This past week Bob Brophy found a woodcock in his front yard in Essex. This is a fairly common sight right now as the woodcock are streaming through Massachusetts in their annual migration north from Alabama and Mississippi. They left in late January and early February and have been slowly but steadily working their way toward their nesting grounds in Northern New England, Atlantic Canada and Quebec. Flying almost exclusively at night, these small birds follow their inner radar and, in one of nature's many mysteries, find their way back to the same areas where they were hatched out.
Woodcock do not fly in flocks like ducks or geese. Instead, they move as individuals all at about the same time going to the same place. The males leave the wintering grounds first, but all of the birds arrive at their nesting grounds at about the same time (okay, we all know us males are a little bit slower and never stop to ask for directions)! They cover the most ground during the nights when there is a lot of moonlight, but they do fly a ways almost every night.
It takes these little fellows about 60 days to cover 1200 or more miles. It is a tremendous physical feat given that they are short plump birds with relatively little wings compared to their body size. Once they reach Connecticut and New York, they start dropping out along the way, finding their nesting spots. Here on the North Shore there are a number of small woods where some of them spend the summer.
Once here, however, the mating rituals of these little birds is fascinating to watch and hear. Each year the birds will return to the same breeding or "singing" grounds. Just a few minutes after sunset the male will flutter down to the ground from the shrubbery, puff up a little and give a long, loud, insect-like "peeeeent" sound. He will do this over and over, as many as 150 times in a five-minute spell. You can hear this from quite a ways away. Although they seem to prefer to do this on a full moon, they will perform in total darkness.
The male will then launch himself into the air and make a tight circle around the singing spot a few feet off the ground. He will then spiral upward as high as three hundred feet in the air, his rapid wing beat creating a musical twittering sound. Once he reaches the top of his spiral, he starts fluttering down in a zigzag pattern emitting a series of long, liquid notes. He lands about where he began and does it all over again. This display can go on for half an hour or more.
The male does this ritual to attract a female. He may have a couple of different spots where he performs and will protect these spots from other males. If you hear them make a cackling noise on the ground it means there is another male in the area. The birds will mate on the singing ground. The male will often mate with more than one female.
Weather does impact on this performance, so snow or blustery winds can curtail their activity, but snow won't be a problem this year! They do seem to prefer a very warm and misty night.
Once the woodcock mate, the females dust out a shallow depression in the leaf litter on the woods floor. Most nests are usually found within three feet of the trunk of a tree. The preferred nesting areas will be found fairly close to the singing grounds, usually in second growth woods near old fields or open areas. Places like Dogtown are ideal nesting areas. Unfortunately some of the best nesting grounds on the North Shore are covered with new houses, however, there are still some very active spots right in this area.
The female will usually lay about four eggs, which will hatch in late April through May depending upon the mating time. The incubation period is from 20-22 days. If the nest is destroyed by weather or predators, females will often re-nest. Given the warm spring we are having, this should be a good nesting year.
Watching the female tend her brood is fascinating. The little ones are fed by the mother when very young, but they will start probing the ground for food as early as four days old. Within two weeks the youngsters are starting to try their wings and can fly by three weeks old. They become independent from the brood at about seven weeks and the family group disperses. Each woodcock then operates independently with no affiliation with their family members or others. They will live an average of 2 years, but have been known to live as many as 8 years.
The woodcock has a 2.5 to 3-inch bill. It is long and narrow and hard. He uses it to probe deep in to the soil for worms and bugs. What makes the bill unusual is that it is very flexible on the end. This allows the bird to listen for the worm crawling through the ground, insert his bill down into the soil and then flex the very end of it to pick up the worm and pull it to the surface. Because of this bill, it needs moist soil in which to probe for food which is why they can be found most often in alder swales.
The eyes are large and set high and far back on their head. They have very good hearing and use that sense to find worms beneath the surface of the ground. Their coloration is such that they blend into the ground so that, unless they move, they are very hard to spot.
The woodcock population is in a long-term decline all across the country. Although wildlife managers have worked for years to reverse the trend, there does not be a solution in at least the short term. The problem is directly attributable to a loss of habitat. In the north, where the birds breed and raise their young, even in this economy the demand for single family homes continues to grow. Those places that are ideal for woodcock breeding grounds are also those spots that are great for housing. In this conflict, the birds lose every time.
If you want to see these birds go through the mating ritual, take a walk at sunset on a warm and misty night down some of the pathways in open areas like Dogtown, Martin Burns or on open farmland in Essex or Ipswich. Some of their favorite spots are cemeteries or golf courses set back from the road next to a wooded area.
Find a rise in the ground where there is an open spot. Sit on a stone wall and just listen. Even if you have never heard them before, once you hear the "peeent" and the fluttering sound you will know they are near. If you get up and slowly move toward the sound, you will get to see a ritual as old as time and one you will never forget.