Spring arrives in fits and starts. For many it is the longer days and warmer temps that say “spring is here,” while for others the signs are more subtle: the first flowers that bloom (around here that is usually coltsfoot), the first robin in the yard, the first thunderstorm echoing across the mountains. For me, each “first” is another stepping stone bridging the gap between winter and summer, and one of my favorites is the flight of the woodcock.
Woodcocks are odd-looking birds, resembling something that may have been desiged by a committee: the body is squat and compact with a dinky head, an impossibly long beak, and large eyes placed in such a way that the bird almost appears cross-eyed. In fairness, the eye placement really is to the woodcock’s best advantage, since it gives the bird nearly 360 degrees of vision, allowing it to see above its head, in front of its face, and along both sides. I suspect its periferal vision picks up movement from behind as well. And that beak, well, it may look goofy (like a bird with a straw stuck to its face), but it also has some marvelous adaptations: the end is highly flexible and has a sensitive tip that is able to sense worms underground, worms being the woodcock’s preferred food.
But the characteristic that makes this game bird near and dear to the hearts of many a naturalist is the male’s courtship display. You just know that spring is here when you head outside in the evening, right after sunset, and your ears pick up the unmistakable buzzy nasal peent coming from the ball field, golf course, or yard. That would be the male woodcock out strutting his stuff in an open area, hoping to win the heart of a nearby female. But, wait! There’s more! After a few peents, the bird takes off for the sky, twittering away in an almost musical way, ascending the heights in ever-increasing spirals. And when you can no longer see his silhouette agaist the darkening sky, the sound changes to chirping, popping noise as the bird plummets back towards earth in a series of death-defying zigzags. The sounds stop suddenly (the bird is now 50-100 feet aloft), and he lands, only to start strutting and peent-ing once more. As if this weren’t enough to grab one’s attention, note this: the sounds made as he is airborne are not vocalizaions; they are created by the wind created by his flight interacting with his feathers!
I urge you to step out some evening this spring, when the temperature is above freezing, and find yourself a good open space near some woods. Dress warmly and tune your ears for the insect-like peent near the ground. Locate the bird if you can and wait for an aerial display that will impress even the youngest members of your family. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.