Some males will do anything to impress the ladies.
Even though I heard the call last week, I knew in my heart that he wasn’t my type. Hey, he wasn’t even my species.
Woodcocks have returned to the Island and are looking for a partner. In truth, one isn’t necessarily enough, since male woodcocks mate with as many female woodcocks as possible. Monogamy is not the cup of tea for this species.
At dusk and dawn is when the male comes calling. During the day and night, woodcocks hunker down in the bushes and on the ground of wet woodlands, swampy thickets and field edges. His lonely wail will soon be answered and one of the more unique mating rituals will fill the evening air.
It starts with a nasal “peeent” sound, which for those unfamiliar with these birds, could be mistaken for an insect buzz or frog call. The male woodcock makes these sounds from the ground as he struts around and bobs his head.
Then he gets airborne. The male woodcock goes to great heights to get the girl — up to 300 feet or more, to be precise. He flies up in increasing spirals, making a twittering noise on the way up and then levels off, circling high above.
On the downward zigzag plunge, the love song goes chickaree, chickaree, chickaree, until he reaches the ground at the same place he started. He repeats his amorous acrobatics over and over, doing the sky dance for up to a half hour or more.
Arthur Cleveland Bent, in his book The Life Histories of North American Birds, called the woodcock a “mysterious hermit of the alders, recluse of the boggy thickets, wood nymph of crepuscular habits.” He adds that they are “widely known, but not intimately known.”
The woodcock is a shorebird that lives in the forest. As members of the Scolopacidae family, they share a relationship with snipes and sandpipers, even if their upland habitat greatly differs from those water birds.
It is not only their habitat that differentiates them from the flock. They also have a plethora of names that distinguish them. Call them bog snipes, woodys, night partridges, bog suckers, mud bats, or, my personal favorite, timberdoodles. I could find no explanation for this last name and would welcome that information.
Another attribute of woodcocks is their feeding finesse. Woodcocks like earthworms and other insects and invertebrates. They catch them by stomping the ground with their feet, inciting the worms to move or react to the vibrations. Then with the help of a flexible upper bill, the woodcock inserts its beak and grabs its grub.
It does help that the woodcock also has exceptional eyesight. With eyes that are practically on the back of its head (actually they are on the sides), it has a 360-degree field of vision. So, while you are keeping a sharp eye out for the woodcock, be assured that he is keeping two sharp eyes out for you.
Spring is, finally, officially on its way. Love is in the air, and so are these birds. They will be on the prowl and strutting their stuff in March and April. You can observe their aerial ballet at Felix Neck, which will host three evening walks to see them this spring. The much-anticipated sound of spring peepers is the better-known harbinger of spring and music to our ears, but don’t discount the aerial displays of the woodcock, which is a true spring feast for the eyes.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.