Woodcock Mating Ritual - January 23, 1995

Bert Frenz, 1995

Brown Thrashers warned us of the coming night with there clucking noises as they found a place to roost. Their muffled performance also served as the warm-up act for the featured guests - male American Woodcocks entertaining their mates.

A dozen birders gathered in Robert's field at 5:30 PM to enjoy the January 23rd show. The Brown Thrashers started their act at 6 PM just as the sun disappeared behind the horizon. We stood motionless and soundless in the chilled evening air waiting for the signal that the main performance would soon begin. A few minutes later we heard a woodcock start its frog-like beeping noise in a distant field. At Robert's command we advanced across one field, navigated a barbed wire fence and entered the roadway paralleling the field claimed by the signaling woodcock. We waited patiently at the gate trying to locate the source of the call. Suddenly the woodcock rocketed into the air. In the darkened sky we caught glimpses of the circling bird as it climbed to 200 feet. Its song changed to a breathy whistling sound. Was it wings or larynx that caused the sound? After a minute of wide circles and whistling sounds we could hear a new note which grew into a full song. When it abruptly stopped, we knew the woodcock was diving and in a few seconds we saw a ghostly dark shadow cross the lighter pattern of tall grass. The woodcock descended to the ground on the path ahead of us. Its chubby dark outline and pencil shaped bill were obvious even in the night darkness. The first flight finished at 6:15.

We climbed through the second barbed wire fence to move closer down the path toward the woodcock. We could hear baritone beeping noises again. But it seemed to alternate between louder and softer volume. Closer observation showed the woodcock was rotating and the volume changes were like trumpets in a band facing first toward and then away from the audience. Without warning, the woodcock's dance ended as the bird took off at a low angle, slowly banking as it gained altitude. Larry demonstrated superior night vision by tracing the flight with his outstretched arm, although most of us couldn't see the bird even with his pointing aid. But even in the dark, the woodcock's songs told us it was above us. And it wasn't alone. We could hear another performance going on in the next field.

For the next half-hour we were treated to ten flights by the same woodcock. We managed to approach closer and closer until we were within eight yards of the landing zone. During the tenth flight we tried getting even closer, but the woodcock outsmarted us and landed on the far end of the field. The still silence of the evening signaled the end of the show. We'll have to wait until next January for an encore.

 

The Encore - February 13, 1997

Bert Frenz, 1997

Last year was a no show, so it was with delight that I got Mike’s E-mail announcing a new woodcock territory. He had chanced upon the rural field on a wet melancholy Wednesday and witnessed an early 6 PM flight precipitated by the darkened cloud storm. I forwarded his E-mail to other Auduboners and met two of them at the wet field while the skies were still bright.

We started the dusk countdown at 5:50 with cardinals chirping as they settled in for the night. Robins then added their announcement of the setting sun, but rustled from tree to tree, uncertain as to which one offered the best roost. At 6:05 I turned at a sound reminiscent of a strange shorebird which, even more strangely, turned into a kestrel calling from a high utility pole. I couldn’t tell if we were the cause of his constant alarms or whether he too was waiting for the woodcock. As the light dimmed I could barely identify a Field Sparrow nestling in green yaupon, but a Great Blue Heron winging its way across the field was unmistakable. The increasing tempo of the bird sounds gave me the sensation that the woodcock was sure to be next to join the chorus. And then it bugled, precisely at 6:15 PM. It had been two years since I heard the sound, but it was unmistakably an American Woodcock announcing his presence 150 yards ahead of us, beyond the deep grass and before a cluster of Post Oaks.

The woodcock kept up his cadence for several minutes, then suddenly stopped. After a 30 second interlude another (or was it the same?) woodcock sounded off in the next field. The throaty buzz continued until light conditions met the woodcock’s satisfaction. He stopped abruptly and within seconds we could hear his wings whirling and then saw the bat-like fluttering that was the cause of strange noise. With enormous energy expenditure, the woodcock winged himself ever higher, his direct flight soon angling to form a circular pattern clearly visible against the darkening clouds. As he reached his apex he began leveling off and while we could still hear the wings, he began his beautiful mating song. But the twittering was short winded and in silence he plunged to the ground near the spot where we heard the bird first. Two more flights we watched before the blackened skies matched the dark chocolate body.

Without sight, I concentrated more on the sounds. In his floor show the Woodcock offered 23-28 repetitions of the bugle call, separated by 3 second intervals. The ascending flight whistling lasted about as long as the floor show, but the high altitude love song was less than 15 seconds and the descent but a few more. Ten repetitions of the three-act play took us until 6:40. Our feet were cold and wet and the wind was chilling our bodies, but it was another great show this year.


For a sound recording of the woodcock's preent call and twitter sound, go to Robert Benson's web page and select Sound Archive and then click on Samples

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Last updated:  April 20, 2004