The Flight of the Woodcock

Written By: Mark  Potter

Poxabogue Park is a patch of wild land near Bridgehampton. An embankment along the north edge of the park carries the train to Montauk, and a half mile to the south is Montauk Highway. Between these are the Big and Little Poxabogue Ponds, two acres of woodland and a long abandoned field where the woodcocks fly.

Under the park’s grass and brambles are mysterious mounds and an inexplicable concrete post, perhaps the corner post of an old fence line. A path follows traces of a cart road leading along the railroad to an overgrown clay pit with 50 year old oaks growing from it. Nestled among broken bottles, slag and obscure machine parts I once found a lady’s lace up shoe, a 19th century artifact badly worn at the heel. Was it thrown from the train?

We arrive on a warm evening in late April. From the parking lot I hear spring peepers, a half dozen robins, a cardinal staking out his territory high in the treetops, and then a white throated sparrow whose song, like Proust’s madeleine, fills me with a sense of wellbeing, calls me back almost 60 years to a grassy plot under an August sun in the Adirondacks where as a 10 year old I first fished for trout.

The sun is setting behind the trees but it is still too early for the woodcock, so we follow the path toward Little Poxabogue Pond. For the wild creatures who stand to inherit this place, the evening is a busy time, the safe time when they still have enough light to search for food yet can hide in the gathering darkness from predators, who are also searching for dinner. A disturbance at the far edge of the pond stops us; there we see a shape so large it seems in slow motion as it rises from the pond, wings slapping the water. Too heavy to clear the trees at the far shore of the pond, it changes course. As it returns, gaining the altitude it needs, we see it is a blue heron, in silhouette as strange as a long extinct pterosaur.

On an evening like this my eyes grow accustomed to the darkness, my breathing slows, and my mouth opens slightly to avoid even the whisper of breathing, as if no longer observing, I let the dark evening absorb me. An osprey rises from its perch. I let it pass in and out of my vision without turning my head, binoculars useless from at my neck.

It is time.

We turn our backs on the ponds and return into the field. Our quarry has already begun to call. He is a male woodcock, larger than a robin, about the size of the cornish game hen a Bridgehampton restaurant might serve you. Like the robin, he feeds predominately on worms which he draws up out of the soil with his long beak. But on an evening in spring the male woodcock is not interested in eating; his only concern is to attract the attention of females. He does not even seem to notice the seven human figures watching nearby.

His very unbirdlike call is a series that is almost mechanical, “nnnnnt, nnnnnt, nnnnnt.” In the darkness we would never have spotted this dull brown shape hidden in the grass without first hearing the call. First one of us then another and soon all of us have spotted him. I lift my binoculars and see that he turns as he calls like one of those little mechanical drummers, perhaps to broadcast his faint “nnnnnt” to all corners of the field. Just as I begin to notice that his calls are increasing in frequency, I catch a flutter of wings in the corner of my binoculars. His flight has begun.

I follow him upward, so far from me now that he seems a dark moth against the sky, higher and higher. I lose him for a moment, then catch him again as he begins to swoop downward, his wings whistling in almost a birdlike chirp. I lose sight of him against the dark trees and then he reappears on the ground in his original position, calling his “nnnnnt, nnnnnt,” as if nothing had happened over the past three minutes.

And yet, everything has changed, I have separated myself from the night creatures and am again a very human being: hunting, striving, competing to see this bird just one more time and watch him longer in his flight. After three of his flights, we can no longer see him in the darkness. We return single file to our cars, leaving Poxabogue to the woodcocks.