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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Woodcock O'clock!

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 North Carolina, 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.

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.


  1. Thanks for this great description! Jeri S, Petie S and I traveled to Mason Farm on Fri Feb 3 2012 and heard at least five male Woodcocks dancing at one time between 6:02 pm and 6:27 pm (sunset was 5:44 pm) We sat in sports-chairs at the interpretive marker with a 20 on it. Before the show, we birded a bit (4:30 to 5:30) and saw 27 other bird species, including a Rusty Blackbird in a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds. We also heard a Barred Owl at 5:30 until 5:45 pm. giving us a total of 29 species. Past encounters: I have watched a Woodcock Sky Dance many years ago (70s), one in the Catskills in a clearing, another in the Birkshires near Westfield MA, and a third in a meadow near Snake Hill Road in Cold Spring Harbor NY (Long Island in the 1980s!) But I've never seen more than one Woodcock doing his dance at a time; being surrounded by these odd woodland-shorebirds was amazing! - Beegle the ErlaBirder (twitter)

  2. Comment on spotlights: You mentioned using a spotlight on one of the woodcocks, and it sounded like you did this early in the half-hour "Sky Dance" time. I invoked a "no flashlight" rule during the Woodcock courtship, and our flashlights were covered with red plastic, too. As the sky dances petered out, I brought out a red laser pointer, and shone this on the back of one of the woodcocks. We all got a great look at his stripes and patterns. Bright white light will disturb the bird and disrupt their night vision for several minutes (any doubts, just try shining a flashlight in your eye for a moment! Or look at your photo of a very dazzled, red-eyed Northern Saw-whet Owl.) I've also heard you can film using infra-red light to get your night photos without disturbing wildlife. I know infra-red is invisible to baby sea-turtles and various mammals, but I don't know if birds are bothered by infra-red. Beegle the ErlaBirder.

  3. Erla - Good to know the Woodcocks are still hanging around, and that there are a LOT of them. I haven't read any literature about flashlight use when birding, but you're probably right it isn't awesome for the birds. The Saw-whet from last year wasn't spotlighted, as a matter of fact - the one we had died just before we saw it, so we watched it by low-powered pen light. The red-eye effect is thanks to a bit of camera flash - otherwise the photo would have been very very dark!