The Nature Devotional, The Spirit Journal

A Fall of Woodcock

Have you ever seen a woodcock dance? He puts on quite a show.

A Woodcock is a small bird, a little stockier than a Robin and with a beak about 2 inches long. Its eyes sit alert, high on the top of its head. Some new studies theorize they may be able to see 360 degrees. They have a print of clever camouflage wrapping their plump little bodies. Looking and behaving not unlike a Sandpiper or a Killdeer, the Woodcock nests on the ground and spends most of its time there unless dancing or migrating. 

If you couldn’t quite conjure the image, here is a photo. I just wanted you to get a chance to use your imagination. 

Photo: Fyn Kynd/Flick CC (BY 2.0)
https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/american-woodcock

I went, for the first time, to a “Creatures of the Night” event at Bernheim Forest–a place you may hear me mention often. It is a second, or third home to me. 

I had been reluctant to go due to my early-bird bedtime, but made an exception for these funny birds. 

Upon arrival, the group met up in the parking lot of the lakeside gazebo. The sun was just beginning to set. The air was like ice, but had been warm enough in the day that you wouldn’t think you needed your heaviest coat. You would have been wrong. 

We clambered into the education vans, 15 of us total. I was freezing due to the confusing weather of Kentucky’s mid-March–just a few weeks into the mating season for the Woodcock. As we hugged the curves of Bernheim’s Forest Hill Dr, we witnessed the first of many magic tricks that evening.

The dense set of the sun shone an ember orange on the naked trees we passed. You may be thinking, “Just your average sunset”, which I would beg to differ doesn’t exist. The trick of this one though, was how it clung to the trees. The orange set on them like a rich gelatin. Someone compared it to the sight of a low-burning wildfire.

The guide suggested that it may be like the famous ‘Aspen Glow’ in the sunrises of Colorado. I googled it of course, and it couldn’t beg to compare. 

As we all gaped quietly and gratefully at the sight, we pulled into the prized dance-floor where ‘the Man of the Hour’ was supposed to be.

We climbed out of the van, into the weather and waited. Listening to odd facts and signs of the Woodcocks given by the spectacular guide, we suddenly heard him.

Giving a short, ‘buzzy, nasal peent’, the male made his entrance onto the “Singing Grounds”. We stared into the open grassy hill, dotted with an odd tree here or there. The small clearing made the perfect habitat for mating and dancing.

The short honk reminded me of a clown’s bicycle horn. He went on for a while, throwing his whole body into it. With each honk came a thrust which flung forward his whole body, wings and all. Eventually, the honking stopped and was replaced by a glossy trill. The chirping sang in a melody that sounded like flying chimes. He zigged and zagged with the confidence of an airshow pilot. You could tell he does this often. 

His dance spun and waved in a loose figure eight. Abruptly the chirping to would take its end and a sharp, soft whir—which was mostly the transition from noise to silence—would take its place. If your eye was tight enough to follow his wizzy body, you could then see him drop like a dive bomb into the clearing and begin his little honk and thrust. Hence the collective noun, ‘A Fall of Woodcocks’. 

He must have done this a dozen times. We began to wonder if he was just putting on the show for us. He hadn’t seemed to stop for any lady-bird that might have wandered into his view. 

The dense flow of clouds was rolling right along. The brightness of the moon and her stars suggested it may have been full. It was only some quarter or another. The beam of light was enough to penetrate each wave of cloud cover. It looked as though they moved out of the way just so that we could see the moon more clearly. 

As we piled back into the van, the Woodcock continued on, ever vigilant on his quest to pass on his dancing skills to the next generation. And rightfully so!

We marched on, to the 900 ft. fire tower Bernheim is home to. It is on the list of historic fire tower’s in America, I came to learn that evening. This expedition—a rarity at Bernheim…it is unusual to go up to the fire tower after dark, captured the 3rd bit of magic. 

The stark dark of the forest was backed by the light pollution of each major city in a 20-30 mile radius. A sort of bittersweet wonder. We could see the top of the Argon building in the city of Louisville. It’s a good 30 minute drive. As we drifted our eye across the expansive 360 horizon, we learned about the geography of the area and named off each of the towns. 

The famous ‘Knobs’ of Kentucky and Indiana were formed when glacial melts passed through and eroded the softer rocks within what used to be high-plateaus. What we see today –the Knobs– are the harder rocks and conglomerates that withstood the erosion.

Pinking down the metal steps, we sat back in the van to warm up and headed to our final destination.

If you have not ever walked out on a canopy tree walk, please do. It is like every video of special places travel companies want you to visit. 

The stars sat on the ends of tree branches like diamond Christmas lights. We gathered out to call for owls. The calls were fruitless. The guide said he thinks they know better and roll their wide eyes at us in mocking. I believe it.

Driving back, we spied another small miracle: a meandering opossum. He plucked on past us as we leaned excitedly against the window. 

Wrapping up, we dispersed to our cars and rolled on home to our light-shone cities. The evening’s magic still lingering on our spirits. 

For all the facts I learned about woodcocks that night, the dancing is the one thing I can ever truly understand. To me it was magic–being able to delight in his little show. To him, it was nothing. He does this every day in March and every year at that. If you’ve ever seen a Woodcock walk, you might argue he does it every step he takes. And yet, he seemed to know he was impressing. 

The lesson: move like you own your spirit; play like a Woodcock plays. Perform like you know someone’s watching you dance and that your dance is worth watching. Fall with the grace of transition. Oh, and go out past 7pm every once in a while–you just might find something worth watching.