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Feb 28, 2001
Ash WednesdayAs February ends, and Lent arrives, one wish has been fulfilled: Iíve finally seen a Woodcock. This surreptitious shorebird shuns the sea, favoring forest floors, where it may be found, probing in the thawing soil with its long bill, in search of earthworms, as early as February. Thatís assuming you can see it. The bird sports whatís referred to as a ďcrypticĒ pattern, which provides remarkably effective camouflage amid the leaf litter it typically frequents.
The Woodcock needs any advantage it can get. It isnít big, but itís plump, and not exactly threatening. Itís an attractive prey species, with human hunters among its major predators. The bird cuts a queer figure, tottering on short legs, with no neck to speak of, but with big bulging eyes, set so far back in its head, that when you look at it from behind, you can see both eyes at once. This gives it stereoscopic vision backwards, which comes in handy if you spend a lot of your time sticking your face in the mud, and youíre vulnerable to attacks from above. Its odd appearance and behavior have inspired many folk names, including Timberdoodle, Bog-sucker, and, in honor of its aerial courtship display, Labrador Twister.
You will not see Woodcocks courting in the Park: theyíre just passing through. In fact, the Woodcock is the yearís first migrant. Weíve enjoyed a fair assortment of wintering birds: Towhees and Thrashers; Kinglets and Carolina Wrens, but Winter wears on, and the Woodcock, making a pit stop on its journey back to the breeding grounds, is the first avian assurance that Spring too will return.
Still, Winter wears worse than the other seasons. The more so this year, as a cold December had us shivering well before the Solstice. It seems like itís always been Winter, but there are still weeks to go, despite the Woodcock and its hint of Spring. The birdís a tease, arriving for Fat Tuesdayís feast, then leaving us to suffer through Lent. It deserves to be eaten.
But thatís what Lent is all about, Iíve come to realize. Itís that point in the year when you feel (with some indignation!) that youíve had enough Winter. There are hopeful signs about, not just Woodcocks, but buds forming, catkins and days lengthening, and maybe a mild spell has you thinking weíll cruise on in from here, but no, itís still Winter.
The long last third of the season, prone to violent mood swings. The winds of March may give way to a balmy day here and there, but thereís no mistaking it for anything but Winter. The Goddess makes Her ascetic gesture, and somewhere in the north country, an uneaten Woodcock is laughing at us.