Shortly before dark last February 10, our son Dave walked up the driveway and heard the “peenting” of an American woodcock. He raced up to our house to alert our son Mark and me, and we joined Dave on our veranda to listen.
A couple minutes passed before both sons said, “Listen.” That’s when I heard the whirr of the woodcock’s wings as he flew overhead. I also saw his distinctive, chunky silhouette. In the nearly 50 years we have lived on our west-central Pennsylvania mountaintop, we had never seen or heard a displaying American woodcock before March 15.
But last February was warmer than usual. After heavy rain the previous night, most of the snow had melted, and by evening it was 45 degrees. At least one male woodcock had migrated north early from his wintering grounds in the coastal lowlands from the Carolina’s south and west as far as Texas. Or, more likely, because the winter had been unusually mild, he may have come from almost any suitable habitat across the southern part of Pennsylvania, according to McWilliams and Brauning in The Birds of Pennsylvania.
February continued to be warmer than usual, and we recorded other early arrivals such as American robins, eastern bluebirds, field sparrows, eastern towhees and turkey vultures. But we neither saw nor heard any more woodcocks until March 18 when Mark spotted one in First Field in the dawn light. The following day Dave encountered a woodcock on First Field Trail next to the exclosure and that evening he heard several singing woodcocks.
I had been going outside off-and-on every evening for several days to listen for woodcocks and hadn’t heard any. But on March 20, at 7:40 pm, I finally scored. I could not believe the amount of twittering and peenting I heard, although by then it was too dark to see them spiraling high into the sky on their twittering wings and then plunging back to earth as they chirped and then resumed their peenting.
The next morning at dawn Mark counted at least six woodcocks singing up and down First Field. I couldn’t get outside until 9 am, but I was determined to see the woodcock Dave had flushed near the exclosure.
The trail was wet, but ahead of me about 40 feet near the beginning of the exclosure fence, I saw the woodcock. I froze, and he stopped too. Instead of flying, he turned his head to look at me and pumped his rear end. He even allowed me to raise my binoculars so I could study him more closely—his large, black eyes set high on his head for rearview binocular vision, his extremely long, thin, black bill, and his chunky, mottled gray and brown body that blended into the leaf duff. He didn’t move and neither did I in what I could only think of as a magical moment.
Finally, I lowered my binoculars and turned away. I had heard a barred owl call nearby and I was worried that the owl might be interested in eating the woodcock since owls and hawks prey on the adult birds.
But that had been the longest, closest look I’d ever had of what ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent called “this mysterious hermit of the alders, this recluse of the boggy thickets, this wood nymph of crepuscular habits.” Usually they fly before I spot them, but this one seemed almost tame. Since woodcocks often return to the same breeding grounds every year, maybe it was the same one I’d seen along this wet trail other springs and maybe it was a female instead of a male. Even though the females have slightly heavier bodies than the males—7.6 oz. to the male’s 6.2 oz.—and their bills are slightly longer, they look the same as the males do.
And the habitat for nesting was ideal—young upland woods near water and not too far from the males’ singing field. Males mate with multiple females and females often visit four or more singing grounds before nesting. Sometimes females continue doing so even while caring for young.
Three days later First Field Trail was soaked and muddy and the wetland inside the exclosure, where I flushed a sitting woodcock, was thoroughly drenched and puddled. So it was most likely that it was a nesting female.
In the dawn fog, five days later, as I hung out the birdfeeders, I heard a woodcock peenting in the flat area between the forest and the slope below our house. A second one joined in. I never did hear them fly, but I listened to dozens of peents before it was light enough to end their singing for the day.
The next morning Mark found a dead woodcock, with two blood spots on its bill, on Butterfly Loop in First Field. Although woodcocks are rarely aggressive, males sometimes chase each other above their singing grounds including performing elaborate steep ascents with two birds 39 to 68 inches apart, and both make cackling calls. We suspected that a collision between two woodcocks had killed one of them.
That was the last I heard or saw woodcocks until May 9 on International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD). By then we were caught up in migratory songbirds and I was out by 8:45 am to count birds. I started up First Field Trail and immediately flushed what I assumed were two female woodcocks since male woodcocks give no parental care but hens sometimes share feeding grounds. One female performed her broken wing act while at least three half-grown fledglings ran in all directions with the second female. I walked on quickly so they could recover from my interference.
Three days later, Bruce took First Field Trail in search of a wild turkey sitting on her nest that Mark had discovered the previous day. But he disturbed one female woodcock with her three fledglings and again she performed her broken wing act while the young ran off.
Surprisingly, the turkey hen was still on her nest and didn’t move. I had kept away from the trail since IMBD, because I didn’t want to disturb the woodcock family. I was reminded of a book I used to read to our sons called Frog and Toad Are Friends, and thought “Woodcock and Turkey Are Friends,” since it looked as if the two species had nested and fed in the same area for weeks.
American woodcocks are shorebird species that prefer to nest in a wet woodland habitat. In Pennsylvania they are probably the earliest migrant species to breed in most places. Because of their unusual appearance and behavior, they have numerous nicknames—night partridge, mudbat, bog sucker and big-eye. They live throughout eastern North America from southern Canada to the southern United States.
Female woodcocks construct their nests in underbrush or tall weeds along the edges of woods and often at the base of a small tree or bush. They make shallow depressions–5 inches across and 1.5 inches deep– in leaf and twig litter, lay one to five grayish-orange eggs splotched with brown, violet-gray or blue-gray, and incubate them 19 to 22 days. Except for brief periods to eat, mainly earthworms but also insects, such as beetles, ants, crickets and grasshoppers, as well as millipedes, spiders, and centipedes, females sit still on the nest and blend into the brown and beige leaves around them.
Numerous nest predators include free-roaming dogs and cats, skunks, opossums, raccoons, crows and snakes, but most young survive the nesting and juvenile periods to live on average 1.8 years, although the oldest known woodcock was 11 years, four months.
Judging from the brief glimpse I had of the young, they were a little less than two weeks old and had been using their flexible upper bills to probe for earthworms and other underground food for more than a week. When they are two weeks old, the young can fly short distances. At four weeks of age, they are almost fully grown, fly well, and look like their parents.
Once the young can roost at night on shrubs in old fields in mid-June or July, they gradually separate from their siblings at six to eight weeks old. They migrate from most of Pennsylvania when the ground freezes the last week in October to the second week in November. I saw my last woodcock on November 5 when it flushed from the shrubby edge of the mostly overgrown Far Field a half mile beyond First Field.
Woodcocks appear to be widely distributed in Pennsylvania, although the early successional habitat they use is disappearing as forests age and old fields are converted into commercial and housing developments. We long ago converted our 37-acre hayfield into a meadow with shrubs and saplings on all sides and singing male woodcocks have been increasing every spring.
But last spring was the first time we encountered positive proof of breeding woodcocks. And that is why First Field Trail is now called Woodcock Trail.