By Ted Watt Gazette Contributing Writer
It’s the first, gentle afternoon of April—not a breath of breeze, even up here on our ridge-top blueberry farm. A pale sun is sinking down the western sky. Peepers are tuning up in the farm pond across the fields. From a distance, the chorus of a group of half-dollar-sized frogs are a comforting reminder that soon bloodroot will be blooming under the sugar maples and warmer times are coming.
Suddenly, in the gathering dusk, I hear the distinctive “peenting” sound from across the quiet fields and realize—we really have made it through another winter. That musical call—a soft, nasal quack—and the mating dance of the American woodcock is one of the Pioneer Valley’s most glorious signs of spring.
I call our neighbors to see if they want to go with me to see if we can find birds in action at “the dancing ground” again this year. And of course they do; Mary and her two sons, Jeffrey and Chris, show up full of excitement for an evening adventure.
Want to find your own woodcock dancing ground?
Woodcock spend their days in wooded wetlands feeding on invertebrates and worms, so if you are near such an area you have might have a better chance of spotting them. Find an open field with a few isolated shrubs scattered sparsely around. At dusk, quietly wait and listen. You may be lucky enough to see one of the Pioneer Valley’s special signs of spring.
We button up our coats and sneak off on the grass track through the blueberry fields. Every so often we stop to listen for the peent and then continue to the south, sticking to the road. We have to hurry before it gets too dark to see.
As we approach the sound, I warn everyone to move slowly and whisper. We stalk more purposefully until it seems we might even step on the noise. From previous years we all know it’s coming from a male woodcock just back from farther south. He seems to throw his voice all around the fields just to confuse us. Not a small bird, but in this light very hard to see.
Finally I motion everyone to sit down in the grass. We face the spruces silhouetted against the fading indigo light and Venus shining above them. The peenting continues—then all of a sudden it stops.
I motion with my arm as the singer hurtles up into the sky, a tiny spot in the fading light. We try to follow him with our eyes but he travels in a wide circle moving into the darkening eastern sky and we lose him. But we know he’s still up there by the faint twittering that descends on the cool evening air.
At the top of his big spiral the sound changes to a liquid, gurgling series of chirps.
“He’s coming down,” whispers Chris. The chirping continues for a few more seconds and then all is silent. The funny peenting soon starts up again, this time from out in the field. “Can we go closer?” Jeffrey asks.
“Sure,” I say, “but let’s wait ’til he’s up again.” The next time he lifts off, we scoot over the dry grasses and crouch next to a small white pine, holding ourselves still as we wait for him to return to earth.
Suddenly the chirping stops and he touches down right next to us. We all hold our breath, not daring to move. The boys think they can see his shape moving in the grass, but the darkness is so complete I’m not sure.
A few more flights and a low-to-the-ground chase between two birds in the dark finish our evening. All too soon Mary reminds the boys that they have school the next day. We walk back to the car and civilization.
After I wave goodbye to the family, I stand for a while at the edge of the field listening to the special sound of the woodcocks and watching the gibbous moon rise. A sense of peace and belonging washes over me.
This seemingly simple ritual helps me feel my connection to the annual cycle. But it somehow embodies my rebirth, too, and I look forward to it each spring.
Ted Watt is an educator/naturalist at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.
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