Woodcock is One Strange Bird
by Ro Wauer
There are many oddities about our American woodcock! Firstly, it is classified in the bird world as a shorebird, but it never spends time along the shore like other shorebirds such as sandpipers, curlews and godwits. Woodcocks prefer brushy or grassy areas, at least during the winter months that they spend in South Texas. Secondly, woodcocks are weird looking with their very plump body and long, heavy bill. And thirdly, woodcock behavior is so very different than most other birds.
Last week I received a call from Marlin Frederick who informed me that he had a woodcock hanging out behind his house. He told me that this woodcock stayed much of its time in the open, only flying into a brushy area when disturbed. He invited me over to see for myself. So sure enough, when I reached his home he was able to show me this plump, long-billed, well-marked bird sitting on the lawn some distance from woody habitat that I would have expected it to have chosen for its daytime resting site. I was able to see very well and obtain a number of photos, something that would normally be unusual to say the least. My several earlier sightings have been of birds sitting in brushy cover so that unobstructed photos would be next to impossible.
I was able to see all the features of Marlin’s woodcock: a large, plump body, long heavy bill, fascinating head pattern, large brown eyes, and distinct plumage that include a rusty, non-barred belly, barred crown, and streaked brown and black back with a series of gray blotches. It stayed perfectly still, allowing me to get within 15 feet or so, before it finally flew with a distinct twittering sound into the brush.
Another reason I was surprised that Marlin’s woodcock was “out in the open” is that this shorebird normally is nocturnal in its behavior, feeding at night and hiding in the daytime. The reason for it’s larger than normal eyes. They feed primarily on earthworms by probing and they may even foot-stamp at times to help locate prey. They daily eat more than their weight in earthworms, although if necessary they will also feed on various other soil invertebrates. Their bill contains sensitive nerves, in which the sense of touch is highly developed; it can detect the movement of worms in the soil and capture them by probing. Their keen ears may also help them locate prey.
It is too bad that woodcocks do not nest in South Texas, although they do so throughout much of the eastern half of the state. One of the earliest of birds to leave their wintering grounds and begin courtship on their breeding grounds, woodcock courtship flights are a thing to behold. They will fly upward in increasing spirals to 200 to 300 feet, uttering musical twittering notes, and then circling, zigzagging downward, still singing, to alight on its starting point. There it may walk about stiff-legged with tail erect and spread and with its bill pointed downward, resting on its chest. Then it may produce loud, rasping and emphatic zeeip notes. Then it is time for a repeat flight.
Nesting occurs in swampy or moist areas along the edge of brushy sites. Pairs may both sit on the nest, usually facing in the opposite direction, to protect their eggs or nestlings, especially during cold weather. Two broods are the norm. Incubation lasts about three weeks, and the young are precocial, able to leave the nest within a few days. While feeding nestlings, it is not unusual that several adults utilize the same feeding grounds. Unusual for such a solitary bird.
Where might one see one of these fascinating birds? Although Marlin’s woodcock’s is spending its daylight hours in the open, they are more often found by walking through wooded areas. Thicker patches of woods are better than the more open areas; finding a roosting woodcock is not easy. But finding and observing a woodcock at any time is well worth the effort.