I’m sitting in my car at the foot of someone’s driveway, beside a reach of prairie adjoining a woods. I am waiting in closing darkness for two things.
First, with good luck, I will see a woodcock, which I have seen here once before, before the large house atop the drive was built.
Second, with less luck, a policeman will pull up after a call from the owner of that house, to ask me what the heck I’m doing.
If this happens, I expect some difficulty selling a reasonably acceptable explanation. This does look questionable.
After I wrote about woodcocks on these pages recently, Martha Maguire, a reader in North Oaks, sent me a video she had made through a window in her apartment.
In March 2018 she watched a woodcock feeding right there, on the other side of the glass. One year later, same week, same window, two woodcocks. Amazing. (This year, nil, but c’mon.)
The bird in the video is actively feeding, jabbing into the ground with its long bill, right to its eyeballs, tugging mightily when a worm is found. You can almost hear the cork-pop as the whole worm comes free.
The little bird has a dance motion between pulls, perhaps celebratory, bopping before poking the ground vigorously when it senses more worm. It is an enthusiastic feeder.
These antics make me laugh each time I watch the video, antidote to life’s troubles right now. It also has piqued my interest in woodcocks.
There is a challenge to viewing them, as author Greg Hoch explained to me weeks earlier when I wrote about his book, which profiles the bird. The woodcock’s intricate courtship display is triggered and ended by precise amounts of dim daylight.
It needs particular habitat and closely measured light levels to perform, and then only for a brief time, perhaps 45 minutes.
So, I’m thinking as I sit there in my car, am I watching the right place? Is the light correct? Did I mis-time this, the performance over? Or will I miss a display yet to come if I go home now, avoiding a 911 call?
Woodcocks are common, Hoch told me, in the right place at the right time. He lives in Isanti County. As he describes it, that area must be woodcock central.
I could drive up there, but birds are never sure things. I’d get home late, perhaps empty-handed. But, maybe not.
Maybe is a birder’s curse.
Years ago I went to Louisiana three times to look for ivory-billed woodpeckers (or singular; one would have been enough). That surely is/was the biggest maybe in North American birding.
Friends and I walked through miles of swampland woods, watching, listening, flushing flurries of wild piglets, thinking about snakes. Maybe we would be dumb lucky. Maybe. Or, as it turned out, maybe not.
I’ve seen woodcocks do their sky dance once, in Ohio several years ago. The show took place on an unkempt yard in a trailer park, not textbook habitat.
In a nearby national wildlife refuge the next day, I got my best look ever at the bird.
That woodcock apparently had been awakened in his leaf-litter hideaway by heavy birder traffic. The bird stretched and preened, nonchalant, posing 20 feet from us.
I was pretty excited about what I considered a most fortunate observation.
And then I watched Martha Maguire’s video.
Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at email@example.com. Join his conversation about birds at startribune.com/wingnut.