Special to OBSERVER
It is a ridiculous looking animal. A bill as long as its body with huge, dopey saucer-like eyes set far back on its head. It stutters when it walks, like there is a short-circuit somewhere. Even its sound is bizarre a nasal peent that sounds not quite frog but not quite bird and you're left uncertain as the sun sets what is sitting in your backyard. For those who haven't figured it out yet, it is an American Woodcock. And who would have thought such a homely little bird could cause such a ruckus?
By ruckus, I mean the Woodcock Whirl. This is the second year for this great event, celebrating this under-celebrated bird and harbinger of spring. Personally, I missed the event last year, but the word my boss used to describe it was "zany." I think that implies a good time was had by all. This is both celebration and fundraiser and we are pleased to be holding it again this year.
The American Woodcock has many monikers, my favorite of which is Timberdoodle. Some others are bogsucker, mudsnipe, and night partridge. It is not a large bird, just 10 to 12 inches, and stands about five inches high. It is very round and perfectly camouflaged amongst the shrubby forested edges where it nests. With its strangely long bill it is an excellent hunter of worms, its primary food. The most incredible thing to note about this bird, though, is its dance.
I remember the first time I saw it. Dusk in an Ohio meadow, four or five of us, quietly loitering at a trail intersection, that's how it began. A sound, something like glass tinkling from far above combined with an ethereal warble, came through the twilight. The leader of our small band quickly fell to the ground, urged us to follow and we all rested heads on hands, waiting. Looking all directions down the trail, suddenly a flutter of wings and an indistinct brown blob landed not ten feet away from me. I held my breath for an instant, then turned and whispered "my side." Heads turned swiftly, just in time to capture the emphatic "peent" that arose from the bird. We watched it strut for a few minutes, then take off to repeat his display.
The nature of the male woodcock, when displaying, is to land about six feet from the place it left. It struts around on the ground, peent-ing and wobbling, until such a moment strikes it and it launches itself into the air. Feathers on the wingtips make a twittering sound as the bird spirals upward. Once he has reached the apex of his flight, he flutters, like a leaf, in a tumbling pattern, muttering a beautiful and melodic song as he descends. He lands on his "singing grounds" and quickly takes up the peent call once again, repeating the process.
While it may still look like winter, this is the time when most of the male woodcocks arrive and establish their territories. They seek open fields, of at least a quarter-acre, adjacent to woodland. Their songs often go hand in hand with the peepers singing and rarely have I heard a recording of a woodcock without the frogs in the background. If you can think of a spot like I just described, and you have access to it at the edges of the day, when night hasn't quite loosed or gained its grip on the world, you should find them.
As for the Woodcock Whirl, what better place to find it than a local establishment where there is good food, good beer and woodcocks! Southern Tier Brewing Company will again host the event, but attendance is limited to 60 people! If you are interested, the event is on Thursday, April 11, from 6:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m. To attend, you must make a reservation!
Besides great local vittles and drink, there is a trivia contest (you won't believe some of the questions) and a "woodcock dance" contest. Much fun is had and it supports the educational efforts of Audubon. The fee is $25 per person, or $40 for two people. Remember, you must call early to reserve your spot.
Perhaps this year we will add some new elements. Costumes? The best woodcock joke? Or maybe a naming contest for this crazy little bird. Though I'm not sure anyone can beat Timberdoodle.
Reservations may be made by calling (716) 569-2345. You can find out other happenings by visiting jamestownaudubon.org or stopping by. We are located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk, and the center is open from 10:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. daily save Sundays when we open at 1:00 p.m.
Sarah Hatfield is a naturalist at Audubon.