When I was a Boy Scout, at the appointed hour when it was said that the snipes were running, the Tenderfoot Scouts were marched deep into a snowy night holding paper bags for catching snipes. I remember being excited about the prospect of catching a snipe, imagining that this feat would elicit admiration for me from the older scouts. One of the older scouts lined the ten or twelve of us Tenderfoot Scouts across the woods parallel to a road on a ridge a couple hundred yards away. He carefully spaced us at least ten feet apart and instructed us with great seriousness about how to hunker down in the snow so we could hold our bags open very close to the ground facing the line of snipe drivers who would drive the snipes toward us. Not everyone would catch a snipe, we were counseled, only the most observant and fast-acting.
Then the older scout left.
Soon we heard the snipe drivers make a half-hearted racket up on the road.
And then there was the winter night quiet which was as heavy as the damp, frigid darkness that seemed to me to be outer space itself that had sunk right down to the surface of the earth. One of the lads far down the line suddenly crumpled up his bag and shouted a “woo hoo!” and ran off back to the lodge.
After about 15 minutes, a couple of the scouts clambered up out of the snow and trudged back to the lodge to what the last of us assumed would be scorn for having given up.
I stayed out at least a half an hour.
I was the only one left.
I really wanted to at least see a snipe zipping by; I longed, for some reason, for this opportunity of intimacy with a creature of the wild.
The last scout to leave sighed as he stood, “Come on. They’re just making fun of us.”
But I didn’t believe it. I believed in snipes.
By the time I returned to the lodge, the entire troop was engaged in a game of steal the bacon.
They hadn’t even noticed I had been gone.
A couple of Saturdays ago, I was invited to a party at which we endeavored to catch a cousin of the snipe, the American Woodcock, performing his annual twilight courtship flight. For years after the sting of the snipe hunt wore off, I never knew there even was a bird called a snipe. But there is. My belief in them was not misplaced. Their cousins, the woodcocks, turn out to be some of the most interesting members of the Scolopacidae family, because of their method for attracting females with whom to mate. Snipes have interesting mating rituals, but nothing like the soaring American Woodcock.
Or Timberdoodle. Or Mud Bat. Or Whistledoodle. Or Bog Snipe. Or Bog Sucker. Or Big Eyes. Or Night Partridge. Or Timber Rocket.
Rocket. That’s what a male woodcock does: he rockets up, spiraling, “twittering,” for a couple hundred feet, until in the twilight, you can no longer see him. Then he drops, tumbling “like a crippled plane” singing as he falls with a “soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy.” Just before hitting the ground, he levels off and returns to his “peenting ground,” a clearing in the woods, usually at the edge of the woods or on a sandy or mossy stage in the woods, so his amorous acrobatics do not go unnoticed. He begins the whole drama again, beginning with strange, “throaty peents spaced about two seconds apart.”
I had to quote Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac here for a complete description of the woodcock’s seductive show, because at the Timberdoodle party, I saw only one woodcock launch up into its amorous orbit, but then to promptly disappear. I think the others gathered heard and saw more. I believe that day for me will come. It was quite cold that evening, perhaps extinguishing the Timber Rocket’s flaming desire, perhaps making him wonder if he’d come north a bit too soon. The snowstorm this past weekend I’m sure confirmed that for him, dropping a two foot thick icy pall on him and his family and friends and the earthworms they need to eat.
So the Scolopacidae cousins remain elusive to me as many mysteries of the woods do – a truth noted and affirmed by Aldo Leopold in his description of the woodcocks’ “Sky Dance” which was read at the Timberdoodle party before we went outside. To Leopold, the woodcocks’ romantic antics revealed more mysteries about woodcocks than facts:
“It is fortunate, perhaps, that no matter how intently one studies the hundred little dramas of the woods and meadows, one can never learn all of the salient facts about any one of them.”
The mysteries of Creation are many, inspiring curiosity, wonder, awe. We are drawn to them as woodcock females are apparently drawn to the spectacular flight of the males, without ever knowing how the choreographic movements of this dance come to his mind. The extravagance of this display is equal to its importance: obedient to their Creator’s command to be fruitful and multiply, steadfast in the face of storm or danger, it’s vital for them to do their best at the behest of their Lord.