Early spring is here: now’s the time to find male American Woodcocks (Scolopax minor) putting on impressive aerial displays to attract a mate. There are a number of locations around the island where you can catch a glimpse of this rite of spring. A calm night — even better, a calm night flooded with moonlight — is just perfect for the male birds to practice their fancy flying skills. If you are lucky you may catch a glimpse!
A Strange Bird
Unless you’ve stumbled across a woodcock and startled it so that it exploded from the underbrush, or caught one in the midst of taking a dust bath in a sandy road, most likely you have never noticed this expert in camouflage. Once you catch a closer look, you will see that it’s actually one of Nantucket’s most distinctive-looking birds, with its stout, chunky body shape, long bill, and large eyes set high and far back on the head. A member of the shorebird family, the woodcock frequents young forests and shrublands interspersed with open fields. It feeds in these areas by extracting earthworms and other insects from the soil using its uniquely specialized bill, which has a flexible upper mandible. Their mottled brown plumage allows them to blend in perfectly with leaf litter on the forest floor, where they nest. The unique shape and behavior of this species has led to numerous colorful nicknames, including the timberdoodle, bog sucker, and night partridge.
The male performs “sky dances” at dawn and dusk, where he soars high into the air and then circles sharply to the ground, making distinct twittering sounds produced by air passing through his outer primary feathers. While on the ground, he issues a series of sharp, nasal “peent” calls to attract mates. Listen to a recording of both types of calls at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology “All About Birds” Cornell website Woodcock Page. Woodcocks are “polygynous,” meaning that one male will breed with multiple females. So on a single night in a good spot, there can be a lot of matchmaking going on.
Where to See Woodcocks?
If you’d like to catch this bird in action, you’re in luck: Nantucket is a great place to do so. Unlike much of New England, where open fields have been developed or have succeeded to mature forests, Nantucket still has many acres of conservation land that include large areas of shrublands, grasslands, and heathlands, with lots of shrubby wetlands—ideal woodcock habitat.
Some good places to check out on a calm evening include Altar Rock Road near Polpis, Squam Farm, and Sanford Farm. A sunset/moonlit walk may reward you with a view into the woodcock’s otherwise quiet and secretive life. Just bring along a flashlight in case you need one to make your way, and watch the show from a respectful distance (dogs on leash, please).
If you can’t make it out for an evening walk, check out this woodcock display video showing a male performing the start of his display, and taking flight.
Prepared by: K.C. Beattie
Adapted by: K.A. Omand (March 2016 NCF Science Blog)