Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Other March Madness: American Woodcock

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One of the early season highlights of birding in east central Illinois is the return of American woodcocks in February and March, and most people who have made it a point to look for these birds have a story to tell. Indeed, for some of us, the return of woodcocks is March madness.

The woodcock belongs to the shorebird family, whose more familiar members include sandpipers and plovers. But unlike its cousins, the woodcock prefers habitat composed of moist woods, open fields, and brushy swamps. You won’t see a woodcock poking along beaches or mud flats the way other shorebirds do. Indeed, the woodcock is so secretive and so well camouflaged that unless you witness its courtship display, you’re likely to see one only if you come close to stepping on in it, and it flushes. Then you are startled by an explosion of wings at your feet, after which you’ll have five to ten seconds to watch the bird fly before it lands and takes cover again.

On the ground, the woodcock’s appearance suggests that it was constructed by a birdmaker who didn’t pay strict attention to the shorebird blueprint as he worked. It’s a plump bird, about eleven inches long altogether, although its bill accounts for three of those inches. This bill is highly sensitive to help the woodcock detect vibrations made by earthworms underground, and it features a flexible tip that can be opened to grasp worms even while the rest of the bill remains closed. The woodcock eats earthworms in quantities that equal its body weight in a day.

A woodcock’s eyes bulge out, like black stick-on doll-eyes that are attached in the wrong spot--just a little too high up, and too far back on its head. Odd as it may look, this arrangement allows the woodcock a super wide field of vision—nearly three hundred and sixty degrees—which is quite a useful adaptation for a bird that spends so much time with its nose to the ground.

Appearances aside, what endears the woodcock to birders is the strange and elaborate courtship ritual that the males perform at dusk and dawn in the spring. Many people have written to describe this behavior, although none so eloquently as Aldo Leopold, whose thought and writing are the foundation for so much of the modern conservation movement.

This is how Leopold describes what he terms the woodcock’s “sky dance”:

He flies in low from some neighboring thicket, alights on the bare moss, and at once begins the overture: a series of queer throaty peents spaced about two seconds apart, and sounding much like the summer call of the nighthawk.

Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter. Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began, and there resumes peenting

Depending on conditions, the male woodcock may repeat this performance for a half hour or more.

If you would like to see the sky dance for yourself, join members of the Champaign County Audubon Society for a woodcock walk at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana next Wednesday, March 23. They will meet at the Race Street parking lot south of Windsor Road at 6:00 p.m., and likely be out until 7:00. Details are available through Environmental Almanac website.