Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Flight of the timberdoodle

        By any definition, Scolopax minor, the American woodcock, is an odd bird.

Though classified as a shorebird, it lives on the edges of immature forests. Secretive and exquisitely camouflaged, it’s rarely seen except during its dizzying crepuscular mating display. Its folk names are legion, inspired as much by its haunts as its physiognomy: bogsucker, big eye, night partridge, brush snipe, timberdoodle. Its rocking gait resembles an avian attempt at moonwalking minus the dark sunglasses and solitary sequined glove. Described by some as a “meatball on a stick,” its bill is too long, its eyes too big and too high on its head. Most importantly, at least to my tale, is that the species is now found in brushy/grassy habitat at Washington State Fishing Lake, “found” being used subjectively if not optimistically.

I say that because of repeated attempts to locate it, always at dusk and, alas, always ending in failure. Several years ago I wrote about one such attempt that became a sort of template for others to follow: arrive at sundown, pace the gravel road between the entrance to the first camping site to the north until the stars pop out and mosquitoes discover your presence, swear and cuss and bat the humid air, listen intently for a nasal peent!, hear nothing but a high-pitched whine as mosquitoes kamikaze your ears, depart after donating several liters of blood. In what could only be described as a pitiful attempt to put a spin on the preceding debacle, I concluded with a philosophical bombshell: “This may sound strange, and it may be something only a birder can understand, but sometimes the best bird is the one that got away.”

Balderdash! As one of a select subgroup of Kansas birders who were unable to locate snowy owls during their most invasive year on record, I can attest that failure cannot in any way, shape or form be construed as anything other than defeat. Failure makes you feel inadequate. Failure leaves the taste of dust and ashes in your mouth. Failure is the embodiment of hopelessness.

No, the best bird is the one gregarious enough to shamelessly preen and pimp, amenable to perching on your binoculars, introducing itself, signing your field guide, buying you a beer. The best bird is the one you tally in your checklist(s), whether yard, city, county, state, continent, solar system. The very best bird, the pinnacle of birdingdom, is a lifer.

The bogsucker would have been a lifer, but wasn’t.

When reports recently surfaced that woodcocks were once again performing their aerial mating displays at the lake, my interest renewed for these harbingers of spring. I eagerly checked the calendar for the next available date, penciled it in and started boning up on the bird’s vocalizations—which, considering that the species is basically nocturnal and awakens zombie-like at dusk, would be critical for field identification. 

And then I asked myself who I was trying to kid. I mean, didn’t my track record count for something? An unbroken string of failures, one after the other; and while I was on the topic, my evil inner voice jeered, did I recall that guaranteed, impossible-to-miss Ross’s Goose near Ogallala, Neb., the one that was reported daily until my own ill-fated attempt, after which it was never seen again? All too painfully. Much like playing the lottery, my chances of winning were equal whether I bought a ticket or not. 

Go, stay, go, stay, for several weeks I waffled. It wasn’t the 40 miles there I worried about, it was the 40 long defeated miles back that concerned me.  

I could easily have extended my indecision until long past the bird’s mating cycle, and probably would have, if not for Lori’s surprise suggestion that we give it a shot. So unprepared was I for the idea that my evil inner voice was briefly stunned into quiescence. Before it could summon its reserves of negativity and character assassination, I grabbed a pair of flashlights and bolted for the door.

Getting there was half the adventure: dodging deer on the road, stopping for gas and a soft serve (to sweeten the gamble, so to speak), braking hard for rusty trucks, decrepit barns and abandoned houses, wishing for more time to explore and photograph but intensely conscious of the sun’s unwavering descent into a morass of storm clouds rising in the west. Though the lake is a mere ten miles northwest of the county seat, a stair-stepping route on ever-narrowing gravel roads makes it seem much more distant and remote. Our arrival almost an hour later coincided with the sun’s weltering disappearance and a deepening silence that fell with the dusk.

In the distance, a puttering chorus of frogs reminiscent of a trolling motor. Waterfowl lifted from the lake trailing thin whistles from their wings. Robins chirruped and scolded before settling in with the night. Small brown sparrows restlessly flittering in the deep grasses bordering the road rose and fell and rose and fell until sinking unseen into the gathering shadows. 

We left the car behind and passed silent and unspeaking toward a brushy clearing while around us the wobbly world slowed to a crawl, slowed to a tranquil lull and us with it so that we halted midstep immobile and enchanted, waiting for what would come no matter the outcome, failure or success reduced to half-remembered concepts of uncertain worth or merit in the face of nature’s sedate unwinding, and pausing there saw Jupiter and Venus erupt from a jagged rift and the western horizon ablaze from nearby prairie fires, and the first nasal peent! prelude to an explosive liftoff. As if not to be upstaged a barred owl jabberwocked and another answered, the pair caterwauling into fevered lust and almost but not quite drowning out the peents! of timberdoodles ascending into an absolute blackness punctured only by tandem planets smoldering bloodred from invisible plumes of acrid smoke, the music of their wings a gossamer tremolo like the delicate tinkling of crystals, muted yet distinct, more felt than heard above our conjoined heartbeats, our entwined fingers, our breathless rapture.


Anonymous said...

Glad you finally got to see (or at least hear) the Am. Woodcock. Last year was my first attempt and I found them sitting on the road at Osage County State Fishing Lake. One was silhouetted against the low light of the western horizon during it's flight.

This year they were always east of me so I only got to hear their peents and the wing sounds of their courtship flights.

Margaret Luplow said...

My heart is aflutter.

shoreacres said...

I recognize the woodcock shape from its photo - very much like our shorebirds, indeed.

Beyond that, all I have to compare its flight to is the sound of the nighthawks diving and diving, with the loudest "Whoosh!" you ever could hear from a bird. Or so I imagine.

I wonder if our killdeer aren't related. They're a plover, and have a bit of that body-to-leg ratio that lends itself to the meatball on a stick imagery. I saw my first killdeer babies today - four of them, looking just like the adults and about the size of ping-pong balls, which only emphasized the meatball resemblance. They were being watched over by their parents,running through the marina grass and having a fine time.

Tom Parker said...

Killdeer babies are cuter than cute, little balls of fluff with legs. Nighthawk booming is different, though no less impressive; both have their charm, and if I were to have to choose a favorite, nighthawks would win hands down.