Sky Dancing with the Mud Bats

By Jim White, Associate Director, Land and Biodiversity and Amy White, Teacher Naturalist

So you think you can dance? Well maybe you can, but I bet you can’t rival the 300-foot high, spiraling dance performed each Spring by the “mud bat”, or more properly the American Woodcock. Nor could you match the bird’s beautiful warbling song as it plummets back to the earth to strut around the ground, showing off for any potential mate.  In his landmark book, A Sand County Almanac, noted conservationist Aldo Leopold penned the term “Sky Dance” for this bird’s remarkable mating ritual.

An American Woodcock hides in the leaf litter of the forest floor, and is very difficult to see until they move.  Photo by Jim White.
An American Woodcock hides in the leaf litter of the forest floor, and is very difficult to see until they move. Photo by Jim White.

The Sky Dance is performed only by males and only in the right habitat: on and above open sandy, gravely, or short grassy areas adjacent to shrubby old fields and very young woodlands.  The dance begins in the twilight glow just before sunrise or after sunset.   It starts when the male flies to his chosen “singing ground” from the nearby vegetation and begin to call, emitting a loud nasally, buzzy sound or “peent” every three seconds or so.  While peenting, this chubby little shorebird wattles around the small area in comical fashion. Suddenly the peenting stops and the bird takes flight, rising in ever tightening circles high into the air.  With each wing beat a twittering sound is produced as air rushes through the first three primary wing feathers.  When reaching the desired altitude (as much as 300 feet) he stops climbing and plummets down to earth: as Leopold describes, “he tumbles like a crippled plane”. On the way down the woodcock emits a beautiful, soft, liquid warbling sound. Just before crashing, he levels off and lands, usually near where he took off, and begins to peent: starting the dance over again.  The entire dance, like so many types of dancing, is designed to impress the opposite sex – in this case, the female woodcock.  Sounds of the American Woodcock can be found here.

Some may describe the American Woodcock as an odd little bird and indeed it is unusual in several ways. Taxonomically, it is classified as a shorebird and yet it rarely visits the shore.  It is globular in shape, with large eyes comically positioned high up on the side of its oversized head.  And it has a very long bill (compared to its body size), which it uses to probe the soil for worms and other invertebrates. The tip of the bill is flexible, an adaptation that enables the woodcock to capture worms while thebill is still well below the ground surface.

The American Woodcock ranges over much of the eastern half of the US and southern Canada.  It appears that in recent years, woodcock populations are declining due to loss of the early successional habitats that they require.

Usually, you only see American Woodcocks in flight right around first light or last light.  Otherwise, one occasionally kicks them up in woods and thickets by surprise during the day.  Photo by Derek Stoner.
Usually, you only see American Woodcocks in flight right around first light or last light. Otherwise, one occasionally kicks them up in woods and thickets by surprise during the day. Photo by Derek Stoner.

This year appears to be a particularly good year to observe the Sky Dance, and we have been fortunate enough to witness several such dances in locations scattered throughout our area this Spring.  The best way to see the Sky Dance is to find a relatively flat, open area with low grass or bare substrate that is near young woodlands. If possible, position yourself so that you are facing towards the sunset, so that you can see the birds as they fly against the brighter western sky.  Get to your viewing spot at sunset and wait quietly until it starts to get dark.  If the woodcock are going to perform they will begin 20 to 30 minutes after sunset.  If you like to get up early you can also see the birds in the morning, about 45 to 60 minutes before sunrise. Either way, the best viewing conditions are with clear skies and little to no wind. 

The Sky Dance is one of the many natural phenomena that anyone interested in nature should try to experience at least once (if not every year, as we try to do).  It’s a great way to celebrate the end of Winter and to welcome the arrival of Spring!

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