Fall of Woodcock!
Once common throughout the eastern United States, the numbers of the American Woodcock, (Philhela minor) have declined since the 1960′s. Habitat loss has taken its toll to where it is estimated that perhaps 20% of the population that existed during the 1940′s exist today. The Timberdoodle, aka Whistledoodle, Wude-cucu migrates through and into our area during the spring and fall. Some of them will stay here breeding and nesting if the right habitat is available.
The arrival of the birds is commonly known as a “Fall of Woodcock!” Typically they move ahead of the frost and Arctic blast in the autumn and behind winter’s wrath in the spring. The Woodcock’s feeding habits make it necessary for them to follow this flight plan. Their long beaks have adapted for probing into soft moist earth for the earthworms that make up about 90% of the birds’ diet. Near the tip of the bill you would notice the hinge that makes it possible for the bird to grasp its prey and pull it out of the ground which is impossible if the ground is still frozen. The holes produced in the soil by this feeding activity are a good indication to the alert naturalist that a fall of Woodcock has arrived. Whitewash or droppings produced by the birds are also key indicators. Birds accidentally flushed will fly straight up through the cover like small helicopters. After reaching the desired height they will level off and zip away twisting and turning depending on the forest understory. This will all happen very quickly and be accompanied by a twittering or a piping trill-like sound. It is not uncommon for another bird or two to flush in unison or shortly thereafter.
During the spring the elaborate courtship ritual performed by the males proves to be one of nature’s spectacles. This occurs at what we call the “singing grounds.” The males produce a buzzing cicada like peent. At some point he then flies straight up in typical fashion to the desired height and then makes an erratic spiral back to the ground. This may happen numerous times as he woos and attempts to convince one of the hens to accept him. During this elaborate “Sky Dance”, the male may emit a faint tuko-turkle call or a liquid trill commonly called the “kissing sound.” This Sky Dance may occur many times depending to the degree of how many other males are competing. These little birds are very territorial.
The American Woodcock is not much bigger than a dove. Its ears are located in front of its large eyes, are situated high on its head. AND its brain is upside down. All of this, in conjunction with nearly perfect camouflaged feathers, lends to an ability to evade most predators.
The Timberdoodle’s major enemy is habitat destruction. In Pennsylvania, loss of wetlands since 1950 is alarming. However, there is more than a margin of hope for the birds. Several years ago a group of concerned outdoor people formed an alliance known as Woodcock Limited of Pennsylvania. Most of their endeavor is focused on habitat restoration. In 2012 this organization, along with several other state’s organizations went national.
On April 18 we will attempt to witness this spectacle of the Woodcocks’ Skydance at the Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve beginning at 7:00 PM. You are cordially invited to bring your camera and join us in our endeavor!
Bio: Michael (Mick) Group has been a writer/photographer for several national and regional magazines since 1986 including but not limited to: National Hunting and Fishing magazine, The PA Angler, Talbot Bay Banner, Shotgun Sports magazine, Mid-Atlantic Fly Fishing, and Railpace magazine. During the 1980′s-90′s he contributed a regular outdoor feature column to the Sentenial, and the Cambridge Daily Banner. He is a speaker on conservation topics and a member of Woodcock Limited of PA.
A great resource to learn more: www.timberdoodle.org
Read “Woods for Woodcock,” published in the Autumn 2010 Northern Woodlands magazine, to learn how public and private landowners are helping to bring back the woodcock.