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Like most Mainers I’ve been keeping my windows cracked at night just to get some fresh air into the house. April nights are great for sleeping, with cool temperatures and low humidity. What I mostly enjoy are the gradual, subtle sounds of spring; the woodcock buzzing away on an open hillside, geese in the distance, the occasional chirp of a songbird that suggests a marauder of some type – an owl, weasel or raccoon, perhaps?
The fun really begins in the hour or so before sunrise, when the turkeys on the hill start to yelp and gobble. The cacophony continues until the flock hits the ground, and then suddenly they go silent. They troop down the hill single file into my yard to gang up on the feed pile and then I can hear their quiet purrs and clucks as they shoulder their way in to get their share.
Meanwhile, the smaller birds begin to announce the new morning. Robins are among the most noticeable pre-dawn songsters, but in the mix I’ll hear sparrows, chickadees, titmice and goldfinches. The crows and ravens chime in as daylight advances, and just before sunrise I’ll hear the geese coming off the river miles away.
This week’s novelty critter was the woodcock, those long-beaked, brown-feathered birds often called mud suckers or bog suckers. They do probe the earth with their long beaks but not to suck water – they’re looking for earthworms and they are very good at it. I’ve been able to observe woodcock on their feeding grounds and it is quite a show. They’ll stand still with their heads cocked to the left or right, apparently listening for the sound of earthworms moving in the dirt below, and then they’ll shove their long, thin beaks into the soil and sit still, face down in the dirt, for several seconds. The upper beak has a flexible tip so the bird can grasp the worm and slowly bring it to the surface, but I’m sure they also just sip the thing up through their beaks as if they were drinking a milkshake through a straw.
I find it quite interesting that the bird can “hear” a worm moving through the earth below their feet. I mean, how much noise does a garden worm make, anyway? And how quiet does a worm have to be in order to escape the ears and probing beak of the hungry bird? Imagine what it must sound like to a woodcock when a human comes thumping up behind them!
The recent snow situation was quite a challenge for this year’s crop of breeding woodcock because most of the ground was covered with snow and their spindly legs are not built for snowshoeing. April is mating time for woodcock and, by heck, they’re going to go through the motions regardless of how much snow is on the ground. I had as many as four male woodcock within hearing on recent nights, each one staking his claim to the only patches of bare ground around.
The process is simple enough. The male utters his peculiar “peenting” sound, which sounds like the buzz of an angry insect, and then he flies into the air on twittering wings, adding a bit of high-pitched squealing and squeaking that, apparently, makes him irresistible to the female observing silently from the sidelines. The male will occasionally fly so high that he goes out of sight and hearing (to humans, anyway), but then spirals back down almost in the same place where he took off. This behavior goes on all night (I can hear them through my cracked bedroom windows), until sunrise, when the birds go silent and retire to some quiet corner of the woods.
I noticed that the woodcock were not active during that last cold, wet storm of the season, and I’m sure they were frustrated by the fresh blanket of new snow, but the following rain washed most of the white stuff away and the never next day they were back to their old selves.
These days I’m down to bringing in only as much firewood as I’ll need to get through the night, and when I went out to gather a few sticks of oak for the stove I met a woodcock that was sitting in the doorway of the wood shed – literally inside the building on the wooden floor! I slowly approached to within 10 feet of him and had a little stare-down, and then he jumped off the step and walked around to the back of the shed. I had already seen enough of him to qualify as a “sighting,” so I didn’t follow him. I just picked up my firewood and went back inside. I’ve seen woodcock on my deck, in my yard and even on the porch but inside the wood shed? That was a first!
The recent storm (hopefully winter’s last gasp) caused some other birds to move in early as well. The next morning my yard was full of boat-tailed grackles, whose “rusty hinge” call is so loud and distinctive that I heard them coming long before I saw them. I like seeing them because it’s as sure a sign of spring as you can get. The last time I saw one was in September, just before they left town for the winter.
I also heard one red-winged blackbird, an amusement to me because I have just one pair of these brightly-colored songsters visit the yard every year. There’s just a tiny patch of “marsh” in the pasture, a perennial wet spot that doesn’t fill up yet never goes away. Birch saplings give the birds a place to perch while they sing, providing a nice little pos
tcard cameo of what goes on in ponds and marshes all over the East.
Winter is about to end with a vengeance – the wild things insist on it. So far I’ve not heard any swallows, blue birds or orioles but I’ll keep my windows cracked just in case!
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