Sunday, February 15, 2009

Woodcock Love

We just returned from the annual Valentine's Day Woodcock Walk, postponed by a day due to weather. John Connors from the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and Wake Audubon has led this trip for 30 years now—a hike into the woods to see, but mostly hear, the bird's spring mating ritual. Though so many aspects of wildlife watching are unpredictable, the male woodcock's display is rather like clockwork—between 6 and 6:30 p.m. (around these parts), from mid-February to early March. The male issues his repetitive nasal "peeent" sound while on the ground, soon thereafter takes to the sky on whistling wings, then warbles on his meteoric descent. Back on terra firma, he hopes to find an interested female in wait.

Before the show begins, Connors does his traditional reading from Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac (1949), excerpted here:
"The stage props, like the opening hour, reflect the temperamental demands of the performer. The stage must be an open amphitheater in woods or brush, and in its center there must be a mossy spot, a streak of sterile sand, a bare outcrop of rock, or a bare roadway. Why the male woodcock should be such a stickler for a bare dance floor puzzled me at first, but I now think it is a matter of legs. The woodcock's legs are short, and his struttings cannot be executed to advantage in dense woods or weeds, nor could his lady see him there. ..."

"Knowing the place and hour, you seat yourself under a bush to the east of the dance floor and wait watching against the sunset for the woodcock's arrival. He flies in low from some neighboring thicket, alights on the bare moss, and at once begins the overture: a series of queer throaty peents spaced about two seconds apart, and sounding much like the sound of the nighthawk."

"Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters upward, emitting a musical twitter. Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet from the ground, he levels off and returns to the peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began, and there resumes his peenting."

"It is soon too dark to see the bird on the ground, but you can see his flights against the sky for an hour, which is the usual duration of the show. On moonlit nights, however, it may continue, at intervals, as long as the moon continues to shine."
It would be a thing indeed to photograph the flamboyant mating display of this otherwise reclusive bird. Exceptional vantage and light would be required, I daresay. You can check out Cornell's Laboratory of Ornithology for a still shot of the bird.

Meanwhile, Ian took these photos as we walked.


sweet bay said...

We have woodcocks here on our farm. I can never see the courtship flight, but I hear them all of the time and occasionally see them whizzing like a rotund bullet from the woods.

Carla said...

You are so lucky!