There we were, a dozen or so people standing in a field, waiting, watching, and listening. The sky began to darken, the pinks and oranges of sunset had mostly disappeared, melting into a deep purple. The chorus of trilling toads (Anaxyrus americanus) and the Eastern Towhee (Pipilio erythropthalmus) calling out its name in the woods only increased the tension on our strained ears. Suddenly, we heard the first sharp peent from the distance. We moved as a group to try to line ourselves up with the repeated metallic sound. The almost electronic or perhaps frog-like sound was produced by a very strange-looking bird, a bird that was our focus tonight. Once we thought we knew where the bird was calling from, we resumed our watchful stance, binoculars and camera lenses trained on the brush and the purplish sky above it. Then suddenly our guide, Audrey Heagy, announced that the bird was rising through the air because she could hear its wings whistling upward. Looking around I couldn’t see any living thing against the dusk sky. It felt for the first few times like a sort of magic trick. And indeed, misdirection is the bird’s intent. Eventually I got used to watching the sky for tiny dark shapes and my ears became attuned to the pitch of the birds’ wings on their ascents and descents above the darkening fields. Even so, there were times when we would hear the peent of a grounded bird so sharply and clearly that we knew exactly where it was patrolling on the ground despite not being able to see it. We would focus all of our senses on this presumed location and then be fooled by the mysterious bird’s magic tricks.
There are many natural phenomena that I have read about before encountering personally. This was one such event: the skydance of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) male.
There are a few ways the Woodcock gets away with such an obvious display and yet remains safe from predators. When first launching and on final landing approach, the Woodcock moves not vertically but horizontally for a few meters, without making a sound. This silent horizontal movement really works to confuse observers as evidenced by the group of naturalists whipping their heads around every time a Woodcock would begin ascending not directly above where it was on the ground, but several meters away. The sound of their whistling wings seems to fill the air, making it extremely difficult to pinpoint where in the sky the sound is coming from.
Besides a blurry shape overhead (once winging directly over our group), we didn’t get a visual on these mysterious dancing birds. I had observed one of these stealthy creatures on a previous occasion in the woods of Pinery Provincial Park and every time I looked away I had to re-locate the foraging Woodcock. Their camouflage helps them escape predators and is extremely effective.
I would like to end where I began my encounters with the American Woodcock: in the pages of a book. Here is a passage from one of my favourite natural history authors, Edwin Way Teale, who described the Woodcock’s behaviour so elegantly and inspired me to seek it out myself.
From A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm, by Edwin Way Teale:
“Its performance begins with the brown chunky long-billed bird walking about in the open field, turning this way and that, uttering again and again a buzzing nasal ‘peent!’… The call seems now far away, now close at hand, according to the direction the bird is pointing. Then there is a moment of silence. It is followed by the winnowing sound of its wings and we see its dark little form speeding in a wide climbing curve against the light of the sky… Higher and higher in great sweeping circles it mounts above the pasture. We follow with our eyes its retreating form, often losing it in the sky. At the height of its ascent the song begins. The sweet frail twittering sound at times seems to come from all directions, the notes to shower down around us. And while the song goes on it is joined by a quavering musical strain produced by three stiff narrow feathers at each wingtip. They vibrate int he wind as the bird plunges, veering wildly, falling through the sky like a gust-blown leaf. The end comes abruptly – an almost vertical descent to the darkened meadow. Then the “peenting” calls begin once more.”
For previous bird observation blogposts, see:
–A Green Heron Stalks the Shallows
–3. Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)