I went out on Saturday evening to listen for whippoorwills. It was a quiet night and near 60 degrees. The conditions should have been ideal for calling wills, but between dusk and 10:15 I covered 23 miles of back roads in Noyac, Watermill, and Bridgehampton, stopping at least 20 times with lights and motor off and did not record a single whippoorwill.
The night sounds that I did hear, however, were compensatory. There were the long, fire siren buzzes of Fowler’s toads, the soft tremolos of gray tree frogs, and several different birdcalls and songs until it got dark.
There were lots of passing vehicle noises, airplane and helicopter whines, the calls of kids playing from afar, and barking dogs. I could also hear the SoFo party music on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike in full swing from at least two miles away. It was ironic, perhaps, that the sound emanating from the South Fork Natural History Museum, which is about preserving nature in the wild, was drowning out nature in the wild.
In one field off of Deerfield Road, I saw an adult fox with tail straight out in back hightailing it to the north. There was a small herd of about 10 deer wondering what the guy just sitting there and peering out from the Toyota pickup was up to. Deer have very good hearing but I bet they hadn’t heard any whippoorwills either, maybe not at all this spring, and maybe not for the last several springs.
Twenty years ago, these roads in the moraine such as Deerfield, Roses Grove, Noyac Path, Loper’s Path, Millstone, and Middle Highway had very few houses. Now, it seems, there is a house everywhere, a good 50 percent of them with outdoor lighting that made them stand out like carnival rides. Middle Highway wasn’t paved until recently; it was merely a dirt track with unsullied woods on either side. I felt almost as if I had awakened from a long sleep like Rip Van Winkle and the moraine was no longer empty and had become gentrified while I nodded off.
I surmised that a nocturnal bird such as the whippoorwill would not feel safe or happy in a woodland now filled with lights and noises from parties, planes, and automobiles. I was reminded of a law that Nancy Goell coined when she headed up America’s Group for the South Fork. If there is a road named after an animal such as Canvasback Lane or Bobwhite Path, you can bet that there won’t be a canvasback or bobwhite for miles around. There is a Whippoorwill Road on the South Fork and I haven’t heard a whippoorwill calling on either side of it for the past 15 years.
The night wasn’t a bust, however. I didn’t think that I would hear a whippoorwill. Even though on the same meandering route 20 years ago you could have heard at least 20 of them, I didn’t have my hopes up. On the other hand, I was gratified to see so many fireflies, or lightning bugs, the first of the year, I thought, and a little premature. Owing to the record warm spring they emerged early and were now firing up early.
Generally it takes a few days of near 90-degree weather to get them going. But on Saturday night wherever I stopped to listen, fireflies were popping off. That’s the way the males find the females in the dark of night. In some neighborhoods there is a predatory lightning bug that sounds out the same coded bursts of light, and when the male comes down for a look-see, grabs him and gobbles him up.
This evening should be hot and still, the perfect situation for a major firefly eruption across the entire East End. Still, this senior citizen wonders, what with all of the other amusements offered at night at this time of year and with so many young people busy texting or playing games on their smartphones, will the majority of fireflies slip by unnoticed?
In the old days when we were kids on the block, chasing fireflies was as entertaining as going to a movie. These are the new days. I wonder.