No answer to this question is more satisfying than the woodcock’s.
The first time I encountered this strange bird I was with my son, driving north in late summer on a gravel road in the Caledon Hills. The bird stood in the middle of the road, chunky brown body leaning, as on a crutch, on a very long beak, slightly curved at the end. Wounded, we thought as he held his ground, beady eyes staring the car down. But when we got out and approached by foot he winged clumsily off into the trees.
“That’s a woodcock,” our friend Rosemary said the moment we told her of the encounter. “You’re lucky to see one, they’re shy.”
My son’s research revealed that at dusk in late April the ungainly bird engages in an extraordinary aerobatic mating ritual. And so one Sunday in early May—spring has been slow to come this year—we drove to the Forks of the Credit just as the sun was sinking below the trees. We’d spent the day clearing the back of Rosemary’s property of white ash, grapevine and bramble, preparing the lower beds of the vegetable garden and, up around the house, planting pansies among the daffodils and chewed up tulips—the deer have done more damage this year because of the brutal winter. The air was cool and breezy but the sun was warm. Not a bug to be seen other than the crawlers in the soil. (The midges came later that week.)
The evening was perfect. A moon like a nail clipping rose with attendant planets in the deepening blue, and in the west the trees’ complexity was silhouetted against the pink traces of the departing sun. This was the right landscape—the edge of a wood and a sizeable clearing with lots of low bushes here and there. We sat with our backs to a tree, huddling for warmth, watching in all directions for something we were not sure we would see. After a while we got up to take a turn around the clearing, trudging with difficulty over the mashed down sponge of grass.
Suddenly we entered twilight, as though in fact stepping into a zone. Or like that moment in the theatre when a message on the screen directs you to put on your 3-D glasses and you do and your vision shifts. There was an attendant prickle up the spine and then the soundscape shifted. We’d heard mostly spring peepers before this, invisible in hidden marshy dips, an occasional dog barking in the distance, and geese. But now a murmur of birds became audible from the woods in the darker east and the rosey west. The little moon was high and bright. Suddenly meters before the path that would return us to our car we heard a sound in the bushes to our right like a buzz or a croak. I imagined an enormous feathered frog. That’s a strange animal, whispered Leo. I bet it’s the woodcock!
It had to be. The knowledge felt inborn.
The croak-buzz repeated at intervals, the sound shifting from dark patch to dark patch. Then it stopped. My son saw the bird go up and in the dusky light swung his arm up, pointing in an ark towards the eastern line of trees, then westward up and over the moon. We lost the dot at the top of its trajectory but heard a shower of tweetery squeaks, a bit like the sound of a bat, and then suddenly, again close by, the bird flapped into view in the last curves of its spiral descent, and disappeared into the dark bushes. The croak-buzz returned, this time to our left. The series began again.
For nearly twenty minutes we stood in the centre of this exhilarating ritual of ascent and descent. The bird was often invisible to me, but the soundscape produced a magical romantic comedy played out in a theatre in the round. I felt we had stumbled like Shakespeare’s Mechanicals into the woods, expecting one kind of rehearsal but finding instead something rich and strange, connected to us nonetheless through amazement and laughter.
Returning to the path we thought we heard the gentle cooing sound of a female and then we saw her fly sideways out of the scrub. Does she even see him shooting up and spiraling down, my son wondered in the car? Maybe like us she mostly hears him, feels the perfect alignment of dusk and glow, of sun and moon, sound and tingle, and feels a deep recognition, yes, yes, that’s right. He gets it. He knows where I am.