It usually takes sharp eyes, and a bit of luck, to find the American woodcock, also called “timberdoodle,” “bogsucker,” and “big eyes” (which is descriptive). Woodcocks have very effective camouflage, their rich brown plumage melting into the leaf litter of the wet woods they live in. If you do flush one from its cover, the plump, long-billed bird, about the size of a small chicken, will whir away swiftly in a zigzag flight, wings whistling.
This time of year, from March through May, woodcocks abandon their reclusive habits and come out into the open where anyone can see them. In slightly overgrown fields throughout our area, except in very windy or stormy weather, woodcocks are putting on an amazing spectacle. The show begins at dusk, and is announced by nasal calls that sound like “peent,” made by the male birds as they strut about through the grass. Suddenly, you hear a rapid, twittering trill, probably made, at least in part, by wind rushing through the bird’s scythe-shaped primary feathers. You can watch the woodcock as it flies from the ground in an ascending spiral, till it becomes a mere speck in the twilight sky, hundreds of feet from the ground. Just then the sound changes to a kind of bubbling warble as the woodcock drops down, often landing quite close to the spot where it took off. To add more adventure to your viewing experience, you can wait until the woodcock takes flight again, after the bird has completed another round of strutting and “peenting,” and run over to the place where he left the ground. Lie down there, on your back, and wait, enjoying the cool evening breezes sifting through the tall grasses. When the bird makes its next landing, he may come down very close to you, close enough for you to get a really close look at his huge eyes and long bill. If you’re really lucky, the woodcock, who won’t see you lying there, if you’re still, may land right on top of you, astonishing himself as much as you!
The above “instructions” for experiencing the courtship flight of the timberdoodle were first given to me when I was in my teens, by Howard Cleaves, naturalist and pioneering photographer from Staten Island, then in his nineties. After he told me how to watch woodcocks in this way, he added this bit of encouragement; “If you don’t do some of these things, you’ve missed the boat.” I took his advice to heart, and the 40 years or so since then have had many ‘close encounters’ with this mysterious bird (though a woodcock hasn’t quite landed on me, yet).
The woodcock has a least one more trick up its sleeve, or rather, its bill. Its upper mandible is flexible at the tip, so it can actually bend around an earthworm to grasp it, even as its bill remains closed at the base. This remarkable piece of avian engineering allows woodcocks to successfully probe for earthworms, which make up most of their diet, three inches deep in the mud. Of course, most of us won’t ever get to see a woodcock display this feature. But any of us could, if we chose to, find a meadow where some small bushes and shrubs are growing, and go out at dusk to witness the woodcock’s rite of spring. The question of exactly why male timberdoodles perform these aerial ballets hasn’t been fully answered. They seem to help define the birds’ territories for breeding, and it’s assumed that they play a role in courtship and mating, but it’s not know just how the females of the species (woodhen?) actually choose a mate. Perhaps, by observing, you’ll solve this puzzle. Or maybe, like me, you’ll just marvel at the woodcock’s performance, glad that at least in this way you haven’t entirely “missed the boat.”
Richard Parisio is a lifelong naturalist, educator and writer. He currently leads field trips for school classes at Mohonk Preserve, teaches courses about John Burroughs and conducts tours of Slabsides and the John Burroughs Sanctuary for groups and individuals by request. Rich is New York State coordinator for River of Words, a national poetry and art program on the theme of watersheds, and teaches River of Words programs for school classes, grades K-12, by request. Contact Rich (firstname.lastname@example.org) with questions, comments, or suggestions for Nature at Your Doorstep.