The nasally note, something between a beep and a honk, started at dusk.
The male repeated the note, “beent” or “peent,” with a two-second pause in between, several times before he went quiet and rocketed skyward.
Against the dark blue sky, I managed to get him in my binoculars and watched for several seconds as he fluttered frenetically, then disappeared, as if he had continued up into the stratosphere.
But then we heard the twittering sound produced by his wings as he plummeted to the open field.
We strained to see where he might land, got a glimpse and then listened. He started pinging again, part of the repeated mating ritual the American woodcock performs for a few minutes before dark descends in early spring.
My friend Laura had told us she had heard him for a couple of nights running so Michael and I couldn’t resist an invitation to her Amherst County home to see if we could spy this elusive bird.
Woodcocks are beautiful upland ground birds, related to sandpipers and snipe. At 11 inches, their plump bodies are about the size of a quail, but they have extraordinarily long bills and large, bulging eyes.
They are camouflaged to perfection with a “dead leaf” pattern of brown, black and white on their backs and pale orange feathers along their breast and belly.
Every description of woodcocks notes how secretive and solitary they are. Michael and I think we recently flushed one on the Appalachian Trail, catching only a brief glimpse.
The best way to see one is to stalk it during mating season.
Each time the beeping stopped, we knew the male was airborne, and we walked quietly toward his landing site.
He repeated his wild flight, but seemed to be drifting farther from us with each landing.
About the fourth descent, Michael started trying to find him with his flashlight, but the bird remained elusive.
Finally, as daylight was nearly gone, Laura saw him make his sixth landing just feet from us, and Michael got the light on him. He strutted around, continuing his beep, but didn’t seem overly disturbed by our attention.
We got a fabulous look and could see his bill opening as he beep-honked.
He took off once more. We waited for a couple of minutes, but there was no return. He had not found a mate this night, but we had found him.
Woodcocks live in moist woodlands and thickets near open fields. With their long bills, they probe the ground for earthworms, their primary food. The tip of their long mandibles is flexible so they can grab a worm without opening their bills.
They also eat insect larvae, and occasionally, vegetable matter.
Woodcock videos show them bobbing and rocking, and it’s believed this dance may create enough vibration that it will disturb earthworms into moving. Some believe the woodcock can hear the sounds of creatures moving underground.
The chance to see this annual sky dance is both a privilege and confirmation that spring is here.