In his famous book, A Sand County Almanac, conservationist Aldo Leopold dedicates an entire essay to the woodcock titled, Sky Dance.
To try to attract a female mate, the male woodcock puts on an elaborate, acrobatic, aerial display. Leopold made it a point to watch this routine whenever he could.
“Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky,” he wrote. “Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy.”
One spring night in 2021, Dan Wanschura headed out to a field in Charlevoix, Michigan, to try to take in the routine for himself.
A few months after this episode originally aired in 2021, Brian Granger, who appears in this story, passed away at age 63. This episode is dedicated to his memory.
DAN WANSCHURA, BYLINE: There’s this elusive bird in the Great Lakes region. It’s there, if you know where to look for it. Right where fields and wetlands meet – that’s its bread and butter. And in spring time, you’ll see it dancing at dawn or dusk.
KIERAN FLEMING: I think he’s on this side of the shrubs. But let’s just see if we can watch – we should be able to see him go up.
WANSCHURA: This is Points North, a podcast about the land, water and inhabitants of the Great Lakes. I’m Dan Wanschura.
Today’s episode: Sky Dancer
FLEMING: There he is! He’s right there!
BRIAN GRANGER: Did you hear it?
GRANGER: There he is again.
FLEMING: That’s it, right there.
GRANGER: Can you hear that peent?
FLEMING: Do you hear that?
WANSCHURA: This is a woodcock. it’s a dull-colored bird just a little bigger than a robin.
At this point you might be thinking: ‘Ok, whatever. Who cares?’ That’s fine. But this little bird is really cool. That’s because at this rare point of the day, when the light is just right, it does this incredible dance where it shoots up into the sky like a rocket.
I’ve never been a huge bird guy. Growing up I was more into toads, frogs and turtles. I had a favorite toad named Burrow, and a painted turtle I called Myrtle.
When I was younger though, I remember my uncle taking me to look for snipes which ironically are very similar to woodcocks. We traipsed around a small lake in Minnesota with flashlights just after dusk. It was memorable. But we found nothing. And I was kinda disappointed.
Tonight, I’m hoping Kieran Fleming and Brian Granger come through. They work with the Little Traverse Conservancy. So far, they’ve delivered on this weird little noise I'm hearing.
FLEMING: It’s the dumbest sound in the world, isn’t it? It’s just hilarious, it makes me laugh. But he’s just out there singing his little heart out.
WANSCHURA: He’s singing his little heart out trying to attract a mate. The sound he’s making is called ‘peenting,’ and he’s saying something like, ‘I’m single and ready to mingle’.
I’m married now, but if I was trying to get the attention of a potential mate – 'peenting' would definitely not be my opening line.
There’s something relaxing about standing in an open field with a microphone at dusk. You start noticing everything around you. It begins to sound louder. Frogs chirping there, seagulls passing through.
GRANGER: He’s increasing the rapidity of his vocalization. That’s an indication he’ll go, ‘Shooh-whooh-whooh-whooh.’
WANSCHURA: Then all of a sudden, with a frenetic burst of energy, there he is! We finally see him – maybe 100 yards away.
FLEMING: Now he’s up in the air. See him?
GRANGER: There he goes. Right there he is, right there he is! Watch this! He’ll go right up in this big, huge circle.
WANSCHURA: The silhouette of a woodcock, beating his wings faster and faster in a pastel-colored sky. A distinct twittering noise comes from air hitting the bird’s feathers as it flies.
FLEMING: He’s gonna keep going up until we can’t even see him anymore, probably.
WANSCHURA: Up and up he goes, spiraling hundreds of feet up into the air. And then at the apex of his flight, he starts to chirp.
GRANGER: He’s coming down!
FLEMING: You hear the chirping?
WANSCHURA: That means he’s coming back down. It’s almost like he’s tumbling down in a sort of controlled free fall.
GRANGER: Coming down, coming down, coming down, coming down, coming down, coming down – boom. Right there, did you get him?
FLEMING: Straight that way.
WANSCHURA: The whole routine is amazing to watch and listen to. I feel as if I’ve peaked behind the curtain of one of nature’s theaters. But now I’m feeling greedy. Can we get even closer?
FLEMING: I think what we should do is when he gets back up, if you’re game for it, we’ll cut straight across the field right into the bush, right next to that field.
WANSCHURA: Because the woodcock lands so close to where he takes off, it can be pretty easy to get close to the bird – if you’re sneaky.
So, when it takes flight for another sky dance, we make our move across the field.
FLEMING: Ok, let’s go.
(running across field)
WANSCHURA: The woodcock population has been declining for decades. Habitat loss is the main reason. There are fewer young forests and wetlands.
FLEMING: It’s a bird that because it migrates, you know, it has to have a habitat Up North for it’s mating season and brewdering, and then it has to have a winter habitat too, and it has to have places to stop off in between, so you know, it’s all connected.
WANSCHURA: Kieran Fleming calls the woodcock an indicator species. A sort of thermometer that tells you how the habitat is changing.
By now, our woodcock has landed again. And this time we’re just about five yards away, hiding in some brush – grown adults kneeling in soggy ground like we’re kids playing a game of hide and seek.
In his famous book ‘A Sand County Almanac’, conservationist Aldo Leopold dedicates an entire essay to the woodcock titled ‘Sky Dance.’
He writes, “I owned my farm for two years before learning that the sky dance is to be seen over my woods every evening in April and May. Since we discovered it, my family and I have been reluctant to miss even a single performance.”
After this evening, I think I understand why.
WANSCHURA: That was awesome.
FLEMING: Isn’t that cool? (laughter) That’s close, I mean I’ve only done that a handful of times when I’ve actually been that close. I can tell just by looking at you, it’s hard not to kind of get into this stuff.
GRANGER: I mean you get this great giggle, this grin, this excitement thing, and it’s just one piece – I heard a snipe come into the field, you guys hear that?
GRANGER: You know, and there’s a whole bunch of stuff going on out here.