Monday, March 23, 2009

Tracking the Timberdoodle

Can't find the woodcock in this photo? It's not there. This was a test shot.

It's the time of year when the male American woodcocks perform their sky-dance courtship displays on our southeast Ohio ridge top. Some nights when it's cold or rainy or both, I wonder how they muster the energy. Lately we've had two or three displaying males each night on various clearings on our farm.

The woodcock is a shorebird that lives in wet woods. One of the folk names of the American woodcock is timberdoodle. 'Timber' is clearly a reference to the species' preferred woodland habitat. And 'doodle?' Perhaps that's a reference to the bird's method of foraging by walking slowly, probing the soil for earthworms. Or maybe it refers to the woodcock's slow, wing-twittering flight? Or maybe it just sounds good to put 'doodle' on the end of 'timber?'


The star performer of our displaying males is a bird who uses the upper portion of our middle meadow path. He starts his display by calling from deep in the woods below the house, down along the spring trail. Peent! Peent! And as soon as he feels the ambient lighting of dusk has reached the preferred number of foot-candles, he flies slowly up out of the woods, taking the stage at a favorite spot in the meadow path.

I'd been watching this dude's show for a few nights when I decided to try to take his photograph. It would be no use trying to sit in the weeds along the path and wait for him. He'd see me and seek a safer stage elsewhere. I'd tried that a few year ago, wanting to get some video of the performance. It was a miserable failure. The woodcocks, with their huge eyes perfectly adapted for seeing well at night, could see me clear as a bell. I could not see them at all, which is a problem when you're trying to videotape something.

But now I had a new stealth-increasing weapon. My Doghouse photo blind, which would (I hoped) permit me to be close to the birds without seeming like a threat to them. I set my blind up in the afternoon, near by the male timberdoodle's favorite peenting spot. That evening, when I heard the male start his warm-ups in the woods, I hurried out to the blind and took up my position.

Now, I know next to nothing about the techniques of good nature photography. I know how to turn my camera on and what peephole to look through—but that's about it. I fiddle with Manual and A/V settings but it's mostly just guesswork. The Auto-Everything setting is my default. Clearly what I need to do it to take a nature photography course.

Anyway, I took a few test photos, prefocusing on the woodcock's favorite spot. I felt ready.

Soon I heard the wing whistle of a flying woodcock and the male settled down on the path. But he was 25 feet farther up the path, not at his favorite spot. The presence of the blind probably made him a bit wary. Craning my body to the left out the blind's shooting hole, I struggled to find the woodcock in my viewfinder. This was manual focus territory and I could not see ANYTHING in the viewfinder. In desperation I pushed the shutter button. Here's what I got:

The ghost of woodcock present.

Then the male took off. He returned, peented, and flew a few more times in the normal course of his evening show, each time taking off before I could managed to take a single frame. I was having a really hard time finding the bird and focusing.

Now the male woodcock was landing and calling from a spot much closer. You'd THINK I'd be able to find the bird and get a decent photo, but the daylight was mostly gone now. It was as if the woodcock knew this and thus felt safer in coming closer to the noisy, cursing human in the dark camo structure tucked off to the side of the path. Finally the camera clicked and I got a few more ridiculously bad images.

If Monet painted an American woodcock, it might look like this.

If I were photographing sasquatch or an ivory-billed woodpecker, the photo would look like this.

And then, for a single frame, it all came together. I have no idea how or why. It must have been the photo gods reaching down to tap me on the head (and tweak my camera settings). He is the result: the only photo I took that night that is worth keeping.

Sweet mystery of life, at last I've found you! American woodcock male, between peents.

I'm leaving the photo blind up so the woodcock can get used to it. And I am not touching a single button, dial, or switch on my camera until I get another session with the timberdoodle. Who knows? Next time I might even get two keeper images!

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