Hearing Things

photographs and text by Brian Willson

Lord knows I’d hate to lose my sense of sight. Mainly because it’d make it tough to get around—and see what I was typing. But I honestly don’t know what I’d do without my sense of hearing.

I suppose I’m more aware of the sounds around me now that it’s spring. Titmice, chickadees, crows, cardinal, house finch—all these were piping up this chilly morning, as tiny snowflakes wafted slowly around in the still air. But mostly I heard humdrum indoor sounds until late in the day, when Jack and I slipped out for a hike.

As soon as we hopped out of the pickup at the wooded Beech Hill trailhead, I heard a house finch singing along the roadside. Its not something I usually hear there, so it was a nice surprise. We hadn’t gone a dozen paces when I heard a subtle peep! and spotted a tail-wagging phoebe near the kiosk. Likely there’ll be another active nest there again this year. Then off in the dripping trees I heard chickadees. Then a crow. Around a couple of turns, I spied two robins flitting in the understory. Then heard a herring gull’s cry and found the bird sailing above the canopy.

Not much else on our way up—a couple more crows and chickadees in the distance, and the close-by sounds of our footfalls on the soggy forest floor.

A little trace of snow remained at the summit. A look around revealed that some of it had collected on the higher ground. We stopped to breathe and look and feel then began our descent through the trees.

A minute or two down the lower wooded trail, I heard a faint sound, and we stopped. Not chickadees. Possibly kinglets. I looked and listened. More faint peeps. Echoing sounds of water falling from the trees. Crows somewhere. I saw movement. Two tiny birds flitting high in a young maple. At that moment I heard the three-note confirmation: golden-crowned kinglets. I also heard the sudden spring song of a brown creeper beyond. And the rattle of a hairy woodpecker farther down the wooded hillside. The distant gobble of a turkey. A goldfinch in singing flight in the gray sky.

This was The Moment, by the way. Just standing in the woods, listening.

Eventually, we began to walk again. I saw a pair of creepers shinnying up tree trunks. A bit farther down, I heard what sounded like the syncopated barking of a dog. Well, I knew what that was, so we stopped again. And it hooted again, the barred owl. And a flicker cried from behind us somewhere. And a white-breasted nuthatch began to chatter in the trailside trees. Took a while, but I finally got a look at the nuthatch.

Nearing the parking lot, I heard quacking and the whistling of wings. Sure enough, there above flew a male mallard, zipping in a great arc, headed in the direction of the little cow farm up Rockville Street.

Saw the phoebe again along the last stretch. Heard more chickadees. One last listen, and we hopped back into the pickup and headed home.

Where would I be without my ears?

Beech Hill List
Beginning at 5 p.m., I hiked the wooded trails.

1. House finch (voice)
2. Eastern phoebe
3. American crow (voice)
4. Black-capped chickadee
5. American robin
6. Herring gull
7. Golden-crowned kinglet
8. Hairy woodpecker (voice)
9. Wild turkey (voice)
10. Brown creeper
11. American goldfinch (voice)
12. Barred owl (voice)
13. White-breasted nuthatch
14. Northern flicker (voice)
15. Mallard

Elsewhere

16. Tufted titmouse
17. Northern cardinal
18. Mourning dove
19. Rock pigeon
20. Ring-billed gull
21. Song sparrow