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  • If you want to find signs of autumn in Woods Hole, look up. Summer lingers here and it's held deep in the ground and the sea; a warm reservoir of sun and long days slowly released back to the sky. Autumn announces itself early from above if you know where to look. On the street where my mother lives and I spent much of my youth there is a Norway maple that raises the alarm in early September. While the other trees are as green and full as June, this tree sports a crest of leaves tipped in yellow and orange and a few bare branches poking into the air. Autumn creeps in on high pressure Northwest winds in September. You can feel it on Stoney Beach after Labor Day when the beach, which spent the summer in the calm lee of the sou'westerlys, finds itself in the face of a distinctly Canadian wind that is crisp and assaults our thin clothes. Autumn arrives and summer abandons us from above, wheeling off in a rush of wings and a slowly retreating sun.

    To find spring look toward your feet or better yet, lie down with your nose nearly touching the ground. I find it in late February when, under a skin of ice in an old irrigation drain, I see little blue copepods jerking through the water, straining out the first of the tiny water plants emerging in the light. Spring pushes up through the ground on calm sunny days in March. A small set of snowbells makes its appearance on the lawn next to the radio station which, unknowingly, has sheltered this patch of ground from north and east and given it a southwesterly exposure.

    Soon enough spring peepers will emerge from wherever it is they spend the winter, cold and silent and neither dead nor alive. The verbals pools, should I venture over some night soon, will be soupy with life. Swirling and mad with a confusing array of predators and prey, I know I hit a special night when I see the big pink-red fairy shrimp rowing through the dark tannic waters. No fish would ever pass up something so catchable and tasty and so they only live where fish cannot. Such places are rare around here but they do exist and are worth knowing about.

    Walmart came to town some years ago and occupies the south end of what used to be (and may still be) called the Falmouth Mall. You have to descend a longish slope from the main road to get to the lot and Mall beyond. To the right is a stand of wet woodland, composed of mostly willow and smaller, shrubby trees but containing oak and maple in small numbers. This woodland is wedged between the mall and Spring Bars road and is a remnant of the sort of wet woodland that was common in Falmouth even just a few decades ago. It's small as far as wild places are concerned but its notable because it's been slowly surrounded by development and provides a small refuge in the middle of town. Fortunately, there are still quite a few of these refugia but rather than notable, they used to be the norm. This one is special because every spring it provides a stage for a dance that has been occurring every year here on the Cape for at least the past 16,000 years or shortly after the Cape was deposited here back in our pre-history. The WalMart parking lot provides the lighting for this stage and the curtain goes up around dusk with shows starting sometime in Mid-March. The actor is a red-flushed woodcock and he is looking for a mate.

    If you are expecting a large showy bird like a heron or an osprey to leap from the bushes you will be disappointed. While woodcocks are closely related to long bill and long-legged shorebirds, a life ashore has reduced their legs to short stubs that leave them close to the ground where they remain invisible for 99% of the year. If you draw up to the edge of the lot and look for him you will likely not see him. Roll down your window, turn down the radio and listen and you may hear him. His call is best described as 'nasal' and sound like a mechanical buzzing "peeent". He does this over and over out on the open grassland between the parking lot and the woods. You may see him as he does his 'peent'ing because he moves around in a sort of dance. Eventually, however, he embodies the very name of the season he celebrates and he springs into the air. He ascends in a spiral and his wings make a twittering sound. Now you can see him in the light as he circles higher and higher going up between the lot and the large radio tower. You can hear him long after you lose sight of him as he rises higher even then the tower, the twittering increasing in pace and frequency. At the peak of his climb he adds notes to his musical performance and then the twittering sound becomes jerky and descends in pitch as down he comes, desperately hoping his audience includes at least one lustful female woodcock. Suddenly he goes quiet and if you are watchful you may see him silently glide back to nearly the same spot from which he left. Wait a moment or two more and he starts again: "peeent" This show will be repeated over and over again for an hour or two in the evening and sometimes, again before dawn. It's a springtime show and the run iOS over when he finds a mate (or two or three) and when nesting starts in April, the curtain closes for the year.

    Woodcock numbers drop approximately 1% every year, as they have done every year since the 1960s. While once fairly common, they are disappearing and I wonder how many of us would notice or even care. This little patch of nondescript woodland is under the radar for most anyone on their way to the mall. It's a green drop cloth for the osprey that nest in the tower and the only people I can imagine ever take notice might be the odd naturalist now and again and perhaps, small children, who like to explore places that adults overlook. Or at least used to before electronic screens presented a more immediate view of the world.

    The chances are that this small patch of woods will shrink or disappear in the next decades as the towns on the Cape continue to grow as people arrive to experience the Cape Cod life. Perhaps it's the world beyond the waters edge that characterizes the place for many. I confess as much for myself but that is only as part of a larger sense of place and of home that I get, not from the cars and roads and buildings, but of the seasons and the soil, the air and the sea. My total experience every year with woodcocks from all places may amount to perhaps 30 minutes. But every time I drive to the mall down the ramp to the lot I look to the right at the woodland and I think of those birds. And every spring I hope they will still be there to come out and dance on the grass and give those who will stop and listen, a show 20 thousand years in the running.
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