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Return of woodcocks marks spring

April 06, 2010 at 08:02 AM


We all have our signs of spring.

Many remark when they notice their first robin of the year. Others note the high-flying Canada and snow geese. And still others mark the arrival of spring by seeing maple buckets on roadside trees or crocuses flowering along the edge of a front lawn.

No doubt; robins, migrating geese, buckets, and flowers all signal that winter is on its last legs and love is literally in the air.

But the woodcock, the timberdoodle, is my favorite harbinger of spring.

The ‘doodle is especially dear to those of us who have bird dogs.

Many a day afield has been highlighted by action and good dog-work on the little “bog sucker.”

The timberdoodle is the comedic hero for upland hunters.

While grouse take center stage with their startling, thundering, handsome, and dramatic flight, the ‘doodle twitters away.

The former uses force and speed, like a true hero; the latter guile and elusiveness like a comedian.

Ruffed grouse stay here all winter. They take on our toughest and longest winters; dodging hawks, escaping fox and coyotes, and finding food by browsing buds when seeds and ground-hugging green leaves are blanketed for long months by ice and snow.

But the woodcock, a worm and bug eater, is a true "snow bird" heading south when the going gets slightly tough. That’s when the edges of swamps and spring seeps, the doodles’ kitchen table and smorgasbord, begin to freeze up.

And in direct contrast to the loud and brash high-flying geese, the doodles migrate, at only a little higher than tree level, about 50 feet, according to experts. And they migrate only at night, beginning at dusk and settling in quietly at dawn.

No dramatic flight here. Just enough to get the job done.

When the doodles arrive, woodcock spend their days in thick brush and brambles, near fields, their “singing fields.”

Now what has been called “singing” in the woodcock’s realm is a real stretch of the word because all we can hear from a woodcock on the ground is a nasal “pheent, pheent, pheent.” Sounds more like an insect. Certainly not musical.

Couldn’t be further from the melodic warbling of a cock robin, stark contrast to the seriousness of a male grouse drumming with a studied cadence of wing beats. Feathered Tarzans, beating on his chest.

A woodcock would in all likelihood fall over if he tried beating his wings on his little chest. He has virtually no tail feathers to steady himself, the spindliest legs, and wings too long.

But what would you expect from the little comedian whose beak appears way too long? The doodle’s bill is almost the length of its body, perfectly adapted to probing deep in the mud for worms and bugs.

Old timers said that the woodcock used it’s long bill to spring into the air, like a pole vaulter, for extra lift. But I doubt that is true, though the beak is long enough. No, that’s too weird, even for a ‘doodle.

One would think that the woodcock was tossed together in the last moment of creation when time and parts had all but run out.

The beak belongs to a great blue heron, stuck on a pigeon’s frame. The wings are more like a whip-or-will’s or a nighthawk, long and tapered. The legs are toothpick-thin and appear too long so that when the doodle runs, and only when it must, the bird looks as if it had been in liquid moonshine, weaving back and forth, stumbling, tripping over its own little feet like a drunk.

And those little feet are useless for roosting too. The woodcock is one bird that can not roost. Its feet can not grip twigs or limbs.

A woodcock’s ears are in the wrong place, actually under its much too out-of-proportion large dark eye. And anatomists say that the doodle’s brain is even upside down, with the cerebellum on the bottom!

Maybe that is the final explanation as to the weird bird’s erratic flight making fools out of so many of us gunners.

But though the woodcock may appear strange, a comic and even foolish force in the avian world, they are evidently very attractive to their opposite sex when the males put on their spectacular courtship flight.

And where we all pay respect and hold the doodle in esteem and high regard is after we see this aireal display, unrivaled by all other birds, except for maybe the mating tumble of eagles, rarified company indeed for an avian clown.

And though breathtaking, the courtship flight of the male woodcock is quite ubiquitous and easy to observe in our countryside, usually in April and early May, on quiet, calm evenings, just before dark throughout New York and Pennsylvania.

The males show off for the females at dusk by first “pheenting” their cicada-like vocalization. And then as the cadence and time between “pheents” quickens, all of a sudden, with a twittering of wings, the male woodcock launches himself skyward.

And here, for a few moments, all semblance of goofiness ends.

Up, up, they climb in an ever-widening spiral, keeping barely in sight, until the bird is just a speck to the keenest eyes while twittering all the time.

As the high-pitched twittering and chattering reaches a crescendo, synchronized with the apex of the flight at a height of about 200 to 300 feet, the cock bird folds his wings and drops toward the female who is quietly on the ground, observing his show.”

The diving male ‘doodle flares his wings at the last moment, sometimes making a “vroooom” sound with his long, tapered wings like a diving nighthawk, and chattering (flight feathers.)

And then after discretely landing back on earth again, and dancing in front of his gal,” it seems almost comedic, such a contrast to his aerial feats.

But back in the singing field, “pheent, pheent, pheent.”

After singing a bit, the ‘doodle winds himself up again and launches skyward, briefly again shedding its comedic role, a master of the air once again, all part of this springtime dusk.

Contact Oak Duke at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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