Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Peents and Twitters

Srini heard a woodcock peent on his pre-dawn walk with Kodi this morning. A sure sign that spring is peeping out all over. The woodcock is an odd-looking, short-legged "shorebird" that likes upland openings and alder swales and young forests rather than beaches and mudflats. They migrate through our area starting in March; some will remain and nest if the habitat is right.

At this point in the season the males seem to be practicing their Sky Dance, as Aldo Leopold described this annual ritual in his 1949 A Sand County Almanac. Before dawn and again after sundown, the male woodcock finds an opening -- a lawn, a meadow, or pasture, a woods road -- and starts to strut on his short legs. While walking about he makes a series of nasally peents. Suddenly he stops peenting and flies skyward in steep spirals twittering as he goes. Then quickly he tumbles back to the ground, chirping along the way. This is repeated many times for an hour or so at dawn and again at dusk.

This evening I set out for a walk around the block around 7:00 pm when the sky was beginning to darken. My foot falls were noisy on the road pavement so I paused. And then, I heard the twitters, then in the distance a peent. The Sky Dance was underway. I listened to 4 or 5 woodcock in our neighborhood competing and practicing their peents and twitters.

We live in an area that I describe as somewhere between suburbia and rural residential. Enough patches of habitat between houses to attract interesting wildlife and the neighborhood is quiet after dark in the early evening. Quiet enough for me to listen for and hear the woodcock. The waxing gibbous moon -- high in the southern sky -- offered sufficient natural light for me to walk quietly down our road. Orion was visible near the moon as other stars emerged with the darkening sky.

As I walked back to the house by 7:30 pm the woodcock dances had slowed. Just then a coyote howled from the Mitchell field, not far away. Perhaps in response, a Canada goose called briefly from the wetland. Then all was quiet. The woodcock will start up again well before sunrise, before most of us are stirring.

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