12/19/15

Who Cooks For You? Sounds of the Night on the Appalachian Trail

One night in the mountains of southern Virginia, a deer or two were behind the Hurricane Mountain shelter making the snorting huffing sounds that deer make. They woke me up, but I fell quickly back asleep, until a fellow hiker mistakingly cried out, “holy shit, it’s a bear!” Now fully awake, I corrected him, “It’s a f’n deer!” Sorry for snapping at you, Rock-Licker. Good sleep on the trail can be hard to come by 

And that's how I realized that not all hikers are familiar with the many sounds of nature heard on the Appalachian Trail.  I don’t recognize everything I hear, especially insects, but thanks to a bird watching habit that developed during college, and eventually a bird related college degree and a couple summer jobs, I do recognize a lot.  

Birding often involves more listening than watching. Listening makes the watching part much easier and efficient, as birds are often hard to see. Like any skill, listening improves with practice and eventually other common animal sounds, like those of chipmunks, squirrels, and deer, become familiar.  This is especially true after a few extended searches for a bird that turns out to be a squirrel.   

If you are going to be living in the woods for months hiking the Appalachian Trail, I recommend learning a few wildlife sounds prior to departure.  Surely you will learn some along the way (you will have plenty of time to think about what you are hearing while hiking), but access to modern learning tools is limited on the trail.  The more wildlife sounds you recognize the greater your awareness will be of the diversity and abundance of animals around you.  Wildlife encounters are memorable and exciting experiences. Have more of them!

Your knowledge may well help you sleep better too. There are a lot of noises in the woods at night, some of them loud and spooky sounding. You can rest easy knowing that the huffing of a deer is not a hungry bear, or that the raucous hooting and hollering of a couple Barred Owls is not a forest goblin coming for your soul. Instead, you can enjoy the wild sounds of a world many people don’t get to experience or appreciate.
 

To get you started here are 7 animals I can almost guarantee you will hear during one of your many nights on a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Admittedly, the list of five birds, two mammals, a bonus amphibian, and zero insects is not representational of the diversity of animals that exists, but reflects the species I am most familiar with, and those that I think are the most conspicuous.


1. White Tailed Deer
More information about White Tailed Deer: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White-tailed_deer. Chances are your state wildlife department has a write up on them as well.


2. Barred Owl 

The "Who cooks for you?" owl, is probably the most common owl in the eastern U.S. They make a variety of sounds, often very loud. More information, photos, recordings and video:https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Barred_Owl/id



3. Great Horned Owl

The owl with the classic hoot. More information, photos, recordings and video: www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Great_Horned_Owl/id


4. Whippoorwill and Chuck Will’s Widow

These are two separate, but closely related species of nightjars.  Both can be heard from dusk to dawn, the Chuck Will’s Widow on the southern portions of the trail, and the Whippoorwill more to the north.

More information, photos, recordings and video:  


More information, photos, recordings and video: 


5. Common Loon

One of the most iconic sounds of the north country, the unsettling sounds of Loons can be heard day and night near the many lakes of New Hampshire and Maine. More information, photos, recordings and video: www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Loon/id



6. Coyote

Coyotes can sound similar to the Common Loon, but the more you listen the more the differences becomes obvious. Note the chorus of spring peepers in the background.  More recordings and videos can be found here: http://macaulaylibrary.org/search?media_collection=1&taxon_id=11031961&taxon_rank_id=67&q=Coyote




Ready to learn more? Here are a list of resources.
  • "The world's largest archive of wildlife sounds and videos". It's free, but a bit cumbersome as a learning tool.  Good for confirming a hunch or hearing variability of a species. http://macaulaylibrary.org/.
  • How did I learn the songs of eastern birds? By repeatedly listening to birding CDs while driving to work, combined with lots of practicing in the field, of course.  There are several versions out there.  These are the ones I used.  The more diversity and repetition of recordings you listen to the better.
  •  The Guide to Night Sounds. This book & CD covers 60 species of birds, insects, amphibians, reptiles and mammals, most found in the eastern U.S., though not necessarily on the Appalachian Trial, as many are coastal species.  
  • The Sibley Birding App. It's a $20 app, but a a very good one.  All recordings and drawings of North American species in your pocket.   No need to carry field guides around anymore.  You can even sort by state.  
  • Last, but not least, your local library.
If you have other suggested resources or favorite sounds of the night, I'm all ears. Please leave a comment.

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