Nature: Time for the woodcock’s dance



March has arrived along with more snow. This month has the reputation of being capricious — one day will be warm and the next one will be freezing. Whatever the weather, this is the time to watch or listen for woodcocks to arrive. They will be with us throughout the summer. Their courtship antics start about now and are great fun to witness.

This plump bird has a strange appearance. The woodcock actually looks bigger than it is because the body is plump. This makes it appear neckless. It has an oversized head, high-placed eyes and a 2 ½-inch-long bill. The general coloring is cinnamon and rust in a dead-leaf pattern. Although technically it is a shore bird, you most likely will find it in a field or in a clearing at the edge of a forest.

The male’s courtship is something to watch and you can do so without too much trouble. He usually performs his courtship sky dance in a clearing. He starts with a bow while he makes a loud “bzzzzing” or “bzeeping” sound. After strutting and making this odd sound a few times, he suddenly bursts into the air from the ground and flies high into the sky. When at the height he wants, he twitters a musical phrase and then quickly falls back to the ground and lands almost right where he took off. The whole ritual repeats itself all night.

If you hear the bird you can gradually creep up on it if you stay silent while it is buzzing on the ground and then just as it flies high in the air get yourself closer to the take-off point.

As soon as you hear the musical sound in the sky, crouch down and don’t move. When the bird lands it may be only a few feet away and you have a front row seat for the next performance. Even a flashlight turned on at that moment does not bother it. It is a great performance to watch!

You feel as if you are playing an old childhood game that made you freeze at certain time and hold a position. Some of you may remember this. My mother had to hold her position in a prickly raspberry patch once on a woodcock watching event and never forgot it! It never stopped her from going again, however. You may get tired of watching the event but the bird will continue its routine all night.

On still, warm nights the woodcock’s call usually can be heard in the moist woodlands, overgrown pastures and abandoned fields. It is well worth taking time to watch this comical courtship ritual.

This bird’s long sensitive bill is a marvelous tool for it is made for extracting grubs and worms buried in the soft mud and earth. With this unusual bill the bird probes deep in the mud and then is able to open just the tip to seize a worm and draw it out. During the whole process the high set eyes never get in the mud. The woodcock’s food consists mostly of earthworms but in the dry summer these birds will also eat beetles, grubs and other insects. Because they spend a lot of time on the ground they are particularly vulnerable to free-roaming cats and dogs.

A nice bird to look for now is the fox sparrow for it is on the island for a few weeks in the spring as well as in the fall. This is one of the very beautiful and large sparrows for it has a heavily striped breast. It also has a very distinctive method of scratching the soil back with both feet at the same time as it searches for food. This activity makes a noise in the leaves. The bird actually hops into the air and kicks with both feet and really makes things fly! When they pass through the area in the fall you may get to hear their un-sparrow-like fluting call. The fox sparrow is a beautiful sparrow.

Wintering purple finches start singing this month. These birds are among the most melodious of our American finches.

Watch for him at the very top of some tree pouring out his love song. If a chosen mate is nearby he may even fling himself out into the air in pure ecstasy in his attempt to impress his female. Although this raspberry finch is by nature a forest bird it has now adapted to civilization and readily comes to feeders and dooryards. A good supply of sunflower seeds will attract them all year round. The females are heavily striped with a broad whitish line over the eye. They may look like sparrows but they have the typical thicker, finch-like bill.

Trips to any harbor these days will have you noticing when loons and guillemots start changing back to their breeding plumages. Hairy woodpeckers are practicing their love songs, challenges and calls for a mate all included in their distinctive drum roll on any surface that pleases them. A tin roof is perfect for their purposes!

Watch for all the wonderful happenings out of doors as spring arrives.

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

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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