Eyes that see behind, a bill like an elephant’s trunk, a magical twilight dance: the weird Woodcock

Eyes that see behind, a bill like an elephant’s trunk, a magical twilight dance: the weird Woodcock

Don’t tell me Porgs are the Star Wars version of puffins.  Puffins don’t have huge eyes and camo brown colors.  Clearly Porgs were inspired by woodcocks.


“Puffin?  You’re kidding, right?”

In February and March I’m often out tramping in the twilight, where meadows meet woods, in hopes of witnessing what Aldo Leopold called the Sky Dance of the American woodcock.

Here in Virginia’s Blue Ridge, by mid-February these Porg-shaped, foot-tall, nowhere-near-a-shore shorebirds are already excitedly deep in spring courtship.

Painting by C. Ford Riley.

In late winter’s milder, tranquil evenings, about twenty minutes after sunset, the woodcock hen strolls to the edge of her woods to judge the males’ seductive song and dance, performed just beyond in an open field.  Her bizarrely huge dark eyes. set near the top of her head. give her an incredible 360-degree view, allowing her to hunt earthworms on the dark forest floor while watching for predators behind.  Equally bizarre is her extraordinary long bill, more elephant’s trunk than bird’s bill, whose tip she flexes to grasp her prey. Continue reading


Chandler Robbins, A Legend Who Persuaded a Generation to Love Birds, Wild Places and Science, Has Passed

By Bo Gardiner
A well-loved copy of Robbins’ Birds of North America, 1966 (aka “Golden Guide”)

Thousands, maybe millions, this week will recall this gorgeous book with profound affection and tears in their eyes.  I can attest, as I seem to be having a bit of trouble myself writing this.

Chandler S. Robbins, co-author of the classic Birds of North America (1966), more widely known to birders simply as “The Golden Guide,” died yesterday, March 20 — a legend of ornithology and citizen science.

Let me tell you about this man and his work, even if you know nothing of birds.

For me, the tears are less about sadness -– 99 years is a marvelous run — than of gratitude for the incredible and lasting joy this book brought into my life.

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A Leader Among Sandhill Cranes

I created this GIF from the Crane Trust’s documentary, Nebraska’s Great Sandhill Crane Migration.

There is no more thrilling sound in nature.

One of my most memorable experiences was a spring day in Gainesville, Florida, when I noticed a crowd of people outside the building I was in; they were all gazing upward.  I hurried out to see a seething mass of sandhill cranes circling overhead, their rippling cries filling the air.  They had risen up from nearby Paynes Prairie, and were massing for their annual return to their breeding grounds on midwestern and Canadian rivers and wet prairies.

Apparently they were awaiting the emergence of the right leader.  Eventually one crane left the group heading north.  A few birds straggled after in a ragged V that aimlessly dissolved back into the group.  Soon another crane made a failed bid.  After four or five false starts, a  leader emerged that drew the wheeling flock into a solid line aiming northward, the leader who would start them on the long journey with that ancient knowledge that must be taught to each succeeding generation.

Bierstadt’s magnificent portrait of the giant sequoia

Dramatically beautiful painting of giant trees

The Great Trees, Mariposa Grove, California, by Albert Bierstadt, 1876

Arguably the largest living thing on earth, this is the giant sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum, of the redwood family.

This individual tree still lives, and is named the Grizzly Giant.  It’s only middle-aged at a mere 1,800 years old or thereabouts, in a species that can live for over 3,000 years.