In Search of Spring

by Mary Miller | Jun 3, 2022 | 0 comments

Great Horned Owlets in nest
Great Horned Owlets. Photo © Kevin Shank.

My sister Malinda and I teach in a school in northern Indiana. One evening last spring, we visited one of the school families. We knew they often went back to the swamp beyond their neighbor’s woods to watch the woodcocks in their spring courtship flight.

During supper, woodcocks was one of the many subjects we discussed. The boys had been back in the marsh two evenings before, watching a male woodcock go through his spring ritual. When asked what time we should head for the marsh, Andrew promptly replied, “7:30!”

We followed the edge of the field to the woods. There were thirteen of us—ten children, their mother, Malinda, and me. At the east end of the woods, we took one of the main trails through the budding trees. All was quiet except for our own voices. Spring beauties showed their delicate faces beside the path. The two little girls showed us their umbrellas—Mayapple leaves. Farther on, we came to a Great-horned Owl’s nest high in a tree. It had been a Red-tailed Hawk’s nest the year before, but the owls had claimed it this time. We could see an owlet, fuzzy and gray, peering at us from the rim of the nest.

On down the trail we went, intending to reach the marsh by way of the adjacent unplowed field. Aaron and Andrew turned off on the trail leading through the heart of the marsh instead. Aaron turned back, saying, “There are pitcher plants in here.”

I had never seen a pitcher plant before, so I turned to follow them. Aaron hesitated again, saying it’s muddy and offering to bring one of the plants back for us to see. The mud didn’t bother me, and all the others also came back to go through the marsh.

Pitcher plant
Pitcher plant. Photo © Kevin Shank.

The trail through the marsh, a marl pit, was soft, yet we didn’t sink far down in it. Brown tussocks of grasses covered the ashy tan ground. We came to a small area with no grass. Deer and Sandhill Crane tracks criss-crossed the mud. The surface looked dried out, but when we crossed the spot, it was soft like the rest of the marsh. Aaron pushed his hiking staff down into the marl until only 8 inches (20 cm) remained above ground. After he pulled it back out, only a thin, chalky layer of tan mud clung to the wood.

Knowing exactly where to look, the boys found some pitcher plants beside the trail. The flowers were only a few inches tall, their pitchers half full of water and insects. Their small size surprised me because I had always imagined them to be much larger.

As we crossed the marsh, a pheasant crowed frequently to the south. Finally we settled down among the grassy tussocks to await sunset. Ruby told me we would have to wait until almost dark, after all the other birds quieted down. The sun slowly disappeared, leaving in its wake a wash of yellow, orange, and red. A few stars popped out, twinkling in the dark cobalt sky, though the western horizon was still bright.

The pheasant gave his last crow, the blackbirds’ chatter was hushed, and the robins ceased their cheery singing. The evening stillness was broken by a lone mockingbird.

Suddenly—listen!

Pzeent!

Pause.

Pzeent!

Pause.

Pzeent!

After some minutes of calling, the sound changed to a twittering tune played by the woodcock’s wings as up it flew. Above us it twisted, turned, spiraled, and floated. All the while the twittering notes fell, scattering in the still air. With whistling wings, the bird plummeted into the marsh.

Pzeent!

Pause.

Pzeent!

A handful of times it went up, circled, and came back down again. Sometimes it landed closer to us, sometimes farther away. I learned to listen for the twittering notes, then watch for it to fly upward through the lighter sky to the west. Finally we couldn’t spot it rising into the darkening sky anymore. Reluctantly we gave up as the last rays of light faded away. Talking quietly, we left the marsh while the woodcock continued voicing its far-reaching call—pzeent!

American Woodcock
American Woodcock. Photo © Kevin Shank.

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