Spring Dog Birding

by Galen Williams, 17 | May 1, 2022 | 0 comments

American Woodcock
American Woodcock. Photo © Kevin Shank.

The second week of May came, and so did the warblers and other migrating species. I had spring fever. Spring, Galen, warblers—all three—go hand in hand, so off I launched toward the closest woods. A good neighbor owned the woods and told us, “Roam free.” Now on holidays, Sunday afternoons, and all other “run-out-of-work” days, you can see me migrating toward the woods a quarter mile across the fields. And one time out of five, you will see a boy chasing a dark shadow, or else a dark shadow chasing a boy. Meet Prince.

Prince is a huge dog, I guess. By that I mean, by rules and scales his measurements are greater than average. As far as breed, he is 200% purebred. His dad was a 100% German Shepherd, and his mom was a 100% Golden Retriever. And, oddly enough, he is as black as a hole, but wise as a serpent.

During puppyhood, he was a trial and a tribulation to the whole neighborhood. Common phrases circulated among my brothers: “Call the vet,” “Put him to sleep,” or “Put us out of our misery.” Through this, I hung on. Prince was saved for me.

Adulthood cured him of mischievous puppy pranks and boundless energy. So, considering all, at age eleven he was a smart dog. He had quickly learned to come, sit, roll, stay, catch, jump, get it, or leave it. But best of all, he liked to hike. And a prime opportunity was when I would leave for the woods. Once arriving at the woods, he found great delight in chasing rabbits. Multiflora rose and honeysuckle vines did not slow him; they urged him on. He would vault into impenetrable tangles and disappear. This was not a very quiet process and not very attractive (for birds anyway).

Because of this, he usually found himself penned in the pasture when I went birding. Sometimes I would feel lazy, though, sneak out the back door, and try to slip unnoticed toward the woods. Without doubt, halfway out he would join me.

This Sunday was one of those times. The hot, humid air seemed ideal for warblers, but it was not enticing to haul Prince back to the confines of the goat pasture. I told Prince what I thought, and my goals and ambitions for that afternoon. I told him to tuck tail and run home, but, in the end, he had his own way.

By the time I entered the woods, Prince had long since disappeared. “Good,” I said. “This might work after all.”

I stood in the doorway of the woods just waiting for the avians to find me. After ten minutes, they started arriving. Hyperactive kinglets and fast-moving warblers kept my binoculars busy. After deserting the more common species, I settled on a real challenger. I had never seen the looks of this warbler before… At that instant it flitted deeper into the bushes. Soon after, a rabbit bounded from the depths, leaped across the trail, and vanished into the other side. Seconds after, Prince repeated the process. And for all I know, the warbler did the same thing.

Thus, over and over again, the tragedy happened. Prince never caught the rabbit, and I seldom identified a less common species. After two hours, I made two decisions. First, it was time to go home. Second, this was Prince’s last birding trip.

I whistled for Prince and started out of the woods. I judged Prince’s distance from me by decibels. At that moment, I estimated he was charging toward me from about twenty yards away. He was not deafening yet, but he was growing louder.

Suddenly I heard an unearthly squawk and whistling wings, and plop—this awkward-looking mop of feathers dropped down on the trail ahead of me. Although I had never seen a woodcock before, I knew instantly what it was. American Woodcocks are the kind of bird you can identify as fast as a policeman. It’s not like, is this a woodcock or a peacock? Nope, woodcocks are one of a kind. Wilson’s Snipes are their closest relative, but they have a different habitat, and the stripes on their heads run the opposite direction. The woodcock is very seldom seen. It lurks in the woods, coming to the edge at night to probe for food.

For a few special seconds, the woodcock looked up and down the trail. Then with an odd gate, it walked across the trail and disappeared into the dense bushes. Seconds later, Prince appeared. Had he known he flushed a secretive bird, I might have given him a a rubdown, but, as it was, I thanked God for showing me another species of His winged fowl.

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