- Written by Clyde McMillan-Gamber Clyde McMillan-Gamber
I remember the first time I saw a courting male American woodcock silhouetted against a striking sunset one evening early in April several years ago.
I was standing in a weedy field by a bottomland thicket of young trees and facing the red, western sky in hopes that I would spot at least one woodcock before that lovely sunset.
Soon, a chunky, robin-sized bird with a long beak fluttered out of the thicket and landed on a bare patch of soil near me. It was a woodcock!
Male woodcocks begin their daily courtship displays at dusk from mid-February to early May, weather permitting. But the most comfortable time for us to observe those intriguing exhibits is during pleasant April evenings.
Often while waiting for the woodcocks to begin their wooing, I hear spring peeper frogs peeping and American toads trilling musically from nearby wooded wetlands … or a pair or small group of Canada geese flying overhead, some of them honking incessantly.
Then, suddenly, one or a few male woodcocks fly out of nearby woods or woody thickets and land in the little clearing where I am standing and facing the western sky.
Almost immediately I hear the nasal “beeping” of a nearby, love-struck male woodcock, each beep emitted at two-second intervals in the gathering darkness.
After a minute, or more, of beeping, he suddenly takes off in spiral flight upward and upward, silhouetted before the brilliant sunset. As he ascends on rapidly beating wings, two outer feathers on each wing twitter audibly.
And when that male woodcock reaches the zenith of his flight, and, perhaps, is out of sight, but with wings still twittering, he vocally sings a few series of musical notes that seem to tumble to the ground: “tew, tew, tew — tew, tew, tew, tew.”
Then he plummets to the same spot of bare ground and starts his display again. Only hunger, or a female interested in mating with him, stop his courtship displays.
American woodcocks are inland sandpipers that use their long, flexible beaks to probe in soft, damp soil in wooded bottomlands to snare earthworms and other invertebrates. Woodcocks poke in soil like other sandpipers probe in sandy beaches or coastal mud flats. But woodcocks adapted to a different habitat from their relatives, producing a different species.
Being sandpipers, female woodcocks lay four eggs in a clutch. Young hatch fuzzy, open-eyed, and ready to feed themselves in woodland floors.
Readers, too, can spot woodcock courtship displays in the fading light of an enchanting April evening. Just be in the right place at the right time.
Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.