| March 14, 2013 | 0 Comments

Just last night I heard my first American Woodcock of 2013, calling. Peenting. Where I live in Columbia County, NY, these birds are as true a harbinger of spring as any passage of geese or flock of blackbirds. 

Ever since I heard and subsequently saw my first American Woodcock displaying some 10+ years ago I’ve been fascinated with these creatures. Working as a nest searcher on the Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, MA, I spent as much time mesmerized by the American Woodcock we discovered on her nest as I did with the countless Grasshopper Sparrows or Upland Sandpipers. Well, I could go on and on about my love of “Peenter Pan”, but instead, I decided to dig out an article I wrote and illustrated for the local Alan Devoe Bird Club back in 2009 (Volume 51, Number 4, April, 2009). Enjoy!



“I owned my farm for two years before learning that the sky dance is to be seen over my woods every evening in April and May. Since we discovered it, my family and I have been reluctant to miss even a single performance.”

These are the words that open up Sky Dance, a poetic essay in Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac about the peculiar, yet inspiring aerial display of the male American Woodcock which takes place every spring at dusk and dawn.

Widely regarded as an environmental classic, A Sand County Almanac is a collection of conservation essays that are perhaps some of the most influential of all time. Like few books before, and few since, it has spurred legions to further seek experience in the great wonders of our natural world and to conserve what we find. The sky dance of the American Woodcock is one such wonder, and those of us that live in the eastern half of the United States are truly blessed by the presence of this woodland-loving shorebird and its crepuscular display.

At 11 inches with a round body, large head, and long bill, the American Woodcock is a bird whose presence should be easily detected. However, its cryptic plumage, one of dead leaves on a forest floor, is coupled with a hermitic nature, and as a result, a fairly common forest denizen goes practically unnoticed. That is except for in the spring. Between the months of March and May in the Northeast, male American Woodcocks perform an aerial display to attract females that is unlike any other in the region.

At dusk the male emerges from his secretive wooded haunts to an open grassy field where he begins to announce his presence with a series of nasal, nighthawk-like “peents” spaced about two to three seconds apart. After a short series of calls, he quickly rises up into the air in a wide arcing spiral creating a sharp chirping trill produced from his modified primary feathers that gets louder as he goes. The spiral tightens as he gains altitude to a point where he is a mere speck in the sky at which point he falls back to Earth creating a bubbling warble that falls silent when he lands back at his previous takeoff platform and resumes peenting.

For weeks on end male woodcocks vie for the attention of females in this theatric manner, giving us plenty of opportunity to view this magnificent exhibition. Finding an open field surrounded by damp woods, if possible, sit yourself to its east. There you will watch the sun dip below the horizon as twilight encompasses the landscape and wait for the sky dance to begin.

With any luck you will hear the distant “peent” announcing the presence of a male timberdoodle, and with even greater luck that first “peent“will strike up a chorus of rival males. Don’t be surprised if you suddenly feel surrounded by these inconspicuous suitors. Listen closely for the twitter and trill of the first bird as it rises into the air, and try your best to spot him against the fading light in the sky. In doing so you will instantly be connected emotionally to his daily endeavors and trials, as well as the greater world he is a part of as he works tirelessly to become complete.

These are the moments that Aldo Leopold penned about so eloquently in the early 20th century. To know the natural world around us is to connect with it, and it is this very connection we need to inspire us to conserve our environmental treasures. In today’s hectic world, instead of becoming withdrawn into our homes, we should perhaps find solace and joy from the environment around us, even leisure.

Aldo Leopold, a visionary before his time realized this and in doing so has helped conservation efforts ever since. He perhaps said it best with his sensitive yet bold words, “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.”

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Chad Witko has been an avid birder and all-around naturalist since the age of 3. Graduating from SUNY-ESF in Syracuse, NY with his B.S. in Environmental and Forest Biology (2003), Chad has worked on avian conservation projects across the United States. Ranging from New England (Atlantic Puffin research in Maine and grassland bird work in Massachusetts) to the Mid-Atlantic (Semipalmated Sandpiper research on the Delaware Bay) to California (riparian and coastal scrub passerines), Chad has worked extensively throughout North America and across avian taxa. Chad is currently pursuing his M.S. degree as a graduate student at Antioch University New England in Keene, NH. Current research interests include the distribution of bird species across New Hampshire and North America. Residing in Wilton, NH with his wife, Lauryn, Chad continues to bring a holistic approach to birding while pursuing his interests of wildlife photography, nature tour guiding (eventually), and Chat Happens. For more information on Chad, please view his Bio page!


Category: Essays

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