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‘How can you know it’ll happen tonight?” I asked Kevin, who sat there smoking his pipe, an inscrutable smile poking at the ends of his prodigious mustache.
“Come with us, Les,” he responded. “You’ll see.” So I looked to his sidekick, Andrew, for any sign of affirmation or doubt. All I got was a nod and a shrug.
These two Englishmen had stayed at my bed-and-breakfast the previous spring, too, and the incredible number of birds the older chap had added to his life list in those six days of early May demonstrated why Kevin Hughes was ranked No. 7 birder in Britain.
What he was trying to convince me now was that, on this very evening, the indigenous male woodcocks in Point Pelee National Park, only 10 minutes away, would be performing for all and sundry female woodcocks in their vicinity an extraordinary mating ritual referred to in birding circles as “roding.”
Now, I had heard unusual stories from bird watchers before. Take Bryan, for instance, from the Netherlands, whom Bolivian grow operators once held prisoner for two days until they had developed the films taken by his Minolta, only to find that the sole revealing images were of two hyacinth macaws copulating in a jacaranda tree.
Then there was Agathe, a librarian from Antigonish, N.S., whom I witnessed correctly identifying, by their various chittering and chirps, no less than seven different species of warbler in one huge white oak tree in a nearby cemetery.
I was skeptical that even as renowned a veteran of bramble and hedgerow as Kevin could predict that any given bird, especially one as secretive and camouflaged as the long-billed, mud-probing woodcock, would perform on cue with a human audience only a few metres away.
After the boys’ afternoon nap and a bit of tucker I joined them and we left for the park.
There is a winding gravel path called the DeLaurier Trail near Point Pelee’s tip that the public can follow if they’re careful not to tread on surrounding vegetation or litter the place. Once in a while, Kevin or Andrew would whip up his binoculars and focus on some colourful winged songster. Watching those two handle their binoculars made me think of a quick-drawing Jesse James; when I bring up my own Steiner 10x50s to find a bird, I usually find myself looking at branches three trees away.
Finally, after about 100 metres, Kevin stopped on the apron of a broad meadow. The sun had gone down; to the west the sky was painted in pinks and violet, the meadow a deep purple in the twilight umbra. There were a dozen other birders scattered along the path, their binoculars and cameras, some with 200-millimetre or longer lenses attached, hanging from their necks.
I thought Kevin in his tweeds and ever-present meerschaum pipe certainly looked the part of an expert ornithologist. Every time he’d stopped, the others did the same. I could hear whispers from one or two birders, but after 10 minutes an expectant hush fell over the place. There was only the far-off croaking of a bullfrog and, once, the scratchy rasp of a saw-whet owl.
Suddenly, Kevin nudged my arm and pointed toward the northwest corner of the meadow. “There,” he whispered.
In a flash, the binoculars were up in his face. I looked around for Andrew before raising my own glasses. There he was, in his Sandhurst khakis, 40 metres back, showing off his new Swarovski 95-millimetre spotting scope to a female birder in a Canyon Creek trail shirt and battered Tilley Endurable scrunched down over her long blond hair. Kevin and his travelling pal were bachelors, however Andrew had never been a “confirmed” one.
Even in that poor twilight, we could see the little timberdoodle do a spiralling ascent of about 15 metres, his wings making a whistling trill. He hung there only a second, then dropped right back down again like a zig-zagging leaf, with a bubbly chittering, to the same spot.
It was fascinating, and I focused in on the area where he landed, but the grass was too long there to spot him or his female intended.
We didn’t have to wait long for his aerial dance to be repeated. A few minutes later, up he went again in his vertical spiral, again with that chipping bzeep and, just as quickly, dropped in a jerky zig-zag into the grass.
I’m sure there must be hundreds of different birds in the world that perform more spectacular displays for feathered lady admirers, but I found this little guy’s determination comically delightful. Seven times we watched this courtship display until it was too dark to see him any more, only hear him. Soon after, he finally gave up – or got lucky. We wandered off, too, to search for owls.
I guess Homo sapiens males aren’t that much different than that small woodcock. Some of our antics and posturing to impress the ladies must appear very funny indeed from a bird’s-eye view.
Yet, if we’re not all as colourful, handsome or flamboyant as other species, perhaps our quirkiness, down-to-earthiness and tenacity, whether dressed in camouflage or khaki, could even be … attractive.
Les Bachmeier lives in Leamington, Ont.