There are precious few opportunities to combine a woodcock dance with a Super Full Moon. Sure, Woodcocks dance every Spring, and full moons happen all the time, but you can count on one hand – possibly using only a few fingers- the number of times a Super Full Moon will coincide with the spring mating season. I decided to deliberately pair the two events last night because it seemed like the thing to do.
Yesterday evening (Mar. 19) saw the closest association of the moon and earth since 1993. Since the moon’s orbit is elliptical, its distance from us will vary considerably over time and the seasons. The furthest point is called the apogee by astronomers. The closest point is called the perigree. Yesterday, that perigree distance was reduced to only 221,566 miles away – that’s 26,465 miles closer than usual! According to the experts the moon would appear 30% brighter and 14% bigger. They call it a Super Full Moon. According to the non-experts, such as myself, that chunk of cheese would look like a mighty big pizza pie to the eye.
In contrast to the bigness of the above described astronomical event, the woodcock’s dance performance is a subtle event bordering on non-event status. A Super Full Woodcock is simply a bird that is chock full of worms, but he does not glow nor is his increased girth easier to see in the moonlight. The apogee and perigree of a woodcock’s dance flight can be measured only in the tens of feet as opposed to tens of thousands of miles. Still, I was determined to get the best that the moon and the marsh bird could offer.
I should first describe the woodcock’s typical spring performance. The love sick males begin their routines as soon as they arrive in mid to late March (recall the ill-fated woodcock I profiled a few blogs ago for a description of the bird). They wait until 20 minutes after sunset to begin. First out is a series of “peents” – nasal insect-like calls issued as the birds strut about on the ground. Second, the birds launch into the air and engage in a spiral flight up into the dusky night sky. This phase is accompanied by a whistling sound created by wind rushing through a set of three specialized flight feathers on the leading edge of each wing (see detail below). The final act is a controlled leaf-like drop back to the earth with a fanfare of chirping. The whole performance is meant to melt the tiny hearts of silently watching female woodhens, but it is a difficult one for humans to track.
I went out two nights ago to seek a place where I could find calling woodcocks. I ended up at the Pointe Mouillee Game Area and was fortunate enough to see a few silhouetted birds whirring past on their way to the dance grounds (any low wet area will do). A few faint “peents” and at least one whistling flight was heard but these faint sounds were flooded out by the Tsunami of sound created by a million chorus frogs performing their mating songs. The frogs were so incredibly noisy that I called out “Shut the F— Up!” (please fill in the blank with “rog”) in a failed attempt to create a brief window of quiet. The rising moon was a great promotion for the following night’s event, but Pointe Mouillee would not do – it was too D—– noisy.
On the night of the super moon, I stuck closer to home and ventured over to a large neighborhood park at sunset. I must admit that I always feel like some sort of creep when I enter a park at night. If someone should report me (some old guy with his lights out and parking in the farthest corner from the road), I would have to tell the arriving officer that I was looking for Wood Cocks. I don’t ever want to have to say that. Fortunately this was a fairly remote neighborhood park with no adjacent houses or peering eyes.
There was no sign of the moon or investigating officers when the first woodcocks started to “peent” in the distance, but since there were no Chorus Frogs in the neighborhood I was happy. The night was chilly and I feared that my shaking bones would register on my recorder. The woodcocks were not especially exuberant either. They’d “peent” a few times then stop. One or two twittered invisibly into the sky but they waited until it was too dark to see. My recording attempts were continually frustrated.
When the copper red giant moon peaked over the treeline at 8:20 pm, my frustrations were washed away in the dim glow. I tracked it for ten minutes as it rose higher into the sky – changing from an oblong orange ellipse to a clear white ball. The woodcocks had fallen silent for a while, as if taking in the moonrise event, but for one golden half minute two birds engaged in a “peent off” and I got my recording (You can hear the results here). You can’t hear my shaking bones, nor can you hear the distant sounds of a barking dog or of a moaning train. All superfluous sounds went dead for a few seconds under the spell of that Super Moon.
As a woodcock recording this is an average attempt because it doesn’t reflect the whistling flight. Someday, perhaps, I will capture that part of the flight on my recorder but it will have to be on a regular night under a regular moon.