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Dancing on Earth and Sky

The American Woodcock

The American Woodcock

By Ranger Steve Mueller

At dusk the dancing begins in earnest. The American Woodcock’s age-old mystery of mate attraction occurs in field and overhead. Most people never notice. That suits the woodcock perfectly. Its intent is to woo a mate and not to draw undue attention from other species. In the 1980’s and 90’s I led woodcock workshops at Howard Christensen Nature Center (HCNC).

Annually groups come to Ody Brook Sanctuary to observe the spring foot stomping, instrumental wing twittering, and vocal display. Just before dark I’ve heard what sounded like a wood frog call in the field and momentarily from that location a woodcock began peenting. I have not found others that have noticed this frog-like call. The woodcock is making the sound. I have pointed it out to people but I still have not seen it described in scientific literature. New discoveries await avid nature niche explorers.

The bird’s peenting is most notable. A peent is a nasal buzz-like sound repeated several times while the bird is on the ground before it takes aerial flight where it then circles high in the sky. The bird at height becomes a dot and often disappears in white atmospheric moisture. Soon a clicking sound starts and one knows the bird is descending toward Earth. It is necessary to keep a broad scan on the landscape to see where the bird returns at low angle for another round of ground peenting and aerial flight.

The first week of May, a class of 20 master naturalists came to observe. We entered the dancing grounds at 9 p.m. and waited. After five minutes, the first woodcock flew low overhead and landed 100 feet from us. Peenting began and we watched several rounds of the dance. Twice a bird flew and landed within twenty feet of us. We all played statue. It was getting dark so only our silhouettes revealed our presence. The bird made several repeated quiet hick-up sounds (the frog-like sound mentioned above). I suspect it wondered what these new inanimate objects were at the edge of its dance floor. It departed to land elsewhere in the field.

Twice on return from high sky circling, it flew low on a landing approach and made a guttural gurgle before aborting landing. I think it saw us. Perhaps it left from fear or maybe just caution. After landing at greater distance, it peented before taking flight again. As darkness increased, the woodcock was on the ground longer and peented more times before taking flight. On this night two woodcocks were active in the shrubby field opening.

Twice it landed close to us where we watched it take a few steps and peent. Sometimes it remained almost stationary stomping its short legs and turned in circles. When facing away from us, the peent sounded soft but when it faced our direction the sound magnified. The beak of a woodcock is nearly as long at the bird and gives it a strange appearance. It feeds in mud along streams, flood plains and swamps where it probes with its long beak for invertebrates. Its body is plump robin sized. They often nest on the ground in young aspen forests.

Visit the Howard Christensen Nature Center to view a century old bird display of two American Woodcocks. Frank Rackett mounted bird specimens between 1876 and 1936. Please become a member of HCNC to help support nature education programming and then participate in activities.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.

 

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