On April 27, 2014, I attended the OFNC’s “Frogs and Birds at Night” outing led by Bernie Ladouceur. This event had been postponed from an earlier date due to inclement weather; as I usually don’t go out birding at night, I thought it would be a terrific opportunity to find some nocturnal species that I wouldn’t see or hear otherwise. We spent a couple of hours in the Munster area, mostly along Munster and Kettles Roads. We pulled up next to a marshy area at dusk where we could hear the Spring Peepers calling from the cattails. It was still light enough to see at least 50 Canada Geese swimming on the pond, with more flying in. Red-winged Blackbirds and Swamp Sparrows were still singing; we also heard a Pied-billed Grebe and a pair of American Bitterns calling, one of which sounded very close to us.
A little further along we stopped next to a Tamarack forest and heard the lovely, flute-like song of a Hermit Thrush swirling down from the trees, a single White-throated Sparrow, and more frogs – mostly Spring Peepers, with a couple of Western Chorus Frogs, a quacking Wood Frog, and an American Toad that only Bernie could hear.
At our third stop we found some shorebirds. By then it was almost completely dark, though we did see a pair of Wood Ducks fly over, the female calling as she flew. We heard the winnowing of at least five Wilson’s Snipes, and the peenting of at least six American Woodcocks. This was one of my target birds, for I had never witnessed the springtime courtship display of a woodcock before. The male starts his display by strutting on the ground, periodically giving short, nasal calls (“peents”). He then launches into the air, spiraling upward in large circles and producing a musical twittering sound as the air passes through the three narrow, outer primary wings. After reaching the apex of his flight at a hundred feet or more, the male American Woodcock zigzags down to the ground, giving a series of melodious chirps before landing in almost in the exact spot from which he took flight. After a moment or two, the male woodcock begins this display with another series of peents.
We couldn’t see any of this, although we heard the woodcocks peenting on the ground, and then the musical chittering notes of their wings as they ascended into the sky. That would have been an amazing sight to behold!
We returned to one of the marshy spots to call for owls, though none appeared. We did hear the low growl of a Leopard Frog mixed in with the Spring Peepers, Wood Frogs, Western Chorus Frogs, and the occasional American Toad, which I was still unable to pick up.
We didn’t hear any owls until our last stop, where Bernie said he had been calling in a pair of Barred Owls for over 20 years! Given the length of time that has passed, it isn’t likely that the birds there today were the original ones from over 20 years ago; while captive Barred Owls may live to be 23 or24 years old, the average lifespan of a bird living in the wild is about 8 years.
He gave a very good imitation of the Barred Owl’s throaty “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you aaaaaaallllll…” call periodically for about 10 or 15 minutes; at first, only a single Wood Frog among the ever-present Spring Peepers responded. Later, we heard the yipping chorus of a pack of coyotes in the distance; then finally we heard the loud, hooting call of a Barred Owl from the woods behind us! Bernie called again, and the owl responded – this time from the trees in front of us. We couldn’t see a thing, and even the flashlight didn’t help as the owl was in a tree about fifteen or twenty feet beyond the edge of the woods. Then a second owl started calling – and the two had an entire conversation right in front of us for about ten minutes! Bernie didn’t even need to call to get them to vocalize. This was without a doubt the grand finale of the night, and we all thoroughly enjoyed it. We even managed to see both owls at the end as they swooped out of the woods, flew across the road, and disappeared into the night. Then it was time for us to disappear into the night as well, though I was sad to go home after such a wonderful evening. If Bernie holds this outing again next year I will definitely attend!