Monday, April 11, 2011

Wildlife: The Woodcock’s Spring Serenade

Patches of snow that remain in open areas and along forest edges, and the reluctance of the soil to completely thaw have impacted the seasonal routines of numerous forms of wildlife, including the woodcock. Yet, despite the adversities created by the weather, most woodcock are already engaged in breeding, as can be easily noted by visiting certain settings after the sun has set.

The woodcock is a plump, mottled tannish-brown bird that is seldom seen during the day because of its extremely effective protective coloration, and its preference for remaining inactive when the sun is above the horizon. It is during the fading twilight of evening, and as the sky begins to brighten before dawn that this odd-looking bird ventures from a sheltered spot on the forest floor and begins to forage.

With its long, hook-tipped bill, the woodcock is ideally adapted for extracting earthworms from the soil. By inserting this lengthy beak into the dirt, the woodcock is capable of sensing any nearby worms, or other soil invertebrates. The high concentration of nerve cells that exist within its bill are attuned to the minute vibrations generated by worms as they ever so gradually move through the soil. Once it detects and locates an invertebrate, the woodcock quickly attempts to insert its bill directly over the potential meal, grab hold of it, and then pull it from its earthen surroundings.

Because the ground is still partially frozen, or covered with patches of snow in many of the deciduous and mixed forest edges preferred by the woodcock, this bird temporarily concentrates its evenings and early mornings in places in which the soil has thawed and worms have become active. Open, south facing hillsides and wetlands where the sun and high water events have caused the snow to melt are places sought out by the woodcock in early spring. Alder thickets are particularly attractive to this bird as they provide a dense layer of ground cover as well as a wealth of soil invertebrates during the spring. Even in summer, when hot and dry weather forces worms and many soil bugs in open and dry sites deep into the soil below the reach of this bird, alder areas provide conditions favorable to a foraging woodcock.

Although the woodcock’s coloration and markings perfectly match that of a deciduous forest floor or the ground in an alder thicket, the males come into an open, grassy setting before they eat in order to announce their presence. The loud, sharp, nasal-sounding note bleated by the male is a far cry from the melodious tunes produced by many of our feathered songsters, yet this call serves a similar purpose. After repeating this short squawk for several minutes, the woodcock then takes to the air to perform an aerial display that is also part of its mating ritual.

The tips of the woodcock’s primary flight feathers produce a distinct whistling-twitter sound when air quickly flows past them. This is why a woodcock makes a similar twitter noise when it’s flushed from a daytime resting spot.

The aerial display of the woodcock is difficult to follow in the dwindling twilight, especially on overcast nights. When the sky is clear, however, and a full moon has ascended above the horizon, it is possible to watch this bird circle the forest clearing that it has claimed, and perform a series of dives that bring it back to its singing perch on the ground.
Taking an evening walk to a forest clearing near an alder thicket or to a stand of young hardwoods after the daytime breeze has subsided, and the first stars of the night (which are usually not stars, but planets) are just becoming visible, often results in noting a woodcock’s presence.

A fair number of these occurrences, however, center on hearing the characteristic sounds made by this plump, short-legged bird, rather than actually seeing it. It is the distinct vocalization made by the woodcock as it stands in the open, yet shrouded by darkness, that alerts other woodcocks in the area, and the humans attuned to the sounds of nature, that the process of creating another generation of woodcocks is already underway.

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.


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  1. pondhopper says: