Sunday evening, at 6:15, 12 folks on a Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society field trip stand around at the end of a graded road in the Ozark NF waiting on American Woodcocks. Sun is down, sky clear with moonrise. Woodcock expert David Krementz from UA-Fayetteville tells us to listen for beeps from the master cock advertising his availability to females.
When will this happen? “When we see the first star,” Krementz says.
Well-armed with binoculars and cameras, we get the woodcock biology rundown adjacent an open field where years ago folks grew spinach. Leaning against a car in fading light, Dr Krementz presents illustrations from books and his own technical articles.
Master cock is the male who mates with many females. The old spinach field is his lek where he hopes for females.
Some of our fellow citizens come out here but just to dump. Who’d have thought the place was really our future?
It’s 6:25. Spring peepers fire up. A Barred Owl calls east of us. To our north, a few yodels then a chorus, yodels and yips. Coyotes start their rounds around first star time. So far away you can barely hear, Great Horned Owls, including a male and deep-voiced female.
Krementz shows us special sound-producing feathers and a skull with long bill. Orbits that hold the eyes are amazingly huge. NWAAS president Doug James, who has taught ornithology since the 1950s, sits in the circle and chimes in that with those big eyes woodcocks can see almost full circle. Krementz laughs and admits he’s shot a few trees while trying for woodcocks that saw him coming from behind.
Up in the sky, the moon waxes brilliant, and then the first star. It’s Jupiter, with four moons easily seen. 6:25.
In gathering dark, we are listening and listening. 6:35.
Then, first buzzy beeps. It’s beeps then silence, then wind as whirls pushed through tiny feathers. Up up flies master cock, chip-chip-chip, over us, owner of the all but dark.
We strain to see. We hear chirping, then he’s back on the ground, in the old spinach patch. This time we are ready. We receive his fresh round of advertisements, heard well even by those of us who’ve lost part of their hearing.
And not so far away, another master cock, at the same work.
The birder in us, our inner photographer, wants the better look, in full light, that perfect image of master cock in flight. BUT, those big, light-gathering eyes are not about camera-ready daylight. You get beeps, a lucky view of a bird in the air, the memory of a night.
7:15. Our string of cars, now with headlights, heads back to the highway, and Monday, leaving to woodcocks an old spinach patch.