There are plenty of strange names in the bird world. Some are familiar even to non-birders, such as boobies and sapsuckers. The list continues to include snicker-inducing titles like Dickcissel and Kakapo, to say nothing of the genuinely bizarre names like Fluffy-backed Tit-Babbler and Bare-faced Go-away-bird. Birders, being a generally light-hearted bunch, tend to embrace the silliness and enjoy laughs at the expense of these amusing appellations.
One species stands out for having not just one laughable label, but several equally silly names to choose from. Timberdoodle. Bog-sucker. Mudsnipe. Labrador Twister. All of these are nicknames for the American Woodcock, a most curious creature that certainly deserves its array of strange titles. A forest-dwelling shorebird, the woodcock is similar in size and shape to a softball with a straw for a beak. The bird is active primarily at night, using its flexible-tipped bill to probe for worms and insects in open woodlands and at the edges of fields. This is a species designed to avoid detection. Cryptic feather patterns provide perfect camouflage in the leaf litter, and the eyes are positioned high on the sides of the head. This gives the woodcock 360 vision, and despite a beak-length blind spot directly behind and ahead of the cranium, the eyes’ fields of vision overlap to produce binocular vision beyond that. As a result, the bird can see things directly in the front or rear with both eyes. The following image I found on Biology-Forums illustrates this quite nicely.
Many birders first observe woodcocks performing their elaborate courtship displays. These performances, named sky dances by the ecologist Aldo Leopold, take place at dusk or dawn in early spring. The male bird stakes out a spot in a field or similar open space, turning in a circle and uttering a ridiculous “peent” call. After a few repetitions, he vaults into the sky. Despite their pudgy-looking frames, woodcocks can fly, and the feathers of their wings produce twittering notes as air passes through them. The displaying bird spirals upwards several hundred feet before diving back down, accompanied by the whistling of wind in his wings. Landing in the same spot, he resumes his “peent“ing and begins the routine again. Check out this well-labeled video showing off one such display.
Sadly, the unforgettable sky dance is becoming a less common experience. Woodcock populations, though still large, are in decline. The extent and causes of this trend are poorly understood due to the species’ secretive habits, but it is likely due in part to changes in habitat. As forests mature and unused agricultural fields become overgrown, the young woodlands and open meadows used by the birds become harder to find.
Woodcocks also face a gauntlet of challenges during migration. They are some of the first migrants to move in the spring and some of the latest in the fall, passing through between February and April before returning in October and November. They fly at lower altitudes than many other species, putting them at risk of building collisions. Even when they avoid crashing, they sometimes get lost in large cities and are forced to hide wherever they can find cover. Bryant Park in Manhattan is a notable migrant trap due to its small size and the layout of the city around it. Woodcocks are seen here with some regularity each year, skulking in the planting plots around the lawn and seating areas in this city micro-park. This provides a unique opportunity to see this normally nocturnal, secretive species up close and personal.
I received word from the listserv that a wayward woodcock been spotted at Bryant Park late last week, and Saturday morning saw me swinging by to have a look. Despite the noise and activity in the park, my target was crouched beneath a shrubbery next to the seasonal ice rink which is being actively dismantled. While I admired the bird, a nearby photographer mentioned that there was another at the opposite end of the park. I moved over to check it out, and found the second woodcock hiding among some daffodils. I met up with my friend Kaylin, who found me by finding the crowd of birders who had already assembled to observe the wee beastie. Both birds were resting at first, tucked in and fluffed up like well-camouflaged, feathery grapefruits. When they raised their heads to shift position, Kaylin got her first glimpse of their incredible beaks. We enjoyed the birds’ company before and after a pleasant lunch in the park, delighting in their strange appearance and bizarre antics.
I’ve encountered Timberdoodles several times before. My first observation came when I attended an Audubon woodcock walk back in 2007 with Dad and Brendan’s family. We were fortunate enough to find several birds displaying, and the sky dance lived up to its reputation as a unique and unusual experience. I’ve flushed twittering individuals from the edge of woodlands at the Arnot Teaching and Research Forest and Montauk Point, and I once caught a glimpse of a probable woodcock whizzing by on the Cornell Plantations. Last year, I also found two birds in Bryant Park. Although it was a bit later in the season, the story played out similarly to this year’s encounter. I stopped by the park on April Fools’ Day to find a reported woodcock, only to be surprised by a second individual fluttering past the face of the New York Public Library. It is unfortunate that these amazing, quality encounters are only possible because the birds are lost and out of their normal habitat. Not all of them survive to escape the grid and the micro-park trap. I hope that at least some of the birds find their way out of the city to safety, living to dance in the skies another day.
Still images fail to adequately capture the comical nature of these birds’ movements and vocalizations. Woodcocks are a species best appreciated in motion. Check out the videos below for more woodcock action.
Year List Update, March 12 – 257 Species (+ American Woodcock)