Woodcock in nest. ISLANDER FILE PHOTO

Nature: The sky dance of the woodcock

Although I have not heard them myself, woodcocks are back. This time of year is when this strange, plump and seemingly neck-less bird with a very long bill performs his ritual “sky dance” in order to woo his chosen female. As is usually the case the females seem to ignore the whole thing, but he continues all night doing his dance in hopes of finding a mate. If you are patient and determined, you can watch the dance.

The dancing ground is usually at the edge of a field or woods. The dance starts with the male on the ground. He finds a female on the ground and then proceeds to bow, all the while making a “bezzzeeping” sound. After several “bezeeps” he bursts from the ground and flies very high in the sky, but still within sight, sings his love song and then returns to the ground almost to the exact spot from which he took off. He then repeats the whole routine over and over until dawn.

On still warm spring nights the woodcock’s call can usually be heard in any moist woodlands, overgrown pastures and abandoned fields. He will not be overly disturbed if you shine your flashlight on him, so it is possible to see the dance very well. If you find a place they are dancing listen for the song, and while the bird is flying up in the sky you can move closer to his dancing spot. The minute he starts his descent freeze in your position and in this manner you can get closer. Whenever I write about this, I think of my mother’s first time watching woodcocks. She had to freeze in place in a raspberry patch and hold the prickly position until she could move again! It was memorable for her, but she was a good sport!

The woodcock’s long, grooved and sensitive bill is an amazing tool for extracting worms buried in the soft mud and earth. The bird’s eyes are placed high on its head to keep them high and dry as the bird probes deeply into the mud. The bill can be from one to three inches long! The woodcock also has the added ability of being able to open the tip of the bill in the mud to grab a worm and then pull it to the surface. It’s an amazing bird. The woodcock’s food consists mostly of earthworms, but in a dry season or later in the summer it will also eat beetles, grubs and other insects. Since it is a ground nester, it is quite vulnerable to free roaming cats and dogs.

For a short while now and again in the fall you may be able to get a glimpse of a fox sparrow. This sparrow is heavily streaked on the breast and the upper side of its tail is bright red! The fox sparrow’s method of scratching away in the snow and dead leaves, while searching for seeds and insects, is quite an interesting maneuver. He hops from the ground and while still in the air kicks backward with both feet. This really makes things fly. These sparrows are quite beautiful and are considered wild, free spirits from the north just passing through our area. As they appear here in the early spring headed north we have chance to hear their short, rich and unforgettable fluting song.

Male red-winged blackbirds are being seen here and there. The males arrive first in the spring and check out nesting territories. Very often when the females arrive, they have other ideas of where they will nest, but at the moment the males are in charge. It is always a joy to see and hear them calling in wet areas. I particularly love their “honk-er-ee” call wafting over a marsh or other wet area. Not only is the song lovely, but when their epaulettes show on the wing it is a beautiful sight to see. Females are rather plain, striped brown birds, but the males are handsome. Listen for their spring song now!

Vultures just returned to the area and will be seen regularly from now on. Several were seen flying over Bar Harbor this week. Look at how they hold their wings as they are overhead. Their wings form a dihedral. Ospreys have a kink in their wings, eagles hold their wings straight across. Great blue herons have their legs trailing out behind. As the season advances, we will have many chances to see these large birds in our sky. Knowing a few clues to their identity will help you recognize one from the other very easily.

This is a good time to clean your birdhouses and to put them up again. Watch for mourning cloak butterflies on our first warm days. As soon as the ponds start to open up and become free of ice, watch for wood ducks arriving. Hairy woodpeckers are practicing their love songs, challenges and calls for a mate, all included in their “drum roll” tapping on any hard surface that suits them. Mourning doves are singing their love songs. Listen to the sounds of spring. Love is in the air!

Send any questions, photos or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.
Ruth Grierson

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