I discovered my friend — if you can really call a random American woodcock a friend — last spring, at about this time. He had recently arrived from points south, and had chosen the large lawn that separates my brother’s house from my own to begin conducting his evening rituals.
Two nights ago, he returned. Or perhaps one of his sons returned. Either way, I’ve got a new friend to listen to each evening. And in a world turned upside-down, it’s comforting to learn that some things are still predictable, and safe, and natural.
The American woodcock, bird biologists Brad Allen and Dan McAuley have taught me, is nothing if not predictable. Find a spot that has suitable woodcock habitat — new, regenerating forest is best — go outside at around sunset, and start listening. If there’s a woodcock around, it won’t be hard to locate.
“Peent. Peent. Peent,” he’ll say, over and over again. That’s what the biologists told me five years ago, when they invited me to tag along on a trip to some known woodcock “singing grounds.”
That’s just the beginning of a magical ritual, during which the woodcock first tries to attract attention with his voice, then launches himself into a courtship flight that will take him 300 feet into the air, his wings twittering along the way. And finally, he’ll return to earth, certain that his mate is waiting for him, singing a sweet, soft tune as he descends.
A year ago, not long after my wife and I had moved to Brewer after years in Bangor, I was surprised to find just such a singing ground just 100 yards from my front door. That woodcock entertained me for a few days, and I made a habit of going out to listen to his courtship efforts.
McAuley, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey, and Allen, who works for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, had taught me that knowing when, and where a woodcock would show up was a bit of a parlor trick: Once you understand the bird, you can amaze your friends with what they’ll assume is your extraordinary knowledge about the species.
McAuley told me that on a clear evening, woodcock will start their courtship rituals 22 minutes past sunset. And on overcast nights, the birds will start saying “peent” 15 minutes after the sun goes down.
And once you hear a bird once, you can expect them to return to the same singing ground every night after that until the mating season is over.
On Tuesday, as I took Genny — aka “Big Dog” — for a walk, I heard the telltale voice of my pal, the woodcock. Or his son. Or a cousin.
I was surprised — it doesn’t seem that the ground is quite soft enough for the long-billed birds to find their favored snack, the earthworm — but that odd, buzzing noise made me smile.
With a global pandemic carving a new reality for all of us, that natural interaction was just what I needed.
I’m a social critter myself, you see. I got into this line of work in part because it gave me the chance to spend plenty of time talking to others. Sharing stories. Laughing. Crying. Living.
For people like me, social distancing is a struggle. So is avoiding crowds. But we’re all in this together, and I’ve accepted that not inflicting myself on others (in person, anyway) is in everyone’s best health interests.
That said, it was nice to hear my friend on that first evening.
And last night, 22 minutes after sunset, I returned to the spot where I’d heard him a day earlier. Waiting. Listening. Not disappointed.
“Peent,” he said. “Peent. Peent.”
Eventually, he flew, just like I knew he would, his wings whistling gently. And then he returned to earth nearby, singing a jolly tune.
On a week like this, during a time like this, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Stay safe. Go outside. Listen to the birds. See you soon.
John Holyoke can be reached at email@example.com or 207-990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke. His first book, “Evergreens,” a collection of his favorite BDN columns and features, is published by Islandport Press and is available wherever books are sold.