column By: Gordon Hamersley | January, 20
“The woodcock is a living refutation of the theory that the utility of a game bird is to serve as a target or to pose gracefully on a slice of toast,” says Aldo Leopold in the “Sky Dance” essay of his classic A Sand County Almanac. He adds, “I must be sure that, come April, there be no dearth of dancers in the sunset sky.”
I totally agree.
Nothing introduces spring to New England more distinctly than the initial peents of the male American woodcock engaging in the sky dance. The birds’ migration north starts in early March, and the sight of the romantic dancers is so exciting it can instantly turn a once innocent bird hunter into an enthusiastic voyeur.
One chilly March evening, friends Bill Reid, Chief Ranger for The Last Green Valley; Steve Broderick, retired Extension Forester, University of Connecticut; and I walked to a protected property up our road to find a good spot to observe. Steve had been grooming the area with woodcock in mind for years.
When I first heard the woodcock’s nasal peents, I thought it might be a big insect (perhaps with a bad head cold?). The call is distinctive, and once you do hear it, you won’t forget it. Soon the first bird took off from 20 yards in front of us, and the sky dance began. He made large circles at first and climbed to a height of about 150 feet. My neck craned to keep track of him, but suddenly another took off, and I switched to follow the newest addition to the dance floor. In the end, we think we saw seven birds that night; our last glimpses were of birds silhouetted against the darkening sky. We’d experienced something truly special.
But that’s just one way to enjoy woodcock in the spring, and I want to make the case for an annual springtime culinary celebration, too. How about we observe in the field first and celebrate at the table second?
One of my favorite ways with woodcock is to make risotto with fresh morels and tiny wild leeks (ramps) that grow along our upland streams. The unique flavors of woodcock blend wonderfully with the earthy mushrooms and the mild onion. While it’s always better to eat game birds sooner rather than later, I always save some, pristinely frozen, for special occasions.
Making risotto is a lesson in slow, watchful timing. In a sauté pan, soften the mushrooms and leeks in butter and then add the risotto rice. Cook for a few minutes, add some stock and start stirring. As each ladle of liquid becomes absorbed, add the next until the rice has a slight bite to it, and the rice appears almost creamy.
Meanwhile, slice the breasts and legs from the woodcock carcasses and remove the tiny thigh bones so you have just meat. Sauté them over high heat, skin side down, until they are golden. Flip the pieces over, turn off the heat and let them finish cooking. Spoon the risotto onto warm plates and top with the woodcock. Sprinkle with cheese and raise a glass to the woodcock’s return.
Woodcock hunters are all about double guns, canvas vests and cowbells on their dogs. In short, we are a traditional lot and love the mysteries of timberdoodle. But some modern technology is really helpful. In the past, it was generally thought woodcock followed essentially the same flight paths as Eastern and Mississippi River flyways waterfowl. Turns out that the old speculation was wrong. Wildlife biologists now may track individual birds using solar-powered transmitters, collecting detailed data about where they go, how long they stay and when they return to familiar spots. This new information adds immensely to our knowledge about woodcock.
Hunters hope for a mild spring with at least no crazy April ice storms or strong winds to blow the birds too far off course. Eggs will hatch, but you probably won’t see the birds again until hunting in October. Whether you are in the Midwest or the eastern part of the country, do try and catch what Leopold rightly calls the “sky dance.” It’s a fabulous springtime glimpse at this remarkable little bird. Then pay your respects at the table, too.