Northland Nature: The woodcock flight at dusk
Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at email@example.com.
Early April moving into mid-April is a time of much change. Temperatures frequently get into the 60s, but mornings are often below freezing. The anticipated ice-out appears reluctant. It is a time of lawns beginning to respond, maybe with the help of a shower (rain or snow).
We begin the month with 13 hours of daylight, and more than 14 hours by the end. Crocus and daffodils join early dandelions in the yard while the garden reveals the new crop of rhubarb and the growth of daylilies reach up from the soil, even though they do not bloom until July. Spring wildflowers are a bit later in the woods, but here we may see greens of wild leek (ramps).
April is the month of catkins — long growths holding pollen on alder and hazel. Willows and aspens have their furry buds of March now developing into their catkins. Silver maples show flowers — male (staminate) or female (pistillate) — usually on separate trees. Red maples will be flowering a bit later this month.
The warming weather melts winter’s snowpack, creating vernal ponds in any low sites. Quickly, they are the home of waking frogs as they sing of courtship and territory.
In other wetlands, red-winged blackbird males continue singing that started a couple weeks ago; females arrive in a few more weeks.
In yards, we may see grackles, along with robins, juncos and a variety of sparrows (maybe four kinds: white-throated, song, fox and tree). White-throated and song may breed here; fox and tree go far north, after resting. Junco flocks are also often seen along roadsides in April. As the days progress, some insect-eating birds may be here too: phoebe, tree swallows and a couple woodpeckers: flickers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers.
In open waters of rivers, more ducks join mallards and goldeneyes — ring-necked, scaup, bufflehead, wood ducks and teal.
A slow walk in the spring woods with Northland naturalist Larry Weber
Along the shore, wading birds move about, including herons and yellowlegs. Often in mornings, we can hear the unusual winnowing flight of a snipe. This sound made by its wings tells of courtship. But as I step out at dusk, it is the flight of its cousin, the woodcock, that I seek.
As shorebirds go, woodcocks are a bit strange. While many have long legs with a thin body, the woodcock has short legs, chubby body and a long, flexible bill used for catching worms. This strangeness may account for its other name: timber doodle. But stranger still is its mating and territorial performance that I was able to watch recently.
About a half-hour after sunset, as the darkness continues to creep in, the male woodcock selects an open area, near a wetland to perform this ritual. While blackbirds sing in nearby swamps and ruffed grouse drum in adjacent woods, woodcocks choose an open arena.
The evening is cool and calm — ideal conditions to witness this ritual. I stand still and listen.
Sure enough, a strange call sounding like a “peent” emanates from the edge. It is followed by several more of these sounds and then, the bird flies high up in the air. From here, he take a zig-zag pattern back to the ground. Air through the wings creates a twittering noise. Back on Earth, he performs again.
The woodcocks began this routine sporadically in late March, but now they are more consistent. He may do this show each evening for weeks, often with a repeat in the early morning.
A strange mating performance from a strange bird, but it is a rite of spring that I would not want to miss.