Of snipe hunts and timber doodles

Hasn’t this been a gorgeous spring? I don’t think I have ever seen the redbud trees in such splendor as they were a few weeks ago. They are always beautiful, especially alongside the dogwoods, but this year they were particularly full and rich with color.

And just the other morning, riding out toward Sperryville after a little overnight rain, the mountains were glowing with their fresh green coat, and a bit of fog was rolling up in most of the hollows, providing a marvelous contrast with the new greenery. I like how this place I live frequently causes me to pause and be grateful that I am here. But nature’s wonders have a way of drawing me in on many occasions.

A few days ago, on a woods jaunt, I paused a moment in a natural clearing to take in the blooming wild geraniums and the demure showy orchis. As I moved toward the cover of the woods, a ground bird flushed from a few feet in front of me. It was easy to recognize the woodcock, though you don’t see it that often. And she was doing the broken wing routine that every ground nesting bird from meadowlarks to turkeys seems to have perfected.

The woodcock brought back some old memories. Have you ever been asked to go snipe hunting? In these parts, it was an old trick, normally played by the older boys on their younger, more naive, associates. As I remember the game, you talked the new recruit into fetching a gunny sack and a good stick. About dark, you would take him into the woods to a likely spot and tell him to wait, holding the bag open, close to the ground, while you went to rustle up a snipe, and run it into the bag. The stick was to beat it with, once you got him in the bag, because there were supposed to be particularly feisty critters.

Of course, once you had the young fellow all set up, with admonitions to be very quiet, you sneaked off and went home, leaving him there holding the bag, so to speak. And the next time you met, there was to be a big laugh all around, at the expense of the young bag holder.

I never took anyone up on their invitation to go snipe hunting, but I was told, more than once, that the big joke was that there was no such thing as a snipe. Well, that’s where the joker gets the joke turned on him. There is such a thing as a snipe, and while that term is probably more correctly used for a shore bird, our woodcock is commonly referred to as a snipe or a timber doodle. And, if I am not mistaken, it is a game bird, and where they are plentiful enough, they are hunted with gun and dog.

As a matter of fact, the Online Etymology Dictionary will tell you that the woodcock’s flight is so erratic that a snipe hunter has to be particularly skillful with his weapon to successfully hunt these birds. Hunters who were good at it came to be known as snipers, a term later adopted by the military for their sharpshooters.

Back to my jaunt in the woods, I stood very still and hoped that I would get a chance to see a woodcock (woodhen?) nest, something I have never seen. I turned around very carefully, scanning the ground for a nest. There was none. What I saw was even better. Three little brown feathered birds all took off at a run, in three completely different directions. Literally, one went straight away, one went left, and one went right.

That was interesting enough, but there is more. Have you ever seen a young domestic chicken run for cover before it learns to fly? It runs as fast as it can and it frantically flaps its wings, perhaps hoping it will take flight. These little timber doodles held their wings, which looked a little big for their size, high over their heads, with the wingtips almost touching, and ran that way, with their wings never moving. To me, it was an extraordinary sight.

I have asked my woods wise friends about this, and the only thing that has been offered by way of explanation is that a lot of animals, when in danger, will try to appear larger than they really are, hoping their attacker will have second thoughts.

Perhaps some of our local birders or fauna experts can give us a better answer. All I know is that it was a beautiful thing to see these little guys scampering through the woods with their wings held high over their heads, like an American eagle posing for a patriotic picture. And, once again, nature’s wonders claim my full attention.

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Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 538 Articles
Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.