Our polite throng inched closer.
Those with front row places where only 15 paces from the star. No fence, platform or bouncer separated them from the performer. And in a move suggesting a stage dive, he flew into the vanguard and then up.
Gasps and giggles flashed as he ascended in a glorious sonic spiral. His now dark and inky outline was photonegative compared to the millions of stars overhead.
Friday evenings in the spring find Midwesterners gathered for a fish fry or, maybe, the theatre. Bowling and cruising attract their share, too. Tucked into the wildish lands that unite Dubuque, Jackson and Jones counties was another rendezvous.
About 50 ambitious Iowans — from Mabel Soenen, age 6, to many well past six decades — gathered on the darkening ridgetop at Whitewater Canyon Wildlife Area for a show. The spring dance of the male woodcock.
He’s a strange looking fellow. So much so he just begs interest, like a homely dog you find attractive. Maybe he came from the land of misfit toys?
The woodcock is accused of being assembled from spare parts. It’s a shorebird that lives in the uplands. The beak is quite long and the legs are quite short. His brain rests under his eyes. But this sporty little bird does the best he can.
Also called the Timberdoodle, he spends his winter in the Lower Mississippi. A little warmth draws the males, then females, north again to breed and nest from the Upper Midwest to the Boreal forests. Aldo Leopold loved this bird. The Cocker Spaniel earned its name and keep by flushing them for the hunt.
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The plan was to walk quietly down a mowed path in the prairie to a likely dance pad and then to enjoy the show. Our guide, Bob Walton, said the dancing commences at sunset and then for about an hour. Given the feverish dancing I saw, the routine seemed like a combination of CrossFit and a sing-off. With all that effort from such a little body an hour seems like quite a feat.
My son found a classmate there. I was relieved that, at least, that would make the outing fun for him. Turns out they both had a dandy time because of the birds anyway.
Like a polite herd, the group trodd the trail, naturally stringing out into a column.
I saw the dancer before I heard him. About 100 yards ahead a small form alighted from the meadow and began a flight as if on an invisible winding staircase. Now concentrating, I made out a fait winnowing sound as his wings worked for elevation. And then I lost him.
The guide had stopped the front of the column so more of us were paying attention, straining for the source of the sound.
I heard two muffled “zip” sounds aloft, just enough to orientate my eyes. Then drop. And like a stone, he returned to earth. Oohs and ahhs flowed.
A moment later the feathered dynamo was strutting his stuff as much as miniature legs could. He accented the dancing with a boisterous “peent” call at intervals. You’ll have to plug your nose to replicate that sound.
It was refreshing to have no burden of photography, it was too dark to take a picture and he was too quick. The dance of the woodcock offered a pre-technology experience of totally being in the moment. Liberating.
As the dancer ascended his spiral, the column would advance in hopes of being closer to his launchpad — and likely touchdown site.
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I started to feel bad for the folks at the back, that I’d been hogging the best viewing when he dropped onto a new stage, at the back of the column to restart the performance. What a showman.
The performances ended. We reversed course and walked toward our cars. The restrained voices and stealth from earlier gave way to hearty conversations and flashlights. Too quickly we returned to our own time. But now my own time included my timeless memories of the spring dance of the woodcock.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
l John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School and sits on the Linn County Conservation Board.