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WEDNESDAY, MARCH 7, 2018
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Time For the Woodcock’s “Skydance”
Wednesday March 7, 2018   |

 

“You know Tim; I believe that far more people have come to know the American Woodcock through watching their springtime sky dance rituals at sunset than have ever gotten to know them through hunting. I never tire of marveling at it,” Doc said with a smile in his voice. “And it’s far easier to take folks out to a field edge on a spring evening than it is to get them into a hawthorn or alder thicket on a hunt.”

“I wish I could remember how many folks I’ve introduced to the woodcock through watching their courtship rituals; got to be hundreds,” he continued as though talking to himself. “Never knew anyone to not be awed by the experience. Some acted like kids on Christmas morning when they first saw it. Many of them have told me that they still go out each spring to watch the courtship flights and often take others with them.”

As Doc reminisced, a male woodcock peented (called) repeatedly on the ground, just a few yards from our location, seated upon an oak log at the edge of a little-used cattle pasture dissected by a small stream. The pasture was bordered by a woodcock-friendly hawthorn thicket that we’d hunted in successive fall seasons. Scattered young hawthorn trees dotted the reverting pasture. Alders lined the stream’s edges and its numerous open areas provided stages for several male woodcock to perform their sky dance courtship displays. This was a singing ground.

Each repeatedly announced his availability and virility with series of nasally, buzzing “Peents.” Following each series of eight to ten calls, the males would launch skyward on twittering wings to perform their entrancing sky dance in the rapidly fading dusk.

We could easily hear the aerial portion of the nearest bird’s performance high above, and we watched intently for a glimpse of the little show-off.  At each flight’s zenith, he circled widely while broadcasting his courtship song of enchantingly melodic, trilled notes to woo his lady friends below. During his zig-zagging descent, he punctuated the still, cool, clear evening with musical kissing notes; “Kiss-Kiss-Kiss-Kiss-Kiss!”

A few ensuing silent seconds indicated that he’d landed. “PEENT” signaled the start of another series of calls and another upward spiraling flight that would reach several hundred feet above our admiring ears. During one of his spiraling, corkscrew-like descents, Doc and I caught a glimpse of him skittering across a hint of daylight in the western sky. “Isn’t that wonderful?” Doc whispered.

Watching the woodcock’s sky dance ritual is an unforgettable pleasure and sharing it with others makes it even more memorable. Doc’s history of introducing others to the American Woodcock, (Philohela minor) in this manner also included an occasion that resulted in 1000 acres of prime woodcock habitat being set aside for these odd and fascinating, long-billed birds.

On a pleasant spring evening in 1960, Doc and a wealthy land developer laid on their backs, watching woodcock perform on a large tract of land destined to be converted to a palatial resort. Doc had invited the developer to the show; hoping that he might be charmed by the woodcock’s elaborate display and realize the value of woodcock habitat. To say that his plan worked is an understatement.

When darkness ended the timberdoodle performances, the enthralled developer turned to Doc and said: What kind of people are we if we can’t set aside places for wildlife too? Today, a conservation easement preserves those one thousand acres of that habitat, including their woodcock-watching site that remains in a natural state, protected from the urban sprawl that surrounds it. Doc’s adjoining twenty-two acres is similarly protected.  

The woodcock is a migratory upland game bird that thrives in damp riparian habitats all across the eastern half of the USA and Canada.  Their preferred habitats are typically densely populated with short trees and shrubs and tangles of thorny plants and briars making entry by humans challenging. Other than woodcock hunters, few people probe such inhospitable cover to see the wondrously camouflaged woodcock.

So secretive and mysterious is the woodcock that many avid birdwatchers have not seen one., We hunters employ sharp-nosed dogs to locate these secretive birds, but even when pointed, a motionless woodcock sitting on the forest floor is virtually invisible. It is their spring courtship displays that render them very obvious.  

Watching these performances is especially gratifying an experience. To do so, select an appropriate site near a wooded riparian flood plane on a mild March or April day with generally clear skies and calm winds at sunset. As daylight fades into darkness, listen for the male’s “PEENTS” on the ground followed by the whistling twitter of woodcock wings and his melodious songs above.

Woodcock perform their courtship rituals at dawn and dusk, but the evening performances last longer. Sky Dance watchers should be on sight as the sun sets and remain still and quiet until the first tell-tale “PEENT” is heard.

Once located, viewers can hone in on the male’s repeated peents and approach his stage stealthy while he performs successive sky dances above. Wear dark clothing and avoid spooking the amorous bird by approaching too closely. Viewers can easily enjoy the show from as close as thirty yards to his stage location to which he will return following each aerial performance.

Within seconds after returning to earth he’ll “PEENT” to begin another display. On the ground he is sensitive to movements, but seems oblivious to artificial light, permitting viewers to illuminate his antics with flashlights for a very personal view of this rarely seen bird. It is wise to extinguish the artificial light when he launches into the night sky and only use the light to view him on the ground.

By remaining quiet and still, viewers are commonly able to enjoy successive performances before the descent of full darkness ends the show. The very lucky observer may see a hen woodcock approach the male bird’s stage, captivated by his elaborate exhibition.

Witnessing this age-old ritual cements a unique connection between the little long-beaked performer and his privileged audience who are inspired to learn more about “timberdoodles,” and the more that we know about a species, the more we tend to care for it and its survival. 

The image was taken with a Nikon D800 camera – Nikkor 200-500 lens – f/5.6 – 1/200 – ISO 400.

—Tim C. Flanigan
tim-natureexposure@comcast.net
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