On Sunday night my daughter, Emma, will be dancing with her teammates. She’s a freshman on Cornell University’s basketball team, and after a three-way, regular season tie with Harvard and Dartmouth, Cornell won the right to represent the Ivy League in the women’s NCAA Division 1 basketball tournament — the big dance.
That’s the good news; the bad news is that Cornell’s first round game is with the University of Connecticut, the top-ranked team in the land. At least they’re dancing, and that’s every players dream.
As much as I’m anticipating the biggest dance of Emma’s life, I’ve been watching another dance here on the ridge for the last 10 days. American woodcock are back, and on warm, late winter nights they dance up a storm.
Woodcock are plump, quail-size migratory birds that weigh 6 or 7 ounces. Though classified taxonomically as shorebirds, woodcock live in damp, lowland woods. They usually return in late February, but I can always count on them in March.
In hand, a woodcock’s huge, dark eyes and long bill dominate its appearance. 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. Since woodcock spend so much time with their bills in the ground, their near 360-degree field of vision helps them detect aerial predators. During daylight hours, “probe holes” and whitewash splash are the best evidence of these odd birds.
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 on.
But in spring, woodcock are best known for their song and dance routine. The show typically begins at dusk in an opening near the woods. It could be an overgrazed pasture, a gravel pit, or even an interstate highway median strip. Males emerge from the woods and search for patches of poor soil with minimal vegetation. Dense ground cover hinders the movement of these short-legged birds.
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 watch the show, creep into position just before dark and wait.
The performance begins with a loud, exclamatory, nasal “Peent!” It’s reminiscent of the summertime call of common nighthawks. A few minutes later, another nasal “peent” sounds. Soon the peculiar calls come faster and faster; after a few minutes, the time between calls can be measured in seconds.
Suddenly the calls stop abruptly, and the bird jumps into the sky. He ascends in an ever-widening spiral flight to a height of 250 to 300 feet. At that point he hovers momentarily, then descends in zig-zag fashion, almost like a falling leaf. Air rushing through the three stiff outer wing feathers makes whistling sounds and is accompanied by a liquid, vocal twitter. In his classic A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold calls this show the “sky dance,” and at twilight or on moonlit nights silhouettes can be seen.
Upon landing, the male fans his tail and wings and struts about boldly, hoping that at least one hen will find his dance irresistible. If one or several females succumb to the charm of the dance, the birds mate. If there are no takers, the dance continues.
Woodcock “dances” peak at dusk and dawn from early-March through early May. Males are promiscuous; they mate with any hen that ventures inside the territory.
Out west on prairies and sage lands, there are other forms of “March madness.” Prairie chickens, sharp-tailed grouse, and sage grouse gather on communal mating grounds called leks where males face off, stomp their feet, flap their wings, jump off the ground, and make distinctive “woooing” vocalizations. Fortunately for birders, these dances occur during daylight hours.
Here in the east, moonlit nights provide the best chance for observing the dance of the woodcock. But remember, most of the show will be heard, not seen.
X Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or via e-mail my Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com.