Winter Woodcocks

By Jason Beale, Manager, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center

Wintering waterfowl, wintering raptors, wintering songbirds – these are common sights both in the wild and on the Delaware birdline.  However, one of my favorite wintering birds in Delaware doesn’t quite get the recognition it deserves until it begins its courtship in late winter and early spring – the American Woodcock.  Like most shorebirds, it’s very cryptic to match its habitat.  However, rather than mudflats and sandy beaches, it is at home in shrubby fields, successional woods, and swamp margins.

Chuck Fullmer found this Woodcock in late November in his compost pile.

The Woodcock has an almost comical appearance with a long, prehensile bill, designed to probe for earthworms.  It appears neckless and has a body shape more reminescent of a softball than a bird.  Woodcocks are uncommon breeders throughout the state, generally centered around the large wildlife areas and refuges, and migrate through Delaware each fall and spring.  However, with careful searching and a little luck, they can be found throughout the winter months.

DNS's own Derek Stoner snapped this photo at our Burrow's Run Preserve in Greenville, Delaware. A heart-stopping whirr of wings mere feet away is usually the first sign of a Woodcock outside of the breeding season.

A Pennsylvania Game Commission Officer once gave me good Woodcock advice – look for rich, black soil.  Fortunately in southern Delaware, we have many of these areas where sandy uplands drop off into swamp forests.  Throw in an adjacent thicket and/or wild meadow and you have an excellent place to begin your search.  For the past few winters, this habitat recipe has paid off around Abbott’s Mill Nature Center at the Cedar Bog Tract/Lee Meadow, Isaacs Tract, and our newest preserve, the Isaacs-Greene Tract.

Strips of upland woods tapering down to swampy floodplains and streams are great habitats for winter Woodcocks. Resting amongst the fallen leaves, the birds are almost insivible with only the prominent head stripes and large eye to cue in careful observers.

With the Christmas Bird Count season approaching and the Backyard Bird Count in February, head on out and see if you can locate one of these fascinating birds before they begin their unique courtship.  Don’t forget that Delaware Nature Society will be offering our annual Woodcock Walks to observe courting Woodcocks in February and March at a variety of our sites.

Old fields and shrubby meadows are great spots for Woodcocks. The males will use mowed trails as they perform their "peent" during courtship.

1 thought on “Winter Woodcocks”

  1. What a grand surprise it is to have a woodcock burst out from underfoot.
    Derek Stoner showed how important it is to have your camera ready. Woodcocks don’t wait around for a second photo opportunity.
    Kay G

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