The April Sky Dance
The Timberdoodle Courtship Takes Center Stage
Thursday, April 15, 2010 5:27 AM
Four of us walked silently up the gravel road past the locked gate and through the woods in the dusk, hoping not to surprise any black bears. Rustlings in the spruce thickets beside the road could be the bobcat I had seen the week before, or maybe the sow bear and her two cubs who roamed this part of Moosehorn Wildlife Refuge, a boggy, black spruce dominated tract just a few miles from the Canadian border.
Adult male on singing ground Photo by Cal Vomberger
Sources for this article: The Ruffed Grouse Society, "Woodcock Facts"; Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1948; The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies' Migratory Shore and Upland Game Bird Support Task Force, "Priority Information Needs for American Woodcock," March 15, 2010; Wildlife Management Institute, "American Woodcock Conservation Plan," February 2008.
At sunset, the field team had prepared for night duty by pulling on turtlenecks and ball caps, tucking our jeans into our socks, and strapping on tool belts before pulling mosquito nets down over our faces. We were aiming for a brushy field a half mile in from the gate where we would wait, quiet and unmoving: we were after the bird known locally as the bog sucker, also known as the mud bat and the timberdoodle -Scolopax minor, the American Woodcock.
Our goal was to catch these reclusive, long-billed, big-eyed birds in a net, weigh them, determine their sex and age, fit a little metal band with ID numbers on one leg, and let them go. Over time, banded birds either caught elsewhere or shot during hunting season would give US Fish and Wildlife biologists an indication of the size of the population and how far they wandered. Before becoming a reporter, I worked as a wildlife biology technician roaming across the country from one field job to the next. I tracked woodcock, both on their summer site at Moosehorn and at one of their wintering sites: the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge on the tip of the DelMarVa peninsula in Virginia. For a year, I tracked them over deadfalls and crawled through green briar patches, following them with a radio-tracking device. I got to know these weird-looking birds.
Woodcock are hunted for sport and food. The yearly take is in the hundreds of thousands: it used to exceed a million, but the bird population is on a slow decline. Given their secretive nature and corkscrew flight when flushed, the bird can be a challenge to shoot. They are known to be tasty, but the fact is, the woodcock is almost ridiculous as a game bird; they are just slightly larger than a robin and each bird provides enough meat to make a sandwich, no more. It would take half a dozen to make a meal.
Their greater value is less utilitarian. Their courtship dance is an early spring rite and one worth going out of the way for. Just before sunset and sunrise, in March and April, the male woodcock takes the stage in a field, choosing a spot that is sandy or bare. Sometimes a path will do. He may even choose a patch of remaining snow as his stage. He flies in just around dusk and for two hours, or more if the moon is up, this shy little bird puffs out his chest, stamps his feet and rocks back and forth as he paces in a circle, calling "peent, peent, peent" loudly enough to be heard several hundred yards away.
Abruptly, the courting male flies up above the field in wide circles, climbing two to three hundred feet up in a wide spiral, the wind twittering through his wings as he climbs, his silhouette visible against the darkening sky. Just as suddenly, he plunges back to the earth, spiraling down and gurgling sweetly on his way back to the dancing stage. There is a pause, and then the little feet stamp, the body bobs forward and back, and the peenting starts again.
Off stage, the females, who are attracted by the loud peents, assess the dance skills of their potential mates. The females don't do a courtship display. Instead, somehow, they decide "Hey, this guy is a pretty good dancer" and choose. Not for life, though, only for the moment. The male is back out on the dance floor looking for another lover as soon as the liaison is over.
Since the bulk of the dancing and singing takes place in dim light, I've learned that the best way to see the mating dance is to wait quietly in a field until the male takes flight. Woodcock, who have large dark eyes set far back in their head, are capable of almost 360-degree vision. They notice everything. Except when they are on an upward courtship flight. As soon as they take off, I run over to where they were peenting and lie down and wait. If I'm lucky, the male will land very close, and if I am very still, he will resume his foot stamping and peenting song and dance close enough for me to watch.
After mating, the female builds a ground nest and typically broods four pink, brown, and grey mottled eggs. They hatch out about three weeks later. Some chicks can emerge from the eggs as early as mid-April. Within hours of hatching, the chicks can walk and follow their mother. Like her, they blend into the brown leaves and shadows of the understory, and, like her, they don't flee if threatened. They freeze in place. After two weeks, the chicks are able to fly, and within four weeks, they are almost fully grown. At eight weeks, they are on their own.
Unlike crows or seagulls, woodcock do not easily adapt to change. Woodcock require a combination of habitats to survive. In fact, they need four habitat types and an abundance of earthworms.
Courtship sites must have fields and forests in close proximity; either a field next to a moist, young forest or a forest opening of at least a quarter acre. Nesting sites are usually nearby, in shrubby thickets and moist areas where woodcock can probe for earthworms, which make up 60 to 90 percent of their diet. In fact, their comically long bills are designed just for snagging earthworms. The birds stamp the ground, presumably to get the earthworms to wriggle a bit, then plunge their beaks in up to the hilt to snare the worm.
Larger fields are used for night roosts; woodcock fly in to sleep in the fields where there is, researchers believe, safety in numbers. They return to the young forest cover nearby at first light. In fall, the birds migrate to the southern United States where winter habitat requirements are a little less stringent, though adequate cover and fields are still part of the equation.
Fields and shrubby areas used by courting woodcock are on the decline, as alders start to take over the fields and then more trees grow in and the area is no longer suitable for the birds. Old abandoned farms just beginning the process of growing in are ideal woodcock habitat, as are clearcuts. But most old farms have already grown up into forest, or are being developed into house lots, and clearcutting is less commonly practiced than it once was. Either way, early stages of forest growth combined with scrubby fields nearby are on the decline and the numbers of woodcock are slowly trending downward as a result (about 1.2 percent decline per year, since the 1960s), though they are still easy to see at dusk on Beech Hill in Rockport, on Beech Hill in Northport, and in fields bordered by alder woods throughout the area. Easy to see, that is, if you are perfectly quiet and perfectly still.
At Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge a few miles outside of Calais, a checkerboard of woods and fields were cut across the boggy tract to create more woodcock habitat. It also turned out to be perfect habitat for black bear, moose, black flies, moose flies, and what I used to call Mack Truck flies because they were so large you could hear them coming and when they bit you, they left blood running down your scalp. They didn't seem to bother the woodcock.
Extensive managment on public land has helped preserve woodcock habitat; however, it is individual landowners with fields growing in that can do the most to improve habitat.
A Land Ethic
Aldo Leopold, who started out as a forester and became the country's first wildlife management professional and an advocate of wilderness, was also a hunter. That didn't contradict his love of the April sky dance, which he wrote of in his 1948 book, A Sand County Almanac.
The drama of the sky dance is enacted nightly on hundreds of farms, the owners of which sigh for entertainment, but harbor the illusion that it is to be sought in theaters. They live on the land, but not by the land.
The woodcock is a living refutation of the theory that the utility of a game bird is to serve as a target, or to pose gracefully on a slice of toast. No one would rather hunt woodcock in October than I, 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.
It is the sense that wildlife and wild areas must be useful and must return some economic return to be valuable that Leopold found did not fit with a larger ecological value of the land and its wildlife - that the pieces of the landscape fit together and have evolved to function together. For humans to tamper with that is probably inevitable, he pointed out, but Leopold thought we should adopt the larger view of being stewards of the land; to use it, but to make our decisions about when and how much to use not just based on self-interest, but on the ecological and aesthetic values that are not subject to a dollar sign. To put our value of the natural community in which we participate first and put our own self-interest second.
A Landowners Guide to Woodcock Management is available for free download at: www.umaine.edu/mafes/elec_pubs/mis-crepts/ne_woodcock.pdf.