Early Spring Migration: Dancing Woodcocks and Graceful Gulls
"From wonder into wonder existence unfolds.” Lao Tzu
Dogs are always in the moment, led by their noses as they explore their surroundings with great enthusiasm. Dog walkers tend to live in their heads. This dichotomy was highlighted a few days ago when I observed a group of Fox Sparrows foraging in a dense patch of shrubs in a local park. I could see a small group of people and their dogs coming down the trail, and I knew my time with the birds was limited. As they approached, two dogs crashed through the brush and flushed the sparrows. They stopped momentarily and watched them fly into the upper canopy before continuing their exploration of the woods. The owners came up behind the dogs.
They love the park and spend more time in it than most people walking the trails in a small group. Their conversations consist almost entirely of the trials and tribulations of people. When we see each other on the trail, they ask what I am seeing. They are genuinely interested in birds. On this occasion, I could point to the beautiful Fox Sparrows perched above our heads. They looked up and marveled at the size and brilliant red feathers of this uncommon sparrow. After a little more small, talk we parted ways, and I turned down a less busy side trail.
I made my way down to the edge of the football field, and I could see the group of dogwalkers emerge from the woods on the main trail and walk out into the field. I overheard a snippet of their conversation and could tell they were talking about birds. One sentence, spoken emphatically, rose above the din: “Those birds really were beautiful. I cannot believe I have spent my entire life walking through these woods, and I never paid attention.”
Spring migration has begun and beauty is in our midst for those willing to pay attention. With the exception of Snow Geese, the movement of birds is relatively subtle this time of year. That is part of its appeal. It is an exciting time; any given bird walk can turn up a new species.
One of the highlights this time of year is the arrival of the first shorebird in our area. Woodcocks are beautiful, secretive, and unusual. They are adapted to life in shrublands and young forests. One of the challenges of living in dense cover is finding a mate. Male Woodcocks address this challenge by dancing in the sky.
My wife and I go out in the country to watch this dance. We find a location with a good view of the western sky and stand by the edge of a woods overlooking a prairie or brushy old field at dusk and wait for the first faint twitter of wind rushing through rigid primary feathers. This tells us a male Woodcock has taken flight. It is hard to locate the sound as the male spirals upward in the air attempting to draw the attention of a female. He rises up hundreds of feet, twittering as he goes, pauses at the top, and begins his spiraling descent. He lands in an open area and then changes his tune by delivering a deep resonant peent call that is easy to locate. He struts about the opening delivering this call for a minute or so before taking to the air again.
It is also possible to see Woodcocks during the day. You have to walk through the woods very slowly and spend a lot of time standing still and looking. If you get lucky, you may see a Woodcock hiding in the leaf litter or flush a Woodcock that decides to walk away from you instead of flying off.
They are perfectly camouflaged when sitting in the leaves, but they stand out when walking due to their tendency to dance. Apparently, a Woodcock gotta dance! In the midst of fleeing from you, they will often stop and strut, taking one careful step forward and then rocking back and forth in a fluid and graceful bobbing motion. No one is sure why they do this. It may be that they are intentionally making themselves conspicuous to signal to us and other predators that they see us and are ready to burst into the air.
It is a charming spring ritual that gets us outside at dusk in the spring. On our last trip, the partly overcast sky obscured and then revealed a beautiful full moon. The moonlight illuminated the woodcocks in the sky and made for a sublime experience.
A visit to a lake this time of year reveals the early stages of waterbird migration. Cormorants, pelicans, mergansers, gulls, and ducks are all passing through. One of the interesting dynamics to observe on lakes is the interaction between birds that feed on fish. This includes Bald Eagles, Ring-billed Gulls, Herring Gulls, White Pelicans, Crows, and Cormorants. The eagles and pelicans appear to be the dominant birds, and they will chase off all the others and grab a fish on the surface of the water. This turns the quiet winter lake into a compelling drama at times.
On a recent visit to one of our local lakes, I walked a trail down to the water and rounded a corner to meet the 25-mile-an-hour wind blowing across the open water. I had to lean forward. Gulls floated by as if the wind was perfectly still. They possess a simple elegant beauty in flight that embodies complexity. As I am buffeted by the wind, I marvel at their ability to fly smoothly into the wind without so much as a ruffled feather or unexpected twist or turn. They seamlessly counter the force of the wind with no apparent effort. Most birds seek shelter in this type of weather, but the gulls are roosting out in the open water in the most windswept part of the lake. They are at home in the wind.
I sit on a bench by the water and after a few minutes, the gulls float by, and I am face to face with a miracle. Gulls are shaped by the wind and represent the perfection of flight distilled down to its essence.
Each of these social, aerodynamic beings has its own personality. In the hands of a sensitive observer, gulls elicit wonder. Mary Oliver describes her experience finding an injured gull on the beach and caring for it in her house in an essay entitled “Bird” published in Owls and other Fantasies.
“One morning I dropped next to him, by accident, a sheet of holiday wrapping paper, and I very soon saw him pecking at it. Diligently and persistently, he was trying to remove Santa Claus’s hat from the Santa figure on the paper. After that we invented games; I drew pictures—of fish, of worms, of leggy spiders, of hot dogs—which he would pick at with a particularly gleeful intent. Since he was not hungry, his failure to lift the image seemed not to frustrate but to amuse him. We added feather-tossing, using crow feathers. I tossed by hand, he with his enormous, deft beak. We kept within his reach a bowl of sand and another of water, and began more nonsense—I would fling the water around with my finger, he, again, would follow with that spirited beak, dashing the water from the bowl, making it fly in all directions. His eyes sparkled. We gave him a stuffed toy—a lion as it happened—and he would peck the lion’s red nose very gently, and lean against him while he slept….
He was, of course, a piece of the sky. His eyes said so. This is not fact; this is the other part of knowing something, when there is no proof, but neither is there any way toward disbelief. Imagine lifting the lid from a jar and finding it filled not with darkness but with light. Bird was like that. Startling, elegant, alive.”
My favorite moments with the gulls are when one catches a fish. This usually attracts a group of gulls and other fish-eating birds. Sometimes the gull quickly swallows the fish and the group disbands; at other times, they fly around with it or drop it. At this point, a group of gulls competes to eat the fish and much acrobatics ensue. This can only go on for a minute or so before the party gets crashed by a White Pelican or Bald Eagle. The pelicans are huge, and the gulls scatter when they come sliding onto the scene with their gaping orange bills. They waste no time grabbing the fish, draining water out of their bill, and tipping their head back to get the fish to slide down their gullet.
Bald Eagles are part of this scene as well. All of these birds are constantly scanning for fish and watching the behavior of other birds to detect an opportunity to take fish from another bird. Bald Eagles and White Pelicans appear to be evenly matched, and it seems like whoever gets to the fish first tends to keep it and eat it. Eagles will occasionally chase gulls that are carrying a fish. It is amazing to watch the much larger eagle nearly match the gull's speed and agility in the air. I watched an eagle chase a gull for over a minute. Diving, twisting, turning, coursing over the water, and coming within six feet of the gull. I got the impression that the gull was taunting the eagle, but I am not sure about that. The eagle would not give chase like this if it did not occasionally lead to food. When the eagle got within six feet of the gull he lowered his feet. The gull turned its head looked back and shot straight up into the air leaving the eagle behind.
I followed the gull as it rose up into the sky and I noticed a distant flock of birds high in the sky heading my way. Sixteen large birds in a V formation flew over, and it became clear that they were Sandhill Cranes. I watched them fly over the lake, and then I scanned the open water to my right. I saw a large black and white bird sitting low in the water. I thought it was a Common Merganser at first, but something was not quite right, it seemed different. When the bird passed behind a patch of Phragmites reed, I walked down the shore and sat in the grass by the edge of the water. I could catch glimpses of the bird in small openings in the reeds. He was coming my way about 20 yards out from the shore.
When he came out into the open, we had an instant of mutual recognition. I watched the Common Loon watch me. I could tell that he saw me by the way he held his head and made a subtle shift in his trajectory away from me. I expected him to dive or swim out into the middle of the lake, but he paused, looked at me, and started circling back in my direction. At this point, I realized this bird likely was born on a remote lake in Canada, and he winters on the eastern or southern coast of the US. He may have not had many interactions with people. He seemed curious as he came closer. He eventually paused, took several drinks of water, rose up and flapped his wings, and started diving for fish.
I could see the water boiling up and small fish breaking the surface. This immediately attracted the attention of the gulls who started hovering over the loon. For the next few minutes, the loon had a gull entourage. After one of his dives, he surfaced near me and I could see that he carried constellations on his back.
So much mystery and wildness on a Midwest lake.
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You have taken bird watching to a different level. Thank you. We may not see such an abundance of seasonal evidence of migration in southern Australia but clearly I could be more observant. A joy to read.
Thanks, Bill. While reading, I was there with you!