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Watching mating spiral of woodcocks: That’s Chicago outdoors

People watching the mating spirals of male woodcocks at Wolf Road Prairie.
Credit: Dale Bowman

Mating rituals make life better.

I don’t care whether you fish, bird, hunt or simply live fully.

But few things touch the male woodcock.

That’s why I joined 20 others at Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester Saturday night. John Elliott led the “Big Year Woodcock Watch,” a joint venture by the Chicago Audubon Society and the Forest Preserves of Cook County.

“Odds are good today,” he said, correctly.

Wet prairie is key. That describes Wolf Road Prairie, a great anomaly of urban wild spaces. (It was a subdivision never built, other than the sidewalks poured. Vacant for decades, it was turned into a prairie/nature preserve.)

We anticipated observing male woodcocks doing a mating ritual, which Aldo Leopold described as a “Sky Dance’’ in “A Sand County Almanac.’’

David Schaefer brought copies of “Sky Dance’’ for a couple friends. Schaefer is one of those quick wits I like to be within earshot of on adventures like this.

John Elliott, looking east toward the camera, led an excursion to observe the “Sky Dance” of woodcocks at Wolf Road Prairie.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman
John Elliott, looking east toward the camera, led an excursion to observe the “Sky Dance” of woodcocks at Wolf Road Prairie.
Credit: Dale Bowman

After Elliott gave us the basic spiel, he led us, tramping single-file, out an old sidewalk to the wet prairie. A snipe, bigger cousin of woodcock, flew off.

Three deer meandered, half-hidden in the higher prairie. Elliott confirmed that I heard chorus frogs in a water area. A song sparrow sang. Dozens of red-winged blackbirds trilled. Mallards flew off and one pair of wood ducks.

Around sunset or sunrise in late March or early April, male woodcock begin peenting, just what it sounds like.

At first, the sun set and nothing happened. Then the first woodcock peented to the west, then one to the east and one to the north. Elliott said once the vocalizing starts, the flights soon begin. He was right.

I can’t touch Leopold’s paragraph description, so here it is:

“Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter. Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began, and there resumes his peenting.’’

The first spiraled high into the sky, out of my sight. Then one after another, more spiraled up. I spotted seven flights. Elliott said he didn’t know if they were separate woodcocks or if some were the same bird doing multiple flights.

The flights continued, even as darkness thickened. It was soon black enough that Elliott herded the group back on the sidewalks.

It was time.

There is a Timberdoodle Trek at 6:45 p.m. Friday at Crabtree Nature Center in Barrington Hills. (Timberdoodle is another name for woodcock)

(You can find more spectacular YouTube videos of the sky dance, but this one most accurately gives the essence.

IN MEMORY: A memorial for Rol Steinhauser will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Village Sportsmen’s Club in Alsip.

OUTDOOR DAYS: Rich Gallagher will be among the presenters Saturday and Sunday when Cabela’s in Hoffman Estates holds its “Spring Great Outdoor Days’’— (847) 645-0400 or cabelas.com/hoffmanestates.

STRAY CAST: Much as I love Adele’s voice, I’m sure a relationship with her is tough as lugging a 30-pound lake trout from the deep on 25 colors of lead-core line.