The warbling sound had the shape of a falling leaf. I could still hear the sound despite its being 39 or 40 years old. Lacking a better mentor at the time, I was under the influence of, shall we say, a heightened sensory experience. Not only was I hearing something new out there beneath the darkening sky over the farm commune, I was adding something of the supernatural to it. After I eventually found the actual source of the eerie warble, I began a casual study of the American woodcock that’s lasted to the present day. Every spring since that first encounter I’ve looked forward to the bird’s arrival from a winter down South. I watch for the bird’s territorial flight from the ground toward the first glimmering star to appear and then back to its starting point.
For a mate and a nesting ground…
“In a first warm evening of March I walk uphill to a brushy or boggy clearing near the woods. I crouch on mossy ground as twilight gathers and the first star breaks into view. The male woodcock’s resonant but nasal chirp is heard at intervals until the bird flushes from nearby cover. It flies parallel to ground then climbs in a narrowing spiral. The plump silhouette shrinks steadily until it seems but an insect on the darkening indigo sky. A manic twittering, emitted by the wings, is heard throughout the flight– a ritual performance geared for the attentions of a female hidden somewhere near me. Frequently each spring I come here for a voyeuristic ritual of my own– for the sense of transformation given by this bird. After months of winter weather a release is granted: the human spirit is infused with health, a skyward flight with one of the region’s lesser known denizens. On each encounter the experience reopens eye and ear.
From the pinnacle of flight the woodcock tumbles earthward, splashing silence with a liquid warble. Night has fallen and I, too, descend for a rivertop home.”
From the book to the sounds outside, to the evening sun declining westward, to the day’s last robin song, to the peeping of frog and the barred owl’s calling, to the drifting of a moth and the “peenting” of the bird… my thanks to Aldo Leopold for turning me on to the “sky dance” of the woodcock in A Sand County Almanac… recalling