Saturday, March 15, 2014

Woodcocks Passing Through

American woodcock - MDC
American woodcocks have just passed through the valley of Bull Creek.  This is their annual migration toward the northern states and only a few will remain in Missouri during the summer months.  While most are only passing through, they put on quite a show every morning and evening.  I had always wanted to see or at least hear them but had never followed up until now.

Our Master Naturalist chapter received an email from Cari Sebright of the University of Arkansas's  Arkansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.  While woodcocks' winter and summer nesting characteristics are well studied, less is known about what type of territory they look for during their migration stopovers.  Cari was looking for volunteers to provide data for her study of what type of habitat attracts these migrants.  Participants were to go out for set times before sunrise and after sunset to listen for the birds and collect data on weather conditions, location and the type of territory they select for their famous displays.

The male woodcock starts practicing his courtship display long before the arrival of females, much like a boy practicing his dance moves in front of the mirror.  They start with a peent, a distinctive buzzing which sounds more artificial or insect-like than any familiar bird sound.  All About describes it this way.  "On spring nights, males perform very conspicuous displays, giving a buzzy peent call, then launching into the air. Their erratic display flight includes a distinctive, twittering flight sound and ends with a steep dive back to the ground."  To me, this chirping sounds like he is saying, "Hey, look at me do this" like a kid on a diving board.  These sound recordings are at this Allaboutbirds site.

American woodcock camouflage - Wikipedia
The "wood" in woodcock suggests that they would be around forests, as does their other common name, timberdoodle.  They spend most of their life feeding on earthworms in moist soil that they pierce with their specialized beaks.  Their preferred feeding grounds are among "densely growing young trees such as aspen (Populus sp.), birch (Betula sp.), and mixed hardwoods less than 20 years of age, and shrubs, particularly alder (Alnus sp.) WikipediaThese are northern species not found in Missouri which may account for their trip farther up north.

The protocol called for stopping for 2 minutes to listen at each location, recording findings before moving on.  After several crepuscular forays along the valley floor where we heard a few scattered timberdoodles, Barb persuaded me to try going up on top, convincing me finally with the argument that there would be no dinner afterwards unless we did.  The results were outstanding.  The ride is solid forest until you reach the top, 300 feet up, where it opens to a long ridge-top pasture with wooded edges.  To a woodcock this must look like a frat house.

Within seconds of shutting off the truck we could hear peenting to the left, and the chattering chirps of descending flights to the right and straight ahead.  There were three distinctly different birds at each of the first two stops, and a total of 16 separate birds either peenting or doing their chirping flight song.

The last few evenings the number of calling birds we have heard has dropped off, and Cari sent word that the first woodcocks were heard in Iowa, their next stop on the annual return to their nesting grounds.  Soon their long pointed beaks will be terrorizing the worms of the North Woods, a beneficial effect for the forest there which is actually harmed by the worms which are an invasive species.  But that is fodder (or castings) for another blog.

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