat’s milk at night. A bird about the size of a robin, the common nighthawk has a tiny beak but a mouth like a scoop, frog-like, into which they funnel insects as they swoop about the sky, feeding in much the same way a baleen whale screens mouthfuls of krill as it glides through the sea. Akin to whip-or-wills and nightjars, the common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) is termed in the field guides as a“crepuscular” bird, meaning most active at twilight and dawn. At night on the way home from our dates, driving along dusty county roads, oftentimes nighthawks would dart into flight from the middle of the road, startled by our headlights. Sometimes in broad day as we hiked the sagebrush flats, we in turn would be startled by a nesting nighthawk whose nesting habits are not to have one, but instead lay its pebble-colored eggs among stones on the bare earth. The bird, mottled and camouflaged itself, would burst into flight nearly from beneath our feet, and our breath would come faster for the next couple of minutes.

In all the years I’ve lived here in the Valley, I’ve yet to see a nighthawk. But this evening, if only for a moment, I saw a pair them. Their presence was fleeting; they were here and then they were gone, swallowed up by the west. Sometimes an instant holds more than an hour, a day, a month…but in that brief moment the nighthawks’ playful aerobatics this calm evening went beyond my mere tallying of avian species number fifty-three and checking the box before “Nighthawk, Common,” page 309 of Birds of Washington, .

Print this post

No comments:

Post a Comment