American Woodcock a Harbinger of Spring
On a cool evening last week my wife, Julie, and I drove out to Blue Flag Meadow in Hampton. We parked, stepped through the entrance gate at the edge of the large, 10-acre field and walked out to the open expanse. Although the day had been clear and warm, clouds had gathered in the afternoon, the temperature had dropped, and rain was forecast for later. The sun was slowly descending over the western horizon sending shafts of sunlight slicing between gray-blue clouds. Darkness was gradually engulfing the field and surrounding wood.
The evening had turned into another “date night with Ranger Bill,” but Julie has grown used to these spur-of-the-moment adventures. We came to Blue Flag Meadow in hopes of witnessing one of the more unique early spring courtship rituals – the dizzying, aerial display of the American woodcock.
This plump, long-beaked, funny-looking bird has perplexed and delighted ornithologists, naturalists and game bird hunters for hundreds of years. Witnessing their courtship display is an annual early spring ritual for some folks, but, unfortunately, it is seen less and less the last several decades. It requires two things – the right type of habitat and the right night in early spring. Blue Flag Meadow has the right habitat and a few weeks in early March is the right time of year to see the woodcock in southern New England.
Blue Flag Meadow is a 90-acre protected property owned by the Eastern Connecticut Forest Landowners Association & Wolf Den Land Trust. It is surrounded by protected land, including Natchaug State Forest, Nathaniel Lyon Memorial State Park, the Air Line Trail State Park and several acres of conserved farmland. Over a decade ago it was donated to the land trust by Wendell and Allison Davis.
Our friend Gordon Hammersly had sent an email that the woodcock had arrived at the meadow on their stopover to northern breeding grounds. Gordon owns land abutting the meadow and is very knowledgeable about the habits of this unique game bird. If we were to have success witnessing their courtship display, then this night was promising.
Julie and I walked down the sloping field and met up with Gordon and Steve Broderick. Steve is one of the land stewards for Blue Flag Meadow. Its fields are excellent for witnessing the male woodcock courtship display, and Steve has helped develop a management plan to enhance the woodcocks’ preferred habitat.
“They are active tonight” said Gordon as we walked a bit further down the sloping field to a spot providing a good view of the sky. The four of us stood together waiting for a bird to appear when Gordon cocked his ear, pointing to spot a few hundred feet away. We could faintly make out the sound that is best described as a nasally kazoo buzzing “peent peent” call. In short bursts the male woodcock was performing his song in hopes of attracting a female.
The amusing call is one-of-a-kind in the avian world and so, too, is the aerial display that follows. The woodcock will suddenly alight into the evening sky in a circular upward flight pattern. In the increasing dark it can be hard to make out the little bird against the sky. But the wind through the tips of the bird’s wings creates a twittering sound. Only the sound tells you it is up there.
That night the gray background of the clouds helped us pick out the woodcock as it swooped and swirled upward until it stopped, hovered in the air then tumbled downward. Faster it descended until it landed on the open grass. Soon, we heard its repeated call and, sure enough, off it took to the air on yet another flight of fancy.
That night we must have witnessed half-a-dozen or more aerial flights. Twice a bird landed within 15 feet of us, and one zipped past just a few feet from Gordon’s head. It was as if these funny looking birds had planned this grand entrance to the coming vernal equinox. In darkness we trudged back up the hill, said our goodbyes and climbed back into the truck. We looked at each other and all we could muster was “wow, now that was amazing.”
Here are some facts about this amazing aerial acrobat that I gleaned from the CT DEEP Fact Sheet on American Woodcock and from the Cornell Lab on Ornithology website AllAboutBirds.org.
- The American woodcock is a short-legged, plump bird about 11 inches in length. Its most prominent feature is a 2.5-inch-long flexible bill used for searching the ground for earthworms.
- 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 and flight display. They also like wet meadows and marshes for protection from predators and their preferred food of 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 look 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 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 Gulf of Mexico. They breed in the northern part of their range and migrate to the south in the winter. Their reliance on earthworms and other invertebrates makes wintering in the north impossible.
- They return to their breeding range by mid-March and into early April the annual courtship displays begin. Nesting begins in April and May. The nest is made in a wooded area and is a shallow depression on the ground lined with leaves. The nest is usually about 5 inches in diameter and 2 inches deep. The clutch of 4 or 5 eggs will be colored brown, pink, gray and mottled. Incubation is about 21 days.
- Since the female is well camouflaged, she often goes undetected and will only flush from the nest when you are practically stepping on her. If she flies from the nest, or if a predator is close when she is with chicks, she will pretend to be wounded and will fly with one wing positioned as if it were broken to distract the predator away from the nest.
- 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 and roosting during the summer and early fall. They need open stands of hardwood saplings for nesting and rearing young.
In 2019, ECFLA was awarded a Natural Resources Conservation Service cost-share grant to help increase woodcock habitat at Blue Flag Meadow, but I’ll save the details about that for a future column.
The one question Gordon and Steve could not answer is whether female woodcock will arrive this year and choose to breed and raise young within the confines of Blue Flag Meadow. We hope to return later this spring to find out.
Spring has arrived. It returned on the hopeful wings and aerial flight of a comical yet fascinating bird – the American woodcock. I hope you’ll join me as we welcome the new season and take joy in the unique and diverse wildlife we enjoy here in The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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