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 his 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.