In search of the elusive sky dance
On April 22, a week after the last memorable snowfall of the Spring, staff members of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service St. Croix Wetland Management District conducted their annual Sky Dance program at the Oak Ridge Waterfowl Production Area just north of Star Prairie.
Minnesota-based USFWS biologist Kyle Daly shared from his extensive knowledge of the American woodcock providing a brief natural history of the species before answering questions from the group of about 25 wildlife enthusiasts.
Before the sunlight began to fade, the group broke into three groups and hiked back into the mix of forest and field in hopes of observing the woodcock's infamous spring mating flight, the sky dance. According to Daly, the woodcock's unique wing characteristics enable it to make distinctive sounds associated with its acrobatic courtship flights.
The best time to catch the breath-taking ritual is about 20 minutes after sunset at the junction of open field and new growth forest. By the time you are likely to catch the male preparing for his dance, he'll be silhouetted against the western sky. A male will perch first issuing a throaty "peent" every three or four seconds pivoting until he has called in all directions. Peents are preceded by a hiccup-like sound inaudible to some humans.
After making his 360-feet of declarations, a male will take flight parallel to the ground for a short distance before rising in a series of wide arcs which become steeper and smaller until he is hundreds of feet up in the night sky. A musical twitter is emitted as air rushes through his odd-shaped wing feathers. At the peak of his flight, he hovers briefly before plummeting toward the earth on folded wings, slipping sideways as he alternately dives then checks his fall until he comes to rest in roughly the spot he started. With ideal conditions the dance may continue for up to 45 minutes by which time you can only track the dance in the darkness by ear.
On that particular evening, two of the three groups heard woodcocks peenting, one group "saw multiple woodcock fluttering around and peenting in front of them but they did not initiate the official "dance." The third group finished out of the money and did not see or hear anything.
According to USFWS Private Lands Biologist Caitlin Smith, everyone attending experienced at least a bit of magic that night.
"The weather was perfect and sunset was brilliant. Even though two of the groups didn't have much luck, there was a multitude of species that graced us with their presence: barred owl, trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, white-tailed deer, bats, multiple grassland birds and waterfowl. Since it was a clear night, the stars were bright. One group even had an impromptu star lesson as one attendee offered her knowledge on stars and constellations. We hiked out of the unit via headlamps," reported Smith.
To learn more about the sky dance visit Kyle Daly's article on the American woodcock at : https://www.fws.gov/news/blog/index.cfm/2015/4/22/American-Woodcock-Know....