Spring is a season we can look forward to in so many ways, including experiencing a twilight sky dance that is now occurring in old fields and pasturelands all across Maine. Experiencing a sky dance is not too dissimilar than seeing a four act performance. It’s best to arrive approximately 10 minutes after sunset and face towards the west, so when the sky dancers fly they will appear as dark silhouettes against a light sky.

Time to meet our leading performers, and this case there is only one, Mr. Timberdoddle , a male American woodcock. He is a most unusual shorebird, having a large plump body with short legs and a three inch bill. During the day, he generally spends his time well camouflaged among the leaves in a broadleaf mixed forest. As evening approaches, he often becomes more adventuresome, moving into wet brushy overgrown fields to feed. 90 percent of the woodcock’s diet consists of earthworms, which it probes for in the soft muds with its very long bill. At the end of its bill are sensitive nerves and a flexible tip needed to search and grasp its food, since it is incapable of seeing what it eats, having eyes so far back on its head. In the spring, our performer is most active on clear, calm and warm evenings; the perfect setting for the start of a sky dance show!

It is important to arrive early to this four act courtship event. Generally, it is only possible to observe just one or two sky dance flights before darkness sets in. On a typical night however, sky dance performances normally last an hour or two, although may go all night long when there is a full moon!

Act one starts off with Mr. Timberdoddle flying to its singing ground at approximately 20 minutes after sunset. Small openings, ranging from rock outcrops to soft mossy spots in overgrown wet fields, make ideal singing grounds. Shortly after arriving, the male woodcock starts its very nasal, buzzy ground call, sounding like “peent.” It calls frequently and will continue for quite a while, so this the time to move within 20 yards of the calling bird, so you are well positioned for the next act.

Act two is when our male bird ascends into the sky, at just the precise darkness. Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac describes this at exactly 0.05 foot-candles. You are far more likely hear the bird rise as it produces rapid whistling sounds with its very stiff flight feathers. Look on the horizon for a robin-size bird ascending at around five mph, the slowest flier of all North American birds. In the beginning, it ascends in very large sweeping circles, and then as it continues to climb, the circles become smaller and smaller until a height of 300 feet is reached. At the flight apex, he then gives off a few chip notes, and brings us to the next act.

Act three is the very rapid descent being performed as series of dives shaped in a backwards L pattern. On this descent, listen for a series of vocal gurgling chips, sounding very different from its ascent. If you lose sight of the bird, just look to the horizon from where he took off and there’s a very good chance you will see him land. The landing spot is usually within just a few feet from where he started its flight.

Act four is seldom seen and doesn’t always happen. In this act, a female joins the male just after he has landed. Both birds perform courting gestures and then vanish into darkness.

Two excellent places to experience the sky dance are at the Mahoosuc Land Trust (MLT) Valentine Farm and Intervale Gateway Preserve.

At the MLT Valentine Farm property, it is often possible to see several birds performing their courtship flights. From the parking lot, proceed right along the west loop leading to the pollination garden. Then take the left trail that leads downhill into the lower pasture.

MLT Intervale Gateway Preserve, although an easier walk, typically has just one or two performing birds. It is located just on the other side of Intervale Road from Davis Park.

So on a clear calm evening this month, put on some warm low contrast clothing, grab a flashlight, and be ready to see a performance like none other. Enjoy the show!

Paul Motts lives in Bethel, having retired as a Natural History Specialist and a Publications Writer with the National Park Service.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: