“Aye Robert!” cried the center's caretaker, a man who planted corn for wildlife and raised chickens and kept a goat in his ramshackle house. “They're back! The dancing has begun!” Thinking him daft, I cautiously opened my door, foot bracing the door bottom in case the newly stricken madman tried to push in, but that was not the reason for his cries. “Have you heard the dance?” he asked. “Have you seen it? No? Then come with me!” I followed his quick steps out beyond the pasture to an old field where Red Osier Dogwoods grew here and there, and brown grasses reminded us of winter. “Listen”, he said. “They've begun!”
The air was cool, damp, fresh and earthy. In the eastern sky, Venus had just appeared as twilight settled upon the land. “Peent!” we heard, then “Peent!” again. And again, and again. “Listen!” he exclaimed. “He's about to fly!” A sharp, high pitched twitter of tiny wings pierced the darkening sky, first fading, then louder as the bird turned to our left, barely visible, then louder as he circled overhead, twitters changing pitch and becoming more and more frantic second by second as he now hovered a hundred feet about our heads. Then nothing.
Watch!” he whispered. “Look towards the light horizon, towards from whence he came!” Overhead, I heard the twitters change to warbles, more frantic sounding second by second, until finally I saw the tiny bird with the enormous bill drop past the horizon as if crashing to the ground.
Then... “Peent! Peent!” and on it went, the show repeating three more times, until Venus brightened and the sky darkened and we could see no more. The bird continued calling and flying behind us for a bit as we walked back to the barn and nature center. With measured words, he told me about this bird, this American Woodcock, and their annual sky dance in hopes of calling in a mate, or if he called loudly, and danced well, and twittered just right, perhaps many mates in the brief few weeks that were allotted for such things. He had sought the woodcocks out each spring for decades, he said. Growing up in the farmland of southern Michigan, he always found them. It was a part of his circle of life.
And so, he passed part of his legacy on to me that evening. For the brief, few springs I worked there, there were added annual woodcock watch programs for the members and the public. When I began graduate school, I organized woodcock watches for friends. I went to Vermont to teach university, and created woodcock watches for students and faculty. When I visited at Massachusetts Audubon, I led woodcock watches for them. Then, with the move to Cleveland Metroparks, the woodcock legacy continued for three decades, my entire career there.
I am older now, and the dancing grounds are smaller. Houses are built for an ever-increasing population, and open land disappears. “Land for Development” the signs say, but the land is already developed. The inhabitants simply cannot speak in a language we have yet learned to understand.
Far more woodcock springs are behind me than ahead, but for as long as I can, I will venture forth to find them, and remember that one special evening when an old goat farmer shared a special bird with a young naturalist, and changed that boy's life forever.
– Robert D Hinkle, PhD, Naturalist