I arrived at the Arboretum at about 5:30 this morning and locked up at Parking Lot 10. The sky was a bit overcast, the temperature just above freezing. For the first 20 minutes I walked in silence, watching the buildings across the interstate. As I reached the oak collection around 5:45, the horizon was just starting to light up. The marcescent oaks I was watching last year have far fewer leaves on them this year. Have they started to drop already? or did the trees simply not hold as many leaves over this winter as they did last year?
The smell of burned woods reached me near the edge of the maple collection. The forest floor just east of Bur Reed Marsh was blackened, mottled with patches of leaves and grasses that hadn’t burned. At 5:55, the birds in the pond south of me started squeaking and riling each other up. I walked through Bur Reed Marsh, which was also burned, stopping to listen for what I thought was the spitting sound of a junco… it didn’t return and may well have been my imagination.
At 6:05 a woodcock peented from alongside the road leading north past Crowley Marsh. It was just light enough now that I could see outlines against the grasses, and I liked the prospects of finding a woodcock on the road, where I might see him dancing. I confess that in 25 years of casual woodcock-stalking, I’ve never succeeded in watching a woodcock do his ground show. I’ve approached close enough to see where he must be standing, to watch him fly up, to run over to where he’d been dancing and wait silently for him to drop back down… but always they seem drop down somewhere else. Today, though, I was emboldened and perhaps just lucky to have found a woodcock inured to people, living in such an urban area (most of my woodcock stalking has been in Madison, Wisconsin, not the Wild Western Suburbs). I followed the sound and found that he wasn’t on the road, but in the flattened marsh on the south side of the trail. I closed in on him and he stopped peenting, but I did get close enough to watch him. He stood stock still for a half a minute as I watched. I’d expected him to scurry into the shrubs, but he seemed relatively unafraid, if perhaps wary. The woodcock flew suddenly into the air and began cycling upward. I figured that was all I’d get: I’d had my moment. But I tried my luck all the same and moved in close to where he’d been, hoping he’d land again right there.
He circled overhead, whistling and kissing, then dropped down and started peenting again, this time 20 feet to my left. I followed him with the flashlight on, and this time I got the view I’d been hoping for. I had expected to see the woodcock’s head jerk upward with each peent, prehensile bill aimed to the sky, but I’d had it wrong. Audubon writes: “On observing the Woodcock while in the act of emitting these notes, you would imagine he exerted himself to the utmost to produce them, its head and bill being inclined towards the ground, and a strong forward movement of the body taking place at the moment the kwauk reaches your ear. This over, the bird jerks its half-spread tail, then erects itself, and stands as if listening for a few moments, when, if the cry is not answered, it repeats it.” This is not altogether unlike what I was seeing, though perhaps more dramatic. The woodcock I was watching seemed only to lift his chin a bit as he called. He then paused and did a strange head-nodding shuffle forward and then backward before calling again. After each call, he seemed to wait for a response, shuffling as though in anticipation of the next call, a restless suitor. He called about five times before growing silent and then abruptly flying off to circle overhead.
I would have enjoyed staying longer, but I was somewhat worried I’d reduce this gentleman’s chances with the ladies if I were to keep watching him. By now it was 6:15 — only 10 minutes had passed! one of the 10 minute periods you carry with you for your entire life — and the day was lighting up. The robins had started up in earnest. By 6:30 I could see well, though not quite well enough to botanize. Cardinals were going full tilt. At the pond along the service road just north of Parking Lot 14, wood ducks were busying themselves about the morning. A rufous-sided towhee was calling “schwink” from the shrubs (John Burroughs, in the essay “April”, refers to this bird as the chewink, though I don’t know if this name is or was widely used), along with song sparrows and white throated sparrows. I walked up the service road to the heritage trail and headed eastward along the moraine there. I was mulling over an eggshell at the base of a white oak when, from the pond to the north, a solitary chorus frog called slowly. It was 6:45.
By 6:50 the chickadees and nuthatches were calling all over the place. I turned onto the southern stretch of the Woodland Trail, where I was looking at the false mermaid last week. Now the plant is more abundant and a few millimeters taller, leaflets perhaps a half-millimeter longer each, and some of the larger plants are beginning to branch. A Claytonia exhibited its first floral buds, packed into the axils of the straplike leaves. I headed south across the ravine toward the main trail at the east edge of the East Woods. An owl (barred, I think, though I didn’t see well enough to be sure) flew off ahead of me.
I reached my bike at 10 minutes past sunrise. The sun wasn’t visible yet where I stood, still hidden behind the hills. As I rode into work, the robins were chuckling and cardinals were whistling, and the woodcock I’d been watching was quiet, likely settling into the shrubs to rest through the day. He’ll head back to work himself this evening.