For the Birds Radio Program: Woodcock

Original Air Date: May 6, 2002

Laura hit a peak performance evening for woodcocks this year. Her exciting adventure ended with the stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

Audio missing


Ever since I read Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac when I was in college, I’ve thought of April as the month to get out and see woodcock do their lovely sky dance. This year I spent the first half of April in Costa Rica and then was way too busy catching up the rest of the month, but finally on May third, I was filled with an overpowering restlessness and so I chucked my chores, hopped into my car, and drove over to my mother-in-law’s in Port Wing before sunset. The temperature was only in the 40s, but there was no wind and the sky was clear. Only ten minutes before the first woodcock started calling, just as the sun was disappearing, I saw a big black bear cross Kinney Valley Road running toward my mother-in-law’s place. My dog Photon had never seen a bear before, and she reacted in the happy, enthusiastic way she does when she sees a potential friend. So she got sent off to the house for the duration.

The first woodcock of the evening started peenting on the far side of the road in the woods not long after sunset-I was surprised to hear one so early, because usually they wait until everything is shadowy. I was even more surprised when this hormonal little guy suddenly flew out of the woods right over my head to my mother-in-law’s field-the place where I like to watch them. The woodcock is the bird with the slowest forward powered flight-woodcock normally fly only about 6 miles per hour. Their rounded wings and oversized beak give them a uniquely strange and wonderful silhouette, though it’s a rare sight because they seldom fly until they are obscured by darkness.

Apparently I’d hit one of the peak performance nights for woodcocks this year. Within a minute of the first woodcock passing overhead, a second started to peent, and then a third and a fourth started in. I can’t remember ever hearing as many woodcocks as I heard that night-there were at least 8 in the small field and the woods across the road. The first one had landed in a little open space surrounded by small aspen saplings. The best thing about recording birds with a directional microphone or a parabolic microphone is that with just a little practice it’s easy to find hidden bird by honing in on its calls with the mic. Sure enough, there was the plump little guy peenting in the matted grass, blending in with the shadows. I love when I get close enough to a woodcock to hear the soft little hiccup they make between peents. But right after I found it, another woodcock flew in and they made an interesting flight display-I couldn’t tell which of the two got to keep the display spot and which flew away, but within a few seconds that little clearing was back down to one and the other was peenting off in another spot. After just a couple more peents, the close one took off in its lovely spiraling skydance, its wings twittering as it rose higher and higher in the twilit sky. When it reached the high point, it started chirping its rich, bubbly song. Something draws my entire soul up to the starry skies when I hear a woodcock calling above. This luscious part of the performance only lasts a few seconds, but like any good magic, somehow the moment lasts longer in our heart and memory.

During the time I was watching, I saw dozens of this woodcock’s performances. Unfortunately, it was Friday night, so recording him was difficult-even though my mother-in-law’s place is over a quarter of a mile from Highway 13, my microphone picked up dozens of cars and trucks, and even some voices. Somehow during the moment I’m absorbed by the lovely skydance, I don’t even notice those sounds. But I did notice one sound-branches breaking as a big bear crashed through the woods toward me. My evening with the woodcock came to an abrupt end as I retreated into the house to join my little dog.