The Woodcock: Awkward Herald of Spring
You don’t have to be a full-fledged birder to appreciate some birds. Eagles, hawks & owls enjoy wide popularity among the uninitiated. Or maybe you’ve seen a bright red cardinal in the snow and thought, “That’s nice.”
This is the level of interest required to enjoy a bird you probably haven’t heard of; The American Woodcock. You may associate spring with blooming crocuses, robins running across your lawn or just simply not being cold and miserable every day, but the woodcock offers an equally reliable and far more entertaining opening salvo to spring.
Woodcock are fairly ubiquitous, but it’s not every day that you run into one. They blend seamlessly into the grasses, leaf litter and shrubby fields they call home. If you know what one looks like already, you’re either a birder, someone lucky enough to come across one while it’s hunting for worms (some would argue dancing) or maybe you’ve stumbled upon a popular remix of its song while wading the backwaters of the internet.
It is an odd-looking creature by any measure. Short and stalky with the most prominent feature being and oversized, tent-spike beak. Woodcocks jab this into deep into the soil, using the flexible tip to probe for and capture worms and other invertebrates.
Their eyes appear both too small and out of place — like windows on poorly designed houses. While aesthetically questionable, this placement works extremely well at spotting approaching danger. Another reason we don’t see them too often.
Woodcocks are adorable as chicks, that short period of time before their beaks get unwieldy and their eye placement becomes more pronounced. Like flounders — whose eyes migrate clear to the other side of their body — puberty does not the Woodcock kindly.
What these birds lack in natural allure is made up for with their dazzling aerial courtship displays which take place in the spring. I’ve caught them as early as mid February in Rhode Island and as late as the first week of May in Maine. They appear like clockwork, 20 minutes or so after sunset (or, if you’re feeling really aggressive, before dawn). At first you’ll hear a repetitive, impossibly nasal PEEENT….PEEENT…PEENT sound. You may get the sense that the bird has suddenly arrived near your feet, only to sound 40 feet away a moment later. This is because he is pivoting in between calls like a drunken lawn sprinkler — broadcasting his sound in every direction to the nearest available female.
After a few minutes of heavy peenting, the woodcock will burst up to the sky, its wingtips giving a telltale chittering sound. He’ll fly hundreds of feet up and spiral downward, where the chittering will give way to a call that sounds like it was ripped from the sound effects of a video game or 1950’s scifi thriller.
Standing in silence at twilight with that otherworldly sound circling overhead is something anyone can enjoy, birder or not.
HOW TO GO ON YOUR OWN WOODCOCK WALK:
The best way of catching this display, especially the first time out, would be to go to an organized woodcock walk in your area. Organizations like Mass Audubon and Brookline Bird Club host them every year (see below for details). Once you get a sense for it you can easily stalk woodcock on your own. If you can’t make one of the organized walks, then don some boots (it’s mud season after all), grab a flashlight (preferably one with a strong, directional beam, not just a headlamp) and find an open, grassy field along the edge of the woods. While common in the right environment, if you haven’t heard any peents within a half hour or so after sunset they either aren’t around or aren’t in the mood. Probably the former. It is spring after all.
Once you do hear that nasal “peent” sound, try and gauge where it’s coming from and move a bit closer — taking care not to scare the bird off. Once you hear the chittering wingtip sound, you know they’ve taken flight. From there you have a few moments to move closer to where the bird took off. Get as close as you can as quickly as you can then freeze. After the alien-circling-the-drain sound there will be a moment of silence. Then they seem to tumble out of the sky, landing right around where they took off. If you play your cards right on approach and remain stealthy you can have them landing right at your feet. From there you can shine the flashlight and get a good look at a woodcock. Funny eyes and all.
You may even catch the moment where they pair up together and fly off to consummate the ritual, sometimes whistling right by your head. It’s hard not to route for this strange little bird — which makes seeing them pair up oddly gratifying.
After years of watching this spectacle my favorite part isn’t the crazy sound, the close up looks or even the moment they pair up. It’s the simple fact that this ritual keeps happening every year. It’s such a tiny, ephemeral detail. Something you can go your whole lifetime and miss. A thread dangling from the Universe’s sweater. Bearing witness to it each year is a nice way to move beyond your own personal timeline of commuting, errands and the general tedium of life — and plug in, at least for a moment, to the barely audible beat by which we all move.
UPCOMING WOODCOCK WALKS: Organized walks start as early as March 11th and run as late as April 22nd.
MASS AUDUBON FULL SCHEDULE:
Joppa Flatts Education Center
Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary
Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary
Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary
BROOKLINE BIRD CLUB WOODCOCK WALKS:
Blue Hills Woodcock Walk in Fowl Meadow
6:30 pm — 8:00 pm
We will hike 1 mile on a flat trail that may be wet. Date & Time Saturday, 03/25/2017 6:30 pm - 8:00 pm Meeting Place…www.brooklinebirdclub.org
Woodcocks at Alewife
7:00 pm — 8:30 pm