American Woodcock

All posts tagged American Woodcock

By Jim White, Associate Director, Land and Biodiversity and Amy White, Teacher Naturalist

So you think you can dance? Well maybe you can, but I bet you can’t rival the 300-foot high, spiraling dance performed each Spring by the “mud bat”, or more properly the American Woodcock. Nor could you match the bird’s beautiful warbling song as it plummets back to the earth to strut around the ground, showing off for any potential mate.  In his landmark book, A Sand County Almanac, noted conservationist Aldo Leopold penned the term “Sky Dance” for this bird’s remarkable mating ritual.

An American Woodcock hides in the leaf litter of the forest floor, and is very difficult to see until they move.  Photo by Jim White.

An American Woodcock hides in the leaf litter of the forest floor, and is very difficult to see until they move. Photo by Jim White.

The Sky Dance is performed only by males and only in the right habitat: on and above open sandy, gravely, or short grassy areas adjacent to shrubby old fields and very young woodlands.  The dance begins in the twilight glow just before sunrise or after sunset.   It starts when the male flies to his chosen “singing ground” from the nearby vegetation and begin to call, emitting a loud nasally, buzzy sound or “peent” every three seconds or so.  While peenting, this chubby little shorebird wattles around the small area in comical fashion. Suddenly the peenting stops and the bird takes flight, rising in ever tightening circles high into the air.  With each wing beat a twittering sound is produced as air rushes through the first three primary wing feathers.  When reaching the desired altitude (as much as 300 feet) he stops climbing and plummets down to earth: as Leopold describes, “he tumbles like a crippled plane”. On the way down the woodcock emits a beautiful, soft, liquid warbling sound. Just before crashing, he levels off and lands, usually near where he took off, and begins to peent: starting the dance over again.  The entire dance, like so many types of dancing, is designed to impress the opposite sex – in this case, the female woodcock.  Sounds of the American Woodcock can be found here.

Some may describe the American Woodcock as an odd little bird and indeed it is unusual in several ways. Taxonomically, it is classified as a shorebird and yet it rarely visits the shore.  It is globular in shape, with large eyes comically positioned high up on the side of its oversized head.  And it has a very long bill (compared to its body size), which it uses to probe the soil for worms and other invertebrates. The tip of the bill is flexible, an adaptation that enables the woodcock to capture worms while thebill is still well below the ground surface.

The American Woodcock ranges over much of the eastern half of the US and southern Canada.  It appears that in recent years, woodcock populations are declining due to loss of the early successional habitats that they require.

Usually, you only see American Woodcocks in flight right around first light or last light.  Otherwise, one occasionally kicks them up in woods and thickets by surprise during the day.  Photo by Derek Stoner.

Usually, you only see American Woodcocks in flight right around first light or last light. Otherwise, one occasionally kicks them up in woods and thickets by surprise during the day. Photo by Derek Stoner.

This year appears to be a particularly good year to observe the Sky Dance, and we have been fortunate enough to witness several such dances in locations scattered throughout our area this Spring.  The best way to see the Sky Dance is to find a relatively flat, open area with low grass or bare substrate that is near young woodlands. If possible, position yourself so that you are facing towards the sunset, so that you can see the birds as they fly against the brighter western sky.  Get to your viewing spot at sunset and wait quietly until it starts to get dark.  If the woodcock are going to perform they will begin 20 to 30 minutes after sunset.  If you like to get up early you can also see the birds in the morning, about 45 to 60 minutes before sunrise. Either way, the best viewing conditions are with clear skies and little to no wind. 

The Sky Dance is one of the many natural phenomena that anyone interested in nature should try to experience at least once (if not every year, as we try to do).  It’s a great way to celebrate the end of Winter and to welcome the arrival of Spring!

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

This mysterious hermit of the alders, this recluse of the boggy thickets, this wood nymph of crepuscular habits is a common bird…widely known, but not intimately known.  Its quiet retiring habits do not lead to human intimacy.  It may live almost in our midst unnoticed.  Its needs are modest, its habitat is circumscribed, and it clings with tenacity to its favorite haunts even when closely encroached upon by civilization.   – Arthur Cleveland Bent, Life Histories of North American Shorebirds, 1927.

Call it a Timberdoodle, Mud Bat, Bog Sucker, Labrador Twister, Big Eyes, Blind Snipe, Brush Snipe or Swamp Bat…officially it is known at the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor).   Finding them with our members is an annual rite of spring for the Delaware Nature Society.  Some years it is easy.  Other years, the Bog Sucker foils us.  This year, we thought it would be the latter.

The privately-owned Bucktoe Creek Preserve is our traditional Timberdoodle tromping terrain.  Complete with wet, swampy woods for feeding, thickets for nesting, and open areas for displaying, it is usually heaven for the Woodcock.  Larry Lewis and Kathleen Pileggi led the trip this year.  They struck out the first two outings for the birds at Bucktoe.  For the third outing, Larry decided to move the search elsewhere.  At Marsh Creek State Park, Chester County, PA, they finally saw the birds at point blank range, and had a wonderful show.  Woodcocks make you sweat it out sometimes! 

Knowing the place and the hour, you seat yourself under a bush to the east of the dance floor and wait, watching against the sunset for the woodcock’s arrival. He flies in low from some neighboring thicket, alights on the bare moss, and at once begins the overture: a series of queer throaty peents spaced about two seconds apart, and sounding much like the summer call of the nighthawk.

Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter. Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began, and there resumes his peenting.  – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949.

Rachel Cameron got a photo of this Woodcock at dusk during its flight display.

Our group was lucky to find a "peenting" American Woodcock prior to dusk with enough light to see it well. Photo by Rachel Cameron.

If you would like to see a short video taken by Rachel Cameron, a participant on the trip last Wednesday, March 21, click the link below.

woodcock video


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.