Peent. Then suddenly the bird was in the air, sounding a twitter-twitter-twitter in a low trajectory right over us. “Whoa!” people exclaimed. Cummings shined a high-powered flashlight to follow it over our heads; its underside and wings reflected white. As the woodcock curved higher and higher, it looked like a little quadcopter, its wings moving so fast they appeared as four. The twitter-twitter-twitter sound came entirely from those wings as they cut the air at high speed. It’s the same type of sound a startled dove makes upon taking flight, Cummings said.
Displaying woodcocks spiral upwards in gradually larger circles. “It’s kind of like a vortex,” Detweiler said. At maximum height, about 300 feet, they fly in wide circles. We followed this woodcock’s highest circles with our ears, listening to the slightly more distant twitter-twitter-twitter above our heads. Now the twitters fragmented and changed to a more pronounced cheep-cheep-cheep-chirp, cheep-cheep-cheep-chirp. The woodcock fell like a leaf — an arcing motion down, a tight turn to switch direction, and another leaf arc, back and forth, as if traversing a set of switchbacks down a mountain. The bird made a final squiggling arc in front of us to a “crash-landing” at the same place from where it took off. Horse trail by day, the grass strip became a woodcock runway by night, a launching point for their acrobatic display. Peent. The woodcock began to repeat the ritual. Peent.
Soon, however, the peents were not coming from only one bird — we heard peent echoes from the east behind us. And then peents and twitters emanated all around us and above us. Our group stood in hushed awe. I couldn’t tell how many woodcocks were contributing to the nighttime show, but Cummings’ experienced ear counted four individual birds. Background tree frogs replaced the planes as the most audible accompaniment to the woodcocks’ concerto.
Someone took the flashlight and walked closer to the launching point of the original woodcock. It lit up the whole runway. I focused binoculars on a particular spot. Blades of grass sharpened in the eyeholes. Peent. A pair of big, black eyes appeared above potato-sized mottled plumage. Peent. The bird hopped forward a step or two, then poked at the ground with his long bill. This did not look like the systematic circling shuffle he was supposed to be doing. He peented sporadically, then darted this way and that, prodding the grass. Perhaps he was hungry after such a workout and was more interested in hunting for a worm. The show was done. The flashlight turned off; the binoculars lifted. We heard one final encore peent. It was 6:54 p.m., exactly 30 minutes after the show started.
“That’s a real treat,” Detweiler said, emphasizing the special nature of what we just witnessed. “Most of the time you don’t even see them. Either they’re landed in the thick brush or thick grass, or it’s just too dark,” he said. Despite initial uncertainty, bird and human plans did align this evening. “It exceeded my expectations,” Gail Holm of Columbia said.
Female woodcocks sometimes return to watch the show even after they have mated. Perhaps, in the quiet darkness after our departure, the woodcocks mated. If so, about four chicks would hatch per nest in three weeks. The young grow up fast: They can explore beyond the nest after a few hours, feed on their own after a week, become almost fully grown after a month, and mate the following spring.
Many conservationists are trying to stem the woodcocks’ decline. The Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies produced a Woodcock Conservation Plan in 2007, which estimates that more than 20 million acres of new woodcock habitat are needed to bring woodcocks back to 1970 levels. A network of conservation biologists and land managers across the woodcock’s range are working together to preserve more brush-filled young forest and to set aside special “demonstration areas.” Much like our clearing, these areas are optimized for woodcocks to perform their breeding displays.
The Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, which can thank the woodcocks for its existence, has returned the favor by managing its own set of demonstration areas. Volunteers monitor the woodcock displays each year, following in Rouse’s footsteps, to help ensure that the spectacular performance remains a springtime staple in Howard County.
A stained-glass picture hangs in the window near the front of the Robinson Nature Center — a woodcock flying amid a nature scene. It is the logo of the James and Anne Robinson Foundation, which raises funds for the center. “It was a near and dear bird to James and Anne’s hearts as well,” Detweiler notes.
How to view and help American Woodcock
For more information about woodcock habitat conservation efforts and how you can participate, visit timberdoodle.org, a clearinghouse for information about the species.
Every spring, groups throughout the woodcock’s range organize events to observe the bird’s displays. To find a woodcock walk in your area, check with a local nature center or a chapter of Audubon, the Sierra Club, or the Ruffed Grouse Society.