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Woodcock's flight of fancy.

Byline: Mark Blazis

COLUMN: OUTDOORS

I annually lead safaris to Africa, where I'm privileged to witness many astounding wildlife dramas. But there is a natural and dramatic phenomenon, as magical as it is secretive, being acted out every evening right here in Worcester County. It's about as fascinating as it gets - the flight of the woodcock.

My Brittany spaniel has been pointing a good number of woodcock for me the past couple of weeks. Many of them are returning from a winter of feeding on worms in the bottom lands of Louisiana, Mississippi and other soft-ground wintering states. These are my bird dog's favorite. And I, with equal esteem, regard their sauteed-rare breast medallions as gourmet fare, a suitable celebration for a great hunt.

For my bird dog, Sosa - who is cerebrally preschool, but has a nasal PhD - they possess a tantalizingly powerful aroma, a perfume capable of stopping him in his tracks, captivating and transfixing him. He'll statuesquely savor their aroma, motionless, inhaling their essence through his slowly expanding jowls, enchanted by every whiff as a connoisseur might prolong a sniff of fine old cognac.

Only his shivering body muscles betray his on-the-edge excitement. Luckily for him, the woodcock hold to point without flinching better than any other game bird in our region, relying on cryptic coloration to camouflage them. Our mutual passion for this bird leads the two of us to hunt them with joyous enthusiasm each fall, especially when the northern frosts push migratory birds back south to our still-worm-bearing soils.

Try not to miss, though, their early spring evening flight displays going on right now at your local (and free) outdoor theatre. The males are performing for sex, of course. Without the luxury of a dating service, they must earn a mate the hard way - by luring her out of the forest and impressing her.

After sunset, around 7 p.m., position yourself in a big, abandoned field, preferably adjacent to water and some thick cover, like young poplars and birches - indicators of sweet soils, where their beloved worms are abundant. If you're quiet and observant, you should be able to get a privileged peek at the dramatic mating rituals of this small but spectacular game bird.

If you've never witnessed their flight before, you're in for an amazing experience. You'll probably first hear the male, on the ground, giving a series of single, separated nasal "peent" vocalizations from his display area.

What he then does to attract a female is nothing short of acoustically improbable and visually stunning. He'll stop calling from his ground lek, and then begin his ascent to an impressive few hundred feet or more, spiraling ostentatiously upward the entire time. Nearing his peak, his wings surprisingly will begin producing a delightful, musical twittering sound that you'd likely mistake for a chirpy vocalization.

At the highest point of his impressive aerial display, his twittering starts to break up just as he prepares for his precipitous descent. Like an avian Cyrano, this long-billed romantic seeks to dazzle his paramour with great style and panache, performing a zig-zagging downward flight, during which he excitedly chirps.

As it is getting dark at this point, you may have difficulty spotting where he has landed. If a female woodcock is on site, he'll invariably land near her. Smart bird - he has no intentions of playing hard to get. With all of his efforts, if he still has not succeeded in winning over his mate, he'll patiently resume his ardent "peent" song again, helping you relocate him. You should be able to follow him until you lose all remaining light.

The flight of the woodcock is a metaphor, close to my heart, signifying a real beginning to our long-awaited spring. Each year, I look forward to it with great anticipation. I would dread ever missing it. I find it a reason to celebrate life and be hopeful. It is a special gift of nature, exclusive to those who live to discover our wild treasures.

Wachusett catches

According to B&A Tackle, these fish were taken recently at Wachusett Reservoir:

Matt Scott of Barre took a 14-pound, 14-ounce laker on a heavy medium shiner; Pete DeYoung of Leicester a 3-10 smallmouth on a shiner; Howie Turcotte a 5-2 smallmouth pin fish using a live yellow perch; Matt St. Thomas of Sterling a 2-pound white perch on a heavy medium shiner; James Brown of Worcester a 4-11 smallmouth on a live yellow perch; Glen Eagan of Sterling a 1-10 white perch; and Dave Nelson a 4-9 smallmouth pinfish on a Bitsy Jig.

Mark Blazis can be contacted by e-mail at markblazis@charter.net.
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Apr 14, 2009
Words:773
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