Feb 16, 2012

Beep and Whir: The American Woodcock Looks for Romance

Illustration of an American Woodcock
(Scolopax minor)

A few days ago, I had just finished my latest "Wild Ideas" newspaper column, about animals that breed in winter, in which I'd mentioned the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). As if on cue, that evening I heard its characteristic slow courtship beeps outside my window, at the forest's edge.

This species arrives here in the Blue Ridge to start courting as soon as the ground thaws enough that they can find their favorite food, earthworms. While this can be as early as January, they more typically show up in late February.

Belonging to the taxonomic order of
shorebirds, S. minor evolved to live in upland forests and is the only woodcock native to North America. It ranges from Tex as east to Florida and north to southern Canada. Overwintering to the east of the Appalachians and south of Pennsylvania, it migrates west and north to breed.

While the American Woodcock spends most of its life in young upland forest and brushy woods near rivers and streams, it prefers brushy clearings and meadow bogs scattered with woody plants one ot two feet high for breeding. Up around my house, it's mostly lawn and forest, with only a shallow edge, so I figured this guy was just checking out the neighborhood and would move on.

This evening when I was walking the dog, I heard beeping down by the pond, a much more promising habitat for Woodcock romance. It's not exactly a meadow down there, but there are some scrubby areas that are broader than further up the mountain, and it's wet, with streams and ponds.

In the dying light, I tried to remain quiet and make out the bizarre courtship display that should follow, but the bird must have figured out my dog and I were there, because he went silent. I'd just gotten home, it was time for my dog's dinner, and we still had to walk back up the mountain to the house, so I decided to try again some other night when I didn't have Mai Coh in tow.

Woodcocks are famous for their courtship displays. Along with beeping, the males “spiral up high on twittering wings with melodius chirping and then circle back sharply to the ground to resume their unique peenting display,” as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “Birds of North America” website describes it.

Henry Marion Hall, in his 1946 book Woodcock Ways, describes the male’s descent a bit more poetically: “Descending, at first gradually but then plunging dizzily, the little musician eventually flickers into the brush….” The downward vertical spiral reminds me of a helicopter landing. Courtship displays also include bobbing, fanning the tail, raising the wings, and fluttering the wings in a short flight with legs dangling.

Trying to discern all this in the growing dark is frustrating at best. The bird’s brown, black, and gray feathers, which makes it virtually impossible distinguish from its surroundings, doesn't help. Every time I try to see the show, I yearn for infrared binoculars.

Living on the border of Shenandoah National Park, I discovered long ago that a great place
to try to view this show is Big Meadows, a huge, boggy meadow that is a prime Woodcock mating area. Mostly, this has involved waiting patiently in what always seems to be a damp, chilly evening.

While the displays have been carefully studied, they are not well understood. What is understood is that, after mating, the female is on her own in raising her young.

The coloring of the American Woodcock provides good camouflage for both adult(above) and juvenile (below)(Top photo by guizmo_68; bottom photo by Jacob Enos. Both licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

File:American woodcock chick.jpg 
Woodcocks feed in damp, muddy areas mostly on invertebrates, particularly earthworms, and on some vegetation, particularly seeds. On summer and winter evenings, they can flock together on their feeding grounds. With so little open area other than lawn on this property, it's unlikely I'll see flocks, but it would be nice to make out, in the dim light, at least one Woodcock giving it a try.

The Cornell Lab of Ornith
ology’s “All about Birds” website has recordings of the vocalizations of the American Woodcock, along with descriptions of its courtship behavior. Henry Marion Hall’s Woodcock Ways and the third volume of the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior also detail the Woodcock’s courtship display and other behavior.

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