Friday, April 9, 2010

Anthony Hall: Timberdoodle Madness!

Lake George is the summer home of many people we never see.

The most reclusive summer resident, however, may not be any particular family but a migratory bird, the woodcock. As one sportsman put it, “The for-centuries extinct dodo bird is sighted about as often and by as many watchers.”

The woodcock (otherwise known as the timberdoodle, bog sucker, mud bat, big eyes, and, in the south, as becasse de nuit, or nightswipe) is a game bird that comes to Lake George in early spring; it stays no longer than six or seven months and departs before the first frost.

Typical of the summer resident, the woodcock returns to the same place every year.

Its preferred habitat is abandoned farmland. The woodcock lives on a diet of worms, which he consumes in amounts equal to his weight every day, and as boys who fish will tell you, moist, poorly drained fields are the best places to find them.

(One obvious harbinger of the woodcock’s arrival is the flock of robins that descends upon the field as soon as the sun’s heat is warm enough to draw worms to the surface.)

The nesting hen also likes the shrubby areas and young groves of oaks and maples that grow up on the edges of old fields.

I would not have known of the woodcock’s existence here had not a friend who is knowledgeable about these things told me that the woodcock’s preferences in food and shelter matched the conditions of the fields between our house and barn, alerting us to its presence.

The “peent, peent” that we hear every spring evening, it turns out, is part of the male woodcock’s mating ritual. It is the sound that he makes just before he ascends in a widening parabola through the dusk. When he achieves a maximum altitude, or perhaps just as he is about to descend, he lets loose a song that is as beautiful as any birdsong I’m familiar with. It is the only time he sings, according to John Burroughs. The naturalist adds: “Surprising it is to see this stupid-looking mud-prober transformed into an ecstatic song-bird under the influence of the mating instinct. Whoever has witnessed its hurried spiral flight in the March and April twilights, and heard its curious smacking, gurgling notes rain down out of the obscurity of a couple of hundred feet of air, has been present at one of the surprising incidents in the life of this bird.”

Actually, the woodcock does not descend so much as he falls, like a leaf at first, then like a rock dropped to illustrate the principals of gravity. He then returns to the spot from whence he came, and repeats the entire ritual. Now that the hours of daylight have increased, we have had better luck catching sight of him as he flies out of the juniper and circles the field.

There is another curious habit of the woodcock, which I have yet to see and have only read about: “If, in shooting, you meet with a brood of woodcocks, and the young ones cannot fly, the old bird takes them separately between her feet, and flies from the dogs with a moaning cry.” (This from an old sportsman’s guide; the writer is identified only as the author of “Scandinavian Adventures.”)

“All nature is so full that that district produces the most variety that is most examined,” wrote Gilbert White, the 18th century English parson who spent most of his life observing nature in one parish. White would have appreciated the fact that one of nature’s most elusive creatures can be found in our own backyards.

Woodcock illustration from New York State Fish and Game Reports

For more news and commentary from Lake George, subscribe to the Lake George Mirror

Anthony F. Hall

Anthony F. Hall

Anthony F. Hall is the editor and publisher of the Lake George Mirror.

Anthony grew up in Warrensburg and after an education that included studying with beat poet Gregory Corso on an island in the Aegean, crewing a schooner in Hawaii, traveling through Greece and Turkey studying Byzantine art and archeology, and a stint at Lehman Brothers, he returned to the Adirondacks and took a job with legendary state senator Ron Stafford.

In 1998, Anthony and his wife Lisa acquired the Lake George Mirror, once part of a chain of weekly newspapers owned by his father Rob Hall.

Established in the 1880s, the Mirror is America’s oldest resort newspaper.


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