Eyes that see behind, a bill like an elephant’s trunk, a magical twilight dance: the weird Woodcock

Don’t tell me Porgs are the Star Wars version of puffins.  Puffins don’t have huge eyes and camo brown colors.  Clearly Porgs were inspired by woodcocks.

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“Puffin?  You’re kidding, right?”

In February and March I’m often out tramping in the twilight, where meadows meet woods, in hopes of witnessing what Aldo Leopold called the Sky Dance of the American woodcock.

Here in Virginia’s Blue Ridge, by mid-February these Porg-shaped, foot-tall, nowhere-near-a-shore shorebirds are already excitedly deep in spring courtship.

Painting by C. Ford Riley.

In late winter’s milder, tranquil evenings, about twenty minutes after sunset, the woodcock hen strolls to the edge of her woods to judge the males’ seductive song and dance, performed just beyond in an open field.  Her bizarrely huge dark eyes. set near the top of her head. give her an incredible 360-degree view, allowing her to hunt earthworms on the dark forest floor while watching for predators behind.  Equally bizarre is her extraordinary long bill, more elephant’s trunk than bird’s bill, whose tip she flexes to grasp her prey.

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[The woodcock’s prehensile bill Photographer unknown. Contact me for credit or removal,]

Knowing he has an audience makes the male woodcock cocky, as with every male I know.  He’s so high on hormones he barely notices any irrelevant humans appreciating the show.  Excitedly pumping up and down on short legs, he starts beeping.  BEEEEEEEEP.  A loud, nasal buzz on one pitch.  After several beeps, he pops straight up into the air like ejected toast.  The comical pudge becomes graceful sky dancer, ascending in widening circles till he’s out of sight, though his rhythmic twittering and kissing sounds are still easily heard.  To those of us with mere human eyes, the dance is frustratingly hard to see in the deepening gloom.  Abruptly he stops and falls in descending spirals like a leaf, now chirping, till he’s back where he began.  Then… BEEEEEEEP.

Behind the veil of trees, the hen thinks, not bad.  Let’s see more.  He obliges, for 30 minutes to an hour, until even she can see him no more.  He then stretches his wings up high, holds them erect and re-enters the forest, anticipating a well-deserved reward for his manic exertions.  The performance repeats just before dawn.

Woodcocks range throughout the eastern U.S.  In warmer regions they’re year-round residents; in colder areas they’re short-distance migrants, shifting southward and returning in late winter.  Our Blue Ridge woodcocks may have either overwintered or have just returned from better hunting to the south.

Here’s a challenge to you: best I can tell, no one has yet managed to satisfactorily capture the Sky Dance on film or video, though many have posted their attempts on YouTube.  This one may come the closest.  There are some great ground beeping videos, however, and here’s my favorite.

Now, crossing a road, woodcocks admittedly lose a bit of their magic.  What absurdly weird birds they are.

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Cuter than Porgs.

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The woodcock is one of few shorebirds still hunted, its woods and meadows are shrinking, and its earthworms are increasingly pesticide-laden.  Thus, as with so many beautiful and wondrous things we apparently don’t deserve, there are fewer sky dances each year.

Hurry out tonight if you can.

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