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The sounds of wildlife

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The other day, on one of the last whale watches of the year, a passenger told me that the day before, in thick fog, out at the end of MacMillan Wharf, he heard the sounds of a whale singing. I knew exactly what he heard. It was not a whale. Out on Long Point, on the very tip of Cape Cod, a herd of Grey Seals hauls out most days; now that there is less traffic and they are less disturbed, they seem to revel in their leisure. Their ethereal sounds — part moan, part whoop, part caterwaul — are spooky enough for any Halloween party soundtrack, especially in the fog. That is what he heard. Over the last few decades the number of Grey Seals has increased exponentially and more and more often this serenade can be heard.

I should add that to my knowledge it is not possible to hear the underwater sounds of whales above water. I did hear whales that same foggy day, but it was not their voices. We were out in that thick fog, with ninety passengers, and looking for whales, with no more chance than finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Then, our mate Jessica heard a faint but distinctive clapping sound. We slowly followed it and found two Humpback Whales, first on their sides and then on their backs, slapping the water with their enormous (12-foot-plus) pectoral flippers. No one really knows why whales sometimes engage in this behavior, but it is true that sound carries five times faster and five times farther in water, a denser medium, than in air. Perhaps they were making their presence known. Or perhaps just celebrating being alive.

Most animals are making their presence known, for whatever reason, and their sounds make our life worth living. Henry Beston, in The Outermost House, speaks of the three elemental sounds in nature: rain on a rooftop, wind in the trees, and surf on a beach. Who could argue with this? But I would add to his list the voices of our other-than-human neighbors. Peepers in chilly April evenings more than anything else herald the coming of spring, and regeneration. At any time of year, a Herring Gull’s cry, as it sails over a beach, just about sums up all there is to say about life in this part of the world. Last night I heard the feeble striations of the last cricket of the season, seemingly crying into a November’s cold dark. It was heart-breaking. “We all must die,” it told me, “and seasons move on inexorably without us.” Earlier, I heard the un-owl-like ululations of a tiny Screech Owl, somewhere out in the woods. “Hunger is a constant,” it told me, “and drives the world.” There is something about night sounds that are special, perhaps because of the backdrop of near-silence. But morning brings the lively sounds of birds, whether it is the brusque and busy quarrels of the jay, the hoarse croak of the raven, or the twitterings of the chickadee.

How much richer are our lives for all these sounds; how they remind us that we are not alone in the world!