There's something about this scene that makes the robin uneasy. Two guys standing in the gathering gloom, not going anywhere. It fusses sharply in a treetop overhead, then takes off with one final peek! They watch it go. It's getting darker. If they had topcoats and this were an urban setting, they'd be like the two gunsels in "The Killers." But it's not. It's a dim path in a woods in the old Brooks Estate. Just down from a clearing called the Stump Dump, which is where the city of Medford dumps old stumps. That's right, bright boy.
These guys are waiting for a bird. It should make its presence known any time now. This bird is an oddsbodkin called a woodcock. It's a bit mysterious, shy, lumpy, long-billed, the color of dead oak leaves. It's an apparition on chilly evenings in March, like a bird illustration that comes to life, except it requires a cloak of darkness to do so.
There it is. They relax a little and listen.
It's a nasal buzz, like a small appliance that's on the fritz. Some people call it peent. There's another one, from a different direction. On the ground—near, then far. Maybe a third one.
The peenting goes on for a while. What's going on here is a presentation of bona fides. But it's a preliminary, a planting of seeds. The two guys are waiting for the second and third part of the event. Which take place mostly not on the ground but in the sky. And suddenly it's happening. A wide gyre overhead of twitters, a circle of invisible tracks. Owning the ground, now owning the sky. The sound is produced by the wind whistling between the woodcock's wing feathers. Reminiscent of a baseball card flapping in the spokes of a bicycle wheel.
The two guys turn, peering into the dimming blue. Too dim to find or follow the bird. It's supposedly 100 meters up. Then they hear the third sound. A sharper sound, a series of falling chirps. Random, keen-edged. Almost a sobbing quality. I fly for you. I die for you. If that isn't love, it'll have to do. Until the real thing comes along. Then silence. Has it plummeted to its death? The ultimate sacrifice?
And the whole thing starts all over again. The sky dance, it's called. The two guys (me and Ed) hang through about five iterations of the performance, an audience of two. Usually it comes back to earth far to the left or far to the right of us. But once or twice. we're close enough to see it, a shadowy lump, and once right in front of us, fifteen, twenty feet. Close enough to hear a little wheeze of air before each peent. Close enough to see it abruptly take off on another sortie.
Finally, it's too dark for us, maybe too dark for the woodcock. We leave it to the night, to whatever other woodcock or woodhen may be listening. A real rite of spring. "Yeah. A real riot, bright boy."
Marj Rines, stalwart host of the Menotomy Bird Club, has created a great web page to the woodcock. Which see: http://mrines.com/Birds/woodcock/