Thursday, March 15, 2007

Return of the American Woodcock: The Other March Madness

Note: I am still researching and writing EA each week, but other people will be voicing the spots until April 17, 2007. I'm running for a seat on the Champaign Park District board, so my voice can't be on the radio without opening up the same amount of time for other candidates.

Dee Breeding from WILL-AM 580 narrates this week's installment.


Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

Many people take the arrival of robins as a sign that spring is on the way. For others, a more important indicator is the return to Illinois of a bird called the American woodcock. Indeed, for some birders, 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 it, and it flushes.

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. 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.

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 360 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 depict this behavior, although none so eloquently as Aldo Leopold, whose book, A Sand County Almanac, has inspired and shaped the modern conservation movement.

This is how Leopold describes what he terms the “sky dance”: 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.

The woodcock’s aerial feats are accompanied by equally captivating intervals of strutting and vocalizing on the ground. This may seem like the stuff that television nature shows are made of, but it’s happening right now, in our part of the world.

If you would like to see the sky dance for yourself, you can join members of the Champaign County Audubon Society for a woodcock walk at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana next Wednesday, March 21st. Participants will meet at the Meadowbrook Park parking lot on South Race Street at 7:00 p.m., and likely be out until dark. For details visit the “Field Trip” page at the Champaign County Audubon Society website.