Volume 13, Issue 12 ~ March 24 - 30, 2005
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Earth Journal
by Gary Pendleton

Woodcocks Do the Dance of Love

Fifteen minutes before sunset, some 15 humans waited in the parking lot of Jug Bay Wetland Sanctuary near the Patuxent River in Southern Anne Arundel County. The weather was fair for a March evening, about 60 degrees, with practically no wind.

By 6:20 the sun had officially set, but there was still much light in the sky. It might have been a beautiful sunset over the placid waters of the Patuxent River, but our attention was focused toward the eastern sky. Actually, we were focused on a field bordered on three sides by woods and the fourth by the lot where we stood watching and listening for woodcocks.

Woodcocks are odd-looking, rotund birds with long bills and eyes set way back on the sides of their heads. They are woodland birds but are related to sand pipers, and they make their living by probing the ground for earthworms and insects. Because they are nocturnal, shy and well camouflaged, they are seldom seen.

At dusk in March, male woodcocks advertise for mates by putting on a display. For us there would not be much to see, but there would be enough action to send us home satisfied.

But by 6:27, the humans murmured restlessly. Might the unseasonable weather be keeping the birds from displaying? We listened to the sounds of spring peepers and toads and watched the occasional bat flutter as the sky darkened from cerulean to cobalt blue.

At 6:33 it was really getting dark when the woodcock called — peent … peent … peent — from the edge of the field. The woodcock peented on for about six minutes in its buzzy, nasal voice. After the peenting came a whistling sound from the wings as it took to the air and circled the field. I followed its movements from the sound. It came so close that it seemed to be directly overhead, but I never caught a glimpse.

The whistling was followed by a sort of lip-smacking sound as it descended. After the lip-smacking there was a brief silent moment, then … peent. The woodcock had landed. The flight lasted less than one minute. The ritual was repeated at least two more times, maybe three.

After the third flight, the peenting tapered off. At 6:50, we humans left the birds to themselves.

In other years, I’ve observed the woodcock’s display in other places, where I’ve heard — but seen only a bare glimpse — three or more individuals. As far as I could tell, there was only one lonely male woodcock in the field that night. But I want to believe that, along with all the human observers, there was a female woodcock on hand to appreciate and reward his effort.

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