HARPSWELL — When winter ends and the spring sun makes the days longer and warmer, the American woodcock comes back to Maine to mate.
And in Harpswell, he is watched.
On a recent evening, eight people drove into the damp dirt parking lot of the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust’s Curtis Farm Preserve, just as the sun was setting.
They came from around Harpswell and Brunswick, hoping to see a woodcock. Several male birds are known to perform their mating display here.
Harpswell residents Walter and Joan Phillips come to the same field last year, but did not see a bird.
“We’re hoping this year is different,” Joan Phillips said, as her husband, known to his friends as “Doc,” took a walking stick from the car. He claimed the stick on Mt. Kearsarge in New Hampshire in 1934, when he was 9 years old.
The couple met in 1948, on a student trip to France. They moved to Harpswell 33 years ago, “and we found our heaven,” Joan Phillips said.
Woodcocks like open, variable habitat where they have room to perform their elaborate mating display.
The tiny shorebirds usually stay camouflaged during the day, blending into leaves and brush. But just before dark, males go out into their mating territories, which ecologists call “singing grounds.”
The male woodcock begins what is called his “sky dance” by walking in little circles, making a honking sound to alert females that may be watching from a nearby thicket. After a few minutes, he launches himself into the air, spiraling upwards in circles to around 300 feet.
As air rushes through his wingtips, the feathers make a complex series of whistling sounds. At the flight’s peak, the woodcock chirps, then zigs and zags back down to where he started.
The dance often draws several female woodcocks to a singing ground, and the male will mate with a few partners. Females nest on the edges of the singing ground, and the male continues to perform his dance long after they lay their eggs.
Very little deters woodcocks from their sky dance. On a clear night with a full moon, the male woodcock will dance his mating dance until morning.
Joan and Doc Phillips walked out into the open field holding hands. They put down lawn chairs on the forest’s edge with the other six members of their group, their backs to the trees.
The eight sat in silence as the sun set. Soon, it dipped below the horizon.
There were no signs of birds.
“It’s still not dark enough,” said Ben West, a Bowdoin College student and avid bird watcher. “Ten more minutes.”
People wrapped themselves in jackets and blankets, whispering softly.
“Lots of people like to do it in the dark,” one watcher quipped.
The group settled in and waited.
Then, from the group’s left, came a honk. Heads snapped to attention and the watchers tried to make out the bird.
After a bit, the honks stopped, and a tiny black shape darted into the air. Soft whistling notes rained down in circles from the dark sky above.
The spectators, led by camouflage-clad Harpswell Forester Rob Bryan, crept along the treeline to get closer to the bird.
But it was too dark to see. Some people said they could see the woodcock as he took off and landed; others said they could not.
The air, however, was filled with noise. Another woodcock could be heard from a singing grounds across Harpswell Neck Road, a quieter song to the Curtis Farm woodcock’s loud chorus.
Someone asked Doc Phillips if he could hear the lovesick bird. “I can’t even hear my alarm clock two feet away,” he replied.
After about 15 minutes, the woodcock went back into a long honking period, and then concluded his evening’s display.
Joan Phillips said she didn’t know if she really “saw” the woodcock, but she was happy she heard it. She and Doc walked their lawn chairs back to the parking lot, Doc’s 82-year-old walking stick in hand.
They said their goodbyes to the six other bird watchers, and then drove back to their home on Whistlers Way.
Bird watchers search the sky for a male woodcock performing his elaborate mating display April 27 at Curtis Farm Preserve in Harpswell.
Woodcocks keep to the ground during the day, looking for food. On spring nights, the males take flight in a “sky dance.”
Walter “Doc” Phillips, 90, of Harpswell, wields his childhood walking stick before setting out to watch the woodcock’s mating dance on Curtis Farm Preserve.