We met at sunset in anticipation. It was an early spring sunset, cold, still and glorious with a thin crescent moon. A deepening golden sky silhouetted the filigree of branches on bare trees. But we came to observe a spectacle that is first detected by ear. We heard twitters, clucks and chips as birds settled down for the night. Our puffy coats swished as we walked along paths crisp and crunchy with old snow. Dogs were barking in the distance as if communicating with each other in the gloaming. A flash of white tail betrayed a deer crashing through the winter-worn grass behind us. We could feel a dampness rising as the sun set still further. The ping from a car door being locked was a false alarm. It almost sounded like the “peent”– the very sound we had all been waiting for - the mating call of a male woodcock. Further along the trail we heard the deep-throated “who-who hoo” of a great horned owl. And then another one called across the meadow. I would have been satisfied to return home to my warm house at this point as the sound of a hooting owl is one thrill enough for me. We stood still listening to the owls as the first stars twinkled above. But the thrill continued as a low-flying bird seemed to come from nowhere. A rounded shape of a bird, with its tell tale beak visible, flew past us and landed in the long grass nearby. It immediately started its “peent, peent”. I did a “high-five” with one of my companions as we realized that the woodcocks were indeed here for their courtship ritual. Then the performance began. As we heard more peents around us, the first-sighted male lifted itself incredibly high and almost out of sight. It was a mere speck in the darkening sky and then I lost track of it. A whirring and kissing sound could be heard as it plunged earthward. Perhaps, an impressed female bird had viewed this full feat of love from amongst the dried stalks of grass. The owls hooting were no longer the center of our attention. For now, in this meadow at dusk, the woodcocks owned the show.
- Sue Avery
American Woodcock - (c) Tom Benson 2013