Back To Index Birds of a Feather
by Tom Thomson
"I owned my farm for two years," Aldo Leopold wrote, "before learning that the sky dance is to be seen over my woods every evening in April and May." He was speaking of the springtime aerial antics of the American Woodcock.
One early April evening, shortly after sundown, I make my way up one of the wooded hills that ascend from Arbitivitus Run in the Clear Creek Valley until I emerge from the oaks and maples onto a grassy hilltop. I take these pilgrimages to seek out the haunts of the bird Leopold wrote of so fondly, a chunky, goggle-eyed, long-billed bird who resides in brushy places along the edges of woods, an unknown tenant on many a farm.
"The stage must be an open amphitheater in woods or brush," the famed conservationist continued, "and in its center there must be a mossy spot, a streak of sterile sand, a bare outcrop of rock, or a bare roadway." He goes on to speculate that this is so because the woodcock has short legs and "his struttings cannot be executed to advantage in dense grass or weeds, nor could his lady see them there."
I can understand the woodcock's preference for such places. As much as I love the valley down below, there is much to be said for the higher ground. The air moves more freely. If there is a breeze, here will be the place to find it; if there is a sense of freedom in open spaces, then this is the woodcock's perfect arena, a stage where he can perform unburdened from the lower valley's restricted perimeters.
As I await the right degree of darkness for the show to begin, I walk through the tall grasses, occasionally scaring up flittish little Savannah sparrows that dart ahead of my footsteps before disappearing again into their secretive world of greenery. From the forest below, I can hear the evening chorus of robins, rufous-sided towhees, and the ethereal whistling of white-throated sparrows. A pale new moon hangs in the lavender sky and, presently, one by one, it is joined by the pinpricks of brighter stars.
The woodcock is a widely acclaimed virtuoso and he never condescends to perform until the house lights are dimmed. It is almost time now. A hush falls over the hilltop, and the birds in the valley are largely silent.
As with any respectable drama, this one starts inauspiciously enough. Near a mossy spot close to an outcropping of sandstone, I hear a series of buzzes spaced several seconds apart, sounding much like the summertime calls of the nighthawk.
There is more silence and I wonder if I am missing part of the show. I strain my eyes into the gathering dusk and finally I can see the woodcock's shadowy shape fluttering skyward in a wide spiral.
Higher and higher he goes, the circles becoming tighter with each revolution upwards. I can see him better now that he is silhouetted against the open sky. He is probably four hundred feet over my head.
I hear a musical twittering as he circles, now dipping, now climbing, now doing figure eights under the canopy of the ever-darkening sky. Like the great dancer Nijinsky, he seems to leap ever higher toward the zenith. It is now much easier to just listen than try to follow his shadowy shape through the sky.
Suddenly, without warning, he plummets recklessly earthward, zigzagging back to the very spot from which he originally leapt aloft. As he descends, the twittering becomes louder, more melodious, sounding for all the world like a warbling songbird, but the woodcock's repertoire is not vocal: it is produced by air rushing through his wing and tail feathers.
In his descent he passes over my head not more than ten yards distant and I get one brief second's glimpse of his plummeting body and long slender bill. After he has landed, he resumes the first part of his ritual until some awful yearning sends him skyward again. I watch one more performance before deciding to call it an evening. It is getting dark and chilly so I reluctantly retrace my steps back down the hill. My head is full of these strange goings-on out here in the country on lonely hilltops.
I hurry back to Ed Thomas' cabin where I sometimes stay. As I warm a can of mushroom soup and unwrap a sandwich, I wonder how many tens of thousands of love-struck woodcocks are throwing themselves into the night sky across North America.
I think about Aldo Leopold. He was one of the pioneers in the American conservation movement. He championed the idea that undisturbed wilderness in an asset unto itself and worthy of protection. Two of his books I have read and reread many times. They are, of course, "A Sand County Almanac" and "Round River."
Later, I snuggle into the quilted softness of my sleeping bag which I have laid on top of an old frame bed whose mattress is home to a family of field mice. I look upward at the century-old beams along the ceiling, and my mind escapes out beyond the roof, beyond the treetops and the moon-touched cumuli-beyond the moon itself-out to where there are trillions of stars and, farther still, out beyond "beyond," where there are countless other galaxies and universes. I wonder if anywhere out there in the endless reaches of space and time if there is anything half as interesting as a woodcock.
My last thought-somewhere between conjecture and sleep-has something to do with a young field mouse wondering about a giant sleeping over his head.
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