The Timberdoodle’s Dusk Dance

The American Woodcock – nicknamed the timberdoodle, bog sucker, and Labrador twister – is a shorebird with a stocky body, a mottled black and brown back, and a long, thin beak to probe soft ground for food (earthworms, insects, snails, etc). Woodcocks spend their winters or live as year-round residents in southeast United States. They migrate to the Northeast to breed in young forests. Their movement peaks in March in Westchester County, using the Hudson River as a guide. Woodcocks prefer to forage on moist ground, rhythmically rocking back and forth as it steps forward, attempting to disturb the ground to find food. Their dance-like movements have caused some amusement on the Internet. Their large, beady eyes are near the back of their heads so they can watch out for predators as they forage.

Woodcocks charm birders with their extravagant and unique courtship. From March to June, their displays and courtships occur at dawn and dusk, held at open fields and forest clearings. Males peent repeatedly to attract females’ attention. They then shoot up to the sky, spiraling and spiraling. After reaching up to 300 feet, they descend in a zig-zag, chirping, wings whistling and twittering. Their landing is silent. (You might see the woodcock ascend and descend, but not where it lands.) And thus repeats until success.

When I learned about the woodcock’s existence, it was through this Lang Elliot video. During the one minute and ten seconds, the woodcock turns 360° as it occasionally puffs out a nerdy peent, its entire body bobbing up each time. I fell in love with the shorebird so suddenly I teared up. It’s both cute and hilarious.

Not long after I learned that Saw Mill River Audubon hosts a woodcock walk at Croton Point Park every mid-March. I was never so excited to observe a potential life bird. I had to hear the peents for myself. I couldn’t contain my anticipation. The day before, I made my coworkers watch the video at any free moment they had. I wanted to spread awareness of this unbelievably endearing shorebird.

Just before dusk, we walked the road at the base of the landfill, carefully treading on the side of the path. It was a bit too breezy than we wanted. (Woodcocks dislike wind, preferring calmer air when they want to forage or display. They also like warmer temperatures and will not be active when the temperature is below 40°.) Regardless, we were caught off guard: a woodcock in plain sight right at the corner of the woods. It stood completely still for us for about thirty seconds before it finally fled to the phragmites half, disturbed by our large group. When the dusk nearly passed, we heard a second woodock briefly peent-ing. That was all we had for the evening. But I had both seen and heard woodcocks. I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I struggled to suppress squeals of elation when I heard my first real life peent.

The walk I attended the following year had an excellent turn-up. We heard at least six different woodcocks calling, their tinny peents sounding from multiple directions. I almost teared up again. When there was very little light, and the sky and landfill were tinted dark blue, the woodcocks engaged in their courtship flights. We watched their silhouettes as they catapulted themselves upward and – after a pause – zig-zagged downward. We could hear their wings twitter.

This year, an ill-timed Nor-easter occurred on March 14th, during the woodcock’s peak migration period. SMRA’s walk was scheduled for the 19th, and Muscoot Farm’s for the 18th. Both, of course, were canceled. 16 inches fell in my area. People recorded as much as two to three feet around the surrounding counties. No way would woodcocks be able to forage and perform their ritual with all this snow.

Before dusk on the day after the storm, I was driving home and stopped at the three-way intersection across from the Blue Mountain Middle School – one of the busier intersections in my fragmented-forest-suburbia. In a span of two seconds, the following happened: Just as I made the sharp right turn, I saw a woodcock on the right side of the road; and when I was about to run it over, it took off. I couldn’t pull over, so I stared after it wide-eyed and open-mouthed as I continued to drive. That was not how I imagined I would get my First of Year. And I got my first real good look.

It’s understandable why the woodcock liked this risky spot. The intersection is by a lake, from which flows a stream, which passes under the intersection. The snow plow cleaned the road a little too much on one side and exposed a lot of fresh soil. The woodcock had found a little haven to have a breather.

Apparently, the March 14 snowstorm really threw off the woodcocks. When I returned home and read my email, I learned that my incident wasn’t isolated. Via the New York State Birds Listserv, birdwatchers in the New York City area reported a woodcock fallout (“oodles of doodles,” as someone put it on the New York Birders Facebook page). Through the 15th to 19th, birders sighted dozens of woodcocks in Central Park – as many as 40 on the 15th. They were easy to spot because of the omnipresent snow. They huddled wherever they could find open water and exposed ground. Local Red-tailed Hawks made effortless prey of them. News of the fallout made it to the New York Times, which reported that the Wild Bird Fund treated 55 woodcocks overall. People were finding them all over Manhattan, starved or injured from having flown into high-story buildings. Anders Peltomaa, who occasionally contributes to the NYS Birds Listserv, wrote up a report for the Linnaean Society of New York. (You’ve also got to take a look at the close-up photographs he uploaded.)

*      *       *

SMRA rescheduled their woodcock walk to this past Sunday, April 9, three weeks after the initial date. The weather seemed ideal: no more snow on the ground, no precipitation of any kind, no wind, and the temperature dropping no lower than 45°. As we waited for people to gather in the parking lot, starlings buzzed and gurgled, waiting for nighttime in their roosting trees. Attendance didn’t exceed 15 people. Daylight sluggishly faded away between 7:30 and 8:30. A near full moon out-shined many stars and alighted the ground. A female Sharp-shinned Hawk hunted at the base of the landfill, shortly disappearing after she realized we would be sticking around. Long after sunset, dozens of robins sang and whinnied and yeeped. They darted one by one from the landfill to the trees until darkness completely fell. Uncountable Spring Peepers called. As we walked along the edge of the path, we listened and watched all around us for any sound and for any movement from a woodcock: the edge of the woods, the field in front of the phragmites, the side of the landfill, the plateau of the landfill. Our guide tried three times to coax responses with playback, sounding off peents, then the twittering wings, then the male’s confrontational string of clicks. Only a few of us, including the guide, heard the virtually inaudible wing twitterings, perhaps from two woodcocks. After that, silence once again. We extended the walk a bit by double-backing and strolling around another part of the landfill. Only the spring peepers announced their presence.

*      *       *

Muscoot Farm also rescheduled their walk, to this weekend. I will be attending that one as well. Anything goes – I’m not expecting much activity, but with birdwatching, you learn to not expect, thus avoiding disappointment. Given the harsh impact March’s Nor’easter had on the woodcocks, it’s hard to say how badly they were affected until next year. If another Nor’easter doesn’t disrupt them again.

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