The moon is vacant on this winter night. Clouds that can’t be seen in the dark abyss cover the heavens and leave twinkling stars on the other side. It is so cold. It is so dark. It is so empty. The black void on this night seems unpredictable. My hands are almost numb. I have been standing still in this frigid black forest waiting for my eyes to adjust to the lack of light. They still see little. It is hard to be confident about expectations when one is somewhat sensually disenfranchised. I proceed into the night woods using only instincts to guide me.
Synthetic light in the form of a torch or flash light has no use in this exercise. I am here simply to experience the real nocturnal winter forest. Any artificial illumination would make me an intruder into the cloak of darkness that I enter. My aim is to not interfere with the night forest. I am simply here to observe.
The crusty snow crunches loudly under my feet. So loud, in fact, that I know that I must go to a remote location and sit still until the noise I have made disappears into the past. My movement makes me an interloper and I fear that it will negate the purpose of my brief night time visit.
There is a large stand of north facing hemlocks on Hummingbird Hill. The stand covers perhaps 5 acres. The trail that I am on, an old woods road, leads directly to the edge of this coniferous forest. The edge of this evergreen forest might be seen as an even darker spot on the landscape on this blackest of all nights.
Even without reasonable visual senses I will know when I get to the hemlock patch. There the snow will shallow perhaps even patchy. Thick overhanging branches intercept about half of most snow events. Much of this snow sublimates before it ever falls off of the branches to the ground. It is this thick branch cover and lack of deep snow that attracts so many animals. Survival in winter for wildlife is based more on efficient use of energy than the consumption of food. Shallow snow translates into energy conservation; moving relatively unimpeded burns fewer calories. It is a good spot to experience wildlife in the winter and an especially good place to encounter wildlife at night.
I have brought only one tool with me. I have in my pocket a “rabbit in distress” call. This call can send sounds that reach out a half a mile. It can be effective tool for calling in predators I also have a “bag of tricks” that I will use to census wildlife if the forest is abundantly quiet on this dark and cold evening. The first trick that I will use is a call that I do using the back of my hand. The idea is to mimic a suffering small mammal. Unlike the call I have in my pocket the sound may only travel a couple of hundred feet. Yet it is amazing effective. I wet my lips with my tongue. I lick the back of my bare hand. I put my puckered lips to my hand and draw in air through pursed lips. If I want a high pitch squeal I press my wet lips hard against my hand while drawing in air. If I want a lower pitch sound I lessen the pressure. By rocking my hand back and forth against my moist lips I can change volume, pitch, and tone.
The second trick I use is a barred owl call. I do this with my voice. This has taken me years to perfect. Mimicking the exact call of an owl is not easy. It’s not really something you want to practice in front of others. They would likely think you were a little strange. My call started off many years ago sounding like a suffering seal. With abundant practice (most of which was done in my truck I was alone while driving long distances) I can effectively mimic not only a barred owl, but a few other night time raptors as well. Learning to introduce just the right volume of raspy air was the most difficult part of perfecting the barred owl sound. I sometimes use my hands to muffle the call, but most of the time I just bellow it out into the night. The barred owl call will locate other owls, wild turkeys, and even ravens (at dusk or dawn). For some reason other birds feel compelled to respond to a barred owl call. If nothing else it provides for a lot of self entertainment.
As I navigate the dark woods road while marching up the steep hill I keep looking upward towards the sky. My eyes have adjusted as much as they are going to and I can barely see the overhanging branches that forms an open lane over the path. There is enough contrast between black and blacker for me to accurately feel my way along this night time woods road.
About 20 minutes and a half a mile later I find myself at the edge of the hemlock stand. It does appear as a very dark spot on a slightly less dark landscape. Without hesitation I enter this area and it looks as if I am entering a coal mine. My hands are extended in front of me so that I don’t run into a tree trunk of some other obstinate obstacle. I feel each step with my foot before committing to the complete stride. After about ten minutes of wandering into this maze of darkness I stumble into a dead fall tree where I can rest my back and have good cover.
Unlike humans most animals that wander the night time forest have excellent night time vision. Their eyes are constructed differently so as to utilize all of the available light that my eyes cannot perceive. This is why I try to conceal myself. I am only invisible to myself.
I sit here waiting for things to settle; for the forest to return to its natural routine devoid of my interference. In about ten minutes I will blend in by being something other than myself; at least that is the plan. Time passes. I use the pulse of my breath to gauge time. Each breath, in and out, brings me to a closer peace with my surroundings.
When all seems quiet I lick the back of my hand and put my lips to my skin to start a quiet distress call. The soft squealing noise sounds both raspy and wheezy. I call for about 15 seconds and wait for about a half a minute. I repeat this over and over again. At one juncture I think I hear something approaching. It sounds like crusty snow breaking. The noise comes a southern direction. A very gentle breeze now blows from the north. This is not a good situation. I make the distress call again. I wait. I hear something again only it seems to be heading away from me. I guess that the predator caught a scent even though I spent a good deal of time removing any possible odor by spraying my clothes before leaving the homestead.
The noise I heard was a steady two by two movement meaning it sounded as if the front and rear legs were moved together rather than alternately. I’m guessing that it was a fisher, a very common predator in this forest, and that its noise was inconsistent because it is too light to always break through the shallow crust of the snow or else the predator intercepted bare areas where the snow was no longer present and no noise would be made.
I call again for a while, perhaps 15 minutes, using the same technique and there are no results.
Next I use my voice to mimic a barred owl. It takes little time to get a response from another barred owl. I call again. It replies. This time the call closer. I can hear air being pushed by larger raptor wings. The owl lands on a nearby branch and hoots “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?” I respond. There is silence. I wait. I call again. Once again I hear the rushing of air made by flapping raptor wings. The owl flies off. It is difficult to fool an expert at close range.
I take the rabbit in distress call out of my pocket. I feel the tube thoroughly trying to locate the blowing end. I use the call, manipulating the sound so as to vary pitch, tone, and volume. I call, wait, call, wait, call and wait. This sound will travel a long distance. Sometimes it takes quite a while to lure in a predator.
After about 20 minutes I hear snow crust breaking. It is steady. I interpret this as meaning there are several predators. Only the eastern coyote travels in a group in this area. They are not always in a pack but frequently they are.
I use the call again. It’s loud, screaming sound is morbid. It sounds like death. A sound that the eastern coyote hears with glee. For a while I hear nothing. The forest is immensely quiet. But then I hear a single noise. It is to the west. I hear another foot step in the frozen snow. It is to the east. I can hear still more to the south and north. The coyote pack has divided perhaps to prevent the wounded animal from escaping. It sounds as if the animals are somewhere in the vicinity of 40 to 60 yards away. I wait.
There is more silence. And then one of the coyotes wails. The cry shatters the night. The others respond. In unison their voices send shivers up and down my spine. I can feel my breathing quicken. Sweat begins to form on my forehead despite the frigid temperatures. My adrenaline glands are pumping out rivers of hormones. The howling stops suddenly. I wait. The hormones keep flowing.
And just like that I hear these wild canines running. But they are not running towards me. They are running to the east. They stop at some distance and resume their eery calls. This time the wailing,crying, and yipping is short lived. And, at last, I can hear them disappear off into the distance.
Clearly, one of the eastern coyotes understood there was danger. Certainly part of their pack strategy is to gather information. Gathering information from several different locations is much more effective than collecting it from one spot. These master predators have evolved to use the pack to their advantage. Just as flocks of birds may use “many eyes” to find food eastern coyotes use the pack to not only locate prey but to assess risk. This is something I’ve encountered before.
I never saw one of these magnificent creatures on this evening. The black night allowed only my hearing (and that is not that great anymore) and my wits to experience the moment. Just knowing that I was so close to these expert predators is a thrill. It is why I am here.
Knowing the coyotes have laid down a scent trail that completely envelopes me I trust it is time to move on. It is extremely unlikely that I will encounter any other wildlife tonight.
I stand up. I look at the sky. I think I can see an opening in the clouds where a few stars reveal that the universe is still alive and healthy. The clouds quickly slam the door shut and I am left to my own sensory devices.
The night time trek back to the homestead will be both slow and pensive. I have a lot to be thankful for on this darkest of nights and I intend to reflect on this with each careful step I take as I return home.
Life is full of wonder.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in January 2014.