Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Woodcocks Hatch on Plum Island
May 17, 2008
Steve Grinley

     I’ve written about the American woodcock in the past. I’ve described their odd appearance – a stocky bird with long bill and eyes near the top of their head. I’ve joked about their rocking walk and I’ve shared the experience of their elaborate courtship display in the spring. Now I’d like to share with you the story of a woodcock’s nest off the Hellcat Swamp boardwalk on Plum Island as told by two fellow birders.

     Let’s begin with Paul Roberts of Medford who describes the creation of the nest:

     “I don’t know who first discovered the nest, but am inclined to believe it was my wife, Julie, who spotted the bird on the morning of April 19. (No one we saw earlier mentioned the bird prior to that.) What strengthens that opinion is that Julie first spotted the bird crouched more than a yard or so south of the recent nest. We… watched the bird rumba in a sitting position, shaping a cup in the leaf litter, and moving leaves and sticks about, clearly establishing her nest. We watched quietly for perhaps half an hour as she went about her work, fidgeting, fussing, and always acting a little unsettled until she seemed to have the bowl just right and began to sit quietly. Marveling at the exquisite beauty of the bird – what can Brown do for you? – with more gray than I had ever seen before on a woodcock, we proceeded down the boardwalk in futile pursuit of any warblers.

     “When we returned some time later, the bird was gone. I think I was the one who discovered it sitting very quietly a yard or two north of where we had seen it preparing what we thought to be its nest. I think it had indeed established a nest cup but had been clearly uncomfortable with it and moved north to the site where we eventually saw it for four consecutive weeks. Last week we saw it outbound, and were shocked to not see it on the nest inbound . Instead, we spied two eggs partially exposed, far larger than we expected. As Julie said, “Ouch, that must hurt.” (Research confirms that the eggs are unusually large for a bird of this size.) The hen came waddling back to the nest while we watched and resumed incubation.

     “With synchronous hatching, and an incubation period ranging from 19-22 days, this gorgeous female probably began laying an egg a day on the 19th or 20th and began incubating three days later.”

     Nancy Landry of Haverhill was lucky enough to experience the hatching this past week:

     “For the past three years I have been, fortunately, shown or found an American woodcock on nest. This year seemed more special as I had shown to others what they might have missed – the American woodcock. How some were astounded that someone, not me, had found this beauty along the marsh trail in among the leafage. And I agreed each time how special it was.

     “Today I had off and one of the first places I went to was the see if the woodcock was still on her nest. When I got there I found that she was, but something was different. Next to her I could see two eggs. Someone had told me that they had seen her move off the nest and had seen two eggs. One of these eggs had hatched as I could see the opening. Why was she still here? Were there more eggs to hatch?

     “The answer came shortly as the mother woodcock got up and walked back behind the small tree that I had used as a landmark on finding her. As she moved off the nest, first one then two and then three and four heads popped up. She had had her babies during the night and had four not two eggs to hatch. I tried to get some photos of the hatchlings, but the sun had only been up for twenty minutes and the light to little. So I watch for the few minutes that it took her and hatchling to walk around the tree and then back to the nest and settle back down.

     “I was surprised to see this as I thought that once the eggs hatch the mother would take them away from the nest and not return. My thoughts were that maybe there was one egg left to hatch that I had not noticed, or she was waiting for the day to get just that little bit warmer before disappearing into the wood. I came back to the spot about an hour later to find that she had finally left. Will I ever have such a special moment like this ever again?

     “For those of you who would like to see the only picture I got of the woodcock and one of her babies, I am posting it on my website at: http://www.pbase.com/image/97069344. If you look closely, you will see an egg to her left and the baby to the right next to her bill.”

     Paul summed up the experience:

     “As Nancy said, it has been a wonderful experience, and I will miss seeing that beautiful bird. I’m also happy to know that the raccoons, weasels, foxes, coyotes, and crows did not get these eggs. She has been a highlight in what has otherwise been a pretty miserable spring for weekend birding.”

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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