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Spring spectacular: Migrants return to the area over the next few weeks

By Charlie Frisk

The next month and a half will showcase some of the most interesting outdoor spectacles of the year. 

During the next few weeks, most of the spring migrants will be arriving, animals will be courting and the woodland flowers will be putting on a show.

American woodcock

One of the great conservationist Aldo Leopold’s favorite nature shows was the sky dance of the American woodcock, often called the timberdoodle.

The male woodcock begins its sky dancing on the first warm evening in April and continues well into June.

The best places to view the sky dance are open meadows surrounded by woods.  

The male woodcock begins its display about 15 minutes after sunset and continues for about an hour, though on moonlit nights the display will last longer.

The first part of the display takes place on the ground and consists of a choppy dance accompanied by a “peenting sound.”

The dance must occur on a bare spot, because the woodcock has very short legs and the display would be wasted if there were vegetation to block the view.  

Leopold described the sky dance better than anyone – “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 from 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.”

Wilson’s snipe

The Wilson’s snipe, a relative of the woodcock, puts on a flight display just as spectacular.

Snipes are most often found in wet meadows or shrubby wetlands and usually perform in the early morning or at dusk, but I have also witnessed them displaying in the middle of the day.

The flight display of the snipe is called “winnowing,” because that is what it sounds like.  The birds circle high into the air and then suddenly dive down at high speed.

The air rushing past their outspread tail feathers produces a low, pulsing, whistling sound.

The sound varies depending on whether the birds are rising, circling at the top of their climb or plunging toward the ground.

Folklore developed about where these strange sounds were coming from.

The Nunamiut people of Alaska believed the winnowing of the snipe resembled the sound of a walrus. In Sweden, people thought the sound was coming from a horse that had been miraculously transported into the sky.

And in northern Germany, they likened the winnowing sound to that made by goats.

Viewing locations

The best place to view both woodcocks and snipes is the Baird Creek Preservation Foundation property on Horkman Road.

You should look up the sounds made by woodcocks during the sky dance and woodcock winnowing before you go because there are so many other sounds from Canada geese, sandhill cranes and wood frogs at this location.

Plan on getting out there about 7:30 p.m.

To get to Horkman Road, exit Hwy 43 onto East Mason Street and head east.

Mason Street turns into Finger Road – stay on Mason Street/Finger Road for about two miles after you cross Northview Road.

You will pass Phillips Road and the next street that goes only to the right is Horkman Road. 

Turn right and drive to the end of the road.

Lake sturgeon

The next spectacular show is put on not by a bird, but by a fish.

Northeast Wisconsin residents are fortunate that they live in one of the few places where lake sturgeon still survive.

Lake sturgeon are found in Lake Michigan, Bay of Green Bay and Lake Winnebago and spawn in the Wolf, Fox and Menominee Rivers.  

Sturgeon populations have either been eliminated or greatly reduced in many parts of the country by overharvest, water pollution and dams blocking access to their spawning areas.

They have very slow reproduction; females don’t reproduce until they are at least 24 years old, and then only spawn once every four to six years.

Males will mate at 15 years, but then usually only breed every other year.  

Female lake sturgeon live from 80-150 years and can exceed 200 pounds.

Males live about 55 years and typically don’t exceed 100 pounds.

Sturgeon start spawning when water temps hit about 53 degrees Fahrenheit if the water has warmed slowly.

If the warm up was rapid, they will not spawn until water temps hit 58 degrees.

Sturgeon put on a spectacular show during the spawn.

The females, which are easily identified by their larger size, come into shallow rocky areas and shudder violently when they release their eggs, called roe, and then several males compete to release their sperm, called milt, onto the eggs.  

Area locations that provide excellent sturgeon viewing include:

Riverwalk Park just below the DePere Dam.

Wolf River Sturgeon Trail on County Highway X, west of New London.

Bamboo Bend, Shiocton on Highway 54.

In Shawano at Sturgeon Park below the Shawano Dam.

As temperatures warm, check online regularly to see if sturgeon have started spawning at these locations.

These events only occur for a short period of time.

If you are lucky enough to witness them you will remember them for a lifetime.

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