A woodcock nesting ISLANDER FILE PHOTO

Woodcocks will arrive soon



March has arrived. It is a capricious month, warm one day and freezing the next, but the changes in nature as winter gives way to spring are evident in the lives of wildlife. The sun climbs higher in the sky, and days grow appreciably longer. Sap runs from our trees, pussy willows bloom, and the wintertime dark bills of starlings show touches of bright yellow. The calendar says “spring,” and all life is anxious to get on with it!

Woodcocks should be arriving and starting their sky-dancing routine as they court the “ladies” in the wee hours of dawn and at dusk; their antics continue all night. After they arrive here in the north, they will be present through the summer until they leave again in the fall. Although woodcocks are robin-sized, they seem to be bigger because they are plumper. These birds seem to be neckless, and they have an oversized head on which their eyes are highly placed. To add to their odd appearance, they have a 2-1/2 to 2-inch long bill. The general coloring of woodcocks is cinnamon and rust with a “dead leaf” pattern.

Male woodcocks have a most unusual courtship routine commonly called a “courtship dance.” A male bird looking for a female will find a field or bare patch at the edge of the woods or small field and do his dance in hopes of enticing the females in the area. The male walks on the ground, bows and makes an odd buzzing call several times and then bursts into flight, spiraling higher and higher to just the right height. When at the peak of his ecstasy, he sings several high-pitched gurgling and clucking sounds that, surprisingly enough, are quiet musical. After he pours his heart out in song, the bird flutters back to the ground to almost the very spot from which he took off and starts all over again. This activity goes on all night. The strutting, bowing and buzzing start over, and the rest of the routine goes on over and over again, night after night. Each dance on still, warm nights near moist woodlands, pastures and abandoned fields takes about five minutes.

Strangely enough, if you hear the call and slowly approach where the bird is dancing, he will allow you to watch the performance and not be disturbed. You can even shine a flashlight on the bird. It is a wonderful and amusing sight to watch.

The most amazing thing to me about woodcocks is their very long bill and what they are capable of doing with it as they probe for worms in the mud and soft ground. This bill is a very amazing and sensitive tool for extracting worms and grubs. With this long bill, woodcocks probe deep into the soft earth. Their eyes are placed high, so they are protected. When a woodcock finds a worm deep in the mud or soil, it can open the tip and seize the worm and then extract it. In a dry summer or in autumn when the worms go down into the subsoil, woodcocks eat things like berries, grubs and insects. Since woodcock are ground nesters, they are quite vulnerable to free-roaming cats and dogs. Woodcocks are shorebirds even though their lifestyle is quite different from many other shorebirds.

Along the shore and rocky beaches, you can still look for purple sandpipers. These plump, dark purple birds usually feed in a small group from the edge of the beach or rocky shoreline. They feed right where the waves break. They are about ready to leave for a couple of months, but small groups may still be found here and there. By the end of this month, they all should be gone.

On warmer days, raccoons sometimes can be seen resting in a tree, and at night, several raccoons will get together to feed. A good number of island residents entertain these “masked bandits” by feeding them on well-stocked decks and porches. Such an “open house” for raccoons may be entertaining for awhile but also leads to trouble later on when the raccoons get too tame and “pushy.” I would suggest not encouraging them. They are opportunists.

Red-winged blackbirds should return this month, and I personally love to hear their trilling call and to see them in our wetlands. The males arrive first and look for territories. In a couple of weeks, the females arrive, and they then decide where the nests will be made. It is a busy time for the male black birds with their colorful red epaulettes making that musical call. Females are dark brown. As a rule, male birds are more colorful than females, and in other species, both males and females look like. Some male birds help and cooperate in rearing the young, and in others, they have nothing to do with the young or their rearing. Some birds mate for life, many do not. Most birds build their own nests, but a bird like the cowbird does not build any nest, and the female cowbird lays her eggs in another bird’s nest. The foster family then has to do the rearing. Since the cowbird baby is a big one, the foster parent’s own young do not get enough to eat and perish.

The cowbird has a brown head, a gray conical bill and a glossy black body. They commonly visit feeders. They are seen here from April through December. Individually, I find them to be pleasant birds, for we cared for one that had been injured, and it was very interesting in its interaction with us.

Be on the lookout for snow fleas now wherever you find patches of snow. Look for tiny black specks on the sunny patches you see. They will make the snow look as if it has been sprinkled with black pepper, but as you watch, the dots jump and move. Although snow fleas are always about, you really can see them only against a background of snow. Snow fleas or springtails at other times of the year live under damp leaves, the bark of logs and other moist, dark spots throughout most of the world, including the polar regions. Some springtails are luminous, some are extraordinary jumpers. Fish eat them when they collect on the surface of the water. I have seen birds searching for food through the seaweed and assorted flotsam and jetsam at the high-tide line, and they are probably getting springtails along with other creatures. In the spring, returning birds find survival food in the seaweeds. Although conspicuous only on snow, springtails are quite common. They are strictly vegetarians, feeding on algae, pollen and leaf mold.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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