American Woodcock

This time of year, if you go out to certain fields at dusk, you may see a curious courtship flight display by an even more curious bird.  Flying in an upward spiral with wings twittering, a male bird will plummet down from over 200 feet in the air in a zig-zag flight while chirping, landing near a female of the species.  If you’ve never seen one of these flights, you’re not alone.  This bird is even harder to spot when not displaying.

I’m talking about the American Woodcock.  This seldom-seen bird is quite unique.  I haven’t photographed any this year so far, so for this post let me go back a couple years ago to a July morning.  As a matter of fact, the place was where I took the first few pictures of my last post.  Here’s what it looked like in high summer.

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I was near a vernal pool in a patch of woods.  Vernal pools are temporary patches of water that provide habitat for distinctive plants and animals.  The Metro Parks system of central Ohio has tended these areas, and it’s always worth checking them out- you never know what you’ll find in them.

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Here was a damp area off to the side.

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I saw a hint of movement there, and looked closer.  Can you see it?

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This bird is so well-camouflaged that it is very hard to see.

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If you look closely, you’ll see the Woodcock probing the wet ground under the fallen tree branch- it’s looking for earthworms most likely.

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This bird’s only defense is its excellent camouflage coloring and pattern, along with an explosive takeoff if necessary.

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Probing under the branch again- maybe it found something tasty.

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That long bill has a flexible tip that helps it snatch earthworms when it probes the mud.  This is a very specialized feeding strategy.

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It has rather big feet for walking on damp ground.  Woodcock have been spotted ‘stamping’ the ground with their feet as they walk, perhaps trying to locate or spook its food.

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Damp woodland patches and wet field edges are good places to find these ‘shorebirds’ that live inland.

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This bird kept an eye on me while slowly probing the mud for food.

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Here’s my best photo.  I watched it until it walked off a bit into the woods and I lost track of it- an easy thing to do, because its feathers blend in so well with the environment.

I often wonder how many times I’ve walked by such birds without seeing them.  The more birding you do, the more things you see that you haven’t seen before.  More experience teaches you the various and sundry places to look where birds may be.  You can pick up tips from veteran birders, but there’s little that can beat getting out in the field and looking and listening carefully, learning what to look for.  Don’t be in a rush to move on.  This is easy to forget, but occasionally you see something that reminds you why it’s a good idea to soak up the environment like a sponge.