Stand near the entrance to Ryerson Woods at dusk in March, April and May and you might hear the unusual courtship and flight song of an unusual shorebird, the American woodcock. It’s called a shorebird because of and habit of probing into the earth with a long bill to capture its food, as other shorebirds do.
But the woodcock doesn’t live or nest along the shoreline. It chooses habitat that includes an open field with short grasses next to a wooded area that can be wet in spring.
And, compared with other shorebirds, its legs are quite short, especially in relation to its rotund body.
Woodcocks will stay in the woods during the day, but come nightfall, the males emerge onto a short grassy area to show their dancing and singing skills to females and competing males.
First, the male utters a nasal-sounding, “Peent,” lifting its open bill to the sky. He continues his “peenting” for up to a dozen or more times before spiraling into the sky as high as 100 or more yards, the size of a football field.
As he flies into the air, his wings give a whistling twitter – until he’s so high, you can’t see or hear him. Seconds after you’ve lost him, you’ll hear a chirpy,chirpy,chirpy or kissing sound he utters as he returns to nearly the exact same place he started peenting. Minutes later, he starts peenting again, then taking off to the sky again.
Sometimes, he’ll peent in all directions, turning after each peent, to broadcast his vocals as far as possible.
Watching woodcocks can strain the eyes – they begin their displays when it is almost dark – just after the last American robin has quit singing for the night and when the spring peepers begin their chorus. Stand quietly and listen for the unusual sounds and hope for a glimpse of the bird against a moonlit sky.
Here’s a better look at a woodcock:
You can find more videos here.
You’ll notice it has large eyes on the side of its head – this gives it the chance to look out for predators, while inserting its long bill into the earth searching for a meal of worms.
Woodcocks visit other Lake County Forest Preserves to mate in spring, including Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest and Almond Marsh near Grayslake. You’ll need to enter those preserves to hear the woodcocks. At Ryerson Woods, you can turn into the entrance, then immediately park alongside the road, turn off your car, get out and listen. If you’re lucky you’ll get to hear and see the birds before the preserve is closed for the night. Or come first thing in the morning before the sun has risen – woodcocks peent and display at dawn as well.
For a special program on woodcocks and a guided tour to hear and see them, you might consider signing up for a class at Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest on March 27. Click here for more information.