Observation Post
by Philip C. Winslow
Cluster Weapons: On the Way Out
Fred Pearce: Consumption Dwarfs Population As Main Environmental Threat

Alexis Rizzuto: Sky Dance of the Woodcock

Today's post is from Alexis Rizzuto, an assistant editor at Beacon Press

David, a birding friend, called to say he knew of a spot where woodcocks were performing their spring mating dance. The woodcock is a short, stocky bird with a long bill and a dramatic way of courting. They hang out in fields where there is tall grass cover (their "singing grounds") and come out only after sunset for their rituals, making them very hard to photograph or video. The dance consists of spiraling up very high, careening down, and stopping short only a couple of feet from the ground. The prospect of witnessing this was enticing indeed, so my husband Alex, my mother and I signed on for the trip.

In preparation, David warned us that the area was known to be tick-infested, and we all wore knee socks pulled up over our pants-- except Alex. I also sported my impenetrable rubber wellies just to be sure. We set off through the Sudbury River Reservation, giving ourselves enough time for a bit of a walk before dusk. Along the way we saw curled fiddlehead ferns, the calligraphy of spring; watched blackbirds chase each other, swooping and banking in formation, their red epaulets flashing in tandem; and excavated tiny jaw and leg bones from an owl pellet. The pond we came upon had beaver written all over it. Drowned trees, check. Gnawed stumps, check. Huge lodge across the pond, check. I often see all these signs but had yet to see a beaver in the wild. The sunset turned the still water's surface gold, broken only the wake of something swimming just beneath. A loud slap! Beaver tail? There was the nose, then the face. Another slap and he dove again, the last we saw of him.

Dusk approaching, it was time to position ourselves for the show. David had been here with a group the week before and knew just where the woodcocks would be. He directed us to a spot on the edge of an open field, across from a patch of tall grass, and there we waited. The birds' call-- a distinctive, buzzy "peent"-- emanated from the cover. As it got darker, the peepers started their chorus and I thought, "Spring isn't silent yet." When a couple of bats flew overhead, I wanted to cheer them on for surviving the winter without succumbing to the fungal disease wiping out their populations.

The "peents" kept coming, but no birds emerged. After a while, we heard a new call, a maniacal twittering which I found out later is actually caused by air moving through their outer wing feathers. So they must have been priming their wings, working up their mojo to burst into the sky and show off for potential mates. Unfortunately, however, the mojo never reached critical mass, and eventually we had to find our way back to the car with flashlights. Not too disappointed though-- we did see the beaver.

Back home, I was searching YouTube for woodcock dance videos (no luck there either) when Alex called out that he'd found a tick. Stripping down under the bathroom light, he found two more-- one imbedded in his knee, another in his side. Thankfully, these were not the tiny deer ticks that carry Lyme disease but larger ones, mostlikely dog ticks. In fact, the only tick I had ever removed was from a dog, yet this operation was in my hands. So I called the person I knew who had the most experience with ticks, having run a horse farm-- Alex's mother. She instructed me in the removal-- ew-- and told me to preserve the ticks in a jar of alcohol in case the doctor wanted to see them. Irresponsible housekeeper that I am, the medicine cupboard was bare of rubbing alcohol. The only substitute we had was Alex's scotch. Eighteen-year-old. Single malt.

The ticks expired-- happily, I'd like to think-- floating in about twenty dollars' worth of Macallan, decanted from Tiffany crystal.

After checking each other meticulously, showering, and checking each other again, we spent a sleepless night besieged by phantom ticks. On the way to work, I was desperate for a cup of coffee. Yet I had learned at a birding lecture not long before that to give in to my craving for iced Dunkin' Donuts would be tantamount to shooting the birds I had gone to see in the first place. Well, not the woodcocks per se, but the migratory songbirds whose South American habitat has been all but wiped out by the coffee plantations that supply most of the US chains. Since learning of this-- darn you, Weidensaul-- I swore to buy only coffee grown the traditional way, under forest canopy. But with no place along my morning route that sells bird-friendly, shade-grown coffee, what's a good, sleep-deprived birder to do? I compromised, using the last of the rainforest certified, individual serving in non-recyclable plastic coffee machine cups I had at work, thus adding to either a landfill or the plastic garbage patch floating in the Pacific. Blame it on the ticks.