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DOKKEN: Sky dancers one day, drummers the next

A picture of concealment, a woodcock hen sits on her nest April 23, 2016 in Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge. Male woodcock perform a spectacular sky dancing display during courtship. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service

ROOSEVELT, Minn. — I'd come to Norris Camp, headquarters of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area, to spend a few hours in a ruffed grouse blind and tag along on an early morning drumming count survey.

Little did I know I'd experience another spectacle of nature in the process.

Growing up in northwest Minnesota, I had heard ruffed grouse drumming in the woods literally hundreds of times but could never catch the show in person. Male ruffed grouse make the sound while standing on a log, tails fanned out like feathered rudders, and rapidly beating their wings in hopes of attracting a mate.

To me, the sound of a drumming ruffed grouse is a sound of spring.

Minnesota's largest wildlife management area, Red Lake WMA offers two blinds set up next to established drumming logs for photographers and other wildlife watchers to witness male ruffed grouse drumming in the spring.

The hollow thumping sound has to be heard to be appreciated. Seeing an unsuspecting drummer up close would be even more impressive.

This was my chance.

I'd arranged to spend the night at Norris Camp. Refuge manager Gretchen Mehmel and her husband, retired conservation officer Jeff Birchem, were outside enjoying the weather with their kids, Joshua and Johanna, when I pulled into their driveway shortly before 6 p.m. last Sunday.

I was looking forward to spending a couple of hours in the woods before dark.

I hadn't given it much thought, but Red Lake WMA and the surrounding Beltrami Island State Forest also are havens for American woodcock, odd-looking migratory game birds with a long beaks, short necks and big eyes.

Male woodcock are showmen, known for the sky dancing and "peenting" displays they perform on spring evenings in forest openings. One of those forest amphitheaters was within walking distance, Birchem said, and the woodcock were in full courtship mode.

Be back by 8:45 p.m., he said; the show begins at dusk.

Mehmel guided me to one of the two drumming blinds set up within a short drive of Norris Camp. The grouse had been active, she said, and the odds of seeing a drummer were good.

For whatever reason, the grouse weren't in a drumming mood that evening, and neither blind produced as much as a sighting when I returned to camp about 8:30 p.m.

No worries, Birchem said, all but guaranteeing the drummers would be out in force the next morning. And the woodcock, he said, were a sure thing.

They were. And it was amazing.

Backyard entertainment at its finest.

A brilliant sunset glowed through the trees when Mehmel, Birchem and their son, Joshua, led me into the clearing. Taking shelter behind bushes and small trees, we plopped down on the ground looking into the sunset for a better view of the birds and waited for the show to begin.

We didn't wait long.

Aldo Leopold, the noted conservationist and author of "A Sand County Almanac," has a wonderful essay in the book about watching woodcock display on his Wisconsin farm.

His words perfectly describe what we experienced:

"He flies in low from some neighboring thicket, alights on the bare moss, and at once begins the overture: a series of queer, throaty 'peents' spaced about two seconds apart and sounding much like the summer call of a nighthawk.

"Suddenly, the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter. Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet off the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began, and there resumes his peenting."

There were at least three male woodcock peenting that night, soaring skyward and disappearing from view before dropping back to the ground with a sound that to me seemed more like a chirping smooch than a warble.

On at least one occasion, a woodcock swooped within inches of my head. Coupled with the sound of spring peepers and chorus frogs, the sky dance served up a memorable finale to a spring evening in the forest.

True to Birchem's prediction, the woods were alive with the sound of drumming ruffed grouse the next morning, and I spent the better part of an hour within feet of a drummer on his log. A real cock of the walk, the grouse would drum every three to four minutes, stop to collect himself and survey his surroundings and then resume his percussive quest for a mate.

Then, as if deciding that was enough of that, he hopped off the log and wandered into the woods and out of sight.

I'd ended one day watching a sky dance and started the next watching a drummer onstage in the woods. In the process, I'd checked two "must-see" productions off my bucket list.

It's amazing, sometimes, what you can see when you're in the right place at the right time — and take the time to look.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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