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.”

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.

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