Ask any birder about which birds they like best, and you’re bound to receive a wide array of responses. Some species are admired for being majestic or awe-inspiring, while others are beloved for their familiarity and classically cute appearances. In contrast, still others endear themselves to human observers by being downright bizarre in aspect. Behavior is also an important factor, with many naturalists citing impressive migrations, striking displays, or unique adaptations as the most appealing features of their favorites. While matters of taste are wildly variable in such an expansive community, there are some birds that bring us all together in nigh universal appreciation. One perennially popular species for birders and, increasingly, non-birders alike is a creature that perfectly marries fascinating ecology with unusual looks to create its own special brand of irresistible awkward charm: the American Woodcock.
Even within the dramatically diverse ranks of the shorebird families in the order Charadriiformes, woodcocks are standouts for a number of reasons. Unlike most of their kin, these birds inhabit forested areas and brushy, open fields along the edges of woodlands. All species are largely nocturnal, with enormous eyes that sit shockingly far back on their heads. This strange optic positioning gives them an incredibly wide field of vision, with binocular vision both in front and behind, which allows them to watch out for predators in all directions as they forage. Combined with their cryptic plumage and furtive habits, this makes woodcocks particularly adept at avoiding detection. Our American species is found throughout the eastern portion of the continent, spending summers as far north as southern Canada and wintering from the Mid-Atlantic states to the Gulf Coast. The species is known by an impressive array of curious folk names across its wide range, including Timberdoodle, Bogsucker, Mudsnipe, Hookumpake, Night Partridge, and Labrador Twister. This chunky, bug-eyed, dry-leaf-pattered weirdo has captured the hearts of countless animal lovers, likely due to its famously comical antics even more so than its oddball appearance.
While woodcocks are difficult to spot in the dense undergrowth of their forest homes, their migration routes regularly take them through suburban areas and busy cities, where they often find themselves a bit out of their element. I have been lucky enough to consistently document transient birds at Randall’s Island during both both early spring and late fall, and Bryant Park in Manhattan is renowned among birders as a reliable hotspot for these woodland waders. This species is especially susceptible to the bright lights and glassy buildings of the Midtown maze, frequently becoming disoriented or falling victim to window strikes. The tiny greenspace at Bryant Park is one of the few safe havens in the area where they can rest and forage in relative peace. This presents a unique opportunity to watch woodcocks at close range, allowing for a fuller appreciation of their unique features and behaviors. The intricate brown, gray, black, and orange patterns of their plumage, which render them nearly invisible against a backdrop of leaf litter, look absolutely stunning in the open. As the birds strut around the planting beds, probing the soil with their lengthy, flexible-tipped bills in search of earthworms, they continually bob their entire bodies as if grooving to the rhythm of some unheard song. It’s difficult not to develop a soft spot for this adorably absurd animal after enjoying such a remarkable close encounter.
While a sighting in a city park is certainly delightful, woodcocks are at their weirdest and most wonderful during their magnificent courtship displays. On warm evenings at the end of winter, overgrown fields along the outskirts of forests are filled with the distinctive peent calls of amorous males, announcing to prospective mates that the show is about to start. At regular intervals, each bird vaults into the air, circling high over the display grounds with the wind whistling through his rapidly whirring wings. Beginning the descent back to earth, he makes a series of twisting, dramatic swoops, producing high-pitched chirps and squeaks. Once he reaches the ground again, the peents resume and he repeats the entire performance. This magnificent spectacle, dubbed the sky dance by writer Aldo Leopold, is among the most celebrated natural phenomena in eastern North America. All across the woodcock’s range, the species is touted as a herald of springtime. Twilight walks to visit the dancing grounds are a popular annual pastime for many nature enthusiasts, myself most certainly included. Though I heard my first woodcocks of 2023 as early as late January, during the Northport Winter Bird Count, the bulk of the action in our region takes place in March. A few weeks ago, Jacqi accompanied me for her first introduction to the magic of the sky dance, a far cry from her lifer observation of some fleeting flyby woodcocks during our trip to the Adirondacks a few years ago. As far as I’m concerned, these birds are best appreciated when you get to witness them in action during the peak of their nuptial flights.
This year, I have been fortunate enough to partake in some in-depth studies of woodcock breeding behavior. Several friends invited me to join a series of surveys on private property out in Nassau County, where this species has been documented to breed in the past. In addition to recording sky dancing males to determine the boundaries of the display territories at the site, we have also been using thermal imaging equipment to search for signs of eggs or chicks. Though we have not obtained any clear evidence of nesting thus far this season, we have been incredibly successful on the former front. Using a thermal scope makes it much easier to spot peenting males on the ground, and it also allows us to effortlessly track their flights across the darkening skies. For the first time in my woodcock watching career, I was able to directly observe interactions between a displaying bird and an interested observer, with the male raising his wings for the female and performing an exaggerated strut as the final phase of his attempts to woo her. Thermal imaging tech has proven to be a useful tool for scientific studies of this nature, and we were also able to visually confirm the presence of several Eastern Screech-Owl pairs on territory while strolling through the woods after nightfall. It is my hope that future investigations at this site will turn up additional surprises. It would be a wonderful treat to confirm incubation or newly hatched baby woodcocks for the New York Breeding Bird Atlas!
With the month of March rapidly drawing to a close, signs of spring have begun to intensify all across our region. Although we are presently passing the peak of courtship activity for woodcocks in southern New York, the birds will carry on with their sky dancing in some numbers as the season continues to heat up, especially further upstate. If you find yourself with a free evening during this early stage of migration, I highly recommend making the pilgrimage to the brushy meadows at the edge of the woods where these improbably charismatic performers take to the stage. I can promise that you won’t soon forget the experience!