Sometimes, a bizarre pursuit can result in exorbitant pleasure.
Birders know that late March, –as dusk plunges into darkness, in empty fields, even in cold wind and after drizzling rain–, one of the keenest joys of birding can unfold. Woodcocks, –even right here in Princeton and Kingston and Rocky Hill and Plainsboro Preserve –perform their mating dance at sundown. Birders strain to hear that characteristic “Peent”, and the odd ascending/descending whirling buzz that alerts those in the know to look up for that short-lived dance, something unique in all the world.
Last weekend, my intrepid friend, Karen Linder, and I trekked from her Kingston house over to Mapleton Preserve. We were on a woodcock quest. She had heard them once this season; I not at all.
When you ‘woodcock’, yes, you have your best light-gathering binoculars at the ready. But a stellar sense of hearing is even more important.
Also warm clothes, layers and layers, because woodcocking involves a great deal of standing around, every nerve aquiver, as silently as possible.
There’s always the sense that this is absolutely impossible.
And absolutely crazy — it’s almost dark out here. (It never occurred to us to bring flashlights. I don’t know if they would alarm the birds.)
Whatever you do, you don’t want to interfere with these essential rituals, without which there would be no more woodcocks.
We tromped Mapleton’s expansive fields, like detectives looking for essential clues.
We came upon a noble skeleton of a deer, ribs like antique scrimshaw, hooves still glossy. One leg and haunch had been carried elsewhere, and by what? I hoped coyote.
In an adjacent field, we found the elegant skeleton of a fox. I don’t know what was more arresting — that glowing, still bushy tail, or that stripped head and o! those fangs…
A great blue heron sailed silently above, an exclamation point against the lowering sky.
Here and there, a bustly robin went about final foraging of the day.
We reminisced about the year when Rush Holt began and successfully completed his first run for office, using the lodge-like building that had been essential to Flemer Nurseries on what is now the Mapleton Preserve. Rush Holt, that rare politician, who gets it that all nature is connected. Who does whatever he can to preserve habitat in our region. Who is in his final term now, to our great regret – although we are happy for Rush.
Maybe politics and woodcocks seem far-fetched to some NJWILDBEAUTY readers. But no — without crusading and courageous champions, those fields we were traversing would be concrete and buildings and parking lots and lights that shine all night. It’s a miracle that this handful of acres stretches golden in last light, shorn and welcoming to woodcocks in their dance.
Suddenly, Karen stiffened, pointed toward a shadowy row of trees. “Hear that?!”, she exulted.
I missed her sound, but heard my own in trees across another field, –in fact, near the famous allee of Flemer gingko trees. It wasn’t so much a “Peent”, as the sound of my children’s hushed “neat”, in their teen years — the way modern teenagers almost whisper “cool”. the more whispery, the more important.
Then a small zippy slate-colored something zoomed over our heads going west. Something else did the same going the other way.
All color had left the sky, except a hint of tinfoil. So we could see no field marks, only woodcock silhouettes. And very determined they were.
A single charcoal-blue cloud stretched across a backdrop of tarnished silver — a cloud exactly like a mackerel, crossed with a whale.
We craned our necks.
We cocked our ears.
A few more zips and peents.
And then it was time to make our almost blind way home.
Something about the sheer outrageousness of our quest conferred profound drama and dignity to our hour in the field.
Something like this would have occasioned my mother’s one profanity, “No other damfool.”…
That’s just the point.
We were out there in the bitter cold, and winds so strong the woodcocks could not create their DNA-spiral dance, because we honor those birds, their wildness and their traditions.
And because we were among those brave committed souls who said, “The Princeton Nursery Lands must be saved. Attention must be paid.” Those ghastly hours at those loaded hearings, the grave discouragements, our seemingly futile arguments with frankly pompous experts determined to develop, were not in vain.
Because of preservation, on that cold March night, in Mapleton’s preserved fields, we were in the presence of woodcocks.