Exploring The Last Green Valley: Woodcock courtship ritual something to behold

I was about 12 years old when I first witnessed the magical springtime courtship ritual and flight display of the male American woodcock.

It was an early spring evening at dusk and I was outside enjoying the pastoral views from my grandparents’ old farm in New Hampshire.

I kept hearing this strange, almost nasal buzzing sound at the edge of the old hay field. I cautiously approached the “peent, peent” call when suddenly up shot a fat little bird with a silly looking long beak.

Up and up it flew in a circular motion. Its wings made a high-pitched twittering sound as it ascended to a height of almost 200 feet, and then it stopped and began a slow zig-zag descent to the ground.

I couldn’t see exactly where it had landed, but I knew there was more than one woodcock nearby from all the noise. Clearly it had impressed a female with its display.

Since that spring evening I have witnessed the courtship flight of the male American woodcock on several occasions and appreciate these special little birds as one of the more unique species in our region.

Here are some facts about this amazing aerial acrobat that I was able to glean from a state DEEP fact sheet and from the Cornell Lab on Ornithology website All About Birds.

The American woodcock is a short-legged, plump bird about 11 inches in length. Its most prominent feature is a 2 ½ inch long flexible bill that is used for searching the ground for earthworms — its primary diet.

Woodcock prefer a habitat of young to second growth hardwood forest with adjacent open areas such as old hay fields. The open areas are important for their courtship display and flight ritual. They also like wet meadows and marshes for protection from predators and for food such as earthworms, slugs and other invertebrates.

Both the male and female woodcock are similar in appearance, though the female is larger. They are a mottled brown color, similar to the color of dead leaves, which gives them excellent camouflage on the forest floor.

They have a gray head and brown and black bars across the crown. With large eyes set high and back on the head, they have very good peripheral vision. This helps them see predators that might be approaching by air — especially when they have their head down probing the ground for food.

Woodcock live primarily in eastern North America, from southern Canada to the southern states and Gulf of Mexico. They breed in the northern part of their range and migrate to the southern part of their range in the winter.

Their reliance of earthworms and other invertebrates makes wintering in the north impossible.

They return to their breeding range by mid-March, and in late March and early April the annual courtship displays begin.

Nesting begins in April and May. The nest is made in a wooded area and is a simple shallow depression on the ground lined with leaves. The nest is usually about 5 inches in diameter and 2 inches deep. The clutch of four or five eggs will be colored brown, pink, gray and mottled. Incubation is 19 to 22 days.

Since the female is so perfectly camouflaged, she will go undetected and will only flush from the nest when you are practically on top of her.

If she does fly from the nest, or if a predator gets too close when she is with her chicks, she will pretend to be wounded and will fly with one wing positioned as if it were broken in order to distract the predator away from the nest and chicks.

The female does all of the incubating and chick rearing. The young will leave the nest within a day of hatching and will be with the female for about two weeks until they are fully fledged and able to fly. The young will remain in the nest area until migration season in the fall.

The American woodcock has declined in numbers since the 1960s, primarily due to habitat loss. Our region is now predominately forested land dominated by mature stands of timber.

Woodcock rely on old fields, forest clearings and bogs for their courtship display in the spring, and for roosting during the summer and early fall. They need more open stands of woods, especially hardwoods with saplings for nesting and rearing young.

Here in New England many of our old farms with mixed forests and adjoining meadows and hay fields have slowly turned to fully mature forests and the diversity of habitat needed by the woodcock has disappeared.

This certainly has been the case at my grandparents’ old farm in New Hampshire. I first witnessed the male courtship display at the old farm in the mid-to-late 1960s.

Over the past 40 to 50 years, the forest has encroached into the old hay fields, and while we try to keep it mowed and open, there is much less open meadow and field than when I was young. It seems as if the woodcock have moved on and I have not seen or heard them since.

This year has been especially hard on woodcock, particularly the recent March blizzard. I contacted Andy Rzeznikiewicz, land manager at the Connecticut Audubon Society Center at Pomfret. Andy leads walks and programs on the Audubon properties and has led walks specifically to see the American woodcock courtship flight ritual.

“The woodcock came back early this year, due to the warm weather in February and no snow cover,” he said. “Great numbers were observed before the blizzard. Woodcock can survive March snows normally, but we had a lot of snow and extended very cold temperatures that didn’t melt things at all for several days.

“They would normally retreat to the wet unfrozen swampy forests, but with such cold temperatures even most of the swamps were frozen tight. I have heard of woodcocks being reported in Plainfield and Pomfret since we had the thaw. We won’t know until next week to see if their population went down.”

I know some good locations for seeing the woodcock’s amazing aerial display and over the next few weeks will try to schedule some early evenings when the weather is clear and dry to head out at dusk.

The Connecticut Audubon Society in Pomfret is a good place for woodcock as is Blue Flag Meadow, a Wolf Den Land Trust property in Hampton. Both locations have old fields, meadows, swamp and woodland — just the right habitat for our special and unique American woodcock.

If you enjoy birdlife and all that nature has to offer, watching the courtship ritual of the male woodcock should be on your bucket list. I never tire of it.

I hope you will join me in caring for, experiencing and passing on all that we have come to enjoy about living here in The Last Green Valley.

Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.

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