Last Friday I was headed out to my folk’s place about dusk. I made it less than three miles when the engine in my pickup quit. Apparently that little warning tone that reminds you that you are low on gas, really means you are low on gas. My cell phone was plugged into the charger at home, so my options were limited. I stuck a flashlight in my pocket and started walking back the way I had come.
As I walked south, the sky to the west was red. I was thinking I could certainly be stranded in worse place than a back road in northwest Missouri when I realized I was hearing something. I had actually heard it about three times before I realized the “peeent” in the distance was the spring mating call of a Woodcock. Similar to a quail with a long beak that it uses to catch worms in moist ground, the woodcock is secretive, sticking to thick wet patches most of the time. But the “peent” meant he was displaying for a female on the ground. What he would do next is really one of the of the magical natural sights of springtime in the eastern half of north America. According to Cornell's All about birds the male; “performs a marvelous display flight, or “sky dance.” He intersperses this buzzy peent call, given from the ground, with his spiraling display flights. In the air the bird gives musical chirps and makes a twittering sound as air passes through his wingtips. Displays continue well into the night, so if you hear this noise be patient, track it to its source, and see if you can catch sight of the male as he plummets back to earth to resume his peent calls.”
I wasn't close enough to see the birds on the ground, but shortly I caught sight of him against the western sky that still had some light in it. He shot upwards almost out of sight, then fluttered back to earth again. Still walking, I heard the “peents” continue. I had seen an ancient ritual and heard the “timberdoodle” herald another spring. As I walked along, eventually I heard the whistling call of wood ducks flying over, and some Canada geese, unseen honked their way north. Coyotes howled keeping tabs on each other’s whereabouts. The last mile I hiked in the dark. The flashlight untouched in my back pocket. The moon was plenty bright enough to see where I was headed. I saw Orion off to my left, and when I turned north, there was the Big Dipper and Polaris, the north star. As I trudged up the driveway to my house, I had to think that what had started out as an inconvenience had resulted in a nice spring night hike, complete with the gift of a glimpse of the woodcock's “sky dance”. I can't complain about that.