When the marsh wakes up, it does so with a riot of prehistoric sounds. Cranes bugle. Chorus frogs sing, blackbirds scold, and the woodcock peents, just like they have done for thousands of years. Even if you never see anything, the sounds tell us that life is everywhere. On April 17, members of Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church joined the Madison Audubon Society on their annual flight of the woodcock hike at Cherokee Marsh.
The woodcock is a funny little bird that has an elaborate mating dance. First, he walks around on the ground and makes a buzzy, peenting sound. Then, he darts into the air about 200 feet. On the way back down, he twists and twirls all the while whistling and fluttering his wings. It’s quite the visual and auditory spectacle and well worth a trip to the marsh just for the possibility of seeing this bird. I had promoted this trip to the church as a woodcock hike, so I was hoping that he would perform. I had my fingers crossed. Like clockwork, the male woodcock started peenting at 8:15 p.m. He was about 75 yards away so we couldn’t see him on the ground. Last year, he stood right on the trail about 25 yards away so we all got a good look at him through the spotting scope. Levi Wood, the Audubon guide, suspected that a recent prescribed burn opened up a lot more peenting territory making the manicured trail less attractive. It was too dark to see him flying, but we heard him twittering on the way down. When a bat flew by, we thought for a moment it was the woodcock, but no luck. Despite not seeing the little bird with the big peent, it was still a magical night. Just being present to this annual ritual is a gift, especially when that gift is shared with others. What did the kids think? They weren’t too impressed with the woodcock, mainly because they couldn’t see him. They were much more impressed with an American toad that hopped across the path. A boy picked him up so everyone got a good look. We also talked a lot about snakes and saw a really tiny brown snake slither through the grass. One girl was pretty freaked out about the snakes, but I assured her that snakes will not harm her. If I did this hike again with kids, I might play the video for them in advance so that they knew what to listen for. It takes time to hone listening skills and patience. Bird watching is great for that. Kids need to learn that real nature doesn’t always meet our expectations. That may be disappointing at first, but it makes the moment of discovery that much sweeter. Plus now, we have a reason to go back again next year. The woodcock dances through the first part of May. Diane Schwartz lead outings at Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church in Madison, Wisconsin. To volunteer, contact Diane at firstname.lastname@example.org.