Dusk was overtaking the field, but the action was just heating up. “Peent!” The sound pierced the evening sky. “Peent!” There again was the insistent nasal call.
As we peered into the twilight, a bird shot straight up and then began a dizzying spiral dance as it gained altitude. Fifty feet. A hundred. Two hundred. The wings twittered as it continued to rise to more than 300 feet.
Suddenly, the bird dropped to the earth, wings atwitter, landing almost exactly where it sprang into the sky. And then he did it again.
Age and injuries have limited my birding in recent years, but the trip to see this fanciful flight was easy. We had walked just a few yards from the parking lot to the lek, the name given to these wonderful aerial display grounds. Woodcocks congregate at leks at dawn and dusk during mating season.
The male American woodcock (Scolopax minor) is a master of flight and the star attraction. Often hidden on the ground, the female can be hard to see, but she is nearby, watching the courtship displays.
We were overlooking a field, but leks can occur on park grounds and even peoples’ backyards. The birds simply need an undisturbed area with a bit of cover nearby.
Woodcocks are among the first birds to migrate each year. Although they winter in the U.S. South, woodcocks give the season short shrift. They head north as early as January. March is a prime time to see woodcock displays in much of the Chesapeake watershed. Even February sightings are fairly common.
The American woodcock is an unusual bird. Technically considered a shorebird, the woodcock has short legs, short rounded wings and a stubby tail. The bird is more likely to be found in damp forests than on any beach. It eats earthworms, grubs and beetles, not aquatic life. In many ways, it seems more upland game bird than shorebird; more grouse than egret.
Outside the lek, woodcocks are hard to see. The bird stands close to the ground, often among the loose twigs, sticks and dead leaves that line forest floors and fields. It is camouflaged in a scrubby mix of tan, black, buff, white, brown and a rusty red. The light-and-dark bands on its head are one of the few feather patterns that seem orderly. It has a long sturdy bill with a unique flexible tip that assists in nabbing its prey.
Woodcocks are largely nocturnal, although they may sometimes be seen feeding during the day. Typically, they forage alone, making it even more difficult to find them.
The woodcock feeding method is as distinctive as its mating flight. The 18-inch bird slowly moves among field or early forest growth. It stamps its tiny feet as it walks, giving the bird an odd rocking motion. The foot stomp presumably results in a vibration that causes worms and other such creatures to move, alerting the woodcock to their presence. The bird’s long, probing bill makes quick work of them.
Woodcocks have large, black eyes with a bold black stripe. The eyes are set far back on the head, enabling the woodcock to see trouble overhead even with its head down while feeding.
The woodcock is a bird of the Eastern United States. Its permanent range stretches along the Atlantic Coast from Connecticut to Georgia and across much of the South. Some birds are short-distance migrants. They fly up to the Great Lakes region or New England, even crossing over into Canada. They might also stop anywhere along the way.
A female will scratch out a small depression in the earth and line it with some leaves, where she will lay up to five eggs. She incubates them for three weeks before the single annual brood hatches. The males provide no assistance during this period. In fact, they are frequently trying to court other females. Multiple mates are common.
The chicks leave the nest within hours of hatching. The female will help the youngsters find food for the first week, but then the young are on their own.
Population counts of these cryptically colored birds are very difficult, but the consensus among scientists is that the species is in a slow decline. The harsh early days of life are only partly to blame. The loss of second growth forests and forested wetlands has resulted in the contraction of critical habitat for the species.
The gathering darkness finally forced an end to the acrobatic flights and nasal peents. As we returned to the nearby car, I recalled Dylan Thomas’ famous poem, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. The woodcocks’ message this evening seemed to be the same: We should keep striving until the final light goes out.