Waiting for Woodcock

Silhouettes of leafless trees are backlit by clouds smeared across the sky, which from heaven to horizon, is pale blue, blush gold-orange, then smoky plum. The sparrows settle in for the night, fidgeting like my dog when he digs and spins before sinking into the curated folds of the comforter. A light breeze brings the first hint of chill I’ve felt all day.

I am waiting for woodcock.

Photo by Bert Harris

Nicknamed the timberdoodle, the American Woodcock is a sandpiper that lives among trees and shrubs instead of sand. It is a unique bird with a flexible upper bill, an upside-down brain, and groovy earthworm-slurping footwork.

Patience is rewarded with a PEENT at 6:28pm. Then another, like a melancholy yet seductive kazoo. PEENT.

A bat flies overhead to the tune of the eager timberdoodle. Four minutes later, another male PEENTs, but I can’t tell from where. It’s maddening really, to try and locate a sound with your eyeballs in the ever-dimming light. The deafening chorus of spring peepers at the abandoned beaver pond doesn’t help.

Curtains up! At 6:34pm the sky dance, as Aldo Leopold called it, begins. I catch a glimpse of a whirling woodcock dervish flying in a large arc above me, worshiping the twilight in a dizzying display.

In the sky, perhaps 300 feet above, he is backstage and out of sight.

In my nature journal, I attempt to map the locations of individual males. I hear a PEENT to my right, louder and closer than before. As I try to locate the bird in my binoculars, my eyes strain to make out the dark blob in the trail. On the ground I watch his bill open and close with each PEENT. He seems to be engaged in call-and-response, a chant-off, with another male across the hedgerow, but I can’t tell who is the caller and who is the responder. Even in the spotlight of my headlamp he continues to head-bob and vocalize out in the open, a mere twenty meters away. His eyes shine like dusky pearls making me wonder: Is the light really fading or is darkness illuminating?

PEENT. The universe in a single avian syllable, not a game bird on a slice of toast.

Night and curtain falls.

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