There are certainly lots of birds to look for now, as spring takes hold. There are the first spring arrivals, like the Eastern Phoebes that stake out a perch and fly-catch, and the sometimes massive flocks of Tree Swallows that wheel and dip through the air as they feed on insects. The finally thawed ponds bring in the last of the ducks heading north to breeding grounds. I saw a flock of probably a hundred Ring-necked Ducks gathered on a pond off Route 41 today.
Yesterday I saw a large white wading bird, looking somewhat out of place as it picked its way across a pastoral hillside above the Housatonic floodplain. It was some distance away, and naturally, I didn’t have my binoculars (big no-no), but it was perhaps a Great Egret, migrating through towards its coastal summer range. You might even find a few Sandhill Cranes migrating through, as I did last month (more about those next time).
But one bird that is not to be missed this time of year is the American Woodcock. A large, somewhat bizarre-looking inland shorebird, it may be easily overlooked. But it is one of the first true harbingers of spring, unlike, say, the robin, which is actually around all winter. There’s a short window of time to see it, though. You can catch their courtship displays for a few more weeks in April, and that’s it. They don’t go anywhere, but you’ll be hard-pressed to see one later in the spring.
“See” is perhaps not the right word, though, as one never sees a woodcock very well. They begin their displays at dusk, usually right around the time it turns dark enough to not see things very well. The show is mostly auditory, but impressive nonetheless.
After hiding out all day in shrubby fields and young woods, camouflaged against the leaf litter, where they use their long bills to probe for earthworms and such, they come out into the open. From the ground, the male gives a quick, nasal call usually referred to as peent. It has a rather kazoo-like quality that cuts through the twilight quite well. He utters it a handful of times, pausing in between.
Then he bursts into the air, climbing spirals, his wings creating a steady twittering hum. If you are able to locate him, his stocky awkward shape suggests perhaps a large insect or some kind of loose wind-up toy. The display reaches a pitch as he ascends as high as 300 feet, while emitting a mess of chirps and squeaks that sounds exactly like the Audubon bird call gadget that I once received as a child. Then he plummets back to earth and falls silent, briefly. Within a few seconds, the peents resume from the damp spring ground.
This is by no means a rare occurrence. Woodcock are plentiful enough that they are still hunted as gamebirds, as were all shorebirds before the conservation movement put a stop to the slaughter. Though the woodcock population has steadily declined, hunting isn’t likely a huge factor. More to blame is development and natural forest succession taking away the young, open forests they require. Also, their ground-feeding makes them susceptible to pesticide and heavy metal accumulation from aerial forest spraying, according to Cornell Lab.
But wherever there are grassy, boggy, open areas, woodcock display throughout the eastern half of the U.S. and southern Canada. The female, duly impressed, will eventually scrape together a nest right on the forest floor, while the male will keep on displaying, taking no part in parental duties. Although, as with most shorebirds, the young are precocious and don’t require much parenting. By early May, they will be inconspicuous.
If you walk down a road with many open meadow areas, you may hear several courtship displays going on in close proximity. I remember one warm evening in March last year when they were out in droves. Each stakes out a field, and sometimes they seem to return to the exact same patch of ground as the year before.
They likely began arriving here in late February, short-distance migrants from wintering grounds in the southern U.S. I failed to observe any at first, and then the late March blizzard no doubt kept their displaying under wraps. On the last day of March, I was taking a walk late in the day in the sleet that was accumulating. It was getting dark. It was, admittedly, a miserable time to be taking a walk. But then I heard, over the sleet falling on my hood, that peent emanating clearly from the fields — despite the weather, they were here, ready to get on with the spring.