This Thing Called Courage

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Woodcock Time


THE WOODCOCKS, as I announced last week, have returned. I spent the greater part of last night up at my secret spot in the Fells, watching the show. The sun sets, the day gathers up her colors to leave, and the sense of anticipation builds. It reminds me of when my family and I would go to the 'Open Air Theatre,' aka the Drive-In, "da Opuneerr Deer-duh" as my father pronounced it in his South Boston patois, when we were young, and we would sit on the roof of the car, staring at the blank screen as the sun set, waiting wonder-whacked for the show to begin. I guess, continuing the metaphor, you'd have to say the woodcock's show is one of the longest running ever--0h, they've been doing this for about a million years. Thatw as the time when most of our birds evolved into what they are now.


Last Thursday night, the first night I heard/saw them this year, there was only one, and he emited a short series of peents, and then was done for the night-- it was cold, and it seemed like he had just arrived on a southerly wind, and was still getting his bearings. Last night a different tale was told-- there were at least three and possibly five woodcocks about, and they made so bold as to do the Sky Dance. As one of the males came twittering and singing back down to the ground, he must have espied another male-- for his liquidy trills suddenly turned into a harsh buzz-rattle, a sound I've never heard a woodcock make before, but one that was clearly a noise of intense displeasure, insult, and reproach. And a chase began, as one male shooed another off the singing grounds, the buzz-rattle going back and forth between them. There's nothing to take the place of experience, and to be a witness to this secretive, wonderful rite of spring gives one the Minimum Daily Requirement of Beauty, and then some. Here's what Aldo Leopold had to say about Woodcocks in his seminal Sand County Almanac:


Knowing the place and the hour, you seat yourself under a bush to the east of the dance floor and wait, watching against the sunset for the woodcock’s arrival. He flies in low from some neighboring thicket, alights on the bare moss, and at once begins the overture: a series of queer throaty peents spaced about two seconds apart, and sounding much like the summer call of the nighthawk.
Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter. Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began, and there resumes his peenting.
It is soon too dark to see the bird on the ground, but you can see his flights against the sky for an hour, which is the usual duration of the show. On moonlight nights, however, it may continue, at intervals, as long as the moon continues to shine....
...The drama of the sky dance is enacted nightly on hundreds of farms, the owners of which sigh for entertainment, but harbor the illusion that it is to be sought in theaters. They live on the land, but not by the land.
The woodcock is a living refutation of the theory that the utility of a game bird is to serve as a target, or to pose gracefully on a slice of toast. No one would rather hunt woodcock in October than I, but since learning of the sky dance I find myself calling one or two birds enough. I must be sure that, come April, there be no dearth of dancers in the sunset sky.

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