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Gift to a stranger

The banks advertise generous dividends on an investment, but that's only money. The big dividend on my fiddlehead hunt was worth so very much more than money - I flushed a woodcock. (Pause: I wish to offend nobody - this was a lady woodcock, and perhaps I should call her a woodhen. Maybe a ladywoodbird. Since, at my approach, she lifted off a nest of eggs, I assume she was not a gentlemanwoodbird.)

This is only the second time that I have found a woodcock nest, and the first was in my early youth when my morning chore was to escort the milkers to the pasture gate, along a shaded lane by the orchard, with tall pine trees on the other side and some hazelnut bushes here and there. The walk in the morning and the evening stroll to fetch the cows home abounded in delights, and the cows had little to do with anything.

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Eager to get to green grass after a night in the barn, they hurried along, and there was no need for me to touch them up with the stick I carried. If I stopped to jump the lane fence and pick up a Red Astrachan apple that had achieved its time during the night, they kept right along without me, and I would have to run to catch up. The reason for my going along was to fit the bars into the gap so they couldn't return to the barn until wanted. When I came back in the evening to let down the bars, the cows were eager in the other direction - they knew there would be grain in their manger boxes. The woodcock of that special morning rose in flustered flight and made a comical departure.

Our American woodcock is migratory. It is smaller than its European cousins, the becasse and the Schnepfe, but both breeds belong to that category of fauna said to have been designed by a committee. It's sort of bobtailed in an unbecoming way, and it has this improbably long bill that bends and folds, somehow, and is meant for finding earthworms. We see them around Back River during the summer, but usually at twilight if we linger after an evening picnic. During the day, a woodcock would likely be seen only if flushed.

The woodcock is not a large bird and can reasonably be classed as a game bird only because they taste fine on toast. The shift from singular to plural in that sentence has a point - a hunter has to find a lot of the things to justify a slice of bread. I expect before long the woodcock will join our grouse in the threatened and protected exceptions - Maine has already elevated the spruce grouse to perpetual closed season, and I'm glad.

That morning, I wondered why the cows didn't flush the bird. Were I about to be stepped on, I would prefer a human's soft moccasin to the thundering hooves of hungry cows intent on yonder clover. But the cows passed, and when I came along behind the hen flew up, brushing a juniper limb and whacking the bushes. I had no trouble finding the ''nest,'' and there wasn't any nest. Two eggs sat merely on the ground, and could have been two feet that way or two feet this as far as any nest went. That evening I found her back on her eggs, and I passed on the other side. The next morning she flew up, and there were three eggs. She had four in all, and I didn't keep count to learn how many days she incubated.

There came an evening when she hove aloft and I found one of the eggs pipped. The next morning I didn't wait for the cows, but ran up early to see my woodcock chicks. There was nothing. The eggs had been cracked away during the night, and Mother had already led the babes off into the wilds to set them digging worms. The eggshells had been carried away, and there hadn't been the slightest dent in the ground to mark the spot.

This second nest I found this time, coming along with my basket of fiddlehead greens, was like the first one. She burst up, bumping bushes, and left four eggs for me to inspect - at a five-foot distance. I wished her well, blessed the eggs , shifted the weight of my basket, and walked along - rich in a bountiful lifetime of two woodcock nests. It isn't every fleeting joy the passing stranger gets to experience twice.

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