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
  • Gettin’ ready for gobbler season: Step 4 — the setup

    This just in — in a recent study on turkey hunting and turkey hunters it was found that 98.7 percent of the time when hunters were unsuccessful when calling in a gobbler, the hunter made some mistake during the last 50 yards of the bird’s approach.

    April 17, 2014

  • 041314 Ellis.jpg Spring break is an attitude

    Finally, warmer weather has arrived to the Mountain State. I’m told, it’s socially acceptable to be late nowadays and there is even a term for it — being fashionably late. Of course, I have also been told that camo is the new black in fashion. I don’t care much for tardiness, or for fashion for that matter, but I am perfectly content with the weather forecaster’s report as of late. And if wearing camouflage is trendy, I will fit in just nicely at any social gathering.

    April 13, 2014 1 Photo

  • Coming soon to a garden near you: Hummingbirds!

    One of the things I look forward to each spring is the northbound migration of ruby-throated hummingbirds. Until 1997, that meant waiting until one showed up at my feeders. But that year a website (www.hummingbirds.net/map.html), began mapping hummers as they moved north.

    April 13, 2014

  • Morel mushrooms are a W.Va. delicacy, but be careful

    The morel mushroom is one of West Virginia’s best-known delicacies that grows wild in the woods statewide. Mushroom hunting is a wonderful way to get exercise and be in the outdoors at the same time. There is no expense involved, and a bag is all that is needed.

    April 13, 2014

  • 041014 Turkey Call Gettin’ ready for gobbler season: the mystical world of calling

    Do you think that calling wild turkeys into shotgun range is some sort of art form that can never be yours?

    April 9, 2014 1 Photo

  • Fishing is a good way to introduce kids to the outdoors

    Few experiences are more rewarding than introducing a child to the outdoors. I remember teaching my daughters at the age of 3 to recognize the voice of a barred owl — “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all!” They were amazed they could identify a bird without seeing it.

    April 6, 2014

  • ‘A river runs through it’

    He was a natural at reading water. Whether in a kayak, a whitewater raft or a fishing boat, he simply saw water differently than most. He was good, no doubt about it. When I was learning to row a raft down whitewater, I asked him for his guidance. He would sit in the back of the raft coaching me on waters and their currents. With his help, I too began to see the waters differently and read the river.

    April 6, 2014

  • 040314 turkey feather Gettin’ ready for gobbler season: Step two — scouting

    So you want more hero pictures this year crouched behind a big gobbler fanning his tail out? Either that or the ever popular gripping him around the neck and straining to hold up his 20 plus pounds?

    April 3, 2014 1 Photo

  • 033014 Ellis.jpg Sportsmen’s tax dollars prove very beneficial

    If you enjoy wildlife recreation and conservation, you may want to find the nearest sportsman in your neighborhood and shake their hand. Ultimately, it’s their spending of dollars on the equipment to fuel the passion of the lifestyle they cherish that brings in millions of dollars to our state for wildlife.

    March 30, 2014 1 Photo

  • You may know more bird songs than you think

    Early migrants began returning several weeks ago. Turkey vultures, killdeer, and phoebes were probably as befuddled by the late winter weather as we were. But by early April, we should be safe from any more extended cold snaps. And that means the parade of returning migratory birds will accelerate every week.

    March 30, 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
Raw: Greeks Celebrate Easter With "Rocket War" Police Question Captain, Crew on Ferry Disaster Raw: Orthodox Christians Observe Easter Rite Ceremony Marks 19th Anniversary of OKC Bombing Raw: Four French Journalists Freed From Syria Raw: Massive 7.2 Earthquake Rocks Mexico Captain of Sunken SKorean Ferry Arrested Raw: Fire Destroys 3 N.J. Beachfront Homes Raw: Pope Presides Over Good Friday Mass Raw: Space X Launches to Space Station Superheroes Descend on Capitol Mall Man Charged in Kansas City Highway Shootings Obama Awards Navy Football Trophy Anti-semitic Leaflets Posted in Eastern Ukraine Raw: Magnitude-7.2 Earthquake Shakes Mexico City Ceremony at MIT Remembers One of Boston's Finest Raw: Students Hurt in Colo. School Bus Crash Raw: Church Tries for Record With Chalk Jesus Raw: Faithful Celebrate Good Friday Worldwide Deadly Avalanche Sweeps Slopes of Mount Everest