'Sky Dancing' American Woodcocks Return For Spring
Every spring the American Woodcock migrates north to the moist soils throughout eastern North America. The aerial mating display of the male birds can be seen across the prairies of the Miami Valley. Last month, WYSO’s Leila Goldstein went scouting for American Woodcocks in Charleston Falls Preserve.
When I arrived at sunset, Amalee Houk, an administrative naturalist for the Miami County Park District, was ready to see some of the first signs of spring. She was wearing a green park district sweatshirt and a pair of American Woodcock earrings.
“This is my time of year. This is the most wonderful time of the year,” she said. “I love spring. Woodcocks, they’re one of my favorite birds.”
The American Woodcock’s Nerf ball shaped body sits on stocky legs. A long beak with a tip that can wiggle back and forth sticks out of its head.
Houk says the open prairie next to the woods at Charleston Falls is a prime spot that some birds scope out early in the season.
“Kind of like, you walk into a bar and you see, ‘Oh, what's my competition? Should I go to another bar where I'm the hottest guy here? Or can I compete with Joe Schmoe over there who's the hottest thing in town?’” she said.
She led the way down a mowed path surrounded by tall grass. She heard a woodcock and we spotted our first courtship display. The bird turned his body and opened his bill wide with each call.
“He’s going to broadcast this call and he turns his body in different directions, ‘Just in case the lady’s over here, just in case the lady’s behind me,’” she said, imitating the bird. “He wants to broadcast that call all over the place, like, ‘Ladies, listen, I am the best thing.’”
The woodcock spiraled up into the sky. His feathers rubbed together with a high pitched trill. We rushed into the grass to disguise ourselves and wait for him to land right where he took off.
But then, he doesn’t return.
“This is what can be fun about it. Sometimes they don’t land in the same spot and it feels like you’re playing a game of cat and mouse,” she said. “Typically they do land back in the same spot but if they feel that something’s a little off…”
“Like a radio producer coming to record them?” I asked.
“Right,” she said.
Since we might have spooked the bird from landing in the same spot, we hustled over to another area and crouched down on the side of the trail.
“There he is! Oh my god, stay still,” she said.
About 20 feet in front of us the bird began his dance. Soon enough, he shot himself up into the sky, so high he was nearly invisible.
“He's broadcasting. ‘Come here ladies, I'm so handsome,’” she said.
And again, he darted back up into the sky.
We saw a few more fly overhead, but it started to get dark. With several woodcock sightings, Houk declared the walk a success. We wandered back toward the road and I thanked her for guiding me through my first woodcock walk.
“It was my pleasure. Nothing brings me more joy than connecting other people to these weird creatures,” she said.
When it seems like nothing is the same anymore, when we’ve cancelled all our usual springtime plans, it’s nice knowing that these strange little birds are still spinning into the sky and landing on their feet.