Don’t sleep through this wild sky dance! Get to know more about Northern Michigan woodcocks and write down these local preserves to increase your chance of catching a sky dance this spring.

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Each spring in Northern Michigan, unbeknownst to most, a spectacular aerial ballet occurs at dusk and dawn. Admission is free. The stage: The North’s open fields. The dancer: The unassuming, kinda cute and slightly awkward male woodcock.

The intensely acrobatic sky dance is this plump little shorebird’s version of a serenade—he dances for love.

“In a good habitat, you may have several males dancing within earshot,” says Kieran Fleming, executive director of Little Traverse Conservancy and avid woodcock enthusiast. “It’s fun to figure out where each of them is working. Sometimes you can tell when a female is on the scene as the males will concentrate toward where she is.”

There they are—dancing in the dark, busting out all of their best moves. Romantic? Perhaps, if you’re a lady woodcock. For the rest of us, it’s a mesmerizing spectacle that will leave you in awe, mouth agape and eyes to the sky.

Woodcock in leaves

Photo by Little Traverse Conservancy

Get to Know the Woodcock

The woodcock goes by many names—night partridge, big-eye, bog-sucker, mudbat and, my personal favorite, the timberdoodle. Unlike their coastal relatives, these humble shorebirds scuttle around inland, their brown and beige plumage perfect for blending in with leaf litter and other forest debris. Fleming says their preferred habitat consists of an open area (think meadow or farm field) that’s adjacent to dense fledgling forests and shrubby lowland cover like tag alder, willows and young aspen. Come spring, the males begin establishing their “singing grounds” in these areas.

“As soon as the snow starts to give way to open ground in April, they will be at it,” Fleming says. The mating ritual continues into May or beyond, but Fleming’s tip for those hoping to catch the spectacle is to head out mid to late April, and avoid windy nights.

The birds begin their show right before dark, staying active for much of the night before ramping up again at dawn. Once you’ve found your chosen field, start by listening for them; you’ll hear what’s referred to as “peenting”—a nasal, buzzer-type sound. (And, in that moment, you’ll understand why they rely on their dance moves to attract a mate.)

“After that, you just wait for them to fly, then move quickly to any cover close to where you heard them on the ground,” Fleming says.

At this point, the woodcocks start gaining altitude. As they fly in a spiral pattern, anywhere from 100 to 300 feet into the sky, their wings make a “twittering” sound from the wind rushing through their feathers (which you’ll hear again during the dramatic final act). “They’re less likely to notice you moving while doing this,” Fleming says.

“At the apex of their flight, they start to chirp … this is your clue to freeze,” he says. “They will plummet back to the earth, very close to where you first heard them peenting, and start all over again.”

How to Enjoy the Woodcock’s Show

If you’re respectful while spectating, Fleming says birdwatchers can get very close after a flight or two.

“I wouldn’t worry about disturbing one of them once,” he says. “They are resilient to the fact that other predators will home in as well. They just move or lie low until the threat is gone. [But] if you end up scaring one, you’ll likely have no choice but to move on.”

While woodcocks are relatively common in the right habitats, Fleming notes that the species has been steadily declining for decades now. According to DNR data, the last peak in the woodcock population occurred in the 1950s, and the population has been dwindling by an average of 2.8 percent per year since 1985. This is largely due to habitat loss.

Even so, Fleming says woodcocks are common enough that many folks across the North have likely heard them before, but just didn’t register that very … unique … peenting sound.

“The sky dance, once you know the ritual, is amazing but rather inconspicuous if you aren’t fully engaged,” he adds. “Most people in our region don’t live far from this event happening every night in the spring.”

Woodcock in snowy leaves

Photo by Little Traverse Conservancy

Where to See a Wild Woodcock Sky Dance

Kieran Fleming says these preserves near Petoskey and Charlevoix are always good bets for catching a sky dance:

  • Elizabeth B. Hoffmann Nature Preserve
  • Waldron Fen Nature Preserve
  • Black Hole Nature Preserve
  • Hailand/Helstrom Family Nature Preserve
  • Nathan Beem Memorial Nature Preserve

Go out with the pros: Little Traverse Conservancy will be hosting a sky dance field trip with the Al Litzenburger Chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society on April 18. Learn more about the Sky Dancing With The American Woodcock event here.