Woodcock mating displays

One of our most eagerly anticipated signs of spring is the onset of woodcock mating displays, which are an visual and audio highlights of a Midwestern spring if you know where to observe them. This farm has the right mix of open ground and shrubby cover that attract woodcocks in mating season, and late February through early March will find us out at dusk many nights enjoying the show.

Woodcocks are unusual birds, fat and round with a really long bill. They’re very hard to observe for most of the year, maintaining their quiet reclusive lifestyle on the forest floor. But come spring the males can be seen displaying in open areas with nearby brush. Starting at dusk, the male performs a two part display, beginning with a loud, squawking “peent” and finishing with an acrobatic, twittery display flight that twists and turns, often beyond the range of human sight, before plummeting back to earth to start the cycle over.

The starting date here varies (with our first observations each year being 2/27/2007, 3/6/2008, 2/21/2009, 3/6/2010, 2/28/2011). This year we had the unusual occurrence of hearing peenting with no display, starting 2/22 and 2/26-2/27, before the full display began the evening of March 1st. We noticed that on the March 1st display, another woodcock flew into the area shortly after peenting began, and wonder if the full display flight doesn’t occur until a female is present to witness it.

This was a wonderful evening, the kind we wish more people could experience. We went out just before 6pm to do animal chores as the sun set, getting down to the goat barn around 6:15pm. Our lone Woodcock this year has been starting up between 6:10-6:15 and was right on time, peenting from the brushy edge of our north pasture. We dealt with the goats and settled down in the grass to listen and watch, while the clear, still sky slowly faded into stars and the warm day’s air began to chill. Spring peepers, off to a strong start in these warm conditions, provided a background chorus.

The first display flight stayed low enough to follow the entire flight pattern, an unusual treat, while subsequent ones went beyond sight as usual. Later flights tend to be harder to follow due to the dimming light, as well, though the sound is still worthwhile. Meanwhile, the silhouettes of four Wood Ducks dropped out of the sky onto our pond, making the soft whistling typical of these birds in flight. They didn’t stay long, possibly not finding enough cover, but represented the first sighting of the year. A Great Blue Heron cruised slowly across the northern sky, also a first for the year. Barred Owls called from several locations, and a migrating Killdeer passed overhead. Active mosquitoes represented another first for the year, this time not so welcome.

We watched at least four full display cycles before it got dark enough, and chilly enough, for us to head in, probably only 15-20 minutes in all. But such brief moments capture the feel of spring here, and are part of the joy of an outdoor life.

CSA members are welcome to join us any evening next week (the weekend evenings will be a bit cold) to try and catch Woodcock displays and any other evening events, with advance notice of at least a couple hours. You’ll need to be here by just before 6pm, to give us time to walk out to the north pasture and settle in. No guarantees of anything, but the forecast for warm weather and the start of displays make this coming week the best chance. Email or calls are fine.

If you can’t make it out here, or are not a CSA member, Woodcocks have been reported on eBird  this year at Forum Nature Area, Rocky Fork CA, and Eagle Bluffs CA (zoom in to Boone County on the link above to see reports). We’ve also been told that Stevens Lake Park is a good location for displays, though haven’t tested that ourselves.

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