American Woodcock -Spring 2019

Sky Dancer of Spring

by: Virginia Andrews

Almost everything about the American Woodcock is either cryptic or eccentric, starting with its voice, coming out of the dusk: “peent . . . peent . . . peent . . . peent.”

They are now found across much of the island, in natural areas and suburban developments that butt up to wetlands. Females and young are occasionally seen crossing a road.
A nasal buzz, delivered every five seconds or so, it sounds vaguely mechanical, like a misplaced cell phone. But the “peent” call is often the first indication that there is actually a bird – or several – nearby. A patient observer may see them doing their courtship dances in the sky at dusk, one of the most delightful nature experiences of a spring evening.

Models of camouflage, Woodcock are not always easy to see by daylight. With soft mottled browns, fine shirrings of black and accents of gray, they blend in perfectly with leaf litter. So perfectly, in fact, that they are sometimes almost stepped on. At the last second, they explode off the ground in a whirr, and have even been known to clip an unwary ornithologist on the ear. When flushed they fly in a zig-zag pattern, about five or six feet off the ground.

Another anomaly is that they are classed as shorebirds, in the same family with a number of sandpipers. But they don’t often go to the shore. They usually live inland, in thickets, wet woods, swamps or brushy fields. They have their own genus, scolopax. Their closest relatives are snipe, also cryptically-colored denizens of boggy places, and they look quite similar. In fact, the best way to tell them apart is by the orientation of the stripes on their heads: those of the Woodcock run from eye to eye.

They are plump and short-legged, almost like a walking football in shape. And they don’t perch, but walk, although they may be able to stand on a branch if it’s broad enough. They are sometimes seen out in the middle of the day, rocking erratically from side to side. Some birders call this “doing the rhumba,” and setting their walk to music has an Internet life of its own.

More than one observer has stopped and gawked, thinking this eccentricity might be a neurological problem. While they wondered if the bird was sick, it handily escaped. How many other predators have stopped to ask themselves, “Is that thing safe to eat,” and thereby lost a meal? They are the original “silly walkers,” and this may be a reason that one of their common nicknames is the “timberdoodle.” A transcription of their route would indeed be a rather abstract doodle.

Their eyes are set wide apart, on the extreme sides of their heads. This gives them a field of view so large that they practically have “eyes in the back of their heads.” It’s a useful adaptation for living on the ground, where predators are many.

Their long bills have a sensitive tip, enabling them to find and grab their favorite prey, earthworms, out of drifted leaves and soft earth. Using the bill as both probe and straw, this got them another colorful nickname, the “bog-sucker.” They may also use their bills to weave through the grass, all the better to disappear quickly.

They live in eastern North America, breeding from southern Newfoundland to southeastern

Manitoba, through the eastern half of the United States. Across much of the Southeast they can be found year-round, while a few migrate further, going to southern Florida or along the Gulf Coast. But at least one, lingering in New England when the ground was frozen hard, survived by reverting to classic shorebird behavior. When all else was ice, it was seen picking marine worms out of a sandbar exposed at low tide.

Like other shorebirds, they were hunted enthusiastically through the 19th and early 20th centuries. Their numbers were vastly reduced. But even when protections for other rapidly-disappearing species were enacted, they were still numerous enough to be considered legitimate game.

Naturalist Aldo Leopold acerbically wrote that “they had more to recommend them than their utility as a target or reposing on a slice of toast.” They still are hunted, although less so than in the past. Their meat is valued more for tenderness than quantity, as they yield about a teaspoon per bird. Curiously, it is one thing that dogs won’t eat. Even the most poorly-trained chow-hound refuses an offered tidbit.

On Nantucket numbers varied with changes in hunting and habitat. Eight were shot on one day in August 1872. But between 1875 and 1900 only one sportsman recorded bagging a single bird. There is no information about breeding on the island during that time. Still, it is possible a few were present, and four were seen in the autumn of 1923. By 1939 they were noted annually. In the 1940s several pairs were nesting on the island, in Wauwinet, the Hidden Forest and near Hummock Pond. They are now found across much of the island, in natural areas and suburban developments that butt up to wetlands. Females and young are occasionally seen crossing a road.

The female does all the work of building the nest, incubating the eggs and tending the young. Fuzzy balls of fluff with legs, they can walk within a few hours of hatching. But the female alone feeds and cares for the brood until they reach adult size, which takes a little over a month.

The male has no other part in reproduction but to be an attractive mate, and this is where the nocturnal song and dance routine comes in. After dusk or before dawn, his courtship ritual can be seen in the sky.

An open area such as an old meadow, field or bog forms a staging area. Often several males will use the same clearing, although no amount of imagination could stretch to calling them a boy band, and the areas are not considered to be a lek. The “peent” call is hardly a song, more a simple advertisement that they are there. But their dances do show off their attractiveness and skill, while females hidden in nearby cover watch. After a warmup consisting of rotating around “peenting” in all directions, the male goes into the main event. Silently, he glides up, up, up, circling high above the field. Part way up he may begin to twitter, circling again, doing loops and rolls. At the apex of the flight, a couple of hundred feet above the ground, he drops. Simultaneously chirping and twittering, he spirals back down. Amazingly, the twitter is produced by the flow of air between three stiff outer primaries at the end of each wing. He is literally using his own wind instrument to accompany his vocals.

From the end of February to almost the beginning of June,

this spring ritual is available to all willing to seek it out. Some of the best places to watch are the Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s Squam Farm property, or at the Land Bank parking lot off Madaket Road.

When the temperature is above 40 degrees, when it’s dark enough that leaves no longer look green, and the chatter of daytime birds has dwindled down, listen for the “peent!” This is when the American Woodcock comes into his own. ///

Virginia Andrews writes the weekly "Island Bird Sightings" column for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket's newspaper since 1821, and is a regular writer for Nantucket Today.

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