Last night I did chores after bell choir and dinner, at about 7:15 PM. Dusk was falling as I drove down to the farm. In the twilight sky I glimpsed a bat flickering at the end of the school driveway. Alan Hicks’s phrase describing bats out in winter — “dead bat flying” — ran through my mind, but it was a warm, clear evening and my headlights picked out a few bugs in the air, so I pray it was actually a healthy bat hunting.
The farm driveway is so muddy I have to park at the top and hike down to the barn. As I got out of the truck I heard a loud metallic noise. I’d heard it a couple of times the night before, too, and hadn’t been able to identify it — I have a lousy auditory memory. But my memory for words is much stronger, so I did my usual trick. When the call came again, I asked myself, “How would I write that?” The answer: “Zeep!” and then I knew immediately what it was. A woodcock.
I love woodcocks. (Some country folks call them timberdoodles.) They’re shy and rarely seen, but as I’m usually alone I’ve seen plenty in the Adirondacks. The first I remember was back in the late spring of 1986. DH and I were living in Woods House. I was up very early and heard a strange noise outside. I went out in my pajamas and in the predawn gloom I saw a bird flying in widening circles, higher and higher, making an eerie twittering noise. When it was just a tiny speck in the sky, it folded its wings and dived straight to the ground, chirping all the way. And then it did the whole rigamarole again. When I realized I was witnessing an avian version of O.C.D., I stretched out on the grass to watch. The fervent display went on for over an hour. My pajamas were damp with dew and the sun was up by the time I got back to my feet.
At the time a former camp counselor named Dorothy Van Aller was visiting campus. Dotty was almost 80 years old and a wonderful naturalist. Tiny, weatherbeaten, her white hair pushed up untidily under a pork pie hat, she would lead early morning bird walks, overflowing with information and enthusiasm. From my description Dotty easily identified the male woodcock courting ritual.
(Many years later I leaned into my husband’s office to tell him excitedly of having seen a pine marten in the woods. His guest, a middle-aged former camper and mountain jock, raised an eyebrow at me and observed dryly, “Another Dotty!” I was honored, but I don’t have a tenth of her skill.)
Here is the best description of a woodcock’s courtship dance.
Last night’s woodcock flew higher and higher until he was silhouetted against the moon, his wings twittering. He was still calling and dancing when I finished chores and pulled the barn doors shut. It was magical.