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The Woodcock’s Evening Hymn
by [?]

The twilight flight song of the woodcock is one of the most curious and tantalizing yet interesting bird songs we have. I fancy that the persons who hear and recognize it in the April or May twilight are few and far between. I myself have heard it only on three occasions–one season in late March, one season in April, and the last time in the middle of May. It is a voice of ecstatic song coming down from the upper air and through the mist and the darkness–the spirit of the swamp and the marsh climbing heavenward and pouring out its joy in a wild burst of lyric melody; a haunter of the muck and a prober of the mud suddenly transformed into a bird that soars and circles and warbles like a lark hidden or half hidden in the depths of the twilight sky. The passion of the spring has few more pleasing exemplars. The madness of the season, the abandon of the mating instinct, is in every move and note. Ordinarily the woodcock is a very dull, stupid bird, with a look almost idiotic, and is seldom seen except by the sportsman or the tramper along marshy brooks. But for a brief season in his life he is an inspired creature, a winged song that baffles the eye and thrills the ear from the mystic regions of the upper air.

When I last heard it, I was with a companion, and our attention was arrested, as we were skirting the edge of a sloping, rather marshy, bowlder-strewn field, by the “zeep,” “zeep,” which the bird utters on the ground, preliminary to its lark-like flight. We paused and listened. The light of day was fast failing; a faint murmur went up from the fields below us that defined itself now and then in the good-night song of some bird. Now it was the lullaby of the song sparrow or the swamp sparrow. Once the tender, ringing, infantile voice of the bush sparrow stood out vividly for a moment on that great background of silence. “Zeep,” “zeep,” came out of the dimness six or eight rods away. Presently there was a faint, rapid whistling of wings, and my companion said: “There, he is up.” The ear could trace his flight, but not the eye. In less than a minute the straining ear failed to catch any sound, and we knew he had reached his climax and was circling. Once we distinctly saw him whirling far above us. Then he was lost in the obscurity, and in a few seconds there rained down upon us the notes of his ecstatic song–a novel kind of hurried, chirping, smacking warble. It was very brief, and when it ceased, we knew the bird was dropping plummet-like to the earth. In half a minute or less his “zeep,” “zeep,” came up again from the ground. In two or three minutes he repeated his flight and song, and thus kept it up during the half-hour or more that we remained to listen: now a harsh plaint out of the obscurity upon the ground; then a jubilant strain from out the obscurity of the air above. His mate was probably somewhere within earshot, and we wondered just how much interest she took in the performance. Was it all for her benefit, or inspired by her presence? I think, rather, it was inspired by the May night, by the springing grass, by the unfolding leaves, by the apple bloom, by the passion of joy and love that thrills through nature at this season. An hour or two before, we had seen the bobolinks in the meadow beating the air with the same excited wing and overflowing with the same ecstasy of song, but their demure, retiring, and indifferent mates were nowhere to be seen. It would seem as if the male bird sang, not to win his mate, but to celebrate the winning, to invoke the young who are not yet born, and to express the joy of love which is at the heart of Nature.