This Thing Called Courage

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Woodcocks are Coming, the Woodcocks are Coming!

THE POET SAYS THAT APRIL IS THE CRUELEST MONTH, but you might not find too many to support that asertion here in New England at the current moment. We've had an old fashioned winter thus far, meaning snow, ice, icy snow, rainy ice, more snow, cold, more ice--- catch my drift? And there is something, I will admit (lover of the four seasons that I am) distinctly unpleasant about stepping off a curb and into a foot of icy cold liquidy slush, and feel it inundate one's footwear. There was an article in the Globe this morning about the weather getting people down.

But there can be a quiet beauty in winter, if we but live by her rhthyms. It's our modern fixation with being ever-restive and mobile that can make us feel oppressed by winter. And being out every day, walking five miles, one really does get to see the natural circle of things, and see the little changes that are happening even now that tell us spring is on the way. First off, the sun is climbing higher and getting stronger every day-- I can feel it warming my back muscles and bones as I walk up the Fellsway each morning. Days are lingering, and it's still somewhat lightsome in the west at 5:20 now, when a month ago it was pitch dark at 4:30. Another piece of exciting news is that the woodcocks have started moving north, and we might see the first of them-- a sure sign of spring-- in about 32 days.

For those unfamiliar with this amazing native bird, the American Woodcock returns north every year to mate, and the males put on a spectacular mating dance that, for many of us, kindles spring in our hearts. It really isn't spring until I hear the woodcock's call; and when I hear it, I'm assured that, once again, spring has returned, God's in her heaven, and all's right with the world.

It happens at about the same time that the sping peepers begin singing at sunset and early evening from their thawing wetlands and vernal pools. The male woodcocks, who come up from the Gulf Coast area a week or so before the females, return to the same field they occupied the year before (generally) and stake claim to their 'singing ground.' Woodcocks require an open moist-meadow type habitat, bordering thickets where they can hide by day and raise their young: an open succession field, they call it. When New England (and indeed much of the country) was blanketed with farms, the woodcock found plenty of suitable habit. Such is not the case now, and they are declining. Despite this decline, they are still, alas, a bird many people like to hunt: it's to be hoped that soon restrictions will stop this.

Once the male has established himself in a field, the show begins shortly after sundown. My experience has been that the first call of the woodcock coincides with the same moment one sees the first star/planet in the early evening sky. Neat, huh? One must be quiet, arrive early,a nd stand absolutely still so as not to startle the bird. So, the male comes out from where he's been hiding and feeding (mostly on earthworms) all day. He does a little head-bob dance, then announces a nasally peent call. He'll throw it out to the west, and then turn around and throw it out to the east, etc-- basically what he's saying is, "Ladies, listen up! I'm about to do my thing!" After a satisfactory number (to him) of peents, the male takes off from his singing ground and ascends into the air. Once he hits about fifty feet, he begins singing, a song that is joined by this wonderful fluttering sound once he reaches 250-300 feet (which is actually him fluttering his notched wings through the air). 'Skydance,' orinthologists call it. How wonderful, no? And then, after flying around for bit doing this singing and fluttering, he bombs back down to earth. He lands; he crouches down; he looks around. If any watching/listening females have been duly impressed, they come out from hiding and they mate. After mating, the female goes back into the thickets, scrapes a nest out of the ground, while the male-- goes back to his singing ground and begins his mating ritual again. He has no role in raising the young.

Of course, you would have to view any piece of land this happens on as sacred. I do anyway. After seing the woodcock perform his sky dance at a number of less urban places-- the Ipswich River Audubon Sanctuary in Topsfield, the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Sudbury, Athol, Massachusetts-- I thought, hmm, I wonder if there are any such places in my own backyard, in Happy Land (aka, the Middlesex Fells Reservation, 200 yards down the street from me). To my wonder and inexpressible delight, they were! In fact, I've found woodcock in two different places in Happy Land, and suspect there are three other areas where I have a good chance of finding them, one of which I discovered quite by accident late this fall, when I was (vainly, as it turned out) chasing a dog who had escaped from its owners.

Being as anxious for spring as anyone else, I took my drum out the other day (it was lovely-- sunny and blue and about 35) to one of these places, and I drummed for about an hour in the sun (I got a sunburn!) making up and chanting an impromptu song called, 'Come, Woodcock, Come.' (Yes, this is what's happened to the boy who once stole hubcaps in Southie....) Well, what can I say? To paraphrase Mary Oliver, what else I am supposed to do? I read once in irish history how Saint Patrick went around Ireland 'saining' (a lovely old word) the holy wells, taking them out of the realm of the pagan gods and goddesses and dedicating them henceforth to various saints and members of the Holy Family. One of the places in Happy Land where I see the woodcock is 'the old 90 mm site' (as it says on the maps) a quite local place that once housed big ol' cannons and antiaircraft guns. During WWII, such gun sites were set up on hilltops up and down the Eastern Seaboard of America, in case of German aerial invasion. The local place I speak of has fallen to rack and ruin now-- the guns are gone of course, and all that remains is some broken macadam here and there, and the ruinous foundations of an old barracks. So, I guess what I am doing with my chanting and drumming is 'saining' these places, taking them out of the hands of gun sites and generals and returning them to their rightful (and riteful) owners-- wonder, delight, woodcocks, and the joy that rises in the heart when spring returns. Part of that process is renaming the place-- 'the old 90 mm site' just won't do, in the same way that 'Hector,' (Fionn the Dog's orginaly name when I rescued him) in no way, shape, or form fit him. Thus, this place is now Knocknagillagh, (KNOCK nuh GEE-uch) named after an ancient hill in County Cavan, Ireland, that translates as...'Hill of the Woodcock.'


Blogger biscuitnme said...

I so enjoyed reading your delightful rhapsody on woodcocks and was glad to learn that God, is in her (well said!) heaven and all's right with the world when the woodcock does his amazing song and dance. Wonderful photo! Yours? Having witnessed this amazing ritual many times, I totally agree with your feelings about the arrival of spring and the woodcock.

9:12 PM  

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