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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Prospect Park at Night

One afternoon last September I had been birding in Prospect Park until around dusk. I was heading home when I ran into my friend Roberto. Migrating songbirds were fairly abundant in the park. The previous day, I had located an uncommon Clay-colored Sparrow among the southbound birds at the weedy edge of the "Sparrow Bowl". Roberto hadn't seen the sparrow so I offered to show him where I found it. Under fading light, we hustled over to the natural, grassy amphitheater between the Picnic and Tennis Houses.

We never found the sparrow, however we spent the next hour in that location watching (as well as one can in the dark) several bats flying around within the semi-circular glen. I went back the following evening better prepared to photograph the bats, but they never materialized.

Last Saturday evening, with much optimism and a greater understanding of my camera, I decided to walk around Prospect Park in search of bats.

I've come to appreciate the noctural sounds of nature as much as I do the bird songs and calls of the day time. The block where I live is next to the park, but usually only hosts one or two crickets in the summer, as well as, an occasional katydid. It's more of a trio or quartet than an insect concerto. I've found that the slow, hypnotic chirring of the crickets and the steady, sedate "tic tic tic" of katydids outside my living room window has the ability to mask the harsh sounds of planes and automobiles.

I don't usually wander around Prospect Park late at night. It's not that the park is unsafe, it's primarily because I do more "normal" things at night. On my way up to the park Sunday night, the variety and volume of insect songs suddenly became more interesting to me than the thought of chasing bats.

An unidentified species of tree crickets seemed to be abundant and created a constant, background jingling trill. Their layer of sound became Sunday night's canvas for every other nighttime cricket or katydid's punctuation mark. I walked from the Litchfield Mansion, along the maintenance drive towards the baseball fields on the south end of the Long Meadow. Every few minutes I would pass a katydid performing his loud, repetitive "ch-ch-chi, ch-ch-chi, ch-ch-chi". I pictured them in the treetops with tiny, little wooden guiros.

My first planned stop was the lighted footpath next to the bandshell. I've always seen bats in that area during the summer. Unfortunately, there was a band playing and dozens of teens were milling about exactly where I wanted to be with my camera. I turned left and walked down the hill and onto the Long Meadow. The music was loud, but the constant shrill drone of tree crickets cut through the air like a hot knife through butter. At the Upper Pool a pair of Bullfrogs were bellowing above the sound of the music and a smaller frog with a high, nasal call merely sputtered. It wasn't a Green Frog, I'd recognize their banjo-like twang. The smaller frog sounded more like the "peent" of a nighthawk. There weren't any bats near the ponds, so I walked the short distance to the Sparrow Bowl.

At first, I set my tripod to face from the far edge of the bowl towards the east. The bats would be easy to see against a pale-pink sky. Then I remembered how, last year, they fed on insects close to the trees and shrubs at the bowl's edge. It turned out to be a moot point, though, because there weren't any bats at the Sparrow Bowl, either.

With my tripod over my shoulder I headed down the dark path between Quaker Ridge and the Upper Pool. In the pitch darkness of the Ravine woods, the insect serenade was at its loudest. I could make out at least three distinct "parts": a white noise background "shshshshshshshsh", a much deeper "ch-ch-chi, ch-ch-chi, ch-ch-chi", a barely perceptable "siiiiiiiiiiiii" that would fade in and out of the sound blanket and the familiar pulsing chirps of our warm weather, generic "cricket". As I stood in the darkness listening, a group of teens approached the fence adjacent to the waterfall and climbed over. Using their cellphones as flashlights, a line of blue silhouettes hiked up the hill to the top of the falls. I was getting ready to leave when I noticed that they had built a fire where the park's water source emerges from the boulders. The 5 or 6 kids huddle together above the water appeared to be suspended in space within an orange globe of light.

At Center Drive I walked across the Nethermead Meadow towards the Maryland Monument. Wellhouse Drive has always been a good spot for bats. It's close to the woods of Lookout Hill and the water of Prospect Lake. Three or four street lights illuminate the road and attract lots of moths.
10:12pm-Nocturnal rabbits
Walking along a narrow stretch of path between Lookout Hill and the Lullwater, I heard the most unearthly sound I've ever heard in Prospect Park. At a small grassy triangle ahead of me two cottontails were alert and ready to bound into the darkness of the woods. Then I heard the sound again. It was coming from directly behind the Maryland Monument. Two raccoons where either verbally challenging one another or were actually scratching and biting. Their guttural growls and screams sounded demonic. For a moment, I thought it would be a good idea to try and photograph the altercation. I even began slowly walking up the hill, but came to my senses. They can be pretty aggressive and I didn't relish the idea of fighting off two angry raccoons.

I walked from the Maryland Monument to the park drive, but still didn't see any bats. There also weren't any moths. I was a little disappointed and began a slow walk back across the park. As I approached the Wellhouse, a bat fluttered out of the woods, around an old cast-iron street lamp, then over my head and out above the road. I stood out in the middle of Wellhouse Drive waiting for him to returned. My camera was pointed slightly above the horizon, ready to go. When I finally saw him coming my way, a police car driving up behind me, flashed his lights. I moved off the road and let him pass, missing the bat.

I spent a long time standing on the road taking pictures of the sky...after the bat passed out of frame. My batteries were both low so I decided to quickly go back to the Sparrow Bowl. At the section of meadow next to the Lower Pool I spotted a bat flying low and slow. "Perfect", I thought to myself. But I couldn't manage to synchronize my reactions with the position of the bat. I began wondering how I ever managed to get the photos last year. Then it occurred to me that last year there were several bats feeding together, so the odds of capturing one by chance was much greater.

Despite not finding a flock of bats, it was still a memorable experience; feeling like I was the only person in the park, listening to crickets and katydids and watching the occasional bat silhouette flutter overhead. It motivated me to spend more time reading Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger's "The Song of Insects". This week I listened to the CD several times and I think that the following were some of Sunday night's songsters:

Carolina Ground Cricket
Striped Ground Cricket
Snowy Tree Cricket
Common True Katydid

1 comment:

Marie said...

This is really a lovely perspective of the Park. More us us should add it to our list of "normal" things to do at night...

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