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Vagneur: Memories evoked with bird song

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

It’s that magical time, the slipping of day into night, a zone where all things may be possible. But only for that brief, wonderful period, as dusk fades into dark. The spirits of ancestors sometimes visit; talkative people become introspective, and the songs of the birds slowly, one by one, descend into silence.

My new pup Tux and I have gotten in the habit of taking our last walk of the day at dusk, at least as near as we can. Sometimes dusk slips into darkness before we’re done, and that is soothing, as well.

It takes me back to those days of living on Owl Creek with my cousin, Don Stapleton. We shared the cabin that his uncle Sam Stapleton built, next to the original ranch house. That small, two-story abode is gone now, but the memories remain. It is rumored we had some wild times there.

In spite of the partying, the debauchery, the gardening, cross-country skiing and history-imbued storytelling with Uncle Sam, one of our favorite times was sitting on the front lawn at dusk, sipping a drink and listening to the snipes put on a show. The what?

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“Oh, sure,” you say, “I’ve heard that old trick, sending young people out on a ‘snipe hunt,’ a mean joke on innocence.” Somebody always starts it, when there are kids, out-of-town visitors. “Hey, who wants to go on a snipe hunt?”

Nobody ever tells you what a snipe is, exactly, or what they look like, and most people are afraid to ask, but in some weird form of “group think” everyone marches out into the dark, looking for snipes.

It’s kind of like the adult version of telling the naive young thing sitting next to you at the bar all about the jackalopes hanging on the wall behind the bar. Mostly, jackalopes (a cross between a jack rabbit and an antelope) are found in Wyoming drinking establishments, but some of them migrate south to watering holes around Maybell, sometimes Meeker. There used to be a couple in the Eagles Club.

Wilson’s Snipes (real birds), as they’re called in Rebecca Weiss and Mark Fuller’s book, “Birds of Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley”, like to hang around marshy, swampy, wet areas. If you get a gander of their beak, it is almost as long as their compact body, a wonderfully designed proboscis that, once stuck deep into the mud, allows the bird to suck up and swallow small prey. Its flexible tip allows “under mud” exploration.

It is a small, brown-colored bird, with light-hued stripes along its body and head. In a camouflage sense, these birds blend in phenomenally well with surrounding habitat, which tends to explain, in an imaginative and creative way, why no one ever finds a snipe on one of those frustrating, illusory hunts.

So, you wonder, why the hell would I be writing about snipes when there are myriad species of birds flitting around? Not to lecture, but for starters, this column isn’t about birds — it’s about snipes. The song of the snipe in the sky, singing to the universe, is one of the best exemplifications of the relationship of dusk to all living things. In my opinion, anyway.

Until I moved to Owl Creek, I’d never before heard the sound a male snipe makes in flight as he cavorts overhead in some sort of airborne mating dance. But it is one of the most unusual and loud sounds to be heard in the sky. Unless you hear it in person, it can’t be duplicated in any meaningful way, other than happening upon a live recording of the sound. Weiss does a laudatory job of trying to put it in print in the aforementioned book, as in huhuhuhuhuhu, the unmistakable sound of air passing over the bird’s tail feathers. I know, it seems odd, but impossible to not hear.

Hank Williams had his mournful whippoorwill in “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry” and that’s a sound to which most folks can relate. Even if they don’t know the sound, they can connect to the lonely. Just the same, there’s something in a snipe’s solitary gambol, all alone in the evening sky, that can make a person feel alone. Diving at 60 miles per hour, then suddenly turning upward toward the heavens, so agile, such fast configurations in the dusky light that it’s almost impossible for the naked eye to see. We would stand there, Don and I, transfixed by the show.

Since leaving Owl Creek, almost 50 years ago, I’ve heard only one other snipe caressing the wind like that; it brought my attention right up, and the memories of a lot of happenings around that cabin came flooding back. Some creatures have a remarkable impact on us.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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