Introducing the American Woodcock, or Timberdoodle, the True Sign of Spring
Timberdoodle Natural History
One of the sure signs of Spring in this region is the "speent" of the American woodcock (Scolopax minor) calling at night, and their silhouetted flight with spiraling sing song wings as they ascend and descend against the slowly falling dusk. The American woodcock has many names but the most popular is the timberdoodle. These birds are stocky brown and mottled to match leaf litter coloring, about the size of a pigeon but with a rounded stocky body and broad chest with a tapering and barely noticeable tail. They are actually shorebirds that have converted their hunting methods from using their short necks and long curved beaks to probe in the mud for clams, to probing in the mud for worms, insects, and other creatures in leaf litter. Their beak is flexible and can bend slightly to allow it to move around in worm burrows and under ground (check out "speenting" video below, you can see the beak flex slightly while the male is calling).
Woodcocks are found across all of Eastern and Midwest of North America at different times of year. They mostly reside in scrub-shrub forests and along agricultural field, though I have also seen them along grassy hillsides and in semi-urban areas that give them acoustic advantage. Timberdoodles stay true to their shorebird roots and don't perch or sit in trees. They forage in the leaf litter and nest on the ground. They are so well camouflaged that it's almost impossible to see them once they go to ground or roost. Let me assure you when you nearly step on one because you don't see it you'll practically dance out of your skin with fright when it noisily rises up and startles you! When woodcocks forage they may be seen doing the "woodcock dance" (click to watch video) which is a similar to a guy strutting with his chest puffed out walking down the street. The woodcocks strut forward, shifting weight from foot to foot and bobbing their short necks in sync. This is thought to cause vibrations that encourage earthworms to move so they can hear them (much like American robins) and dig them out.
You won't have any luck sneaking up on a woodcock because they have a special adaptation with their eyes high up on their head and placed farther to the sides than most birds (see picture below). This gives them a greater ranger of vision, which may be because the males and females scan the broad horizon looking for mates or competition at dusk.
The truly unique thing about woodcocks is the call of the males. They wait until dusk and then they call out their "speent, speent, speent" across their breeding or lekking ground (where you have a bunch of males in one area displaying).
After a round of "speenting" the males fly up into the air, up to 300 feet, in a spiral and they continue to fly around in a wide circle. Their wings make a high pitched whistling sound, produced by the first three primary feathers on their wings, which are thinner and smaller than their other primary feathers. Just before their descent the males will join their whistling wing sounds with vocal calls and then silently glide back down to their calling ground. You'll have to listen carefully but check out this video of the evening "sky-dance."
It's the call of the woodcock that is the true sign of spring for many birders, including myself, and I feel truly lucky to see their night-time dance and to hear their music.
To learn more about woodcocks check out the Cornell Ornithology lab website. There's also a semi-annual American woodcock research symposium out of the University of Michigan. Check out their website for more information.