Winter is a time of travelling acoustics. The crisp air pairs quietly but surely with the bare trees, devoid of their leafy dresses. Insects tuck their tunes away under the cork-like bark of an eastern cottonwood, and some of our favourite feathered singers take their live performances to some beach in Central America.
I find that this is the time of year when the natural world can become unbelievably silent, but such conditions allow any remaining noises to become amplified. This has inspired me to discuss the most bizarre, unexpected, and sometimes horrifying sounds that animals around here can present.
If you see me in public, I promise I will mimic these noises for you the best I can. Trouble is, I’m perhaps as stealthy as a great blue heron. This elegant wading bird comes off as sophisticated and calculated, especially as it traverses the shorelines in ponderously slow fashion on the hunt for fish, snakes and frogs.
If I were to personify this animal, it would be wearing a blue-grey business suit, tall and lanky with impressionable poise. This person would be remarkably professional — until they opened their mouth. Before paddling the Virgil dams was recently disallowed, I had countless encounters with this beautiful animal there making such an ugly, startling noise. Suddenly, from the shade of the shoreline where they frequently feast, a loud and deep gurgle begins. The gurgle can transition into something like a dog bark, or even a voracious low growl. The closest sound we can get to dinosaurs, which rings true, as birds are the only living direct descendants from dinosaurs. Another bird that caught me off guard in recent times was a double-crested cormorant.
My friend Brandon and I were filming Hidden Corners: Canadian Erie this summer past. We had a turbulent and memorably sketchy boat ride to Canada’s southernmost piece of land, the tiny Middle Island, sitting out in the abyss of Lake Erie. No cell phone reception, no people, no buildings and tons of rare species.
While traversing toward the island interior in search of biodiversity and all things interesting, we were met with a terrifying sound. Are there any fellow metal-head musicians out there? Bellowing, powerful growls were coming from the forest interior like a lead singer roars during the heaviest of metal rock. We couldn’t yet tell what the sound was, nor whether it was being generated from the treetops or the forest floor on this remote island.
Being so far from anywhere, I momentarily questioned if there was a population of wild boars present, as this heavy grunting got louder. Our answer was delivered by a chopped-up fish falling from the treetops, right at our feet. Above, dozens of dark-looking, and dark-sounding, double-crested cormorants were happily eating and nesting away.
The noise was like something of a monster from your imagination, and it comes from a bird the size of a large duck. If anyone has heard howler monkeys on a nature documentary, this is the best sound I can possibly relate it to.
Back in Niagara-on-the- Lake, and very much off documentary duties, I was once standing around a giant bonfire enjoying some beverages with my pals. It was a weekend, and it was turning into a big night. In a small patch of forest a hundred metres away or so, I heard someone make the silliest and most outrageously loud noise.
Someone must have snuck off into the bush and thought it would be hilarious to yell out some dilapidated version of the word ‘help!’, followed by some ‘ouch!’es. They were really belting it out, and I was dumbfounded as to which of my buddies was pulling this prank off. Although these particular guys are indeed pranksters, they were all present by the fireside.
What we were hearing was a red fox. The cute and fluffy canine known by all has a distinctly strange set of calls that don’t match its sweet image. It sounds so human-like, it is kind of eerie and unsettling. It is believed that female red foxes, known as vixens, make this sound during breeding season to bait males closer to them. However, male foxes, known as dogs or tods, can make this desperate and painful sounding yelp as well, especially when guarding territory or during stand-offs.
I literally got home the next morning and Google-searched something to the effect of “painful scream or yelp in southern Ontario animal.” Eventually, I discovered who the culprit of this brutal and emotionally-perplexing sound was. I felt humbled, as I do to this day, about how nature always keeps us guessing.
Owen Bjorgan is a documentary filmmaker and nature tour guide. He lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake.