No, these are not the new baby names that have finally beat out Jacob, Aidan, and Ethan for most popular; they are names for a secretive creature that makes itself known each Spring. The story of my latest encounter follows…
Last night, as the evening’s light wore thin, I found myself sitting around a table with 6 other biologists, anxiously awaiting a masterful repast of two authentic chicken-and-mole dishes that were painstakingly prepared. Just as they were about to be served to the famished group, a faint “PEENT” was heard through the closed windows, and seven biologists snapped to attention with the proper answer to the call:
We ran outside and 60m distant, sitting on the gravel driveway, was the small bird responsible for all of the ruckus. Variously described as “chunky”, “neckless”, and “plump”, the American Woodcock is a strange creature of the half-light, lost in the murky shades of dusk when it emerges from nearby woodlands to display for passing females. It can be difficult to spot woodcock because they typically choose scrubby fields for their display arenas. This night we were lucky, as the surrounding fields were under 6 inches of heavy spring snow, and the woodcock had chosen the road as the only clear spot around to sit between skydancing bouts.
(picture courtesy of USFWS)
What is a skydance?
A skydance is the colloquial name for the aerial displays of the woodcock. After several minutes of “PEENT”-ing, he took to the air with an explosive burst of wingbeats. These same wings have modified feathers that make a twittering sound as he spirals up 200-300 feet into the air. At the peak of this flight, he begins his downward plunge back down, jabbing back and forth through the sky, his wingfeathers now making a series of louder, liquidy chips and chirps. Finally, he swoops back to ground, landing near his former resting place and beginning to PEENT again.
This display is performed at dusk; as Aldo Leopold cautions in A Sand County Almanac, “the dancer demand[s] a romantic light intensity of exactly 0.05 foot-candles”, and you can get quite close to their resting spots while they are dancing. In the end, we wound up about 3m from a BEENT-ing male in the gloaming, and I got the best view of a live woodcock that I have ever had. We had positioned ourselves nearby his last resting spot, and during his descent he nearly ran into us, banking at the last second and landing nearby, only to resume “PEENT”-ing once more.