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A CRUEL TEST OF NATURE
Robert F. Jones
February 15, 1988
A freak snowstorm threatened the finicky woodcock
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February 15, 1988

A Cruel Test Of Nature

A freak snowstorm threatened the finicky woodcock

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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.

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