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 email sshala...@aol.com.