Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Whip poor will and Tarrytown, NY.

The Whip Poor Will -- A Rare Bird!

     A couple weeks ago I was out in my Wild Area (my husband calls it my jungle) where I have a lot of prairie plantings, and I heard the call of a Whip Poor Will. I have only heard this bird call twice before. The first time was during an at dusk neighborhood walk in our old Applewood neighborhood. The second time was shortly after we moved to our new neighborhood in Mequon. I was again taking a walk and heard this bird call. This third time the call was coming from about 3 lots north of us, perhaps even from Virmond Park. All three times have been during migration. Click on the link below to hear the Whip poor will's call.

     The Whip-poor-will is a member of our North American nightjar family (named after the nightjarring call after dark) as is the common night hawk, the paurauque of southern Texas,  the Chuck-will's-widow of Southeastern US, and the poorwill of Western canyons. These birds are all members of a genus of birds known as the Goatsuckers. They get this name because it was thought they would suck the milk of a female goat at night to nourish themselves. They were certainly seen around herds of goats and other animals at dusk, but only because they were chasing the insects around these animals.

      The night hawk is much more commonly seen as it flies in the sky in the late day and during dusk and gives its peent call. I recall studying for finals at my desk at the window in the northeastern corner of Currier Residence Hall at the University of Iowa in June and hearing that peent as the nighthawks take off in their nightly search for insects just as the street lights come on. They basically just fly with wide open mouths and scoop up the bugs in their swarms.  White wing bars which run across the wing identify the night hawk easily in its flight and also during its brief migration in late summer.  The migration of nighthawks can be an impressive event if you know when and where to look. These birds migrate in late summer, usually between August 10 and September 15th. But the majority will fly around August 26th or within 2 days either side of this date. A few may fly south during the day, but the vast majority do so within 2 hours of the sunset. Find an open field or open space, even such as Millennium Park in Chicago and scan the sky on those few nights. You might be lucky to witness the silent show that is going on overhead above tree level. These flights will detour and flutter around to catch insects in the swarms that they run into on this migration. This stuttered and fluttering flight led people to think these birds were bats, hence another common name, the bull bats.

    The whip-poor-will is much harder to see. It also is a nocturnal bird, but mostly flies from a perch only at dusk and at pre-dawn to catch insects with its wide jawed cavernous mouth. During the day and some of the night it simply perches on a branch or on the ground where its colorings make it next to invisible. When breeding it makes a nest among the leaves of the forest and will sit still on the nest, invisible, almost until stepped upon. But in contrast, its call is very noticeable and carries for long distances. It may repeat the call in rapid succession for an hour or more at dusk and at dawn.

     The Whip-poor-will nests on the ground, usually lays 2 eggs only and both parents help to raise the hatch lings. Because the bird is so hard to see and watch, not as much is known about its behavior as other more visible birds.

     This Whip-poor-will species has recently been divided into two separate species. The one I heard is now called the Eastern Whip-poor-will. The range for this bird is throughout southern and eastern Canada and much of the eastern United States. It winters in southern Florida and across the US Gulf Coast. It is rare locally throughout its range, but is not really threatened because of its vast range. I think the birds that I have heard on all three occasions were probably in migration only. I do not think they nest around southeastern Wisconsin or even northern Illinois. The second species' range is in southern California and northwestern Mexico. It has been separated from the Eastern species for so long that it has developed different markings and its call is a little different. These are the reasons that it was decided to name them a separate species. Even their DNA varies a little. That bird is called the Mexican Whip-poor-will.

     Here is a photo of the bird. I did not take this photo and I have never seen the bird myself, only hearing it on those three occasions.

                                                           The Eastern Whip-poor-will

     Early American Indian legends have often associated the haunting repetitive call with death. One New England folk legend says that the whip-poor-will can sense a soul departing and can also capture it as it flies. It is quite interesting that I heard this bird calling the night before I went to attend a funeral for the first member of our high school class to die in maturity. Of course, this is just a coincidence but it would be quite easy to attach a significance to this event as our ancestors often did.

    Because that call for which the bird is named is so notable, the bird's name or its call has appeared in many literary works and in many songs over the centuries. H.P. Lovecraft used the soul capturing idea as a plot device in his story,  The Dunwich Horror. Howard Phillips Lovecraft lived between 1890 and 1937 and wrote initially poetry, and later horror, fantasy and science fiction. He is especially known for a subgenre of writing called weird fiction. He said he was guided by a philosophical principle that he termed "cosmicism" or "cosmic horror" which he said is the idea that life is incomprehensible to human minds and indeed that the universe is basically an enemy to the interests of humanity. He conceived of a story cycle called the Cthulhu Mythos and invented a fictional magical textbook of rites and forbidden lore, called the Necrononmicon, which appears in the story The Dunwich Horror along with many whip poor wills.  Many of his stories were in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe, but perhaps even more horrific, if The Dunwich Horror is any indication. Stephen King was a great fan of Lovecraft and no doubt Lovecraft had a great influence on this well known and prolific writer. Mr. King called Lovecraft "the twentieth century's greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale"  In King's autobiographical book "Danse Macabre" he credited Lovecraft with his own fascination with the macabre . Lovecraft's stories have been made into plays, films and games. The Dunwich Horror was made into a B-movie in 1970. The story was altered significantly but it is based on a similar idea. It was actor Ed Begley's last role where he played Professor Henry Armitage, of the fictional Arkham, MA Miskatonic University. These places enter into several of Lovecraft's writing. The leading role of Wilbur Whateley was offered to Peter Fonda who turned it down. Dean Stockwell finally played the role of Wilbur Whateley. The film was shot in Mendocino, California.

     Below is an online copy of this short story written in 1928 .  Note that several recurring themes of Lovecraft's appear in this story. He frequently used the fictional town of Arkham, Massacusetts and this town's fictional Miskatonic Universtiy. Also Lovecraft's fictional magical text, the Necronomicon appears and plays a large role in the story. One of his invented deities, Cthulhu is sited. You might be interested in reading this story.

    Perhaps the most famous reference to the  whip poor will is in Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. In Irving's description of the local school teacher, Ichabod Crane, and the general haunting nature of the locale, which led to that horrible legend of the Hessian headless horseman of all of our memories, the whip poor will is mentioned along with other strange night sounds and visions.
     "He was, in fact, an odd mixture of small shrewdness and simple credulity. His appetite for the marvelous, and his powers of digesting it, were equally extraordinary; and both had been increased by his residence in this spell-bound region. No tale was too gross or monstrous for his capacious swallow. It was often his delight, after his school was dismissed in the afternoon, to stretch himself on the rich bed of clover bordering the little brook that whimpered by his schoolhouse, and there con over old Mather's direful tales, until the gathering dusk of evening made the printed page a mere mist before his eyes. Then, as he wended his way by swamp and stream and awful woodland, to the farmhouse where he happened to be quartered, every sound of nature, at that witching hour, fluttered his excited imagination, -- the moan of the whip poor will from the hillside, the boding cry of the tree toad, that harbinger of storm, the dreary hooting of the screech owl, or the sudden rustling in the thicket of birds frightened from their roost. The fireflies, too, which sparkled most vividly in the darkest places, now and then startled him, as one of uncommon brightness would stream across his path; and if, by chance, a huge blockhead of a beetle came winging his blundering flight against him, the poor varlet was ready to give up the ghost, with the idea that he was struck with a witch's token. His only resource on such occasions, either to drown thought or drive away evil spirits, was to sing psalm tunes and the good people of Sleepy Hollow, as they sat by their doors of an evening, were often filled with awe at hearing his nasal melody, 'in linked sweetness long drawn out,' floating from the distant hill, or along the dusky road."

     If this brief paragraph strikes your memories from the distant past, since I am sure this story was required reading for many of you way back in high school, or perhaps even grade school -- then here is a link to the entire story.

  Or if you would rather arouse another memory from your childhood, here is the link to the Disney short cartoon feature of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Much of the story here is read by Bing Crosby, and their are songs as well, along with the animated views. It's really cool.

Tarrytown in 1928, looking south toward Manhattan.
     As depicted in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the area of Tarrytown, NY and the small village which the modern city engulfed, Sleepy Hollow, are very historic and scenic places. We had the pleasant occasion just in May this year to attend my niece's wedding held at Tappan Hill Mansion in Tarrytown, NY. If you read the first paragraph of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, you heard this area referenced. The Dutch people who settled this area grew wheat. Tarrytown was their market town and was called Terve Town (Terve, meaning wheat in Dutch). Apparently the name was corrupted to Tarrytown. However, Washington Irving has a different explanation of the city name. It was thought that Tarrytown received its name because the husbands of the local Dutch folk, often tarried too long at the local tavern. And nearby is the small village still known as Sleepy Hollow. It is a very nice area to visit, but you do have to plan ahead. At the turn of the century and into the early 1900s, Tarrytown became known as "The Millionaire's Colony." At that time, there were 65 huge and opulent mansions in this area, many of them overlooking the Hudson River. There are visits that can be made to several of these local mansions along the Hudson River, that once belonged to the local blue bloods. And since many of these mansions have become financially and otherwise burdensome for the descendant owners of these properties, several have become resorts, hotels and wedding venues. Such is Tappan Hill Mansion where the wedding was held. It once belonged to Mark Twain who lived here from 1900 to 1902.

The Hudson River from Tappan Hill Mansion.

View directly from the Wedding Room.
Since there are no rooms at Tappan Hill, we stayed at Tarrytown Estate Hotel,
originally another of these opulent mansions in the area.
Where the wedding would take place(it was raining.)

The wedded couple leaves the reception at Tappan Hill Mansion.
      The rehearsal dinner was held in downtown Yonkers, at X2O Xaviars on the Hudaon, down the Hudson River about 12 miles from Tarrytown. From this venue, you can see the Tappan Zee Bridge to the north and the George Washington Bridge to the south, along with the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

George Washington Bridge and Manhattan to the left, Fort Lee, NJ to the right.

Just to the left of bridge tower, note Freedom Tower in lower Manhattan.
Tappan Zee Bridge, Tarrytown, NY

 In Tarrytown, if you intend to visit some of these historic mansions, you will need to buy a single ticket sold at several places in the city. Often these need to be purchased or reserved in advance. The timing of the visits to the different sites require this. Therefore, you can not just show up and expect to get tickets to all the places you want to see. The various sites include Kykuit, Rockefeller's mansion in Tarrytown, built in 1902; Lyndhurst Mansion which belonged to Jay Gould the railroad magnate; Sunnyside which was a home and property created and owned by Washingtion Irving himself; and the Sleepy Hollow area which has a restored mill and river walk, a museum demonstrating the history of the area, and finally the Cemetery of Sleepy Hollow. Otherwise places that are described in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow do not exist. Still you can certainly get the flavor of this story by visiting the area and seeing some of these sites.

Sunnyside, Washington Irving's estate in Tarrytown, NY.
Kykuit, the Rockefeller mansion built in 1902.
Lyndhurst Mansion, site of a neat Halloween lighted tour

     May I make one more related suggestion, should you decide to travel to this historic area. Go at Halloween time. In early and mid October, the leaves will be at peak along the Hudson. And the area of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow hold all sorts of wonderful haunted tours and light shows. There is a lantern light tour of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Many of these special tours start well before Halloween. We were there in May but were I ever to go back, I would go at Halloween time -- Yes, I would!  Woooo! 

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