"Spring on the Refuge"
by Matt Conner, Park Ranger White River NWR
After a long winter and over indulgence in holiday provisions and super bowl party snacks, I have been pushing myself to walk the Refuge Upland Trail every day during my lunch break. The trail is a paved walkway approximately 1 mile in length that starts at the Visitor Center and brings me back via loop trail to my starting location. The trail has several benches spaced evenly along the trail, and I find it my duty to occasionally check these for structural integrity and proper grade. After all, I am responsible for the appearance and upkeep of this resource!
One day I was sitting on a bench performing a gradient check and I heard rustling in the leaves. I scanned for the source and realized it was dozens of robins picking through the leaf litter looking for food. I remembered my father in law standing in my living room a few days before talking about how his grandmother always declared it was spring when she spotted the first robin. Seeing this many robins in one place, I thought it was pretty safe to say that spring has sprung in Arkansas, and in a few weeks these same robins may be visible through my father in law’s window in Illinois as they return to the North for summer.
The warmer temperatures have also driven my family out of a proverbial hibernation as my wife and two children decided to sit outside last night and inhale spring. The first deep breath brought in about a dozen buffalo gnats and a handful of mosquitoes, so we armed ourselves with thermacells and bug spray and sat outside to watch the sunset. My two year old son was sitting on my lap as it was getting dark and I asked him what would be coming out to eat the gnats and mosquitoes. “Bats!” he shouted. I told him to watch the sky and see if he could see the first bat before I did.
A couple of minutes later he pointed up and said “there’s one Daddy!” , and we watched the bat perform an amazing aerial show as it chased, rolled, and scooped up gnats and mosquitoes in all directions. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I spotted a second bat, but when it flew in front of me I saw it was a woodcock. I could hear the wind whistling through the bird’s feathers as he reached his cruising speed of a blistering 5 miles per hour. What this bird lacks in speed it makes up in style as it practices its “skydance” to impress the females.
Of all the signs of spring my favorite is the mating dance of the woodcock. Each spring woodcocks will impress potential mates by performing a “skydance.” It starts with a male woodcock making a “peenting” sound similar to a nighthawk. Then it performs a little dance in an open field to get the females attention before taking off in flight.
The bird flies in large concentric circles high up into the sky and then free falls like a leaf dropping from a tree back down to the ground. The accent is marked by a whistling sound that can be best described as a tea kettle starting to boil. This sound is made by the wind passing through gaps in the flight feathers of the woodcock. Once at the apex, the free fall is silent and breathtaking as it appears this little bird has no fear as it plummets back to the ground.
We watched the woodcock fly high in the sky and begin its freefall. I had seen this many times in Minnesota when I worked at Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, but to see a skydance this far South is a rare and amazing treat. In fact, I had never had a chance to take my wife and children to see a skydance in Minnesota and had thought they may never see one. But here, sitting at out home on White River Refuge, we watched a woodcock perform its version of the evening air show.
I began to think about how special spring is for wildlife observation on the Refuge as well as all the species that wait for the spring and summer months to put weight back on after a long migration, hibernation, or months of limited forging during the cold months of winter. I thought about the woodcock’s bill penetrating the ground to find earthworms, the robins picking through leaves for insects, and bears that would be waking from winter’s sleep and searching for food after loosing 1/3 of their body weight over the winter. And of course I could never forget the buffalo gnats and mosquitoes swarming overhead hoping to feast on us and other unfortunate mammals. All these animals see spring as a renewal time to replenish themselves while I am attempting to do the exact opposite as winter has been a little too good to me!