Post by Jen Berlinghof
March is the demarcation of spring. This new season is brewing now as snowmelt percolates through the thick mats of leaves on the forest floor into swollen creeks. Sap is rising in the sugar maples (Acer saccharum), with its promise of sweetness after a harsh winter. The purple, mottled crowns of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) peek out of the thawing mud, surging toward the sun. And the quiet of winter is replaced with the cacophony of western chorus frogs (Pseudacris triseriata) accompanied by the “peent” and “whir” of American woodcocks (Scolopax minor) in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.
Twenty years ago, when I began my tenure at the Forest Preserves, I had never heard of a woodcock. And it’s no wonder. This tubby sandpiper largely stays out of sight, cryptically colored to blend in with dead leaves, and sticks to the ground to nest, only emerging as night falls for a brief springtime stint on the courtship stage.
But all those years ago, trudging into the soggy spring lands of Cuba Marsh Forest Preserve in Deer Park as the sun set, I was bound to never forget this bird. Certain images stand out in memory. Aerial dancers silhouetted against the dusky sky. Spotlighting the calling male, illuminated by a circle of light in the dark environs of the marsh, as he waddled along the ground in search of a female smitten by his showmanship—that gave me a peek into this hidden world.
This odd bird has many monikers: timberdoodle, Labrador twister, night partridge, big-eye, mudbat, and my personal favorite, bogsucker. The species seems to have just as many unique adaptations and behaviors as it does nicknames.
Shaped like a mini football, American woodcocks are covered in camouflaged feathers and equipped with eyes set well back and high on the sides of their heads. These traits help woodcocks hide in plain sight on the ground, where they spend most of their time, simultaneously watching for predators while feeding with their faces down. Their long, probing bills have a flexible tip engineered for extracting earthworms from the soil.
While foraging, woodcocks totter around back and forth, shifting their weight heavily between their feet. The vibrations their tottering creates are thought to entice earthworms to wriggle underground, generating movement and sound that the birds may be able to sense, helping them nab a meal more easily.
Woodcocks keep a relatively low profile, migrating at night in loose flocks at low altitudes. When they reach their thawing breeding grounds in Lake County, Illinois in March, the covert operation ends and the sky dance begins.
The woodcock’s spectacular courtship flight display takes center stage in forest openings and fields during dawn and dusk. Males open the show by performing nasal “peenting” calls while lumbering around on the grounds of their singing sites. Often, several males will share breeding fields, calling close together at the same time.
After a round of singing, male woodcocks will launch themselves into the sky and perform a high, twisting aerial display. A musical “twittering” sound is made by modified wing feathers, as the males flutter back down to the ground like falling leaves. These flight displays take anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes as darkness falls. Under a full moon, they can even last in some form all night.
If a female likes what she sees in a suitor’s zigzag flight, she’ll approach him on the ground to indicate she’s ready to mate. The couples do not form pair bonds, and males will actually mate with multiple females during courtship evenings.
After mating, the female woodcocks resume their undercover lifestyle for the most part, waddling off to scratch out a small depression in an open, exposed area in the leaf litter and lay eggs—concealed once again in camouflage. Females depend so much on this enigmatic coloration for protection that they won’t flush off a nest until practically stepped on!
The only time a female will reveal herself is if her family group is disturbed. To try and draw predators away from the nest, she will fly up in a flurry and feign injury, much like a killdeer (Charadrius vociferus). She is very protective in part because she’s solely responsible for incubating the eggs, and briefly brooding and feeding the nestlings. Time with Mom is limited for these cute chicks, who are able to probe for food within three days of hatching. They grow to the size of an adult and are fully independent after about a month.
Male woodcocks take no part in rearing young. Their display flights can last well into summer, long after mating has ended. These later flights are potentially performed by juvenile males, getting a little rehearsal in before their headlining performances the following spring. After nesting season has ended, and these practice sessions commence, woodcocks resume their solitary lifestyles for the rest of the year.
If you’d like to get a glimpse into the fascinating world of the woodcock, join us for a Virtual Evening Woodcock Walk on April 24, 7:15-8:30 pm to witness a springtime song and dance that’s sure to impress. Adults, families with children ages 12 and up.