Saturday, March 25, 2006

Stalking the Woodcock

Saturday, March 25, 2006
If you squint really hard you might be able to see the woodcock in this photo.

On Thursday night I got home from work early enough to enjoy the dusk performance of the American woodcocks in our meadow. There was a band of glowing evening light, peach and crimson, on the western horizon as the dominant meadow male began peenting. Our male woodcocks always begin peenting from down in the woods, perhaps near to where they have spent the day loafing and sleeping. Then, when the light is at exactly the right level, they fly up into our meadow, which lies along our horseshoe-shaped ridge, and begin their courtship displays.

On this particular evening I could hear six or seven different males peenting and twittering while flying. And four or five other birds giving the aggressive cak-cak-cak-cak call as they flew from one spot to another. Perhaps these were females letting the males know they were there. Or perhaps they were newly-arrived migrant males looking for a bit of meadow on which to perform.

I've spent a lot of hours watching male woodcocks do their thing. Some males peent four or five times in a row, then turn to face a new direction, eventually rotating back to their starting point. Other males rotate a little with every peent. And depending on how hot the mating scene is, the males may peent only a handful of times before launching into the air for a display flight. Or they may peent a few times, then probe for some earthworms for a few minutes before resuming their peenting.

Woodcocks are weird birds. They are a woodland shorebird---there's an oxymoron for you. Their eyes are placed high on their heads enabling them to scan for danger behind and above them even as they are probing deep into the ground for earthworms. Their bill has a flexible, sensitive tip, which, when it senses an earthworm, can flex open to grip the worm for extraction.

The evening light was perfect to try a bit of digiscoping, as soon as the male began the meadow portion of his performance. But as any photographer knows, if the light is perfect and you think "Hey the light is perfect! I'm going to get my camera!" That's guaranteed to alter the light to "crummy" almost immediately. Sure enough, as soon as I got the scope and camera out onto the deck, the light faded. It was as if someone had replaced the warm, luscious sunset with a 15-watt bulb from a greasy toaster oven. But, since few things have ever stopped me from taking crappy photographs, I persevered.

I stalked Mr. Woodcock quietly. He mostly ignored me, but timed his flights for the exact moment when I finally had all my gear positioned and all the right buttons/modes/etc. ready on my camera. By the time I got close enough for some decent photos, it was dark enough that Mr. Woodcock and I could barely see each other. It was then that I noticed how cold I was (no coat). And because nature always smiles on a bird watcher, it started to pour rain.

As I slogged the hundred or so yards back through the meadow to the house, I swear I heard, in between the woodcock's peents, the distinct sound of a sarcastic snicker.
I was close enough to hear the soft "whoop" sound the woodcock makes before each peent.
Their large eyes give this crepuscular creature excellent vision in low light conditions.


On March 25, 2006 at 5:44 PM LauraHinNJ said...

Thanks for the laugh... "nature always smiles on a birdwatcher".

Don't call your photos bad - they're "moody" and "atmospheric".

On March 25, 2006 at 9:02 PM Bill of the Birds said...

thanks laura! yes, moody, that's what i was going for.

On March 25, 2006 at 9:58 PM Julie Zickefoose said...

I think they're adorable. Good work, Mr. B! and thank you for being Mr. Mom all day--and I do mean all day--today. You're the best.


On March 26, 2006 at 9:26 AM Laura K said...

These are really cool pix, BT3! It is not easy to get that close. I miss the woodcocks from our old farm in NY the most...the peent call is undeniably special, the sound has always struck very deep chords in me. Cheers! K-lo

On March 30, 2006 at 1:31 PM it's me said...

so cool that you got those woodcock photos--i remember the first time that i heard them i thought it strange that Nighthawks were calling in winter