A Field Guide to the Sky Dance
A sign of spring for us is an evening trip to the theater watch what Aldo Leopold called the sky dance in his 1949 classic A Sand County Almanac. Our theater has no roof and no seats. Its just a small field next to a shrubby wetland near our house with a show that is something to behold. It’s the annual courtship flights of the American Woodcock and this year on a crisp, clear night it was an especially beautiful show. The dancers in this annual show have a long bill with a flexible tip specialized for probing and capturing earthworms, a stout head with large eyes set far back for rearview vision without a mirror, and plumage with mottled, leaf-brown patterns that blend superbly with the forest floor. The theaters they use are made of moist woodlands or thickets near fields or open areas. The audience is encouraged to arrive early and remain quiet while they let their eyes slowly adjust to the dimming light. The curtain usually opens with the male woodcock flying onto the stage at exactly 22 minutes after sunset when the lights are dimmed to precisely 0.05 foot-candles. With the crowd hushed, the dancers begin. The males are loosely clustered about the stage. Each defends a small area on the ground were the peent, a short (~0.2 seconds) buzzy note is repeated over and over. If you are close enough you can also hear eachpeentpreceded by a short (0.3 seconds) tuukoo, wukoo or ka-rurr sound. The two sounds often merge into one,tuukooeeent. He may also givetuukoo calls at widely separated intervals (0.2–30 seconds) initially after alighting on display area or when alert to strange sounds. The sky dance begins when the “peenting” bouts end. There are five parts to the flight:
- a silent, gradual ascent lasting about 2 seconds;
- a continued gradual ascent with light wing twittering for about 12 seconds;
- the wing twittering becomes melodious as he climbs steeper and then loops into spirals for about 15 seconds;
- the apex of the flight lasts for about 12 seconds and may be 300 feet high, as the wing twittering becomes intermittent with rapid, short bursts, overlapping with loud, vocal chirping during the initial descent as he zig-zags, dives, and banks, then pitching down again precipitously;
- a silent descent lasts up to 8 seconds as he brakes to the ground with soft but audible flapping wings and lands back on his stage to resume another bout of peenting.