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Triggered by cold in Canada, the woodcock flights had begun, according to reports reaching my caller from his scouts in the field. Now the question was, what had our weather been lately? Had it rained? That was essential. For if the ground was dry and hard and the earthworms burrowed deep, the birds would quickly move south in search of them elsewhere.
It was raining at that very moment, I told him, and it had been raining off and on for days. The ground was soaked. I had seen earthworms on the paved roads.
Then we would meet a week from today. He named the time, 9 a.m., and the place, a motel across the river—that is to say, on the western bank of the Hudson—and a few miles north of me.
"Why not come and stay overnight with us?" I asked.
"I'll have the dogs with me," he said. "The people at the motel don't mind if they sleep with me, as they do here at home. Your wife might not like that—at least, until she gets to know them."
Our call concluded, I called my friend Klaus to learn the man's last name.
Never expecting to go woodcock hunting, I knew nothing whatever about the bird, its habits, its habitat. Now, in just a week, I was to go in armed pursuit of the bird in the company of a man of great experience and equally great expertise. I must not impose upon him a thoroughgoing ignoramus.
From books and articles in the local public library I learned in that week all that I could, cramming as I used to do for school exams. The first thing I learned was why I knew so little about the bird.
It is not because its numbers are sparse that the woodcock is so seldom seen. It is by no means a rare or a narrowly distributed bird. On the contrary, its range is wide, extending throughout all the states east of the Mississippi and into southeastern Canada. The woodcock is quite prolific, and, despite its many predators—crows, owls, shrikes, hawks, foxes, bobcats, housecats, dogs, skunks, raccoons, weasels, squirrels, snakes, human hunters and those threats common to all wildlife, diseases, pesticides, land developers—it is in no immediate peril of becoming endangered. The cock is a regular lecher, and the hen a conscientious, even formidably protective, mother, succeeds in bringing to maturity most of her annual brood of four. The chicks are adept at foraging for themselves from a very young age.
There are two reasons why woodcock are so seldom seen. The bird is relatively inactive during the daylight hours, and it is so perfectly camouflaged that you might accidentally step on one never knowing it was there. Even in most photographs of a woodcock you must stare for a long time before the bird emerges, for it is woven warp and woof of the same overall russet yet parti-colored, finely figured, motley pattern of its natural setting. The regularity of its feathering matches the irregularity of a leaf-littered forest floor in the fall.