When I first became a serious birder while living in northern Virginia, I heard friends talk about the Amercian woodcock (Scolopax minor) and its extraordinary aerial displays in early spring. But I didn’t actually see one until we moved to the Barrington area adjacent to a Cook County forest preserve. To my surprise and delight, woodcocks displayed every spring in the field right down the slope from our house. My husband and I took our young children there at twilight on mild evenings in late March and early April to watch the show. Later I learned that some of the birds stayed in the area to nest.
So arresting is the woodcock’s spring courtship ritual that Aldo Leopold, in his conservation classic, Sand County Almanac, devotes a section of his April chapter to the bird, called “Sky Dance.” It remains the most lyrical description written of the bird’s evening aerial aerobatics.
I had read about the bird’s behavior and vocalization, so I knew what to look and listen for. Straight away I found it’s much easier to hear a woodcock than to see it. “Peent!” “Peent!” it calls from a spot usually in a shrubby field, almost always camouflaged by its cryptic plumage against dried grass. Early on I learned to listen really carefully and soon I became pretty adept at locating the bird, even in the fast-dimming light. It was – and still is – always a thrill.
There in front of me is this plump bundle of earth-toned feathers, with seemingly no neck and large black eyes near the top of its head and a straight, long bill, peenting away as it pivots ever so slightly in a circular pattern. Suddenly, with no perceptible warning, the woodcock rockets out of the turf, usually in a diagonal vector toward the sky with an audible, strong flutter of wings until it reaches the apex of its trajectory and circles for a minute or so with sounds that strike me as high-pitched chirping or twittering before it plummets once more to the ground, often to nearly the same spot it started, where it begins the performance all over again.
It is difficult to articulate the flavor that such an experience conveys. There is the anticipation (will one perform tonight? Is one even here?) as daylight wanes. Sometimes it’s cold, more often with a suggestion of coming spring warmth. Sometimes there are sounds of other birds retiring – song sparrows, cardinals – or of ones just becoming active, such as great horned owls. As the sky grows darker and darker and I begin to despair of a woodcock performance that evening, an unmistakable “Peent!” pierces the darkness – and my discouragement. From that moment on, the impact is utter transfixion. The ground pivot, the catapult from the grass, the effort to locate the silhouette of an avian rocket against a cobalt sky, then follow it as it circles high above – the unfolding performance engages every ounce of observation skill, every bit of attention. The quest is a challenging one, but what a deep sense of insight it offers into one of nature’s most magical dramas.
So far this year my only opportunity to search for woodcocks occurred on the evening of March 17. Because the field where I had first discovered them has been cleared for prairie restoration (a good thing!), I had to walk a long way to a shrubland where I had seen them in recent springs. As darkness fell, I heard thunderous booming and wondered if a storm was approaching. But the sky was clear. The noise continued – I almost didn’t hear the first peents when they began – and it dawned on me that somewhere not too distant, a town was celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with fireworks. At first I found the man-made noise annoying but as I walked home after watching and listening to the woodcock display for nearly a half hour, the juxtaposition of man-made fireworks and the spectacle of woodcocks, one of nature’s most interesting creatures, seemed fitting. And I was most grateful to be witness to the latter.
Barrington area naturalist and the author of our Birds of Barrington series here at 365Barrington.com, Wendy Paulson welcomes you to join her for this new season of walks. Cosponsored by Audubon Chicago Region and Citizens for Conservation, the walks are free and open to the public, though spaces are limited and RSVPs are required. Waterproof boots are strongly recommended for these hikes and don’t forget your binoculars!
April 7, 8 a.m.
Beese Park (Meet at Beese Park, east end of Cornell Avenue)
April 21, 8 a.m.
Beese Park (as above)
May 5, 7:30 a.m.
Baker’s Lake (parking lot on Highland Ave. south of Hillside Ave.)
May 12, 7:30 a.m.
Camp Reinberg (entrance on east side of Quentin between Dundee & Lake Cook Rd.)
May 19, 7:30 a.m.
Beverly Lake* (parking lot on north side of Higgins Rd/Rt. 72, east of Rt. 25, west of Beverly Road)
May 24, 7:30 a.m.
Penny Road South* (meet at Penny Road Pond parking lot, less than a mile west of Old Sutton/Penny Rd intersection)
June 2, 7:00 a.m.
Headwaters* (parking lot on Wichman Rd. off north side of Rt. 72; ½ mile west of Rt. 59)
June 9, 7:00 a.m.
Galloping Hill* (meet at Penny Road Pond parking lot, less than a mile west of Old Sutton/Penny Rd intersection)
June 18, 5:00 p.m.
Galloping Hill* (as above)
*indicates a more strenuous hike
Please RSVP to: Daniel Jacobson (312) 453-0230, Extension 2002 or firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know how best to contact you should that be necessary. Before you head out, please be sure to check the Citizens for Conservation website (CitizensForConservation.org) for any last minute changes or cancellations.
About the Author
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy. Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.