Wings in the Moon

IT was the fourteenth of September. All day the sun had poured its rays upon pavements and roofs, and the temperature had been that of torrid August. Summer was still in the ascendancy, as far as the weather was concerned, yet the prescient urge of the birds to migrate had already actuated thousands, countless thousands, to mount into the sky and point toward the south — as accurately as a compass needle. Some of the travelers terminate the aerial voyage on the lower fringe of the United States, some in Central and South America. Others fold their tired pinions only when the rim of Antarctica lies beneath. Many birds perish on the way. Savage winds beat them into the sea; beacons and lighthouses lure them to mutilation. Yet each autumn finds the avian horde obeying, without hesitation, the instinctive command to migrate.

On a quiet night during spring and fall migrations, the air lanes are thickly peopled by feathered myriads — the medley of various notes is a broad web in the heavens. Attuned ears may catch some of the medley, for the chatter and tinkle and whisper of the songs fall to the earth. Much of the magic chorus is shattered by the noises of civilization, however, and few people ever realize that the flow of wings is even passing. The peculiarly stirring and penetrating call of geese winging overhead is commonly recognized, but the thinner call of high-flying brant or the lisp of hurrying warblers is lost in the cachinnation of movement and metal which clothes cities and towns, even at night.

The Collector rang the doorbell early that evening. Protruding from the rear of his automobile was a long, clavate package, which I knew from experience contained a cherished and powerful telescope. In the orderly progression of celestial affairs, it was the night of a full moon. We hoped the few visible clouds would remain caught on the horizon and leave the ceraceous disk undimmed; we had plans for it later which shadowing cloud strata would frustrate.

We chugged leisurely out of town into the country, far into the country, where a pasture-crowned hill thrusts its bald head a hundred feet above the trees which cover its base and creep up the sides to the edge of a stonespattered field. It was quiet, here, quiet with a stillness that, paradoxically, almost crackled. Only the faint cadence of insects was audible, with now and then the sleepy grate of a night heron in the swamp below. The amaranthine sky was brightening as the moon swept higher, and the clouds had obligingly wisped into transparent streaks. A coruscating meteor momentarily claimed the heavens, then blackened into cosmic dust as its substance disintegrated.

The telescope was erected between two boulders on the summit of the hill, its single polished eye directed at the moon. When the Collector’s ancient watch, which chimes or not as he wishes, announced a brassy and startlingly loud ten o’clock, we began our observations of the confluent migration. The pitted surface of the moon filled the instrument’s eyepiece; it was all we could see at first. Then, as the eyes became acclimated, moving black dots swam across the brilliance. Others appeared in the field of the lens, layer upon layer of birds in flight, reaching, from just above the earth, up, up — up toward the moon. One flock of five winged specks was so high, the wings seemingly scraped the lunar peaks. It was a small company of great whistling swans, possibly en route from Athabaska or the Great Slave Lake to the winter home on Currituck Sound.

We have another piece of apparatus which we trundle along with us on these semiannual night expeditions. Its shape and size have occasioned many difficult moments, yet we would not be without it. The cumbersome thing is a huge metal horn, rescued from a defunct public-address system. The bell mouth is three feet across and the horn measures six feet in length. The gigantic trumpet no longer blats out political propaganda; it has acquired new dignity as a listening device. Into the smaller end has been fitted a modified stethoscope. When the cone is pointed toward the sky, it brings to us the voices of passing birds from the heights — notes and songs that otherwise would dwindle into inaudible vibrations long before they reached the ears. The device is crude and it is an unmitigated nuisance, yet it functions surprisingly well.

The moon’s effulgence enables us to see many birds that would be invisible against a dark background; the mellow brilliance also prevents identification of species by color — against the moon all birds are silhouettes. Some species are tabbed by the manner of flight, a few by outline. The giant’s ear trumpet adds varieties to the list, for songs are often recognizable when the singers are not.

A regiment of swallows darted past, their down-swept twittering crisp and clear. Warblers were numerous, but hard to distinguish; goldfinches proclaimed their identity by the characteristic undulating flight. Four large shore birds barged past; they resembled Hudsonian godwits, but we could not be sure.

Trying to catalogue wings in the moon is indeed a postgraduate course in ornithology. It is an unsatisfactory yet at the same time most satisfying pursuit. Unsatisfactory, because only a tithe of the birds seen can be classified; satisfying, for it is a privilege to have even visual participation in one of the greatest biological mysteries. Migration has held the interest of the scientific fraternity for years. Thousands of birds have been banded and careful tabulations of their wanderings kept. In this manner something has been learned of the ‘where’ of migration — little or nothing of the ‘why.’

The Collector and I alternated at listening and looking, each trying to outdo the other in the number of birds identified. When the quaint clank of his watch convinced us that four o’clock was time to disassemble the apparatus, the great company of birds swishing overhead had not diminished a whit!