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On the Wing: Into the Darkening Sky

Thu, 03/17/2022 - 05:01
March is the best time to see the spectacular mating display of the American woodcock, a member of the sandpiper family that feeds in the woods.
Jay Rand

In the Hamptons, we are used to displays. Displays of wealth, displays of ego. For example, the 68-year-old man in a gold Lamborghini, revving its engine two weeks ago on Long Wharf. Why?

The American woodcock knows a thing or two about a good display. No bird on the East End of Long Island comes close to rivaling its spring show.

Woodcocks are roughly the size of a pigeon with a long straight bill that seems to ascend to the top of its head where, on either side, are over-large black eyes. It has a bulbous body with no sign of a neck, and it’s cryptically patterned to resemble fallen leaves. If that sounds strange, good. It is. It’s a weird and goofy-looking bird.

It spends its days hunting for earthworms among the windfall and decay of the woodland floor. Technically, the woodcock is in the sandpiper family, but that never seems to make sense to me, as I associate sandpipers with the shore. But, as you’re starting to understand, woodcocks are a bit unusual.

Once evening falls, it waddles out into a clearing where, just as the first stars emerge, it begins to call. A loud, buzzy, zap of a song, usually referred to as a “peent,” escapes through the long bill. The bird calls, turns slightly, calls again, and continues like this for a revolution or two. The ground portion of the display ends with a whistle of wings, which means the woodcock has taken off into the darkening sky.

Aldo Leopold, in “A Sand County Almanac,” describes the aerial portion of the display.

“Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began, and there resumes his peenting.”

A “soft liquid warble” is poetic, but to my ears, a descending woodcock sounds like someone cleaning windows. Squeaky, but oddly beautiful. Looking up at the night sky, trying to focus on a tiny bird and hearing that sound, I imagine The Creator wiping down the walls of the sky, and out drop a few woodcocks. It uses the sky as its palette, this sky artist, all to impress a grounded female.

Because darkness is near, it’s hard to see a woodcock land. R.I. Brasher, in “Birds of America,” edited by T. Gilbert Pearson, says that when it hits the ground, it “struts like a tiny turkey-gobbler, with drooping wings and upright spread tail.”

In addition to this performance, the woodcock has a special style even when it’s walking. Search for “woodcock dance” on YouTube and you come upon a video that describes the woodcock as having “a little dip in its hip and some glide in its stride.”

But while the male woodcock goes to great efforts to find a mate, it’s not into long-term relationships. Not long after attracting a mate, it will begin its displays again, hoping to attract another female. Males do nothing to help raise the offspring.

The woodcock is a pretty chill bird. In fact, with a flight speed as low as five miles per hour, according to birdwatchersdigest.com, woodcocks are the slowest birds in the world. They migrate, but only if they really need to, and, even then, at a leisurely pace. If a hunting dog finds them, they’re just as likely to sit tight, trying to blend in with the leaves, than to make the effort to fly away. When they do fly, they sometimes bash into a nearby tree. I’m not sure if they’re smart.

In addition to its scientist-approved, eyebrow-raising name, the woodcock goes by many other silly nicknames, such as “bog sucker,” “Mr. Big Eyes” and “timberdoodle.” Audubon called it the “prober of the mire.”

Apparently, these birds taste good. Jessup Whitehead, who wrote “The Steward’s Handbook and Guide to Party Catering” in 1903, had this to say about eating the woodcock: “The choicest bit is the head, the thigh is finer, the trail considered superlative.” To be clear, “the trail” refers to the contents of the woodcock’s stomach: mostly partially digested earthworms. Mr. Whitehead suggests spreading that on some toast. Later, he goes on to explain some fancy ways to fold napkins.

Such was life in 1903.

But as with most birds, it is habitat loss, and not hunting, that is driving its population declines. Timberdoodle.org, a website dedicated to the woodcock, dryly explains, “Since the 1960s, the American woodcock has lost much of its habitat as people have converted brushy land into shopping centers, housing developments, roads, highways, industrial zones, and heavily farmed areas. Woodcock cannot live in such settings.”

But we’re lucky. They nest here, for now. According to John Bull’s “Birds of New York State,” in early June of 1870, 77 of these birds were shot in Bridgehampton in less than a week. Now I’m lucky to spot four at a time.

Each March, as part of a longstanding family tradition, I take my family to Poxabogue County Park in Sagaponack at sundown and watch the woodcocks do their thing. We sit on a bench on top of a hill, stare into the gloam, and listen. In addition to Poxabogue, the photographer Jay Rand tells me the North Fork Preserve is a good spot. In March, Margarette Doyle and Dermot Quinn saw a handful at Promised Land State Park on Napeague.

So, in the next few weeks, get out there. The sun should be setting around 7 p.m. Pick a night with light winds, leave your dog and phone at home, and plan on being quiet. Watch the transition from day to night and the woodcocks’ crazy sky dance. Maybe, when you see how hard they’re trying, you’ll feel a little sympathy for the guy with his Lamborghini. He can’t help it. That’s his display. It’s all he has.

Bird sightings of particular interest can be shared with Christopher Gangemi at [email protected].

 


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