Sky Dancer: The American Woodcock

Sky Dancer: The American Woodcock

Text and photo by Ames Bowman

Chances are you have heard the familiar “peent” call of the male American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) if you have ever ventured near a meadow at the edge of the forest on a spring or summer evening. From early March until early May, Huntley Meadows Park in Northern Virginia offers Evening Woodcock Walks for adults and families eager to witness and hear the male woodcock in action during its mating ritual. On Saturday, March 9, 2019, I attended such an event and here is what I learned about this fascinating bird.

Courtship Ritual Observation in Huntley Meadows Park

The American Woodcock is a regular visitor to Huntley Meadows Park and favors a habitat of both forested and heavily thicketed areas—making the diverse habitats there a prime spot for this migrant species. American Woodcocks are also known to be regular inhabitants of the area, depending on seasonal weather patterns and yearly migration behaviors of the species.

During the woodcock event, leader and naturalist, P.J. Dunn, explained that woodcocks are difficult to spot by day due to their impressive camouflaging feathers. However, they are easily recognizable by night with the distinct calls of the males in the breeding season that begins in early spring and lasts through the early summer months.

After our group became familiar with the peent call and courtship flight ruffling of the male American Woodcock during a quick educational presentation, we set out on the Evening Woodcock Walk during which we were treated to a chorus of calls at dusk. Our group made a short trek to a small and brushy clearing at the edge of a dense forest to observe the carefully coordinated courtship display. In great anticipation, we waited for the peent call. Not ten minutes passed when we began hearing this call from various points in the clearing, apparently by several male woodcocks. A very loud peent came from the brush not five yards from us; however, we were unable to spot the bird because it was so well camouflaged—a terrific technique to elude predators and eager bird enthusiasts, alike!

Male woodcocks use the peent call to attract a female for mating prior to and just after the main event of its courtship display: the sky dance. The male woodcock repeats this call for several minutes in the same location on the ground. Then, it launches 200 feet or higher into the sky to begin its dance, featuring the musical talents of specialized feathers and chirps. As it circles in the sky, the woodcock then makes twittering noises solely from the vibrations of its specialized feathers. When it begins its descent until about 70 feet off the ground, the woodcock vocalizes through kiss-like chirps to accompany its feather twitters in an elaborate display, still circling its initial point of departure on the ground. As it descends below 70 feet, the woodcock silences and returns to the ground—often in the exact location from which it departed—to begin the elaborate ruse once again. A single woodcock may repeat this ritual up to twenty times in a single evening!

While we were fortunate to hear all three sounds of the male American Woodcocks: the distinctive peent, the twitter of its feathers, and the vocalized chirps as they performed their aerial dance, we were not able to witness the sky dance in its entirety due to overcast skies. Then, the courtship displays came to an apparent abrupt halt when two Barred Owls (Strix varia) began engaging in their own mating ritual and calling back and forth to each other like caterwauling from the far edge of the clearing. As it turns out, it takes only two species to make a crowd!

Watch and listen to the sky dance of the American Woodcock Here. (Video credit: YouTube user MassLPWS.)

Fun Anatomy Facts about the American Woodcock

While on our excursion, we learned some interesting facts about the anatomy of the American Woodcock:

Its feathers, or plumage, allow for it to camouflage against dense thicket, brush, and forested areas. This makes it possible for the bird to nest and scavenge on or near the ground without detection by predators of ground and sky.

They have super long beaks, similar to sandpipers, to plunge into the ground and find insects. The tips of these beaks open slightly (like tweezers) to catch their snack. Earthworms are a staple item in the diet of the American Woodcock.

The bird has eyes far back and near the top of its skull. This is so it can keep its eyes above ground while its beak is prodding for food, reducing its vulnerability to predators.

Be a Birder!

You, too, can watch the American Woodcock and other birds! While early March till early May are ideal times to observe courtship rituals and migratory species that pass through the region before the onset of summer, Northern Virginia is home to many native birds that you can see year-round! Learn more about the state bird of Virginia that can be seen (and heard) in all seasons in a companion ARMN blog piece, “Virginia State Symbol: The Northern Cardinal.”

Whether you’re a beginner birder with a basic interest in nature or a pro, consider joining one or more bird walks at the nearby parks or with groups listed below. Make sure to check ahead before you venture out for information on where to meet, updates, weather-related cancellations, and other birding events. Happy birding!

Location Date & Time Website
Huntley
Meadows
Park
Every Monday, beginning at
7:00 AM
Huntley Meadows Park
Dyke
Marsh
Wildlife
Preserve
Every Sunday, beginning at
8:00 AM
Friends of Dyke Marsh
Audubon
Society of Northern
Virginia
Various dates and times,
parks throughout
Northern Virginia
Audubon Society of
Northern Virginia –
Bird Walks and Field Trips


1 thought on “Sky Dancer: The American Woodcock

  1. Very nice article. Makes me want to dust off the ‘ol binoculars and start psshing!
    Frank Dinan

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