One of the best parts of having young children is the opportunity to view the world through their eyes. I love to share what I know about the natural world with my children as we walk in the woods. Every animal track or sign of spring they discover lights their curiosity like a firefly in July. Those moments of discovery are less common as we age, likely because we're just too busy, or preoccupied, to notice the wonders around us.
Recently, however, I was pleased to delve into a sign of spring that had, until recently, eluded me, the American woodcock's truly unique springtime mating ritual.
The American Woodcock is a fascinating creature. With more nicknames than Babe Ruth, woodcock may be known locally as Timberdoodle, Bogsucker, Mudbat or Night Partridge. My interest in this unique bird was stirred by upland hunting and piqued by the narratives of gifted writers Aldo Leopold and Chuck Fergus.
A shore-type bird with a love of the uplands, woodcock possess a unique look. Eyes set too far aft on its head, a long beak strangely jointed to form natures strangest chopsticks, and wings that seem too long and pointy for its portly build, make for an almost comical appearance.
For some upland hunters of the Northeast, woodcock are the native brook trout of the uplands; diminutive, but beautiful; particular in their haunts, but potentially abundant when found; native to lush and mysterious places that many walk by in pursuit of larger game; a well-kept secret. Add to their mystery a habit of exploding into flight inches from a dog's nose, or a hunters boot, and a flight pattern and speed that allows some hope for shooting success, but delivers seldom enough as to be frustratingly addictive; and you have a sporting opponent of the highest quality.
But it is their unique springtime mating ritual, often called the skydance, that has brought the woodcock most of its limited notoriety. As they make their way north from their warmer winter haunts in southeastern states, male woodcock begin to stake out territories and compete for the attention of females. Female woodcock are, apparently, not easily impressed, and so males go to great lengths to vie for their affections.
The aspiring Don Juan seeks out a clearing near a wooded area. He also looks for heavy shrub cover nearby, to provide concealment, and areas for feeding on woodcock's preferred fare, the earthworm. For an hour or so at dawn and dusk, he will put on a show that is part opera, part airshow, in hopes of attracting amorous females. He is so in character, that admiring fans can get a front row seat on the edge of the stage, without alarming the performer.
For the best chance of viewing the show, sneak in before dusk, take a seat near the edge of the clearing...and wait. If you are in the right place at the right time, just as your eyes start to work a little harder to make out the shapes of the vegetation against the sky, you will hear the characteristic nasal peent that begins the show. The sound gives the impression that a frog, cicada and duck have merged into one creature. After a few erratic peents to warm up, the male settles into a steady rhythm. Volume can seem to rise and fall as the singer marches in a circle, projecting his voice in all directions. Without warning, save perhaps a slightly longer hesitation between calls, the performer suddenly takes flight with the characteristic twitter, the sound of air between the slender primary feathers of his wings. He rises from the thicket making a pass just above the vegetation, or overhead, if you're lucky, as he begins to spiral higher into the sky. The twitter is audible, even as you likely lose sight of the flier. When he has reached the apex of his flight, the sound changes as he adds in warbling vocals on his erratic, narrower, descent. As he closes in on the area from which he rose, the sounds suddenly cease as he glides silently to a touch-down very near his launch point. A brief pause...peent...and the show starts again.
Lang Elliott, a gifted nature photographer, recorder of nature sounds, and author, expertly captured the early part of the woodcocks's show below:
Particularly lucky viewers may hear the soft, almost hiccuping tuco call that can precede the peent, or the cak-cak-cak sound of neighboring males settling territorial disputes with aerial dogfights. If you find yourself in close proximity to a calling male, I have found that a spotlight on the performer does not inhibit his calling.
If you have a chance this spring, get out and enjoy this bit of Nature's magic and remember what it's like to be a kid again.