This Thing Called Courage

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Woodcock Fever Grips Stoneham


IT'S TIME TO SPEAK OF THE WOODCOCK AGAIN. For those of you who may not know, or who aren't frequent visitors of this site, the American Woodcock is one of my favorite birds, for the sheer, breathless beauty of the male's annual mating dance/flight. Like hearing the first peeper, it just isn't spring until the woodcocks come back from the Gulf area, round about mid-March, give or take a week. The woodcock was originally a shore bird-- and looks like it, with his long bill (4"). But some time ago, perhaps 25,000 years, the woodcocks abandoned the shore and moved inland-- who knows why? Their preferred habitat is now thickets on the edges of fields and woods; the woodcock's diet is primarily earthworms-- a woodcock can eat its weight in earthworms in one day. This habitat preference is a bit of a problem lately, as this kind of meadow-on-the-edge-of-light-woods is disappearing in New England and across the country. As New England goes back to forest in many places, and as meadows and fields become developed, the woodcocks numbers have suffered. As a result, more people are advocating selective clear-cutting of dense forest, to provide the type of habitat woodcock and other meadow/grassland birds and mammals favor (meadowlarks, bobolinks, butterflies, etc).
The woodcock is a medium-sized bird, plump, with no apparent neck, and the eyes at the back of the head, so that it can literally see behind itself. It is crepuscular, meaning it is active in lowlight: just before dawn, and just after sunset. Although it can fly quite swiftly when it wants to (see below) it is also the slowest flying bird in the world-- at four miles an hour (about as fast as a rapid human walk) giving it the appearence at these times of a hovercraft (see pic above).
But the American Woodcock (also known as the Timberdoodle) is best known for the male's unparalleled mating flight. The males return to the north about a week before the females, to stake out and lay claim to a 'singing ground,' his little patch of turf from which to launch his mating ritual. By day the male stays hidden in the thicket, eating worms; he comes out shortly after sunset, and prances around his singing ground before emitting a series of nasal 'peent' sounds. Then he rockets off into the air, climbing as high as 350 feet; once up there he does this crazy zig-zag flutter dance, then plummets back to earth, singing a complicated whistling/chirping song that is part vocalization, part wind rushing over several notched feathers.
I have a secret place in Happy Land where I go to see and hear all this. I went there last Monday night. Of course I've named this place: I call it Cnoc Na Gilleagh, (KNOCK nuh GILL-ugh) which is Irish for 'Hill of the Woodcock.' It's on a height, not a sharply apexed hill but a high meadow. It's about a five minute walk from a small dirt parking lot by the side of a winding road. It's perfect woodcock habitat-- swaths of grassy meaadows, punctuated with plops of thickets and stands of white birch and various oaks. It's bordered on the north by a thick, tall grove of white pine and hemlock.
It was as bright and crisp an evening as late winter on the cusp of spring can bring. The sky was an iridescent cobalt, fading to a luminosity in the west that was a glow, rather than a color; a sliver of a new moon was laying on her back; one by one the stars and planets came out, as the sunset smudged into orange, then red, then a fading, almost pensive violet: pensive because I sensed this day hated to be called 'yesterday' so soon. This place was some kind of small gunnery installation back in World War II, hence the old concrete platforms one still finds here and there, and the foundation of a tiny barracks, which may have held half a dozen men. Slowly, all of that is becoming one with the land now. But the woodcock remains. I presume they were here then-- I often wonder what the soldiers stationed here made of them.
Most western people no longer go on pilgrimages, though most other people do. There was a time we did as well, especially during the Holy-Days (hence Chauncer's Canterbury Tales.) In Ireland there are still many thousands of people who make the 'patrons' (as they're called) at various Holy Wells and shrines, and thousands still climb Patrick's Mountain, Croagh Padraig, in mid-August-- many barefooted.
Going to this place is a pilgrimage for me. What I am hoping to find is nothing short of a miracle. I don't know why exactly this is. I think about this small bird traveling south come October, to the Gulf. He is shot at, hunted, buffetted by storms and winds, and faced with a shrinking choice of safe havens for the winter; and then he must face the same trials on the way home. And yet he makes it, more often than not. But would he this year? I guess we were both pilgrims-- I was only coming south one mile as the crow flies from my home; he was traveling some 1500 miles, back home, to find a mate.
I checked my watch again as the cold deepened with the pooling dark. I had been here since before sunset, and now it was twenty minutes after sunset. While it was a brilliant night, it's hard to keep warm when one is standing utterly still. And yet, what a rich opportunity! What a luxury! The chance to remain absolutely motionless for 45 minutes, watching the day leave and the night come, is such a rare thing in this manic world. After a while you don't even feel the need to move anymore-- just this is enough-- it's more than enough, it's everything. But perhaps I was too early in the season-- or perhaps 'my' woodcock hadn't made it back this year. So many things can go wrong-
I tried not to think of Dick Cheney.
From 50 yards back, I hear the occasional sweep of a car on the twisting road. Without wanting to generalize, I postulate where they might be going. Home, after work; or out shopping for things. Like Emily Dickinson's father, who once rang a steeple bell to call attention to the glory of that night's sunset, a part of me wants to set up a roadblock and direct people in here, waving a bright orange hand flag, the way the parking lot attendents round Fenway Park on a sweet summer night herd the cars onto their asphalt: "Woodcock heeer-ya, get yer woodcock heeer-ya!" But another part of me wants to keep this secret. It seems nothing short of miraculous that, after all we've done to the world in our weary, joyless relentlessness, there are still these pockets of wonder, where a ritual that has been reenacting itself for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years, still plays out. The stars looked so different when the first woodcocks did this. Man was still on all fours, panting in the jungle.
I check my watch again. I decide I'll give it five more minutes. Fionn the Dog is in the car and might be getting cold-- certainly he'll be getting antsy, and I've still to walk him.
And then I hear the peent sound. And as the poet said, "God's in his heaven, all's right with the world." I have hearing only in one ear, which makes it impossible to tell where sound is coming from-- I look this way and that, my head spinning, my heart thunking, keeping my eyes peeled for the burst into the sky. I don't see it. But that's okay.
He's made it back. I feel my face muscles relax. This recalls a conversation I eavesdropped in on some years ago, at Club Cafe in Boston-- a rather chi-chi venue, the kind of place one wears that smart new sweater to, if one is into such things. "My face muscles never relax until I see St. Mark's in Venice," this one gentleman was gushing to a crowd of four or five. "We go there every winter."
One thing and the other, it's not my fate to go to Venice every winter-- not this time around anyway. But that's alright-- like Thoreau, I have traveled much in Happy Land, and have tried to bring back reports of what I've seen, and heard, and felt.
It's just about pitch dark as I walk back to the car. It's quiet as only a late winter night can be. I think about what I've just done; I place imaginary hands on the egg-shaped thing of delight, glowing like a moon, in my innards: so this is what became of the boy who used to light up stogies in the locker room after hockey games, run from the cops as a pasttime, and organize high-stakes poker games in high school during lunch. I stand in quiet fields now, and wait for winged miracles.
I whistle as I walk back to the car. I whistle, I whistle, I whistle--
Oh, I whistle.

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