Coming soon “Sky Dance” to an outdoor theater near you.
The curtain goes up at dusk, just like the old drive-in theaters. And although "Sky Dance" has adult themes, general audiences are admitted.
"Sky Dance" could be playing in your own backyard, yet you may be unaware. The show starts at about 20 minutes after sunset, when the light is a romantic just-so. Don't worry about finding a seat, "Sky Dance" has been playing for eons and the theaters remain nearly audience-free.
You're probably asking “what is this ‘Sky Dance?’" Should I be concerned, especially if it's showing in my yard? If I miss "Sky Dance" will it come out on DVD?
"Sky Dance" is the springtime courtship ritual of male woodcock. As soon as woodcock migrate into the area, they begin their show, usually in late March when most snow has disappeared. There is plenty of time to view this most unusual proclamation of love because woodcock males actively court through mid-May.
The woodcock is normally a reclusive bird with its cryptic coloration blending perfectly with its wooded environment. But during spring the males attempt to become obvious to females.
Woodcock prefer a clear, calm, warm evening for lovemaking and those are also the best conditions for viewing. According to some, at exactly 22 minutes after sunset, or when light levels reach .05 foot-candles, the male woodcock flies to his stage. Although I have found the timing to be less precise, activity does occur nearly on that schedule. The stage can be any opening or field edge in typical woodcock cover. A barren log landing in an 8- to 15-year-old aspen cut is ideal.
Suddenly the male bird will appear out of obscurity and land at his predetermined stage. Upon arriving, the woodcock begins to call, emitting a nasally “peent” every three or four seconds, a sound somewhat like that of a nighthawk’s call. From close range, a subdued burp or gurgle can be heard preceding each peent. After a few peents in one direction, the bird shifts roughly 90 degrees, until after a minute or so, he has declared in all directions his affections to local females, and warnings to other males.
Then without signal, he takes flight. Leaving his singing ground, the woodcock can be seen silhouetted against the western sky as it flies low, parallel to the ground for a distance before rising in wide arcs, the circles becoming steeper and smaller until he is hundreds of feet high – the Sky Dance. During this flight, the bird emits a musical twitter as air rushes through odd-shaped primary wing feathers. Upon reaching its peak, the sky dancer hovers momentarily before pitching toward earth on folded wings. Slipping sideways the bird alternately dives and checks its fall, uttering a melodic tune as it plummets earthward, returning sometimes to the exact spot where the performance began.
There the peenting resumes once again and the spectacle repeats itself time and again for about forty-five minutes. At that point the act can be followed only by ear, the overhead sky being too dark to see even a silhouette.
Sometimes a male woodcock is lucky enough to attract a female to his singing grounds. There he will strut by holding his wings high and walking about in a characteristic bobbing fashion. Male woodcock are polygamous and will mate with any willing female.
The males take no part in nesting or young-raising duties. Typically, female woodcock lay four well-camouflaged eggs in a rough ground nest. After 20 days of incubation the eggs hatch into equally well-camouflaged young. Woodcock are precocious, meaning the chicks mature quickly. By three weeks of age, young woodcock are nearly the size of their mother.
Odd as the Sky Dance may be, it is possibly one of the more normal aspects of woodcock. In fact, for woodcock, abnormal is normal. Woodcock are considered a shore bird yet they inhabit wooded lowlands, with a fondness for dense cover. The palm-sized birds have eyes that are set far back and on top of their skulls allowing vision in all directions. A woodcock’s brain is upside down in its head, and its ears are located forward of and below their huge liquid-black eyes.
Woodcock primarily eat earthworms. They find worms by probing the soft, damp earth with their 2- to 3-inch-long bill, which contains sensitive nerve endings. Even with its bill embedded entirely in the soil, a woodcock can open and close the last half-inch enough to grasp a worm.
Somehow it seems fitting a bird as reclusive as a woodcock would use the cover of darkness for its spectacular courting display. Among birders, few courtship rituals rate as highly.
I'll bet "Sky Dance" would get two thumbs up from the movie critics.