Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Woodcock Displays Are Yearly Spring Rituals
April 11, 2015
By Steve Grinley

     More spring migrants have found their way to us, despite the winter-like conditions this past week. Both great and snowy egrets are in the marshes and the great blue herons are atop their nests in Georgetown, Newbury and North Andover. Three sandhill cranes were found at the Bill Forward Wildlife Management Area on Route 1 in Newbury last week. Phil brown found a white-faced ibis among a flock of glassy ibis on Route 133 near the Essex/Ipswich line.

     There have been a couple of snow geese in with the migrating flocks of Canada geese along Scotland Road in Newbury. The ducks are enjoying the flooded conditions there with pintail, wood ducks, green-winged and blue-winged teal in the mix. The count of Wilson’s snipe in the field was over 20 by mid-week, and will climb higher as the weather improves. 

     Margo and I decided to take in the annual woodcock ritual at the Newburyport Industrial Park last week. We were told by several people that the birds had started displaying at about 7:30 in the evening. We drove slowly down Malcolm Hoyt Drive with windows lowered at around 7:20 listening for the distinctive “peent” call. All was pretty quiet.

     We turned down Stanley Tucker Drive which is a bit more secluded and where we have had good luck in past years. Sure enough, we heard a distant “peent”. I looked at the clock and it read exactly 7:30. Then we heard another woodcock closer to us. Then another answered from the other side of the road. 

     We stepped outside and we were able to see one in our binoculars. We watched it take off and soon we could hear the whirl of wings as it circled back down, all part of the courtship ritual. Another bird flew right past us and landed near the road ahead of us. 

     We decided to get back into the car and watch them without disturbance. I spotted one on a patch of snow just ahead of us and we were able to see the colors and detailed patterning on the bird. Woodcock are a plump bird with a long bill and eyes high on their head. They show pretty brown patterns on the back and dark bold stripes on top of the head. With their short neck and short legs, they rock back and forth as they walk – quite a comical sight indeed!

     Woodcock feed in the moist woodlands, probing into the ground for earthworms and other invertebrates. They often stamp their feet to help detect motion below. They move to open areas for their flight display as part of their courtship. They fly up high and then flutter back, like a falling leaf, modifying their first few primary feathers to create a whistling sound with their wings. 

     We were content to watch and listen from the car. A couple of times the birds flew right over our car and landed nearby. It is always an enjoyable experience.

     If you have open areas next to woodlands near you, you can listen for the distinctive nasal “peent” call of woodcock at dusk. A flashlight usually isn’t necessary. There is often sufficient ambient light, especially if the moon is out, to be able to see these fascinating nocturnal birds once your eyes become accustomed to the darkness. It is a captivating spring ritual worth checking out!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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