Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Spying on the Intimate Lives of American Woodcock

It’s almost Valentine's Day and this evening throughout the shrubby fields, pastures, and cutovers of our area, birds are celebrating the occasion. I am of course talking about the courtship of the American woodcock.
These birds are not shy about letting you know what they are up to. The females make the males work too hard to gain their favor for the males to do anything but go all out. The birds don’t seem to mind at all that there might be a crowd of people watching.

That is exactly what I and fifteen other birders did last Sunday evening. We gathered at a large clearing   to view the spectacular courtship display of the American woodcock. We arrived about five-forty PM at the site and waited patiently for the show to begin in the gathering dusk. Chorus frogs and fox sparrows serenaded us with song. A few red-winged blackbirds and American robins flew over in the fading light.

Then, at six-fifteen PM a nasal “peent” sound came from the field edge. Then another, and then another. Three male woodcocks were in the mood and were getting ready for action. The calling lasted a few minutes and then with an audible whistling of wings the birds slowly lifted off and slowly rose high into the air like a spacecraft gaining momentum. At the zenith of their flight, the birds then began singing a high-pitched chirping song as they plunged back to earth in a dizzying, spiraling flight.

Once back on the ground they began the calling again followed by the same flight display. Occasionally the females would buzz right by us or just over our heads as they flew into the field to choose the best displaying male. This lasted for about twenty minutes and then it was done. The display period is within a small window of time.

The fifteen minute walk back to the vehicles through the woods was quiet and pleasant. The stars were shining bright and temperatures were mild. I really thought some owls would be vocalizing but they decided to keep silent that evening.

American woodcock are not rare birds. If you live near some open fields try watching listening for the woodcock display in your area.

American Woodcock by Ron Clark