Lab Rats

Things that go beep in the night

On the beauty of significant questions

Adrienne Ross Scanlan 13 July 2011

Illuminating: citizen science expands the mind

I don’t remember why we didn’t race to the car – our shaking legs might have made that impossible

Beep! Beep! The beeps boomed in the moonless night, as if an alarm clock was demonically possessed or a full-out nuclear alert was underway.

“What is that?” my fellow citizen scientist demanded, as unnerved as I was.

“I don’t know,” I admitted with an anxious glance down the Forest Service dirt road where we stood.

With only our flashlights and the faint glow from stars, I strained to make out bushes and tree stumps where clear cutting had taken what was once a forest. It was the early 1990’s, and I was a newly-minted citizen scientist (I don’t think the term had even been coined yet), part of a group of natural history buffs, interpreters, and environmental educators conducting night-time howling surveys under the direction of a Real Scientist to help determine if the grey wolf, long extirpated in the Pacific Northwest, had taken matters into its own paws and made its way south from Canada and back to Washington’s Cascade Mountains. I had the amateur’s mix of hubris to go howling when I knew little about recording equipment and less about field biology, combined with awe for the Real Scientist Who Knew Everything There Was to Know About…well, everything. Surrounded by darkness and those beeps, I was all too aware of my ignorance and embarrassed at having so many unspoken questions.

I was certain of one thing. Whatever had made those beeps was not a wolf.

My partner and I set up our equipment. We glanced over our shoulders at each rustle in the bushes. I leaned my head back, curled my cold-stiffened fingers around my mouth, and let loose with a long, low wolf-like howl.

Beep! The darkness filled with the booming sound of something slapping the night air. Beep! Beep! Beep! Something crashed about in the bushes along the road. Beep! Beep!

My God, I thought, I’ve howled up E.T.

I don’t remember why we didn’t race to the car. (Our shaking legs might have made that impossible.) We held our ground and howled a few more times, but all we heard in response was a coyote, other wolf-howling citizen scientists, and more beeps. After a while, we packed up and headed to our next howling site, certain that the Real Scientist would know what was making those bizarre sounds.

We met the Real Scientist for a one a.m. rendezvous at a Forest Service campground.

“Good Lord,” he gasped, as our tape recorder played out a cacophony of booms, crashes and beeps. “What was that?”

My amateur’s regard for him dropped, but while I didn’t realize it at the time, a light was breaking, and it wasn’t only the glow of flashlights as we made our way to our tents, nor the morning sun after a few hours of sleep. Real Scientists have questions, too. They don’t know everything. In retrospect, I should have known that. Hadn’t I learned the scientific method in high school? Aren’t questions the first step? But there it was. Real Scientists have questions, and unlike me, they weren’t embarrassed by what they didn’t know.

There have been many citizen science experiences since then, and I’ve learned from each one something I never understood by taking a class or reading a textbook. If we care to admit it, life is just one long, dark night on a dirt road, and we can be scared hearing those beeps, or we can start to wonder and ask what is that, why is it here, what is it doing …and all the other questions that come from those first ones. Do professional scientists know more than I do? Sure. Have they learned to analyze and whittle a morass of information into well-articulated questions while I’m still speechless at the wonder of it all? Absolutely, and the professionals I’ve met are often agog with wonder, too, but in more sophisticated ways. Whether scientist or citizen scientist, however, we’re listening for those questions about what goes beep in the night.

So what did go beep on that long ago night? I turned to the second step in the scientific method and consulted field guides, range maps, and more knowledgeable naturalists. Quite likely, I’d heard a common nighthawk, from the family Caprimulgidae or goatsuckers, a group of wide-mouth, insect-eating birds. Elaborately camouflaged, and mainly active at dusk or night, common nighthawks are rarely seen but often heard due to a non-vocal, “boom” sound described by the naturalist Daniel Mathews as a “...terrific, raspy, farting noise” that’s produced when the birds vibrate their primary feathers. Those unnerving crashes and booms I’d heard had been done for courtship, with the male nighthawk soaring high into the air, circling over an intended nest, and then swooping out of the sky until he lands with a near crash, puffs out his throat, spreads his tail feathers and calls out to his mate, who retains a remarkable composure throughout this uproar. The alarm clock-like beeps, in contrast, was the relatively quiet sound nighthawks make during feeding.

I never did hear any wolves during our howling surveys but often heard nighthawks. I learned to be reassured by those beeps. One good question had changed the night from a dark, frightening place to one that was a bit better known and filled with life.