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When summer comes to Wisconsin, there is a brief, intoxicating interlude before the mosquitoes arrive when everyone dons shorts and you can work in the yard without becoming part of the food chain. The light turns soft and milky and the air itself feels amorous. Everything’s in bloom—nodding capsules of bleeding heart; the secret rapture of lilies of the valley; embroidered Dutchman’s breeches; exploding pink phlox. In the woods, trout lilies and toothwort. On the edge of the golf course, apple and cherry trees are flouncing around in their frothy, hooped skirts. One of our favorite rituals to mark this brush with paradise is to go looking for those secretive and crazy birds, the woodcocks.
Every few years I attend one of the local bird-watching
walks and am transported to another world. I feel as if I’m being initiated into a secret order of people who stalk the woods, loitering with binoculars, people who can pause and listen to the soundscape, like a dog scenting the wind, before coming out with mystifying and magical utterances like “blue-gray gnatcatcher”; “Northern Parula”; “yellow-throat”; or “chipping sparrow.” Suddenly the woodland or meadow in front of me where I saw only a few nondescript birds—or no birds at all—becomes thronged with unique and intriguing individuals. Like the woodcocks, also known as “timberdoodles”.
What makes the woodcocks so special is their flamboyant courtship. They are dumpy birds, the mottled brown of leaf litter, who mostly live a perfectly camouflaged life on the ground, hunting worms. Yet on warm evenings at dusk, the male woodcocks go reliably and very publicly insane, becoming aerial stuntmen. You can find them on open, brushy ground near trees and water. Each would-be Romeo establishes a singing ground in a clearing or a field, and proceeds to advertize it with the strangest sound, a kind of metallic buzz called a peent. After peenting for minutes at a time, he shoots up and careens around, 300 feet overhead, madcap whirled on a string. Once airborne, all you will hear is the strange, whistling, twittering sound of his wings. Each performance ends precipitously and without warning. He plunges to the ground like a sword, and starts peenting again. If you stare at the faint glow on the skyline, you can sometimes glimpse him as he falls, fretted for part of one held breath against the evening sky.
So imagine yourself strolling some woodland trail at sunset. Coming out into an open space dotted with trees, you brush your way through fleeting veils of scent: lilac, earth, young grass. Then the bronze coin of the sun slips into its slot over the horizon. As if on cue, a short, metallic buzz begins at rhythmic intervals from the shade. You freeze in excitement, trying to pinpoint the direction of the sound. Cars drone past on the road just twenty yards away, scissoring the dark with headlights. Yet in the splintered quiet, there he is, doing what male woodcocks do in spring to attract a mate. Two Harley Davidsons snarl past, music blaring, ripping the smooth fabric of the night. A woman in black leather clings to each driver’s back like a mating frog. Like the woodcocks, they’re out for a spin at moonrise, just to be seen and heard.