Towards the end of winter, the bird life starts to get tired. The juncos have been here for almost five months, the White-throated Sparrows are finishing off the last of the bird seed, and even the formerly cheerful racket of foraging Ruby-crowned Kinglets has relegated itself to commonplace. Luckily, at this time of year, there’s something you can do to relieve your avian ennui. For some reason, February is the month American Woodcocks have chosen to stop skulking in the deep forest, and begin their elaborate mating displays.
We arrived at Mason Farm earlier than we needed to. Unfortunately for photographers, woodcocks feel the need to display after sundown, and as that wouldn’t occur for another couple hours, James and I decided to walk the loop trail. Bird activity had slowed by the afternoon, but we still found a couple of small flocks. Chickadees and Titmice rasped from the shrubbery near a damp swamp, and a Golden-crowned Kinglet foraged lower in the branches than I’ve ever seen one. But the exciting part came after I heard a reedy whistle coming from a nearby tree. Looking up, I found none other than a Brown Creeper working its way up a trunk quite close to us, and James raced over to snap this shot.
|Creepers have to be among the most frustrating birds to photograph!|
As the clouds started to move in, even the mixed winter flocks started to disappear. The cool winds couldn’t hide the fact that it was a balmy sixty degrees outside. So as we rounded a turn on the gravel path, I was quite surprised to find a large toad hopping through the tall grass, apparently taking advantage of the unseasonable January weather. Before he could escape into the wilderness, I caught him and placed him on the trail to get a better look – in
, there are two very similar species, and I had to make sure of its identity. Luckily for us, the toad had single warts ringed by dark skin, meaning he was an American Toad, an amphibian that had escaped James’s camera lens until this point, as the more common and closely related Fowler’s Toad has proved to be more photogenic. North Carolina
|He doesn't look very amused, does he?|
Finally, the sun began to set, and we made our way to a stretch of trail that lies between two large fields. It’s a spot I’m told has been historically good for woodcock in the past, and it’s where I got my lifer almost two years ago. Of course, January is still a little early for their breeding displays, and I couldn’t be certain the birds would be out and about so early in the year, but as it's been a mild winter, I liked our chances. As the sun dipped below the horizon, however, I heard an odd sound travel from across the field. weent. That’s it! The Woodcocks were back! Over the course of the next half-hour, more and more American Woodcocks called in the fields, and soon enough they began to take off on their display flights, winnowing over the fields by using specialized feathers on their wings. Suddenly, the winnowing became faster and faster as one bird spiraled towards the ground, and as he neared it became more mechanical before silencing. With naught but a rustle of feathers, a male American Woodcock flew right past us and landed in the middle of the trail.
|A much nicer view than nearly stepping on one in the middle of the forest!|
We managed to catch him in the spotlight, and as James photographed him, the bird straightened his posture and let out a single weent, hoping to attract a female to his trail-side hovel. He ducked back down, ran a couple feet, flashed his tail feathers, and without warning he’d alighted, once again winnowing over the fields. After just a half hour of watching the birds, the fields fell silent once again. All in all, we must have seen around ten American Woodcocks that night, including a male courting a female down the trail from us. But none gave us quite the views as that one male on a balmy night in January.