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This Week’s Creature Feature: The Unusual Woodcock

This is the time to see their courtship dance

      Several years ago I was standing quietly on a path in an open mature woods. About 20 yards ahead of me a child was kicking leaves. Suddenly a large brownish bird erupted, flew at me and landed in leaves right next to me

      I saw it fly and I saw where it landed, but when I tried to get a photo of it I couldn’t find it again. I looked for a good 10 minutes, even using a grid method. Eventually, I took a step in the direction of the bird, and it exploded into the air with its wings whistling. The American woodcock is seriously well camouflaged.

       This robin-sized bird has a plump body and a long bill good for probing the ground for worms and insects. (The use of soil pesticides is harmful to them.) The upper bill, loaded with smell and taste sensors, is flexible to grab tasty morsels. The birds have unusually large eyes set far back on each side of their head so they can see danger approaching from 360 degrees even while poking their bill into the ground. Quite unusually, the position of the eyes displaces part of the brain called the cerebellum into the area of the upper spinal cord.
       In the fall, most woodcocks migrate to warmer southern states, but in Maryland a few will stay behind. The return migration starts in late February and can go on through May. The birds do nest in Maryland, but most breeding areas are concentrated in the far northern U.S. and Canada. 
      Woodcocks spend most of the day resting in leaf litter, feeding and socializing in the evening and night. They prefer areas where forests meet wet areas like bogs, marshes, lakes or streams. Perhaps that’s why they’re also called timber­doodles. Fields with soft damp soil are also great places to seek them.
      Woodcocks have several unusual behaviors. The first I already described: They hold their position until the last possible second before taking off. The second is their very strange walk. They look like they are doing the Walk Like an Egyptian dance, rocking back and forth while they slowly go forward one step at a time. I have never seen one run. They do the funny walk, freeze in place or explode into the air.
      The third unusual behavior belongs to courtship. In the very early spring, at sunset, woodcocks collect around open meadows. As the light dims, males will start chirping, sounding like large crickets. They will at some point start flying, one at a time, beating their wings to make a whistling noise and vocalizing other high-pitched chirps. Their flight takes them in a spiral path high into the air. At the apex they stop flying and quietly glide to the ground.
      American woodcocks are not endangered, but they are hard to find and count. The best time to see them is after a late spring snow when their camouflage fails. In March and April, if you can find an open field near some woods, go out and watch for the courtship flight display. This Saturday, March 16, you can join a hunt for them at Patuxent River Park (see 8 Days a Week).