Now, in the deep chill of February, with snow on the ground for keeps and the thermometer needle twitching near zero, it all seems faintly unreal, a red-and-white nightmare—a season out of joint. In 40 years of bird hunting I had never seen anything like it, nor do I hope to ever again.
For me and my black Lab, Luke, the long afternoon had been our first afield since the paralyzing early snowstorm of Sunday, Oct. 4—a date, as the man once said, that shall live in infamy.
The vicious storm had slammed in from the northwest without warning, blanketing east-central New York, southwestern Vermont and interior lower New England clear down to Ridge-field, Conn., with up to 20 inches of heavy, wet snow. It toppled power-transmission towers and snapped electrical and phone lines, and it overloaded the branches of trees still gaudy with fall foliage and broke them with a cacophony of sharp, irregular cracks that, at the storm's height, sounded like an artillery duel. Where a day or two before piles of bright, tidily raked leaves had smoldered in the sweet autumn air, now there was only shivering dismay. Even the old-timers in my Vermont village couldn't remember anything quite like it. Parts of Albany, Bennington and certain outlying townships went without power for nearly a week.
But when you came right down to it, the storm was no big deal for us human folk. In most rural homes the wood was in, the Coleman lanterns and kerosene lamps fueled and mantled, fridges and freezers well stocked. The foresighted, I knew, would be doing as we did: melting snow in pots on their stove tops, cooking meals on gas ranges, reading at night by lamplight and hauling buckets of water to keep the toilets flushing. After all, we had done this before; it was kind of fun. We would be O.K.
February 15, 1988
But what about the game birds I love more than I do most people? How would they survive?
If the ruffled grouse is king of the uplands, as New England bird hunters insist, then the woodcock is his hunchbacked, portly, long-nosed, peripatetic archduke. It is doomed forever to wander the realm, from north to south and back again, moving with the seasons from the Gulf States to Canada and providing a target to every gunner en route. Your heart has to go out to the plucky little aristocrat.
The grouse, I knew, would have no trouble weathering the deep snow. Bonasa umbellus, as he's known in Linnaean Latin, actually thrives on the stuff, blasting deep beneath it in the dead of winter to bed down in its insulating warmth. He's an opportunistic feeder to boot, a master of sidehill survival for whom hard times are just part of the avian condition. If the windfall apples are gone or snow-covered, if there are no beechnuts or barberries one year, no acorns or chokecherries or withered wild grapes to eat, he will hop up in the popples and snap aspen buds. Or whatever else happens to come along. A grouse has been found with a baby garter snake in its crop.
But the woodcock is a picky eater. For Philohela minor it's earthworms or an empty gut. With snow lying deep on the ground, or a hard frost in it, the archduke must tighten his regal belt—at least until he can fly on to softer, more southern pastures.
There had been plenty of resident woodcocks in my covers this year. I had heard at least six males "peenting" last spring, and I had seen them spiraling high in their sky dances each dusky May evening over the fields around my house. Because the female typically lays four eggs (buff-colored, spotted, hidden carefully under shrubs or among dead leaves on the ground), there could, with luck, be as many as 36 woodcocks in my home covers this fall. And Luke had already jumped quite a few woodcocks (forgive me if I don't say where) before the season opened officially on Oct. 1. It was a delayed opening again, five days later than the grouse season, with the daily bag limit still only three birds, rather than the four of earlier years.
The woodcock has been in trouble lately, its numbers decreasing steadily, probably because of "habitat loss"—i.e., housing developments moving into woodcock covers all up and down the birds' range. Too many people in an area means too few birds. But woodcocks respond well when hunting pressure is eased; thus, the shorter season and reduced bag limits.
Still, I was looking forward to a banner year on both grouse and woodcock. Luke and I had killed a few before the storm hit, and we had missed many more. (That was on account of dense, early-season leaf cover, I said. Or shabby shooting, Luke muttered.) Then came the snow.
Did the woodcocks get out in time? That was my main concern during those dark, Coleman-guttering nights. By daylight I saw gangs of robins hopping forlornly along the road edges as the snow melted. Robins, like woodcocks, are migrant worm hunters. They hadn't fled before the storm, nor had the phoebes or the old flicker I saw as I drove around town on Monday and Tuesday. What made me think the woodcocks were any smarter? How long could they last, chilled and wormless, if they had stuck around?
I thought I had read somewhere that woodcocks can put up with three days of hard frost before they feel compelled to move on. Lord knows they have plenty of fat in their guts and are covered with good, warm plumage. But maybe all this was wishful thinking. I wanted them to survive so they would be back next spring to mate and raise new woodcocks for me to hunt.
One night—Monday, I believe—I stepped outside for a moment and heard high in the moonlit sky above me a flock of Canada geese, invisible, barking away toward the south. But geese are big, strong flyers, the jumbo jets of the bird world. They are capable of finding open water and plenty of food wherever they put down. Woodcocks are more like avian helicopters. They migrate in short, low-level hops, 20 or 30 miles at a crack, rarely more than 200 in a single night. Furthermore, according to the radio reports, the snowbelt from this storm extended nearly 200 miles to the south of us—almost every inch of it, for a while at least, an empty refrigerator for hungry woodcocks.
In my dreams those first nights I saw woodcocks huddled beneath crooked, snow-covered alder limbs, their long bills tucked into their chests, the wet eyes shining in the gloom. Then I saw them topple slowly sideways, the eyes dimming as snow sifted down to bury them, russet feathers ruffled in the night wind, frost climbing the pale pink toes.
Three days after the storm arrived I awoke before dawn. The moon shone cold and without pity on a world of ice. I dreaded returning to my beloved woodcock covers for fear of what the dog and I might find out there. I imagined it would be like walking a battlefield the morning after the guns went quiet.
Over the years I have found two distinct kinds of woodcock cover around these parts. Those used by "flight birds" moving down from their summer breeding grounds to the north are always near water. And when the flight birds are in, there's no mistaking the fact. They are there in great numbers—8, 10, 20, once fully 60 woodcocks in a 10-acre patch, according to my hunting log. The covers preferred by local birds, which have had ample time to discover where water lies, can be upland hardwoods, stands of "doghair" popple or the edges of alder brakes—almost any place where worms are plentiful. Rarely will the dog jump more than one or two birds out of the local covers.
The birds are scattered, almost territorially, it seems to me, and you have to pound to find them. Which is what makes it such fun. I resolved, on my first day out after the storm, to try only the local covers. Luke, with his terrific nose, would sniff out any storm-killed birds in short order. Though he wouldn't pick them up, I would be able to tell from the look in his eye that he was onto something dead. (Whenever we come on a gut pile where a hunter has field-dressed a deer, or a slaughtered porcupine, say, he grows very solemn and stares up at me with his big, grave eyes.) If, on the other hand, we moved no birds from the local covers, and Luke found no dead ones, I could probably assume that the woodcocks had gotten out before the storm hit—perhaps on the three-quarter moon of the previous Friday night.
Whether they had made it clear of the snow zone, of course, I would never know for sure. Or at least not until next spring, when I saw and heard how many had returned to mate. There was always the slim chance that I would find the same birds in the local covers that had been there before the storm, alive and well and eager to fly south. But I forced myself to keep that hope well hidden under the dry leaves of logic.
When we entered the woods on that windy afternoon, they did indeed resemble a battlefield. Here, young popples, gaunt birches and old, wild apples hung shattered from the weight of the snow. There, raw wood gleamed bright in the intermittent sunlight, and green leaves glinted fresh and shiny, now dying under the skifts of settled, dirty snow. And ferns, weeds and leaves that had fallen earlier in the season lay matted, as if they had been trampled and squashed flat by the feet of a mile-high giant. The damp air had a sour smell to it, especially when the sun disappeared behind racing, gray-and-white clouds. I shied from imagined corpses.
The first of the covers drew blank, except for a solitary grouse that got up wild, 30 yards out. Then another grouse appeared, in thick stuff a hundred yards on. So the king at least had weathered the storm, as I knew he would. As we entered the second cover—a stand of young aspen on a sidehill, studded with feathery pines—Luke started getting "birdy." His tail wagged faster, his ears cocked back, his ruff rose slightly, and he suddenly seemed to glow even blacker than usual, as if he were carved of obsidian. His pace slowed, and he nosed forward inch-by-inch, shuddering. Then the birds got up—two woodcocks together, a straightaway twisting double, but I didn't even raise the shotgun. For all I knew, they were the sole survivors of the storm, in my home cover at least.
The next cover produced a single bird, a big, plump female by the length of her bill and the long, sweeping primaries on her wingtips (hens of the species are noticeably larger than the cocks and have longer bills). She caught us both by surprise, and I tangled my feet spinning to see her. She blasted strongly across an open field and pitched into dense cover across a roaring brook. I marked her down closely. We could always jump her again if we chose.
We entered the fourth and final cover of the afternoon with high hopes and blood in our eye. So far, it had been a typical woodcock swing, the same pattern of flushes we had encountered before the storm. I was certain these were resident birds. Luke had poked briefly, out of dutiful habit, into a flight cover along our route and frisked it thoroughly, producing nothing. The last time we hit this final cover, two days before the snow, it had held four birds, one of which we killed. There should be three left. We went in.
It was a long, low alder thicket, rising uphill from a brook to fan out at the top into young hardwoods still bright with color. Down near the brook, Luke jumped a woodcock just where we knew one should be, but it got a tree between us, and I didn't shoot. A short way uphill, still in thick stuff, another got up—and I couldn't get on it. Luke looked back at me with his customary frown. O.K., I would try harder next time.
Up near the top, out of the alders now, into the hardwoods, the third bird rose from the threat of Luke's hustle. It blew out toward the open, into the sunlight, twisting like a scatback, and I shot. Like the closing of a prayer book, the woodcock folded and thumped down, dead, among the maple whips beside a bubbling rivulet.
Luke fetched the bird and dropped it neatly at my feet. I smoothed the rumpled russet feathers, pulled a wet leaf from the long, flexible bill and gently slid the plump, warm body into my game pocket. Our worst fears had not been realized; now the nightmare was over.
But not the paradox: We love the woodcock, all gamebirds for that matter—and love to kill them.