Thursday, March 31, 2005

Sky Dance (excerpt from A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold)

Knowing the place and the hour, you seat yourself under a bush to the east of the dance floor and wait, watching against the sunset for the woodcock’s arrival. He flies in low from some neighboring thicket, alights on the bare moss, and at once begins the overture: a series of queer throaty peents spaced about two seconds apart, and sounding much like the summer call of the nighthawk.

Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter. Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began, and there resumes his peenting.

It is soon too dark to see the bird on the ground, but you can see his flights against the sky for an hour, which is the usual duration of the show. On moonlight nights, however, it may continue, at intervals, as long as the moon continues to shine....

...The drama of the sky dance is enacted nightly on hundreds of farms, the owners of which sigh for entertainment, but harbor the illusion that it is to be sought in theaters. They live on the land, but not by the land.

The woodcock is a living refutation of the theory that the utility of a game bird is to serve as a target, or to pose gracefully on a slice of toast. No one would rather hunt woodcock in October than I, but since learning of the sky dance I find myself calling one or two birds enough. I must be sure that, come April, there be no dearth of dancers in the sunset sky.

I am fortunate to be able to witness the sky dance from my own front step, or from the site of the new house we are building. The woodcock appears to begin his display near the edge of the shrub swamp, in the area we cleared two years ago with a bulldozer. A couple of years ago, before we even lived here, I flushed a woodcock out front, in a barren area of low jack pine, what used to be a gravel pit. I didn't find a nest, but I'm pretty sure there was one nearby.

Our piece of land provides ideal woodcock habitat; although I have mentioned the tall white pines, we also have an abundance of alder and willow thickets interspersed with more open areas. Woodcock probe the ground with a long, narrow bill for invertebrates, especially earthworms. Which raises a question in my mind: Earthworms are supposedly not native here in the glacial drift areas of Minnesota. They are, however, plentiful on our land. I doubt whether the loggers or the early farmers specifically brought them in, thinking "this land needs earthworms!" Woodcock seem specifically adapted to probing for earthworms; why would such a uniquely adapted creature make its home here, where any alleged "introductions" would have to have taken place only within the last 100 years?


Dan Trabue said...

My own urban version of your and Aldo's Sky Dance:

Sun lay low and gold,
mellow heat on an autumn eve
painting trees a rich coffee color.
A sudden tree explosion sends starlings
skyward, starward
into a flurry of songburst and wingplay
over and back
swinging loosely, easily, knowingly.
Synchronized and chaotic.
Beautiful black shadows dancing on an alabaster sky.

Deb said...

Ahhh, starlings. I struggle to find the beauty in them, and I ask myself why I have this prejudice against one of God's creations! But they do make some unique sounds.

"a flurry of songburst and wingplay"--I LIKE that!

Dan Trabue said...

Randy Stonehill has a song in which he compares the unwanted starlings to all the unwanted people out there (homeless, dirty, crazy...). Since hearing that, I've been more sympathetic to the starlings.