A bird in sight: Learning to see, on my own, woodcocks sky dance by transferring the teaching of others

One of the greatest joys in the outdoors is when you take the teaching or mentoring of others and make it your own; as is finally the case for me of seeing male woodcocks do their sky dance.

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The landscape for seeing woodcock Saturday at Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve. Credit: Dale Bowman

The landscape for seeing woodcock Saturday at Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve.

Dale Bowman

Boreal chorus frogs raised a ragged chorus before sunset Saturday. Another couple spotted a bluebird as my wife and I waited for the woodcock walk to begin at Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve.

“I’ll give a quick talk, then we have to wait,” Bob Bryerton said. “When the robins stop, the woodcocks start. The first 10 minutes after sundown, for 2-5 minutes, you will hear, ‘unk, unk,’ then they start the flight.”

Male woodcock do an elaborate mating dance. They make peenting sounds (“unk, unk”), then whirl skyward in their “sky dance,” sometimes 300 hundred of feet in the air. On their way down, they make a faint chirping sound as zigzag down before dropping straight down the last 30 feet or so to nearly the same spot they left. The sequence is repeated until it is too dark.

I have done other woodcock walks, but could not transfer what I learned. For some reason, Saturday night was a breakthrough for me with Bryerton, program coordinator for the Forest Preserve District of Will County near Beecher.

“I was first introduced to them on my first job out of college in the late 1980’s at a nature center I worked at in Indiana and have been enjoying them ever since: Sometimes as part of a program and sometimes just on my own,” he emailed afterward. “While I have always enjoyed hearing them arrive in spring and made sure to at least get out once or twice in the spring to see them, in recent years I have really focused on listening for them on a more regular basis so I could get a gauge on how long into the season they continue with their courtship flights. So for the past few years I try and get out at least once a week from early March through to June to listen.”

Bob Bryerton teaches the joys of woodcocks Saturday before a woodcock walk at Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve. Credit: Dale Bowman

Bob Bryerton teaches the joys of woodcocks Saturday before a woodcock walk at Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve.

Dale Bowman

That struck me. He has seen woodcock as early as Feb. 20 and heard males as late as late May. The females stick around and raise the young on their own.

Like clockwork, we heard the first peent, “unk, unk,” at 7:03 p.m.,sundown.

Woodcock eat earthworms, so they prefer damp soil areas or wetlands, generally on the edge of wooded areas and brush. The worm-eating may explain their peculiar wobble walk, which is a hit on YouTube.

One thing that helped was Bryerton saying we could get closer to woodcock peenting without spooking them, making it easier to see them do their thing.

We watched the same male go through peent-fly-spiral-land sequence multiple times. My wife counted between peents to see if there as a rhythm or reason. Once he flew right through our group on take-off, the capping moment for me and my wife.

Learning in the outdoors is a passed on experience,

For once, things sank in for me on woodcock sky dancing.

On Sunday, I talked with Kyle Danhausen about what I had learned, then I met him Monday just before sunset. One thing that struck me was how remarkably similar the conservation habitat on his farm looked to the habitat Bryerton held his walk in at Goodenow.

At 7:16 p.m. Monday, after sunset but still light, we heard multiple peents. Danhausen picked one to focus on. Once again, that bird took off at 7:23.

Danhausen was able to pick it out of the sky, a floating, disappearing dark dot. More importantly, he was able to see it land once. Several flights later, I was able to catch my first landing against the backdrop of the last light in the west.

It marked the first time either of us on our own had found and spotted a male woodcock in the whole process of their courting ritual.

Learning from a teacher or mentor in outdoor pursuits is one thing, doing it on your own is epic.

As we walked out in the dark, Danhausen said, “This is pretty cool.”

It was time.

The landscape for seeing woodcock Monday at Kyle Danhausen’s farm. Credit: Dale Bowman

The landscape for seeing woodcock Monday at Kyle Danhausen’s farm.

Dale Bowman

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