Birding rite of spring: Watching leks for the enchanting dance of woodcocks

Saturday night after work I drove to a friend’s house in rural Wisconsin. Their yard is wooded, but right next to their property is a farm field that went fallow last year. Dusk had just settled, with robins and cardinals finishing the day with songs and chip notes. Then I heard the sound that I love so much: “Peent!”

“Woodcock,” I exclaimed, and dragged my husband and friend into the field to find the birds. This is one of my favorite rites of spring. Heading out to a woodcock lek on a chilly spring night among dry vegetation is so much fun. Even my husband, affectionately known as Non-Birding Bill, enjoys searching for them when they do their sky dance.

Everything about these birds is funny, like their names from the Latin to the folk: American woodcock, Scolopax minor, and timberdoodle. If you see one looking for worms, watch as they jauntily bob up and down as they probe soft soil. Even their round, brown body is adorably weird with its beak that is about as long as a woodcock is wide.

American woodcocks begin their display in March and will continue through June. Now is the best time to enjoy their antics because vegetation hasn’t started to grow back yet. Once the grass begins to grow, it will obscure your view.

This American woodcock was displaying right outside of my cabin at Maumee Bay in northern Ohio.

Woodcocks come out of the woods to open areas about 15 minutes after sunset and begin their “peenting” calls. The males will peent a few times, then fly into the air in a crazy spinning, tumbling dance, making whistling sounds with their feathers. Then they plop down on the ground.

No one knows why: This isn’t part of their normal foraging behavior. Females sit in the dark and watch the sky dance in judgment. No one knows what they watch for to determine which male is best. So much mystery and sexual intrigue surrounds the woodcock.

This dance would have to be done at night because any self-respecting peregrine would see this tumbling flight as an easy chance at a meal. By doing it right after dusk, they can avoid hawks and falcons. Slower moving owls can still be formidable predators, but shorebirds-type birds can scoot pretty fast if necessary.

If you’re searching for woodcock, find a field next to woods. Wait a good 15 to 20 minutes after the sun sets and listen for the “peent” sound. When you hear it, walk towards it, and when you are close, use a flashlight and scan the field.

Don’t look for the shape of a bird, but for something that looks like your light is reflecting off a marble – that’s the woodcock eye and definitely easier to find. Once you do, hold still until it takes flight. When it does, try to get closer to where you saw it and sit down. As it finishes its sky dance it will land, and chances are good it will land close to you. Enjoy the show while it lasts.

And let me know if you determine what the females demand in a good male woodcock.

Inserted in this blog and also attached here is a brief video that I made 12 years ago about how to search for woodcocks.

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