Winter’s Night

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.

Evening porcupine.

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.

Black spruce.

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 in January 2014.

  • Montucky

    That was a great interlude. Amazing, isn’t it ti rely only on hearing in the night. We don’t rule the night, do we! I often walk up the road from my house at night, just to see the stars and feel the breeze and listen. A few nights ago I also heard the coyotes sing. Haven’t tried the old varmint call for a long time although a couple of weeks ago I got it out and set it on my dresser. I will remember to use it the nixt time I go out.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Montucky. Night holds so much mystery, so much unknown, and each evening is completely different! Often I try to tune into the night while in the great outdoors by just sitting still. The quiet is like a beacon in the darkness. It puts us in the pace of the blackness. And when there are star lit heavens above, all the better!

  • TeresaEvangeline

    It’s been so cold I haven’t been out at night for a while … hoping to remedy that soon … my night time adventures usually involve the road and the edge of the field … woods might be wonderful, but … I’d love to drop all fear and give it a try.

  • Wild_Bill

    It’s not unusual to experience fear in the woods after dark. Most people do. I think it’s mostly because it is something that we haven’t experienced and so there is no basis for trust in the idea that the forest is safe at night. I can say this, and some will disagree, I feel much safer in the woods at night, even where there are dangerous predators, than I do in nearly any city at night. It is simply a case of being familiar with your environment and having the skills to deal with it. I have no good urban skills.

  • Ratty

    I wish I could be as confident in a place like that in the daytime as you are at night. I’m glad to be able to read about your night experience because I’ve had very few, and only in a more civilized forest. Even that was a wonderful experience.

  • Wild_Bill

    Why miss out on half of the fun and enjoyment. Night, in most of the US occupies about half of any day on average throughout a year. There are a lot of animals adapted to night life and I don’t mean humans at night clubs!

  • Annie

    I usually don’t go out at night and know that I miss much by not doing so. The closest I’ve come to being out at night on my own is when I sleep in my tent. Somehow having those thin flimsy walls around me makes me brave enough to be curious about the night noises. It’s always fun to explore for tracks and other clues in the morning.

  • Guy

    Hi Bill

    That sounds like a great way to experience the other side of the world, so many animals are mainly active at night and it is a world we rarely see. My terrible night vision coupled with my wide streak of paranoia (chicken anyone) would make this fairly hard for me but I am tempted to establish some tree stands and see what I can see. I really enjoyed reading about your experiences.

    All the best.

  • Wild_Bill

    You are not alone when it comes to having difficulty with night time adventures in the wild. I actually believe it is built into our genetic code because it is so common. I over came it as a child mostly by necessity. A tree stand at night could be more dangerous than any potential threat on the ground at night. I can think of a whole host of things that can go wrong 20 feet above the ground at night. In fact I’ve been through a few of them personally.

  • Wild_Bill

    Camping, of course, is the best introduction to the night. We slept out under the stars frequently when I was a kid. It was always done in small groups so we had the courage of many. Eventually the need for companions fell away. Of course I lived in a tipi in the woods by myself (with 2 dogs) for more than 2 years so that pretty much qualifies me as unusual.

  • Debra

    What a beautiful, mystical story. Your spiritual connection to your
    environment is extraordinary—you are infinitely patient and receptive
    to what may seem an insignificant detail, but it’s actually an opening
    to another world. Calling to a barred owl is one thing—having it
    answer you quite another. This wizardry takes a lifetime of devotion. Do
    you still set up night cams?

  • Wild_Bill

    Yes, I use trail cams a lot. In fact I even run workshops to help organizations and individuals using trail cams to become more informed about how to use them in ways that they’ll get more and better photos. I will be setting them all up again next week. Eastern coyotes, bobcats, and a few other species will be mating which creates a lot of activity.

    I don’t know if its another world. It is the one that I live in, admire, and use to guide my life. We all have access to it if we take the time. I love, love, love our planet. I find it most beautiful in its simplest form; one where human impacts are nearly indistinguishable. Oh, and owls? They are so mystical (as are Ravens) I keep thinking they just may be from a different world!

  • craftygreenpoet

    so wonderful to experience the woodland at night, someting i rarely do (it wouldn’t feel safe in the woods round here, as they’re surrounded by city and you’re unlikely to be alone with nature at night). Amazing too that you got so close to the animals. I’m very lucky to have a tawny owl that sits in its roost hole during the day and I see it most weeks….. Your ability to mimic the birds must be very good

  • Wild_Bill

    You are lucky to have an owl near by that you can commune with. This is so special. See if you can follow it some day (from a distance so it doesn’t get spooked). You’ll be surprised by what you see and find!

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