Woods walk provides unexpected audio

John Pepin

“Listen to the mockingbirds, still singing where the weeping willows wave.” — Septimus Winner

The cooling shadows of the day were so dark and long now they covered the understory of the forest and were cast high up on a line of spruces standing guard — tall and straight — along the edge of a grassy opening.

It was dark enough I couldn’t make out the features of a bird that fluttered into the lower, reaching branches of a sugar maple. Like following musical notes on a staff, once it landed, it hopped from one branch up to another and then down to a third.

I think this bird was likely an eastern phoebe — it had the right shape, size and flight style — but I couldn’t be sure. I wondered if it was following a moth or some other bug, or just finding a place to roost for the night.

Over the past few weeks, I have enjoyed tuning in to the sounds of the evening, listening for whatever might be out there to hear — like when I was a young pajamaed kid in my bed with a small transistor radio and a single earphone, turning the dial, finding whatever there was between the static and darkness.

I could find everything from baseball games and news from distant towns to comedy shows and music out there. It was magical to be able to draw those sounds into my darkened bedroom, especially when I was supposed to be sleeping.

Turns out some of the singers I heard on my little radio had an appreciation for the darkening of the day into night too.

A group called the Platters had a No. 1 hit in 1958 with a song from the mid-1940s they revived called “Twilight Time,” but that wasn’t the only hit song they sang like that.

They had another remake from the 1920s that hit the top of the chart in 1956, called “My Prayer.”

“When the twilight is gone, and no songbirds are singing. When the twilight is gone, you come into my heart. And here in my heart you will stay, while I pray.”

There was also “Deep Purple,” a remake recorded by Billy Ward & His Dominoes, with Vic Schoen and His Orchestra, released on the Liberty label in 1957.

“When the deep purple falls over sleepy garden walls and the stars begin to flicker in the sky, through the mist of a memory you wander back to me, breathing my name with a sigh.”

This would be the same song guitarist Ritchie Blackmore of the British rock band “Deep Purple” said was a favorite of his grandmother’s, which then gave the band famous for “Smoke on the Water,” its name.

I love the Platters. My favorite song of theirs is “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” a tune originally from the 1933 musical “Roberta.” It was a No. 1 for the Platters in 1958.

I really like “My Prayer” too, though the lyric was mistaken. Even in the middle of the nighttime, you may indeed hear a songbird singing. This was particularly true when I lived in California and mockingbirds were very common.

These birds, as their name suggests, are part of a group of birds called “mimic thrushes” that adopt the songs of other birds, and even other sounds like car alarms or other common noises, into their repertoire.

In addition to mockingbirds, mimic thrushes include catbirds and thrashers. Each of these bird species have bubbly songs and calls and are not shy about performing.

They are mesmerizing to listen to — except at nighttime, when mockingbirds — in their attempts to attract mates – are known for turning sound sleepers into insomniacs.

There are other birds out there in the night too, making little chips, peeps or singing fragmented portions of their songs. I heard this a few nights ago when a white-throated sparrow whistled just a few notes.

Of course, there are also the songs and calls of owls.

But there is so much more.

To enhance my listening, I allow my self to focus on sound alone, as much as I can. Closing my eyes helps a good deal. The experience is quite wonderful and fulfilling.

One of my favorite places for listening is my backyard.

Not only can I hear deer walking just inside the line of trees, I can tell when they stop and then begin to chomp and chew on whatever it is they’re eating. I have a creaking tree, that sounds with the softest breeze.

From buzzing cicadas, crickets and sputtering June bugs to the songs of treefrogs, the monotone of toads and the twittering of bats, to the ever-changing moods of the winds, the rain — from a mist to a downpour — and the low rumbling of thunder, the nighttime is anything but dead.

Add to this, the sound of fish splashing after snapping a fly out of the air, the din of mosquitos (preferably on the outside of the tent or window screen), branches cracked underfoot of a passing bear or moose, the howls of wolves and coyotes and the eerie cries of loons on the lake.

There are also human-produced or human-influenced sounds to hear too, from voices, barking dogs and distant cars rolling over a gravel road to train whistles, planes flying by and doors shutting or slamming.

There is an entire cornucopia of sound being dumped out onto the twilight-nighttime-early morning airwaves. Water dripping, water flowing, waterfalling.

Beyond just hearing sounds, one of the most interesting things to learn about is timing, how some sounds start early and stop early or start late and end early — there’s so much to learn about this.

The timing for sounds is seasonal too. Many of the birds are only heard for part of the year and then they leave, to be replaced by other sounds made by other birds here only for the wintertime. The animal sounds change too.

Beyond all of this, I think my favorite nature sounds to hear — the most intriguing — are those noises that I can’t identify, no matter how hard I listen. The various scratching or crunching sounds of animals, scraping, grunting and growling.

These are the sounds that eventually, after several minutes, make me ask, “What the hell is that?” They are fun puzzles to try to figure out, and to see if they are heard again night after night.

I like this game in reverse too.

I really enjoy the work of Foley artists — those folks who provide the post-production sound effects for various common actions in movies. They are named after sound effects art creator Jack Foley.

For example, when a crunched-up potato chip bag is released and recorded to imitate the sound of a fire, or a tape measure being used to make the noise of metal window blinds or squeezing corn starch in a leather glove to imitate the sound of someone walking in snow.

I enjoy trying to figure out how a movie or television show sound was created by these very talented Foley artists. This is especially true when watching “The Three Stooges,” with all the ridiculous sounds meant to cover their loud and crazy, physical antics.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, nighttime in the woods is a fabulous contemplative time, full of sounds. The longer I stay, the more I can hear myself think.

Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I can even hear those old Platters’ songs playing from my old transistor radio in my head.

“My prayer is to linger with you, at the end of the day, in a dream that’s divine. My prayer is a rapture in blue, with a world far away…”

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.