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A Secretive and Curious Bird.

April 6, 2013

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.

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22 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2013 6:40 pm

    Your pictures are quite fascinating. I agree that the better trained you are the more you see. It is amazing how much I missed in the past.

  2. April 7, 2013 7:44 pm

    I’ve never seen an American Woodcock. They certainly do blend with their environment. I’d love to someday be lucky enough to flush one out of the woods.

    • April 7, 2013 9:37 pm

      They’re amazing to watch, Jo Ann- keep an eye out for them on soggy ground where there’s some cover!

  3. April 7, 2013 8:06 pm

    I’ve almost stepped on them a few times while walking to or from a trout stream. They blend in to their surroundings very well!

    • April 7, 2013 9:38 pm

      It’s quite startling when they flush from the ground several feet away when you had no idea anything was there!

  4. April 7, 2013 11:06 pm

    What an interesting bird. It really does blend in with its surroundings.

  5. April 8, 2013 3:42 am

    What a great post and you did very well indeed to capture those images. We know all too well how difficult our own woodcock are to photograph! In fact, you may be able to help: Colin has a commission to paint an American woodcock and he would appreciate any pics of the birds in flight, to use as reference. If you have any, and would be willing to share them, perhaps you’d kindly drop him an email at colin (at) wildart.co.uk.

    • April 8, 2013 9:36 am

      I wish I had some flight pictures, Jo! I’d gladly share them- but they fly so suddenly and are quickly out of sight that I’ve never managed to get even a blurry picture of these birds off the ground!

      • April 9, 2013 2:11 am

        No, that’s absolutely fine – it was a long shot anyway! I know how impossible it is to get pictures of them at all, let alone in flight. Colin says thank you for the reply.

  6. April 8, 2013 9:55 am

    Your photos are true treasures. How awesome to have seen and photographed such a rare and curious beauty. 🙂

    • April 8, 2013 10:49 am

      Thanks, E.C.- I was lucky I spotted this bird 🙂

      • April 8, 2013 10:59 am

        You’re welcome.
        I agree, you must’ve had super vision that day. He blends so perfectly with nature. 🙂

  7. April 8, 2013 5:59 pm

    Hi Seasons, I really did have to look hard at first. A well-camoflaged bird! I don’t think I have ever seen a Wood Cock in person. Have a wonderful day tomorrow!

  8. April 9, 2013 12:27 am

    Wonderful series of photos! I love the camo that bird has!

  9. April 9, 2013 1:33 pm

    Fabulous! And look at all the green! We’re a few weeks behind you, but look what’s coming!

    • April 10, 2013 9:39 am

      It’s just starting to get green here- these pictures were a flashback to a couple summers ago, actually 🙂 Woodcock are active in the early spring though!

  10. April 10, 2013 6:34 pm

    Great post! It seems like everyone is seeing this bird this spring. Not sure if you read jomegat’s blog, but he made a short video of one he saw. You can see it here: http://jomegat.wordpress.com/

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