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sky dancers


A woodcock -- a bird also known as bogsucker and timberdoodle -- is a fist-sized assemblage of disparate parts -- a bill like a hypodermic needle, a rabbit's eyes, the neck of an offensive lineman, a bat's wings, and a pair of feet like a chicken -- covered with mottled feathers in shades of warm russet, brown, and buff.  Despite his rather comical appearance, he's an endearing little soul: it's impossible not to smile when confronted by that limpid, almost mammalian gaze.  Perhaps we are attracted by the size of the bird's liquid brown eyes, eyes that seem large enough to reflect some measure of our innate humanity back upon ourselves.

That being said, it's not all that easy to gaze soulfully into a woodcock's eyes: by nature these birds are humble, shy, and unassuming.  His eyes are big for a reason: unlike his beady-eyed cousins, a woodcock is most active during the shifting twilight of dusk and dawn, probing the soft soil of bogs and swamps with his slim, needle-like bill in search of worms, his dietary staple.  The woodcock's cryptic coloration, habitual silence, and retiring habits tend to limit this bird's encounters with humans.  Most of us know woodcocks only by the startle of sudden movement when a cock, surprised during his daytime nap, rises directly in front of us with a flurry of whirring wings -- and usually a choice expletive or two on our part, as our human heart rate doubles or triples from the abrupt shock.

But for a month or so in spring, the normally reclusive woodcock becomes a flamboyant showman, staging evening and dawn performances replete with aerial displays of derring-do accompanied by an incredible array of diverse sounds.  The entire production is staged in hope of securing the heart of a lovely, doe-eyed female companion.  Aldo Leopold in A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC labeled these springtime displays "sky dances" and his precisely detailed, whimsical description of the amorous efforts of woodcocks inspired generations of naturalists to scour April swamps in search of these diminutive performers.  Most of the searches -- including mine -- have been in vain: woodcocks apparently are quite demanding in their choice of a platform for their performances.

And so the would-be naturalist eventually becomes bored and frustrated and seeks other, more accessible amusements.  For me, my quest led me to Central America this spring: beside Caribbean blue rivers that flow through the karst landscape of the Peten jungle, I observed kingfishers the size of hummingbirds and toucans with bills larger than their bodies.  I climbed the cloud-shrouded Sierra de las Minas to the hidden nests of quetzal birds, whose plumage clothed Mayan deities and kings.  I saw a river born and a volcano erupt.  And when I'd exhausted myself, I returned home.

And the first thing I heard when I came back was the love song of the woodcocks.

It's not tinkling or musical or flutelike: woodcocks are bogsuckers, after all.  A major portion of their song consists of a wheezy, nasal note -- "peeent!" -- repeated at intervals of two or three seconds, without variation, for a minute or more.  An inauspicious beginning, to be sure.  As he calls, the short-legged bird struts back and forth: a listener with a good ear can actually pin-point a woodcock's location on his strutting ground by the tone and loudness of his voice.  Theoretically, this initial display announces the male's presence and amorous intentions to any females in the vicinity.  Once he has their attention, the male woodcock launches into an amazing aerial display: accompanied by chips, twitters, and chirps (at least some of which originate not from his throat but his wing feathers), the bird spirals upwards, rising in graceful circles higher and higher into the pale evening sky until he becomes completely invisible to the unaided eye.  But his flight can be traced by sound: at the apex the woodcock’s voice changes into a sweet, murmured warble.  And then, abruptly, the bird enters free-fall: his body plummets downward at an alarming rate, seemingly lifeless, exhausted perhaps by passion.  At the last moment before impact with the ground, he zigs -- or perhaps he zags -- and, with an undeniably sexy flourish he returns to his original strutting ground to initiate another round of peenting.

That first night I was home, I counted seven or eight individual woodcocks calling from different areas of the surrounding swamp, but I never visually located a single bird.  As the mating season has progressed, we've begun to identify individual male performers by their strutting locations and flight patterns, and now it's a rare evening when we can't trace at least a couple sky dances from their initial peenting to their tumbling conclusion.

A cold front disrupted the forward progress of our spring last week: a bitter north wind off the lake shepherded clouds that spat rain, snow, and sleet.  For two nights, the woodcocks remained silent, perhaps afraid of being blown off course during their high-flying acrobatics.  Late yesterday afternoon, the wind died and the clouds fled.  As the last alpenglow faded, a porcupine munched on buds high in one of the Lombardy poplars that flanks the swamp.  The first, tentative "peents" sounded as Jupiter blazed high and clear overhead.  A late robin whinnied.  I closed my eyes and imagined myself trying to select a single favorite from among all of the dancers that spiraled across the sky as one by one the stars specked the new night with their pale glow.