Birding diary details adventures of a woodcock watcher
By Mark Spreyer
Daily Herald correspondent
You've got to love a bird with monikers such as timberdoodle and bogsucker. It is most commonly known as the American woodcock and, each spring, it goes through its unusual mating ritual.
Not long ago, I found some old journal entries describing my earliest excursions into the woodcock's world. A woodcock, by the way, is a portly inland sandpiper with a long beak and short legs. It is a migratory species that does not return to the area until March. They can be heard in various locations such as vacant lots, abandoned fields, or here at the nature center.
Its mating displays are generally limited to the lowlight conditions found on either side of sunset and sunrise. With these facts in mind, here are some journal excerpts.
• March 23: Between 11 and 11:30 p.m., the moon was bright enough to inspire a male woodcock. His distinctive "peent, peent" calls were the first I heard this season.
• March 30: I went out shortly after sunset to sneak up on the woodcock. I got much closer to his "peenting" ground than the binoculars could focus. He took off low on his display flights and I generally lost him behind bushes blocking my view. He was working hard for an unseen (to me) mate.
• March 31: Tonight, I moved carefully, but not too quietly, in an effort to get closer to the woodcock. The crunching leaves did not distract him from his mating show. He took short steps (maybe long strides to a woodcock) and suddenly pulled up short. Then, he started off in another, seemingly at random, direction. His actions were reminiscent of a toy robot I had as a kid. When confronted with a wall or other obstacle, the robot turned and proceeded in a different direction. The woodcock moved as if he was hitting invisible obstacles.
Every now and then the bird would make a longer than average run, maybe 8 to 10 feet, and then turn and start again. He would often take wing after one of these longer rushes. He started north, curved to the east over the pond and out of my line of sight. As he was whistling and twittering overhead, I moved closer to where I thought the woodcock would land. When the bird stopped calling, I stopped moving. In sailed the woodcock from the lighted western sky. He had a batlike quality as he turned his wings flaps down and the sun showed through his brown translucent feathers.
• April 3: I was very close to the woodcock this evening and listening so intently that the woodcock's takeoff startled me. I spot him low in the western sky as he returns in near silence. He lands so close that I hear his feet hit the ground. Perhaps, I am too close as I can hear him walk quickly away. The woodcock's calls diminish in intensity and regularity. Minutes pass. Darkness has completely enveloped the scene. I wonder where he went. Slowly, I step toward home when I hear that characteristic whirring or whistle of the woodcock's wings. No nuptial display this time; just a sudden start to some secluded spot. At sunrise, the dance begins anew.
Mark Spreyer is executive director of the Stillman Nature Center in Barrington. Send comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Woodcock watchesWhat: Join other bird watchers to observe woodcocks at the Stillman Nature Center. In past years, the woodcocks have put on quite a show. Bring binoculars and wear hiking shoes.
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturdays, March 16 and 23
Where: Stillman Nature Center, 33 W. Penny Road, South Barrington
Ages: 10 and older
Details: (847) 428-6957 or www.stillmannc.org