Sunday, March 28, 2010

What's that sound at dusk? American Woodcock mating calls

It's an odd sound; loud and'd never suspect it comes from a bird but a monstrous frog, or ueber-insect*. You'd never guess it's from a homey-looking butterball of a bird.  

For the past three evenings I have been listening to a Woodcock peenting nearby in a low lying wet area of tangled brush, fallen trees and small clearings,  advertising his position to local females. Last night, using a flashlight, I finally got a glimpse of him standing amidst clumps of dead weeds and last year's grass. 

At dusk  I'd see him rising high up in the air and spiralling in wide circles all the while making a twittering, whistling sound with his wings. After a while the twitters change to chirping, gradually getting louder, then silence as the bird descends among the trees to land in a clearing

Chester A. Reed, The Bird Book, 1915

I managed to get a recording of the song. Here is snippet of the spectrogram. and wave pattern 

There are four types of sounds: the thin nasal  buzzy "peent" call preceded by a barely audible "tuko" sound, the twittering made by the wings during sharp turns, and the vocal chirping during during aerial flight which becomes louder as the bird descends. The last part of the descent is silent. Then a soft fluttering of the wings as the bird lands.

I have been holding off publishing this to try to get a photo, going out at dusk every day but no luck. The first day was the best one in that the bird landed not 5 feet from me, but my camera was not in position. I got a good look at him though, as he was standing in the grass, making soft "tuko" sounds, that sound to me  like the cooing of a dove, only much briefer. After a couple of minutes he started "peenting", sounding like a sharp ripping and tearing of paper.

Anyway I never got that lucky again. Every night he always appeared just at the opposite end of the clearing from where I had positioned myself. . Although I was then able to approach him to within a few feet, by that time it was too dark, despite the almost full moon, to focus my camera - so I got just a bunch of blurry pictures of weeds and shrub. ..

The moon however was beautiful.

*It's not in the dictionary. I took if from Nietzsche's "Uebermensch", or superman.


  1. WOW! I just listened to the sound! Really cool, thanks for posting it!!

  2. Wonderful recording and cool to see the spectrogram. I went to your site to listen, and it really does sound like a giant insect! I need to ask around to see if there are any local I can find. None around my house! You're lucky to hear them in your yard!

  3. Thanks for stopping by!

    Kelly, the sound of woodcocks carries a good distance (at least 200 feet) So if drive around at dusk with your windows open in an area with shrubs, trees, and moist grounds you should be able to find them. There were three in my area in a low lying piece of woodland that was almost clear-cut about 7 years ago and now has shrubs and trees growing back. The bird called from 7:30 PM on and was still at it when I went to bed at 10:30. If you have BirdsEye you may want to check there in your area.

  4. Interesting post, Hilke.

    Last year at Pelee they had an evening tour to see Woodcock displaying and it was very interesting. I hadn't realized how intricate it was.

    Cheers, Harold

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  6. I've heard this sound once Hilke, here in Iceland. I saw one of them. it is of course a rare bird that came with the storm ;-) I went for the first time to see your gallery! It is an amazing one and I loved to visit it....

  7. Thanks for stopping by.

    Chris, I focused on my website for a couple of years, but found the format too limiting. I am still keeping it up by adding photographs. Glad you liked it!

  8. Very interesting. I would have never guessed it to be a bird... It DOES sound like a big insect of some sort.

    I will keep my ears open in the future!

  9. Thanks for posting that! I run a bike trail loop at dusk and have been hearing that strange noise for a week. I thought it sounded like a night hawk... but way too early for them, and it was on the ground. We seem to have a very healthy population of them in my area (SW Ohio)

  10. Very Cool recording! This bird does have a frog sounding call.


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