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Some birds have unusual behaviors that make them easy to love when you learn about them. That was the case for Bob Bryerton, an interpretive naturalist at Plum Creek Nature Center, when he discovered the American woodcock.
“I first learned about these birds on my first job as a naturalist, and they have always held a special place in my heart since then,” he said.
Woodcocks are hard to see both because their plumage provides good camouflage and because they have a naturally shy nature. They nest on the ground, sometimes nearly impossible to see unless you catch sight of one moving, Bryerton said.
In the spring, though, the normally hidden woodcocks suddenly become more visible when the males begin looking for mates. Their courtship display starts just after sunset, as the light fades. They do a short shuffle on the ground and turn and give a call that sounds like a nasal “peent.” They pause for a bit and then shuffle and call again, Bryerton explained. They do this several times and then suddenly lift into the air in a courtship flight. They fly in big circles upward and go as high as 250 to 300 feet in the air. While doing this, a twittering noise is created by their wings. As they get higher and higher, the twittering goes faster and becomes intermittent as they reach the top of the flight. At this point, they start to come down in a zig-zag flight pattern while chirping, finally dropping to the ground near where they started. Then they repeat the whole process.
“This can go on for quite a while as the light fades,” Bryerton said. “The birds are so driven to do this in the spring they are very easy to spot if you look in the right habitat and have a little patience. If you have a good location, you may see and hear several at a time.”
Woodcocks are endearing too.
“It is kind of a goofy looking bird, with eyes way on the side of its head, so it can watch for predators as it probes the ground for earthworms with its long bill,” he said. “It has a plump body and somewhat short wings, which give it the appearance of a giant bumble bee as it flies up to do the courtship display.”
And the arrival of woodcocks in our area often comes at a time when we are hopeful about the change of seasons.
“They are a harbinger of spring, because they usually return in our area in March as the snow melts and the ground softens enough for them to find worms,” Bryerton said.