Harbingers of spring

Photo by Dave Cooney, Jr Phoebes are insect eating birds that migrate back into the area in late March each year.

Spring arrives with fairly stunning regularity. My nature journal shows that last year the phoebe arrived on March 31. This year, it was March 26. The year before was March 27 and the year before that, March 26. The trend continues going back, not that it is a decades-long journal. Phoebe, or ‘Feebs’ as we call both him and her, is one of the true harbingers of spring. This is one that we wait for, take comfort in, and greet always with joy. That can also be said of another arrival, whose names are always said in sequence – Timberdoodle, Mudsnipe, Bogsucker, Woodcock!

Woodcocks are such strange little beasts, out of proportion like a young child’s drawing. The eyes are too big, and not placed right on its head. The legs are too short for the size of the body, the body too round to possibly fly. But exist this bird does, and thrives; at least on our property.

The sound of the first evening “peent” stops me in my tracks, mid-step. I listen, the calls are evenly spaced and consistent; just like their arrival. We can count on them to return mid-March, and be calling and displaying by the end of the month. The late snow this year was but a minor delay. They have embraced the snow-free ground with gusto and a chorus now erupts nightly on the edge of the young woods, where abandoned pasture gives way to wet meadow and scrubby field.

Last year at dusk, I had to head up on the hill for something. When I crested the rise, I stopped the car and turned it off, leaving the headlights on. It was a flurry of woodcocks, launching themselves into the air to fall like liquid rain back down to their starting spot, whistling and whirring and chirping the entire way down. I don’t know how many there were, but it was magical.

And it makes me wonder what else I’ll notice next time, that I didn’t today, or yesterday. I knew there were woodcocks. We watched them for years fly from the woodland up over the hill just before the sun sank below the hills. I didn’t know they stopped on the very top of the hill where they could see in every direction. But what bird wouldn’t want that as their stage?

In the lane we drive, the grass is shorter, kept down, and provides the perfect launching ground and dance floor. That it happens to also be on the ridge, under a masterpiece of night sky, is convenient. For the displaying males, females from the entire field edge can see them, and hear them, and — the males hope — choose their favorite.

With that discovery, I learned more about that little bit of land and the birds that live on it and choose to make a go of it there. Now I know to look for them farther afield at dusk, learned that there are even more places they may inhabit than I thought. I know they nest down the driveway somewhere, I’ve found eggshells from raided nests discarded on the gravel.

Last year, up past the top of the hill along the hedgerow, later in the summer, we spooked up four of them. Three of them took off, scattering into the fields and woods, but one remained. She (we are assuming) started feigning a broken wing, distracting our attention. I didn’t know they did that! We saw no nests or young, but assumed they were close and so backed up and went a different way. So, I wonder if they also nest on top of the hill? That seems far away from where I thought they did, but perhaps!

My previous encounters with woodcocks have been having them scare me to death when I almost step on them. Once, in West Virginia, I was walking through the woods behind the cabin in which I was staying and one exploded seemingly from under my foot. I am still amazed that I didn’t see it. Upon close inspection, after gingerly putting my foot down, I found a perfectly camouflaged nest with eggs. What a treat! I quickly left the area so the eggs didn’t get cold, apologizing to the mama bird as I did so.

I think I like the woodcocks because they are elusive. Don’t get me wrong, I love Feebs, too. But you can’t miss him and her. They are there, and loud, and let you know. The woodcocks are almost always sound without sight, enchanting, more ephemeral. They appear, sing their spells, and then are silent; almost as if they are conjured by the season itself. Every time we cross paths, it feels like a gift; as if the forest is making an offering to the greater world in gratitude for lengthening days, and warmer nights. I feel like an imposter, like there is more at work that I am allowed to know; that I accidently stumbled into a parallel world and caught a glimpse of the magic we don’t deserve.

Welcome, woodcock, phoebe, and robins. You bring with you more than you know, filling hearts with hope and joy, and letting at least one human believe that there are a great many things yet to be discovered, and even more to enchant those fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk and birds of prey can be viewed anytime the trails are open. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.


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