Library Rambler: Hear that Lonesome Whippoorwill
I believed that it was by brother-in-laws tent that the whippoorwills found so offensive. It was yellow and pink. It sagged in unexpected places. It gathered rain like a sponge and welcomed mosquitos. It claimed to be a two-man pup tent that held just one man and would collapse on its occupants every night.
No tent has ever achieved such thrilling levels of disgrace.
Still, Dennis had inherited it from a beloved ancestor and it was the tent he took on our fishing expeditions to Sal’s Springs, a paradise for trout of all sorts and home to the whippoorwill.
As I dozed off in my own water-proof and mosquito-proof tent that first night, I chuckled at the sounds of fisticuffs between father and son in the adjacent tent.
“Dad, stop hitting me!”
“I’m trying to kill a mosquito. Sorry!”
Smack, smack, followed by muffled cuss words.
Just as I was about to fall asleep, I watched the shadows of several birds through my screened window flitting around in the dim starlight. One of the shadows lit on Dennis’ tent pole. These were homily whippoorwills, the harpies of the natural world, come to drive us and the loathsome tent away.
Until that evening, I had not realized that the whippoorwill is a completely nocturnal bird. All night long, each bird issues one whippoorwill call every three seconds. The call lasts one-point-five seconds. The deep breath required to execute the next call takes another one-point-five seconds. I should know. One was parked two feet from my head. He had bronchitis.
Their tune (and they only have one) sounds just like their name with an accent on the last syllable: whip-poor-WILL.
In the time one bird is taking a deep breath, another bird is trying to insert his or her own whippoorwill into the silence. Heaven forbid that we should have silence. By my estimate, our gang of whippoorwills included at least six birds, all of them within 20 feet.
The result was a long sequence sounding like whip-whip-whip-whip-whip-whip. Once in a while the nearest bird would cover up all the others with a giant WILL. After 30 minutes, I could take it no longer.
“Dennis,” I said through the side of my tent, “are you awake?”
“What do you think about chasing them off?”
“I’ll get my flashlight.”
As soon as he stepped outside and turned on the flashlight, one or more birds flew at the light. Surprised, he dropped the light and then picked it up again. The birds then flew at his face. He dropped the light again, and it turned itself off.
When I saw the light next, we were still feeling for it in the wet grass. The light had rolled down the embankment into the stream and, as it floated away, flickered on and off.
Dennis asked if he could have my light. I took it out my pocket and turned it on. A moment later, a dim glow, looking like a miniature sunset, smoldered-but just for a few seconds. It made the starlight seem bright.
We tried rekindling our campfire but the birds did not like it. Giving up, we took refuge in our respective tents. The whippoorwills repositioned themselves on Dennis’ tent poles and began whippoorwilling with more ferocity.
I had a dream in which my name was Whip and I was going fishing with my fishing poor. My friend, Will, also had a poor. I woke with an immense headache.
That morning, after Dennis and Andy had extricated themselves from their collapsed tent, we decided to pull up stakes and move somewhere else. While we were doing that, we discovered a whippoorwill nest in close proximity to Dennis’ tent.
Rhinelander District Library director Ed Hughes is available at 715-365-1070.