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Once Upon a High Lonesome

Listening for a cry in the night

Oxford American magazine

ISSUE 119, WINTER 2022

Listen to music religiously, as if it were the last strain you might hear.


At the edge of a mountainside skid path, scar of an old logging operation, a woman crunched across the leaf litter holding a long stalk of rivercane. She swept the cane over the ground around her as she went, like a dowser with a divining rod searching for water or minerals or buried treasure underground.

They would be above the ground, nesting on it, but so camouflaged you wouldn’t see them.

“You can almost step on them before they flush,” she said to me. Their feathers would be perfectly pigmented to blend with dappled sunlight on last year’s fallen oak and poplar leaves decaying in rich shades of brown on the forest floor. A flock of geese is called a gaggle, but when these flock, it is called an invisibility. If they heard a noise, they would close their large eyes, like smooth black agates, to hide the gleam. They would lie motionless, silent, listening.

They would be on their second brood of the season then, in early June. Two speckled eggs to each clutch. If brushed by the cane, the woman explained to me, the mother would flush, flutter upward, kick the eggs aside in hopes of obscuring them, then flop over or limp to feign a wing injury to distract the predator from the precious next generation. “It’s a brilliant strategy,” the woman said. Her name was Chris Kelly, and she was a diversity biologist for North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

I followed with a cane of my own, sweeping the leaf litter. I peeled my eyes; though it was broad daylight, they felt feeble against the prospect of camouflage’s trickery. My skin and clothes were no guard against the sharp thorns of wild blackberry brambles, which conjured threads from the weave and minute beads of blood to my arms’ surface, snagged and tore both shirt and tissue.

We flushed no whippoorwills.

In another tract of woods, at the other end of Transylvania County, we scoured around the granitic domes that the birds haunt, hoping. These slabs of stone provide small openings in the canopy, and are bordered by the low sheltering limbs of understory trees like mountain laurel. Edges: that’s what Antrostomus vociferus likes. Some space for the light to shine in and dapple them, blending with their mottled plumage; little clearings in which they can hunt. Places where the songs of the males will bounce off the granite and echo through the woods. “It’s like they’re on a stage,” Chris said, laughing. “They want to be the loudest thing around.”

Not in the daytime, though. They only sing at night. Between that fact and the camouflaging, ornithologists deem them “extremely cryptic,” an official scientific description. The whippoorwill is one of the least studied birds in North America. “Few people know the Whip-poor-will,” a writer for Bird-Lore magazine wrote in 1911. “He is merely a wandering voice, a cry in the night.”

We hopped along the rocks, careful not to step on the sensitive lichen and reindeer moss, and swept our canes in all directions. Gnarled blueberry bushes flanked the outcrops, and I paused to pluck the ripe fruits, bursts of sweetness on the tongue.

But we didn’t find the treasure we dowsed for in the leaf litter. No rufous or cinnamon-colored wing fanning out of a sudden from leaves the shade of shale and terra cotta. No nesting whippoorwills.

This worried me.

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