Saturday, March 7, 2009

Dance of the Timberdoodle-Woodcock at Southeastway Park

When leaving work Friday night I heard a familiar call and immediately got excited. Peeeennt! Peeeent! Oh my gosh! A Woodcock!

I rushed quickly toward the call, near the side of our building. Sure enough, it kept calling away and this time I heard the wing-whir as well. The woodcock's wings make a twittering, whirry sound during its display flight. The outer three feathers on the wing, called primary feathers (there are ten primary feathers on each wing of most birds), are somewhat narrow and vibrate during the flight to cause the odd noise.

The wing of a male American Woodcock showing the three outer primary feathers.
The feathers are narrowed and produce a twittering sound during its
flight display. Drawing by David Sibley from Birds of North America Online.

Woodcocks, also known as timberdoodles, have such an unusual courtship display. The male will waddle around on the ground belting out a loud, buzzy Peeennt. The bird will suddenly spring into the air, and fly in wide ascending circles sometimes as high as 300 feet. The wings will begin to twitter near the top of its flight pattern. Next the woodcock will spiral toward the ground, performing tight acrobatic loops while uttering soft chirps. Very bizarre! The female will stand nearby watching these displays. If impressed, she will later mate with the accomplished performer.

Last September, after checking out the famous Coshocton Wood Storks, I was driving back home. It was just starting to get dark, when out in the middle of the road I saw a brown lump. I slowed way down thinking it might be a rock or big dirt clod. I finally realized it was definitely not a rock. A woodcock quickly flew to the side of the road and tried to hide down in the vegetation. Its coloration is very similar to dead leaves, so it can blend in easily with a forest floor. I rolled down my window and slowly eased up. I was able to get a few pics of it before it scurried off for better cover.

An American Woodcock pretending to be dead leaves.

Here is the same photo cropped in so you can see its amazing beak better. The beak of the American Woodcock is used to probe for worms and other goodies in the soft soil. The tip is flexible, not rigid like those of other birds. This feature allows the woodcock to probe deep into the mud, then open the bill underground to grab the earthworm or other invertebrate prey. There are also sensory nerves in the bill that allows the woodcock to locate its food. The large eyes located high and on the side of the head allow the woodcock to see 360 degrees around to help avoid predators.

American Woodcocks perform there display flights in late February and March. The best place to find would be an open field near a woods. Check these areas at dusk or right before dawn and hopefully you too will witness the amazing aerial display!



Jana said...

What a great sign of spring. You have keen observation skills, that's for sure. I would surely not notice them. We did see some last year at Malabar Farm, but only because we were with a Greater Mohican Audubon group. It was fun.

Jana said...
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Janet Creamer said...

Thanks Jan! Once you recognize that Peent call, you will know to look for them. They are so fun to watch.