Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Mysterious Sounds of the Night…

Common Pauraque in Estero Llano Grande State Park, Hidalgo Co. Texas. Photo by David Marjamaa. Used by permission. 

Before dawn on March 16, we arrived at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, outside of Mission, Texas. Our trip leader, Bill Rowe, had arranged for us to meet biologist and blogger Mary Gustafson at Bentsen to find the Common Pauraque. David Marjamaa, who took this great photo above, was part of the group too, along with me and five others. 
Nightjars are fascinating creatures, loaded with folklore, cryptic coloring, and evocative names. I presume that the name of the family, "Nightjar," comes from the fact that the typical calls of some species "jar the night," in the sense that the voice heard in the night is startling or has a disagreeable effect on the human listener. Of course, that "jar" is in the ear of the listener. I'm most familiar with one of Missouri's nightjars, the Whip-poor-will. Here's a beautiful recording by Lang Elliott. Its song is one of the most beautiful and haunting sounds in nature. A Whip-poor-will can belt out his clear, "whip poor WILL! whip poor WILL!" up to 400 times without a break

One breezy night in June, deep in the Ozark hills, a Whip-poor-will, perched on the ridge pole of our tent, came dangerously close to breaking that record. Tent-mate and guest blogger, J Bowen suggested solving the problem with a shotgun. I pretty much think that would be jarring in the night too, J! 

But I digress. We are talking about a different nightjar, the Common Pauraque. We walked down the road in the dark, hearing the "Quawk!" of Black-crowned Night-Herons amid the sounds of unfamiliar frogs and insects to me. First we strained to hear a distant Pauraque, then a bird answered, then many more. Mary used her industrial-strength flashlight to find the birds. We saw several near the road, making strange hops and short flights like long-tailed moths. Their eyes reflected the light of the beacon like torches.

No wonder these strange birds of the night have acquired so many tales, superstitions, and names. Their call sounds nothing like the English pronunciation of the name, "pah-RAH-kee." I surmised that it had originated from the Spanish, "¿Para que?"—"What for?" But it really doesn't sound like that either. Arthur Grosset pointed me toward an article from the Auk, 1948, that explains that the Mexican name for this bird in nearby Tamualipas is "Parruaca," pronounced "pahrrr-WAH-cuh," which more closely resembles the call. Evidently the word "Pauraque" is an incorrect English transcription. Pauraque's range just barely makes it into south Texas. It's found along both coasts of Central America, on in to northern South America, south to the northern edge of Argentina. In Central America, it's known as "Caballero de la Noche ("Gentleman of the Night") ; apparently, "el Caballero" is believed to be the Don Juan of birds. Nightjars are members of the family known as Goatsuckers, based on the ancient belief that the birds drank milk from goats. A pretty bizarre myth, but I guess those goats kicked up insects that the birds found tasty, and goat herders, frightened by dark, flying shapes in the night, assumed the worst. The scientific name for the family, Caprimulgidae, means the same thing in Latin. Of course, Spanish for Goatsucker would be Chupacabra, but that's another story. 
We heard another sound; one we couldn't identify at the time. Imagine some kind of hoarse, nasal baritone saying, ―Wowwwww! oo Wowww! It sounded a lot like the sound file below. What do you think it is? 


  1. GREAT STORY ANNE!! I remember that darn thing. Thought it would never shut up and boy was he LOUD!!

  2. @ Anonymous: We're all glad the bird survived the night!

    @ Nicole: Names and folklore are fun, aren't they?

    I'll be moderating my comments for a few days till someone guesses what made the mysterious sound. Give it a shot! Whoops, I mean, try a guess!

  3. I don't know what that sound was either, but my cat sure perked up her ears at it!

    Patricia Lichen--www.patriciaklichen.com

  4. You and your cat may be on to something! Thanks for visiting & listening!
    I'll moderate comments for another day or two if folks would like to keep guessing.

  5. Your cat is the winner of this guessing game, Patricia! Please give her my congratulations!

  6. Wow- that is some impressive camouflage!

  7. Yes, it's pretty startling to see one. If you flush one, it looks as though the forest floor popped up, then vanished!