They travel in darkness, flapping toward the snowline as it retreats north. By dawn they settle into thickets to slurp earthworms from the softening ground. At dusk, they dance.
We speak, of course, of that doe-eyed early migrant, forest-dwelling sandpiper, and welcome sign of spring known by many names: Timberdoodle. Bogsucker. Labrador Twister. American Woodcock.
Whatever you call Scolopax minor, getting a good look at one can be tricky. Urban birders sometimes spot these chunky, sword-billed oddballs hunkered down in city parks, resting on their voyages between their wintering grounds in the southern United States and their breeding areas in young-growth forests throughout the East and into Atlantic Canada. (Sadly, city dwellers too often also find woodcocks stunned or killed in collisions with buildings.) But out in the country, where timberdoodles have plenty of places to hide, their furtive behavior and camouflaged plumage—with the colors of wet logs, leaf litter, and decaying ferns—makes them near-impossible to see.
Except for when they dance. At twilight, along their spring migration route and on their breeding grounds, male American Woodcocks perform a quirky mating ritual all their own. The spectacle begins with the bird issuing a series of nasally peent calls from the ground. Here’s the play-by-play on what ensues, from the great naturalist Aldo Leopold’s “Sky Dance” essay in his classic A Sand County Almanac:
Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter. Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began, and there resumes his peenting.
This free nightly show is as good an excuse as any to get outside and shake off cabin fever. It begins when the weather is getting warmer but before hordes of hungry mosquitoes are roving the woods in search of birders. “That’s part of the experience, just to be outside, watch that sunset, be out in that twilight time,” says Alex Fish, a doctoral student at the University of Maine whose research aims to answer some basic questions about woodcock migration—such as when they leave their wintering grounds and where they stop to rest—by outfitting birds with satellite transmitters.
It’s also one of the best ways to see these secretive birds. Woodcocks are known for another type of dance, their back-and-forth boogie thought to be a way of rustling up worms. But they bust those moves on the ground, where you’re lucky to get a glimpse. The sky dance, on the other hand, happens out in the open. “This is kind of as crazy and conspicuous as they get,” says Brent Rudolph, chief conservation and legislative officer for the Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society. “There’s kind of a unique accomplishment about, ‘How am I gonna go out and see these little dudes?’”
If you want to go out and see these little dudes—doodles?—do their whirling spring dance, here are some tips to give you the best chance of success.
Scout a good location
First, make sure you’re looking in the right part of the world. Woodcocks spend their winters in lowland areas from eastern Texas to the Carolinas and breed mostly in states to the north and in southern Canada. They perform their sky dance not only on their breeding grounds, but along their migration route and even before they leave their wintering areas, Fish and Rudolph say.
To have a good chance of seeing a woodcock, you’ll need to identify places with the right kind of habitat. The birds spend most of their time in dense stands of alders, poplars, and other young forests with soggy soil. To perform their display flights, however, they need open spaces adjacent to those woods, typically from about a half-acre to a couple of acres in area. These singing grounds often include pastures, recently logged clearings, and power line rights-of-way. “You’re not likely to see them out in the middle of a vast, open Illinois cornfield,” Rudolph says.
If you’re not sure where to find woodcocks near you, the satellite view on Google Maps can be a good way to locate some likely spots with the right combination of shrubby woods, open areas, and public access.
Pick your moment
The best time of the spring to see the sky dance depends on where you are. In southern states like Kentucky and Virginia, displaying typically peaks in early April, says Rudolph. In Ohio, Illinois, or Indiana, late April is usually best. In the northern parts of New England and the Great Lakes region, the action heats up in May. But as soon as the snow melts, the first woodcocks of spring usually aren’t far behind, so it doesn’t hurt to start looking before those peak times.
As far as the time of day, your best bet is to get to the woods right around sunset. If woodcocks are nearby, it shouldn’t take long to find out: They’ll reliably start their crepuscular cavorting 15 to 20 minutes after sunset. (Finding a spot to sit on the eastern edge of the singing grounds can make it easier to see the spiraling birds against the remaining light in the west.)
The dance usually lasts for half an hour or more, but when the moon is especially bright it can go on all night. If you’re a morning person, you can also catch a show just before dawn.
Know what to listen for
If you are near a woodcock displaying site, the birds will give themselves away. On the ground, they repeat the peent sound over and over for maybe a minute. It travels well and should help you home in on their location. Then, you’ll hear a rapid twittering sound produced by air through the bird’s primary feathers as it takes off on its whirling ascent. When you hear this whistling sound, scan the sky for the dancing bird’s silhouette. Once the woodcock reaches the apex of his spiral flight, which can be as high as a football field is long, you’ll hear something else during the descent—the smoochy, dolphinesque sound that starts at the one-minute mark here. There’s still some disagreement about whether this sound is also produced by feathers, if it’s vocal, or if it’s a combination.
Do not disturb
Both the eastern and central subpopulations of American Woodcocks have been declining for decades, mostly because the young-forest habitat they need is getting harder to find, so it’s important not to add stress to their spring ritual.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take much effort to observe the sky dance in a responsible way, Fish and Rudolph say. The main idea is to keep a reasonable distance and try to remain inconspicuous. Stay along the edge of the singing grounds, rather than walking out into the open, and try to duck down so you blend into the thicket. When you hear that first peent, sit back and enjoy the show.