Who Is The Skydancer?

Have you ever seen a skydance?   Who Is The Skydancer?

The American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) is the SkyDancer.

The American Woodcock delights birders every spring with his night-time aerial acrobatics. When you look at this bird, it is hard to imagine agility or acrobatic in the same sentence. But Let me tell you these skydances are incredible. I look forward to the first ones every season.  I try to introduce someone new to the adventure.

The short story about this annual skydance is about the American Woodcock each evening in the spring. About 22 minutes after sunset in a scrubby field, probably not far from you, there is a ritual dance performed by the male. It is a performance you are not likely to forget.  I first read about it in Aldo Leopold’s book A Sand County Almanac.  And it is a rare season when I have missed it since then.

The males pivot around in a circle making their “peenting” or buzzing sound in all directions. You see, they want all the females to know they are there! Or at least that is what WE are thinking anyhow. Who knows what a woodcock thinks besides the woodcocks?  Then the short stubby bird that looks like dead leaves on the forest floor, who has a bill that is almost as long as his body (with a flexible tip for probing in the soil for earthworms), launches skyward! And UP he goes swiftly with some twittering from his wings, he will go as high as 300 feet or more, so bring your night vision binoculars! A few seconds at the top of his climb and the fluffy bird DIVES back to the same spot on the ground to begin the process all over again.  It is astounding in so many ways. He will continue to do this through the evening and then pick up the routine again when the light is about the same level, just before dawn the next morning.  On a full moon night these energetic little game birds have been known to do the “skydance” all through the night.

I admire these little birds. I never see them at other times. But this annual event is worth the wait for me. I know they are around and I know they are game birds and hunters will indeed seek them out. But they seem awfully small to me, hardly worth the effort. Perhaps that is because I am not a hunter.

I invite you to get to know more about the American Woodcock whose range extends from Canada to Mexico in North America in woodland areas and fallow fields that are just a little moist. Hint – you might want to bring something to sit on rather than the damp ground.  Also if you only move when the birds are airborne, you will be surprised how close you can get to these birds without interrupting their display. If you are in northwestern Pennsylvania an extraordinary multiple skydance is waiting for you on a spring evening at Jennings State Park just south of Slippery Rock.

22 Responses to Who Is The Skydancer?

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