On a Friday in early May I will leave work early and drive three hours west of where I live on Cape Cod, to the wooded hills at the edge of the Connecticut River Valley. I will pull into the driveway of the farmhouse where I used to live, and I will walk into the quiet and dark middle of an open field.
It is a field where I have stood on many May nights. A field from which I never wish to sever my attachment. And I will listen. If the wind is from the south, the sky will be filled with sounds. Faint cheeps, tseets and chur-ups. They are the sounds of night flight. The nocturnal voices of songbirds, maintaining contact with the flock, leapfrogging their way north across the continent at the peak of spring migration.
I believe these few May days during songbird migration are precious. This phenomenon, with its spring night flights and bird-filled mornings, is deeply ingrained in my psyche and imprinted in my animal brain. It represents a way to mark the passage of time. To make connections. And to experience joy.
I can remember vividly nights in places my life has taken me, listening to northward flights–one night walking across the campus in Baton Rouge, an Easter night in Arkansas’ Ouachita Mountains, a late May evening along Lake Manitoba. Most other images of these places have long faded. My memory (only sometimes aided by my lists) conjures up the day when I stepped off my front stoop, cup of coffee in hand, to be greeted by a dozen least flycatchers. Or the day I spent digging in my garden as Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks arrived hourly, or the evening I spent chasing “peeenting” woodcocks around the edges of my field.
Despite our technical advances, bird migration is still miraculous.
Standing in a field on a warm May night with a soft south wind blowing, listening to the communication signals of airborne travelers, is my ritual. It is the rope that ties me to the natural world.
I shudder to think of a spring without birds. Not just backyard robins and catbirds, but wilder, lesser known birds. Like black-billed cuckoos, blue-headed vireos, Swainson’s thrushes and Canada warblers. What would replace faint calls on a May night? What would force us to care about the fate of tropical lands from where they have just come?
I am a scientist, but I believe that science alone cannot and will not stem the fraying of our natural world. It will take a deeper, more personal connection with wild nature. To me, that is embodied in night flight.
I do not need to understand the mystery and all of migration’s details to know its importance. May nights are my time to feel its pull and its attraction. And though the future is uncertain for the migrants now winging their way from the tropics, on this night I can be optimistic that the rope is holding.
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