The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Outdoors

March 2, 2013

Woodcock sky dance helps usher in spring

In his classic “A Sand County Almanac” (1949), wildlife biologist Aldo Leopold described the male American woodcock’s courtship display as a “sky dance.” I call it my favorite harbinger of spring.

A few nights ago as I watched the February full moon rise in the east, a familiar sound caught my ear. “Peent!” A few seconds later, another nasal “Peent!” The sound reminds me of the call of common nighthawks as they sweep the sky for insects on warm summer nights.

A woodcock had returned to the old pasture behind the house. Males emerge from the woods at dusk and search for patches of poor soil with sparse vegetation. Dense ground cover hinders the movement of these short-legged birds. That’s why I make it a point to mow a few patches of grass extra short in late October. It’s my invitation to dance.

A displaying male woodcock wants to be seen — by females. (Watch for field trips offered by local nature centers or bird clubs if you have no idea where to find woodcock.) To enjoy the show, creep into position just before dark and wait.

The performance begins with the aforementioned, exclamatory peents. Soon the calls stop, and the bird jumps into the sky. He ascends in an ever-widening spiral flight to a height of 250 to 300 feet. Listen for a whistling sound as the bird climbs and air rushes through its three stiff outer wing feathers. Then he descends almost like a falling leaf, and the wing whistle is accompanied by a liquid, vocal twitter. At twilight or on moonlit nights silhouettes are sometimes visible.

Upon landing near the exact spot from which he launched, the male fans his tail and wings and struts about boldly, like a miniature tom turkey. If a female is present and charmed by the dance, mating occurs. Absent hens, the performance continues, sometimes for hours.

Woodcock, or timberdoodles as they are sometimes called, are plump, cryptically colored, migratory birds that weigh six or seven ounces. Though classified taxonomically as shorebirds, woodcock live in damp, lowland woods where they eat earthworms almost exclusively.

Woodcock sometimes return in late February, but I can always count on them in March. During daylight hours, “probe holes” left behind while searching for earthworms and whitewash splash are the best evidence of these odd birds.

In hand, a woodcock’s huge, dark eyes and long bill dominate its head. Woodcock have excellent night vision. Their eyes are positioned high and far back on their skulls, so woodcock actually can see above and behind their heads. They use their long, flesh-colored bill to probe moist, soft soil for earthworms and other invertebrates.

Hard freezes send woodcock to seeps where earthworms are usually available even when surrounding ground freezes. Since woodcock spend so much time with their bills in the ground, their near 360-degree field of vision helps them detect aerial predators.

Woodcock also enjoy the protection of cryptic coloration or camouflage. Dappled in shades of brown, woodcock are almost impossible to see as they rest among leaves on the forest floor.  They don’t flush until almost stepped upon.

But in spring, woodcock are best known for their song and dance routine. The show typically begins at dusk in an opening near moist woods. It could be an overgrazed pasture, a gravel pit, or even an interstate highway median strip.

Clear, moonlit nights provide the best chance for observing woodcock displays. But remember, much of the performance is vocal. The dance of the woodcock is a rite of spring that every nature watcher should see at least once. You’ll need no special equipment for an adventure you’ll never forget. One warning though — after seeing the woodcock dance, you may want to see it again and again.

Aldo Leopold tried to catch the sky dance as often as possible on his Wisconsin farm.

“No one would rather hunt woodcock in October than I,” he wrote, “but since learning of the sky dance I find myself calling one or two birds enough. I must be sure that, come April, there be no dearth of dancers in the sunset sky.”

— Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV  26033 or via email at sshalaway@aol.com

1
Text Only
Outdoors
  • Some books for the rest of summer

    Stretching out in a hammock with a good book is a great way to relax on a warm summer afternoon. Here are a few titles that have recently caught my eye.

    July 27, 2014

  • Creating a week to remember

    After my traveling shoes were placed neatly beside the door, it was time to spend some much needed time around home.

    July 27, 2014

  • There are some changes on the way

    Hunters who have found themselves driving out of their way to check in a deer, turkey, or bear will no longer have to waste the time or gas starting in 2015. 

    July 27, 2014

  • The cure for the summertime blues: Go camping

    In case you haven’t noticed we are looking right down the gun barrel at winding down on another summer.

    July 26, 2014

  • 071714 Coda and Callie.jpg Coda and Callie’s excellent adventure

    How is it something that you profess to love so much can cause you so much anxiety and grief? No, I’m not talking about dealing with your children (or your spouse). This is worse. This is about dogs. More specifically, hunting dogs. 

    July 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • 071314 Chris Ellis.jpg DNR’s ‘outdoor summer school’

    Attention all West Virginia hunters and trappers. It is once again time for outdoor summer school and the course materials are hot off the presses.

    July 13, 2014 1 Photo

  • Meet the Eurasian collared-dove

    Back in 1974 a local pigeon fancier imported a flock of about 50 Eurasian collared-doves to the Bahamas. Ultimately he released the birds, and they took to living in the West Indies. By the late 1970s some had reached south Florida, and by the late 1980s, some had been seen in Georgia and Arkansas.

    July 13, 2014

  • July in W.Va.: Recreational opportunities abound

    It’s July in the West Virginia mountains, which brings vibrant orange tiger lilies, blooming rhododendron, and of course fireworks. Usually the heat and humidity is in full force, but so far the weather has been nice.

    July 13, 2014

  • Shotgun 101: Shoot more and live better

    “God is not on the side of big battalions, but on the side of those who shoot best.”
    — Voltaire

    July 9, 2014

  • Fireflies are living lights

    At recent Fourth of July fireworks displays, spectators squealed with delight at the annual spectacle that illuminated the night sky. And I’m sure more than a few compared the spectacular pyrotechnics to the subtler displays of fireflies that punctuate backyards, parks, and campgrounds all summer long. We call these displays “nature’s fireworks.”

    July 5, 2014

Web Special Sections
  • Special Web Sections

    Click HERE for stories about natural gas and Marcellus shale gas extraction.

    Click HERE for stories about the Upper Big Branch mine disaster.

    Click HERE for stories about the passing of U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

    Click HERE for stories from The Greenbrier Classic PGA TOUR event.

    August 6, 2010

Helium debate
Helium
AP Video
Kerry: Humanitarian Cease-fire Efforts Continue Raw: Corruption Trial Begins for Former Va Gov. The Carbon Trap: US Exports Global Warming UN Security Council Calls for Gaza Cease-fire Traditional African Dishes Teach Healthy Eating 13 Struck by Lightning on Calif. Beach Baseball Hall of Famers Inducted Israel, Hamas Trade Fire Despite Truce in Gaza Italy's Nibali Set to Win First Tour De France Raw: Shipwrecked Concordia Completes Last Voyage Raw: Sea Turtle Hatchlings Emerge From Nest Raw: Massive Dust Storm Covers Phoenix 12-hour Cease-fire in Gaza Fighting Begins Raw: Bolivian Dancers Attempt to Break Record Raw: Israel, Palestine Supporters Rally in US Raw: Air Algerie Flight 5017 Wreckage Virginia Governor Tours Tornado Aftermath Judge Faces Heat Over Offer to Help Migrant Kids Kangaroo Goes Missing in Oklahoma More M17 Bodies Return, Sanctions on Russia Grow