Sky dance features acoustic ballet for bird lovers
It did not go quite according to plan, nonetheless a handful of birders and other nature enthusiasts were treated to a magnificent night of bird listening last Tuesday evening as part of Sky Dance, a program dedicated to the spring mating flight of the male woodcock.
The program is facilitated by staff from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) office in New Richmond. This year’s program was sponsored by the Friends of the St. Croix Wetland Management District and made possible by an everyday grant from the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) and Toyota. The group met up with USFWS staff and FSCWMD members Warren Irle and Mike Reiter just before dusk at the Oakridge Waterfowl Production Area outside of Star Prairie.
Kyle Daly from the USFWS regional office in Bloomington, Minn., researched the woodcock as part of his thesis while studying at the University of Minnesota.
“I came to Minnesota as part of an internship with the USFWS. I would say the woodcock chose me,” Daly said. “When I arrived in Minnesota there was already a research project set up, so I just jumped in. That led to an expanded study, and from there I started my research thesis on the woodcock. It was a bird I knew very little about. Now it’s a bird I can’t get enough of.”
As part of his duties emceeing the evenings festivities, Daly explained his fascination with the woodcock.
“I really appreciate the bird’s biology. I like that it’s a migratory bird as well as a game species. Working to protect the bird at the same time that people are harvesting it, presents a unique balance,” Daly said.
Oakridge provides prime woodcock habitat with its mix of prairie and forest. Woodcock inhabit the edge of the forest where they build their nests on the ground under the camouflage of leaves and other ground cover.
“Like many other species, woodcock productivity is connected to what’s happening in the landscape. They use aspen stands for breeding, so logging has a direct effect on their numbers. Soil and moisture are very important because they use their uniquely adapted bill to probe the soil for earthworms, a mainstay in their diet,” Daly explained.
But this evening was about something far more interesting than earthworms; it was all about attracting the ladies. As spring evenings begin to warm up, male woodcocks venture out from the forest edge into the open prairie where they perform a primal sky dance in an effort to attract the eye of a female.
“Males will make intermittent flights, then come back down to the ground, peent for several minutes and make another flight. And they will repeat that pattern for about 45 minutes depending on the cloud cover,” Daly said.
Peenting describes the buzzy nasal sound males make repeatedly while on the ground between flights.
Accompanied by USFWS staff, the group split in half and proceeded to two locations scouted earlier in the day for woodcock activity. Unfortunately cloud cover hurried dusk that night potentially limiting mating activity. The group spread out over a small rise overlooking a depression in the prairie not more than 35 yards from the edge of the forest. Just about the time the grassy horizon of the prairie began to melt into the overcast sky, a male woodcock burst from the treeline and settled into a clump of tall grass about 40 yards from the group. Within a few moments the night air was filled with the distinctive peenting sound. With each peent, a woodcock turns a quarter turn. After several minutes of peenting, he launched into the evening sky to begin the dance in earnest. He climbed several hundred feet up and began to fly in a series of large circles identified only by the faint sound of his rapidly fluttering wings. After circling at high altitude for several minutes he began his descent spiraling back to earth while producing another of the signature sounds of the skydance, an intricate song — part whistle, part liquid gurgling chirp — as he slid side to side angling so he could spy the ground below as he descended to almost the exact spot from which he had launched.
On an evening minus cloud cover, the dance can be viewed from start to finish, an aerial ballet of avian proportions. On this night however, despite the keen eyesight and pointing of FWS’s Caitlin Smith, the group members had to rely on their imaginations and attentive listening skills to paint their own picture of this curious ritual. During the dancing descent, it sounded as if the tiny flyer was everywhere around the group, like a sound surround effect as he “twittered” his way back to earth for another round of peenting.
Despite less than ideal conditions, everyone involved agreed the evening had been a smashing success. The education and company were first class and the acoustic ballet was riveting. All in all, another example of Mother Nature’s extraordinary story being shared 24 hours a day if we but avail ourselves of the opportunity.
For more opportunities check out the St. Croix Wetland Management District facebook page at facebook.com/StCroixWMD.