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.
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.