The Night Primeval at Cherokee Marsh: Christ the Solid Rock and Madison Audubon Society

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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.

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The American Woodcock.

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 getkidsoutside@gmail.com. 

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The things we do for love: Flight of the Woodcock

It’s spring and romance is in the air. Literally. While people are known to hire sky writers or airplanes to profess their love,  there’s a tiny bird that is the king of outrageous and romantic gestures  – The American Woodcock.

On a recent Audubon expedition to Cherokee Marsh, me and about 20 other bird enthusiasts went to experience what Aldo Leopold describes as sky dancing. 

At dusk, exactly 8:10 pm, our guide Levi Wood led us to a meadow east of the parking lot where we heard our first “peent” — the pinched, throaty sound of the male woodcock.  While we can’t see him, Wood tells us that he’s walking around in a circle on a soft mound of grass or moss preparing for flight.

The bird peents and then pauses, peents and then pauses, up to a dozen times before spiraling into the air 200 feet. On the way up, the bird’s wings make a twittering sound. On the way down, he warbles excitedly, all the while careening  downward like a crippled plane, again Leopold’s words. He lands in silence back on the same spot he started from where he begins peenting again.

Peent, Twitter, Warble. Repeat.

This goes on until dusk has faded and darkness sets in, unless of course there’s a full moon. The light has to be just right for this romantic bird. Meanwhile, somewhere in the brush, a female woodcock stands by. If she’s impressed, they mate.

No one really know why male woodcocks do what they do, but then no one knows why anyone does what they do for love. It’s Spring and love is definitely in the air.

The flight of the woodcock continues at sundown through May at Cherokee Marsh and the UW-Arboretum. To hear the full peent, twitter, warble vocalization go the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s website: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Woodcock/id