Sunday, April 22, 2012

In Broad Daylight

Timberdoodle, bogsucker, night partridge, brush snipe, hokumpoke. 

Most commonly known as the American Woodcock.

A funky little bird with some funky aliases. 

A black-sheep member of the Sandpiper family of shore-birds, for some reason the Woodcock long ago strayed away from the water and found a niche for itself in the woods and timber of the world. That formidable beak turned out to be a perfect utensil for earthworms and insects. 

For the most part, woodcocks fly under the radar of most peoples avian awareness, even though the male's Spring courtship flights can be pretty conspicuous and colorful - if you know what to look for. It's a weak frequency for the attention of the eye since the bird in flight appears small, and the birdsong--although unmistakable--can be faint. Once you tune in to them though, they start appearing everywhere in Spring. In fact, they're back in the open fields right behind my house. What makes them particularly difficult to see though is the fact they perform all their courtship at dusk as the light is quickly fading.

All this makes them particularly difficult to photograph. They've become somewhat of a personal holy-grail for me as a photographer. Every Spring I hear their "peents" and whistling, aerial song, but surrender to the impossibility of a photo.

Well, during my recent trip up to Sleeping Bear Dunes (I had to pick up some photos from an exhibit up in Petoskey) I was driving along a road just off M-22, in an area with open fields and patches of woodland, and right in the middle of the road was this guy strutting across the road. He was doing the strangest, funniest kind of bobbing as he walked. Contrary to what one might think, it's not about attracting the ladies but rather it's how they usually walk for stirring the earth and triggering earthworms to move. It's all about hunting.

What contributes to their funky appearance is the way the eyes are situated really close to the top of the head, perhaps an adaptation for detecting predators as it hunkers down in the grass during the day or when nesting. And you can see how the beautiful patterning makes for superb camouflage.

The only reason I was able to snap this second photo was because I watched it walk into the grass off the road and freeze, the whole time keeping my eyes on it. Every time it flew away and landed, beyond my sight, and I went looking for it, I only saw the thing when it flushed and flew away. Then I'd go looking for it, only to have the same thing happen all over again. That could go on for ever. 

It's possible I may never photograph another Woodcock like this again in my lifetime. Time to count my blessings.

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