In the bird world, it's one of the first signs of spring -- the elaborate courtship ritual of the American woodcock.

Male woodcock have often been described as polygynous, and even promiscuous. Their ability to flirt is legendary.

"Whereas most birds just sing and posture a little bit, the woodcock actually does an aerial display," said Olin Allen, a Fairfax County park naturalist.

The woodcock is a small, chunky bird with large dark eyes and a needle-nose bill. Of the two sexes, the male is smaller.

The best place to find woodcock is in thickets, moist woodlands or marshy areas. Flirting begins after sundown but before dark.

Don't worry if you don't see one. Woodcock are the color of dead leaves -- gray, brown, black.

Listen for their distinctive nasal "peent" call, said Allen, a veteran birder and woodcock watcher.

They sound like tiny foghorns.

Upon hearing the "peents," gaze skyward. At any moment, the male woodwock will leap from the ground. He will climb in widening circles until he is about 300 feet overhead -- a black lump silhouetted against the sky. As he climbs, you will hear a whirring noise, which is the sound of the wind rustling through the feather tips. Then, in a series of swoops and zig-zags, he will flutter to the ground, whistling softly.

As he alights, he will begin the "peent" noises again and stalk off in search of a female.

Woodcock can begin their mating rituals as early as January or February, but most displays occur here in late March, said Allen.

It's something of a ritual with the Fairfax County Park Authority, which offers an annual woodcock courting walk. This year's had been scheduled to be held in the yard at the visitor center of the Ellanor C. Lawrence Park in Centreville 10 days ago.

"There are usually several males around the edge of the yard here, and one or two more down the road," said Allen. "They're usually a pretty sure-fire thing."

Unfortunately, it rained that night, and the whole thing was called off.

It's still possible, though unlikely, to glimpse a male woodcock on display. But with spring in full swing, most have turned to other activities, including nesting. He said hatching should occur "around the first of May."