Forget about the lion and the lamb. March comes in like a woodcock and goes out like a woodcock.
I speak of the American Woodcock, a.k.a. the timberdoodle, a gnomish walnut-colored snipe of field and woods and as martian as shorebirds get with its top-heavy toddle, earth-probing bill, and eyes at the top of its head.
If March is a maestro of earth and air—stirring, instigating, exhibiting—then so is the woodcock. In fact, it speaks in two different voices—one terrestrial, the other aerial. The terrestrial note is a surveyor's mark, the aerial one windborne and surprising.
Hearing both of these sounds was a March tradition that fellow birder Ed Hazell and I hewed to on a raw, windy evening last week. We drove out to Belmont's Rock Meadow, a reliable staging area.
On the way, Ed challenged me to identify the vocalist in a CD he had just received. Disc slid in; out poured an ethereal, eerily pitched soprano. I took a guess. Yes, it was Yma Sumac! In concert in Bucharest, Romania, 1957.
Yma Sumac—Peruvian, possibly descended from the Incan emperor Atahualpa; endowed with a range of five octaves, and you could hear the span on the CD, climbing from a throaty, smoky growl to a stratospheric scream. Yma Sumac—a name suspiciously reversible to Amy Camus, rumored to be a Brooklyn housewife, but not so, Boston! Yma Sumac, diva of the exotic, chanteuse of hooded eyes and flared nostrils and dramatic sweep of caftan.
I'd heard of Yma Sumac, often in crossword puzzles, but never had I heard her Goomba Boomba, or her F sharp above double high C.
We arrived at the juncture of evening and oddsbodkins, the daylight circling the drain. We ventured out into a meltscape of mud and snow, trod the boardwalk, waited in the chill wind. I had my cowl on, so Ed heard it before I did.
A precise, nasal expostulation, a sharp among flats. Bzeep. Snide, nerdy, essence of mulch and earthworm. Bzeep. Here. There. Tagging the dusk like a random sneep, a game of freeze tag played by an animated bean bag. Bzeep. You can't see me. Bzeep. You're right.
Then, just when it has lulled its audience into a low-watt tango—surprise! It takes off in a kite tail of telltale twitters made by wind in feathers! And around it goes, a few hundred feet up, rarely visible as a chunky silhouette, making a wheel of sound, a geometry of woo. Look what I can do! I've got you surROUNDed, Valentine. And suddenly, most surprising of all, it fakes a fall, expressed in a column of sharp, irregular, to-the-death, kamikaze chirps, wind-made. I would die 4 U, Valentine! Except at the last moment it pulls up, lands in the same spot from which it took off...
...and returns to the terrestrial, extraterrestrial Bzeep.
This is what we have come for, this performance. Often a sharp eye against the losing light will pick out the movement of the roaming woodcock, or at least the wing-flared return of one a few yards away. But not tonight. They're keeping back in the snowy thicket, so we have only their sonic roundup overhead when there aren't enough pixels around for a decent contrast.
We head back. Too cold. Back to the car and Yma Sumac, queen of the Incas, as earthy and airy as the bird we heard, but much better looking.