Coming up the back porch steps, I glanced up at the skies above the door. I paused and turned around and looked at the bare ground in the backyard. There wasn’t nearly enough snow this winter to do any skiing or snowshoeing. The only significant amount of snow was 10 inches a couple of weeks ago while I was out of the state and I missed it. It fell while I was gone and melted before I got home. Last week’s 50 degree temps made quick work of it.
There’s still time to get a good old fashioned blizzard or at least another foot or so of wet snow. Heaven knows, the farmers know how dry things are gonna be by planting time.
It was just after sunset and a heavy wet snow came straight down and started to blanket the dark ground.
Then from the willow thicket along the creek and behind the barn, came a true song of spring. The familiar peenting of a male woodcock. Along with his song he brings his ceremonial spring dance.
I was delighted to hear him. He seemed like an old friend who I haven’t seen for a long time. The woodcock is not outdone when it comes to his tireless courtship antics.
He’ll find a small 10 yard opening in the willows or alders. This land he dubs his territory. From this spot he will try to lure in a lady love as she passes by on her migration.
His plump little brown, softball sized body struts around in circles as his head and long bill bob up and down. Every few seconds he gives out a nasal peent! He keeps this up for several minutes then all of a sudden, with a whirl of whistling wings, he’s off. High up over the trees and he begins to fly a wide circle around his mating ground below. I can just make him out against the night blue sky and I follow his whistling wings as he completes the full circle. All at once the sound of his wings is gone and he starts his wonderful descent.
Straight down he dives, breaking with his round wings. He fans his tail as he drops and the tail feathers part in the middle as a choppy squeaking sound comes form the air rushing through them. It’s his way of letting everyone in the area know that this is his spot. Especially other woodcocks. Finally, he gently flutters to the ground and quickly begins his fancy strutting and peenting again. This remarkable show continues all night, every night and will go on for two months.
The woodcock or timberdoodle, is a nocturnal bird who feeds at night by probing his long beak into the soft ground and mud for worms. They start coming through here around the end of February and begin their courtship immediately. I have seen a female on her eggs on the 25th of February, making them one of the earliest birds to start nesting in south central Wisconsin.
I mark the spot where the peenting was coming form. If I am quiet, I might sneak up close enough to see him on the ground. There was still just enough light. Letting his call lead me, I was able to sneak up to the edge of his little clearing. There he was, marching around like a wind-up toy. Then up he went and started his circling flight. His dive was spectacular and he fluttered down right in front of me. Satisfied I slowly backed away and made tracks for the house. Ah! There’s nothing like Spring, down nature’s trail.
The courtship of the woodcock is one of my favorite rites to witness each spring. Unfortunately each year I hear fewer and fewer of them. I hope they don’t disappear from the farmland of central Wisconsin. Spring just wouldn’t be the same without them.
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