It’s twilight; a few minutes have passed since a pink-gold January sunset lit up the meadow. I am crouched by the side of the Mason Farm Reserve main trail, flashlight in hand, with camera set low on its tripod, waiting for the first “peents” to fill the air.
Spring is on the way, because it is time for the woodcocks to start their mating displays.
Mason Farm Reserve is not the only place to see a woodcock right now. In Carrboro, the woodcock, also known as timberdoodle, can be seen in Bolin Creek Forest.
The birds use the fallow fields on Homestead Road for their roosting grounds. Just slightly downhill, the rich wetland near the creek provides a good feeding site. The soggy black soil of the wetland is rich in earthworms and invertebrates. I have accidentally flushed resting woodcock about 50 yards from the edge of the field that adjoins the white farmhouse on Homestead Road. What we have on Homestead is perfect wildlife territory. We have the forest, we have the creek, we have the wetland, and we have the fallow fields. For the woodcock, these 38 acres of pasture are a homerun.
Unfortunately for the woodcock, this tract has recently been rezoned for commercial space, apartment buildings, and a proposed charter school for 750 students. Trees that edge the pasture will be taken down to accommodate the extensive development. As our small farms disappear from our ever-increasing urban setting, we lose chances to experience the beauty of nature’s singular moments, which saddens me, and must confuse the woodcock.
So, how is our secretive woodcock doing in conservation terms?
Every year since the 1970s, the woodcock population has decreased by an average of 2 to 4 percent. Habitat loss is the main cause. In the 19th century, farming techniques benefitted this species. A woodcock requires four distinct types of cover. First, they need nesting areas. These would be young forests with small trees and thick-stemmed cover. Second, they need a feeding area. The rich moist soil of a wetland is an ideal place for the worm-foraging woodcock. Third, the Timberdoodle will need a place to roost. We are not talking trees here, because the woodcock roosts directly on the ground, but rather the fallow field that might hold scattered briars and tall grasses. The roosting spot must provide cover from hunting hawks and owls from above, but it also must not be so covered that the woodcock can’t burst into the air unimpeded by dense brush, as foxes and coyotes are also on the prowl. Finally, the woodcock needs a singing ground for courtship displays. This would be a small clear site like the trail beside the field at Mason Farm.
It seems like a tall order doesn’t it?
So here I am on the Mason Farm Reserve looking for a woodcock. These birds fascinate me, and I have longed to photograph them. I have failed on multiple occasions. They are brilliantly camouflaged ground birds, and the few times I have been close to a daytime photo, they have flushed from the leaf litter and disappeared from view.
There is no way to give the full story on these birds without talking for days, but here are the basics. The American woodcock is a shore bird that somewhere in its convoluted evolution, moved to the forest. They are oddball birds that have evolved in their own way to become one of the most distinctive residents of our woodlands.
They have ridiculously long bills, which they use to poke around in the soft soil searching for earthworms. The beak itself is a wonderful instrument. It has sensitive nerves at the tip that allow it to feel for worms deep in the soil, and the tip of the upper mandible is ever so slightly hinged, enabling the bird to grasp worms while its beak is otherwise shut and buried in the ground. Their digestion is quite fast, so the woodcock is capable of eating its own weight in worms every day.
So, here’s the odd part, you bury your beak in the mud frequently, or you lie motionless on the ground, and you aren’t going to be able to see the hawk circling overhead. Everyone agrees that a woodcock is a tasty morsel, so here’s the truly amazing adaptation that the little bogsucker has made. The eyes of the woodcock have migrated way up and back in the head. So, even with its head buried in mud, and even when it is lying nestled snugly in the leaf litter, the woodcock can see in all directions.
How far up and back are their eyes? Well, just to fit in all the other parts, the ears are below, and forward of the eyes. All this moving around has changed the placement of the cerebellum as well. It is not in the back of the skull, as with other animals, but is shifted, and sits above the spinal column. The entire head structure has been partially rotated to make room for those wild eyes. The eyes end up sitting above the animal’s brain.
In spring, (which can translate to January in North Carolina) the “Bogsucker” comes out to find a mate, or more precisely, multiple mates. The male makes a peenting sound in the deep grass. It is a metallic buzz that sounds like an insect … or perhaps a frog, but it is a sound that is distinct, and unlike any other sound that might carry over a meadow on a cold January evening. Then, he takes to the air. He spirals through the sky, and the air passing over his wings creates a loud whistle as he descends to the ground and lands neatly on his singing ground. This runway is his own little territory for showing himself to prospective mates. He guards this spot from intruding males, and owns this bit of turf for all of January and part of February.
I briefly shine my light on the trail, and get the chance to photograph the strutting woodcock as he calls out in the night. When he fully turns his back to me and walks his strip of land, I can see his eyes clearly reflected in the light of the flashlight. He actually does have eyes in the back of his head – too bad he can’t see what’s coming.Contact local naturalist Mary Sonis at firstname.lastname@example.org
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