It’s been a long winter, and an even longer time since our last tour. But with spring approaching, birds arriving, and vaccination rates increasing, we decided it was time to run a trip. Last spring, we pulled the plug on this perennial favorite, as there was just too much uncertainty about being in group settings. This year, we skipped the indoor session, donned masks, and remained socially distant.
And apparently, we were not the only ones ready for a birding trip, because an all-time record of 49 people participated! We wouldn’t have fit inside anyway.
After a little woodcock natural history lesson -momentarily interrupted by a fly-over migrant American Kestrel - we caravanned down to the farm, where we have special permission to be after hours. That train of cars must have been quite the sight.
We parked and began a slow walk to get into position. We heard a few distant Spring Peepers call, but mostly it was quiet until we arrived at the prime viewing location. Shortly after picking out some landmarks for use in the rapidly diminishing light, the first distant American Woodcock “peented.” Soon, one took flight- we only heard the twittering flight display.
Finally, one began to display nearby, but the light was so low already. And he did a very poor job of announcing his preparation with peents. In fact, he was mostly silent on the ground, and only the initial light twittering sound of his ascent was what alerted us to begin looking.
Unfortunately, with such a large group spread out along the road, the displaying bird was in front of the front of the group, not perpendicular to us as I had hoped. The normal “dance floor” that has provided us with such stunning views over the years was not currently being occupied.
However, tonight’s bird was displaying repeatedly and gave folks at least 6 chances to spot him as he rose above treeline. If you were able to get on him and follow him, his flight path took him right overhead. If you missed it because of the limited sliver of glow remaining in the western sky, you had to settle for what was a truly incredibly auditory performance. Calm winds and his overhead flight made for a perfect chance to hear all parts of the display, including the vocalizations at the apex.
After hearing a Wilson’s Snipe in the distance – perhaps a migrant passing high overhead – two calling snipe flew right over us – the first of the year for most everyone who was looking in the right place at the right time to catch a glimpse.
Eventually, the woodcocks settled down and none of the birds were calling or displaying; the evening performance had come to an end. While it was frustrating that the bird did not do exactly what we wanted, we heard him well enough to pass judgement; good enough for a female woodcock was good enough for us!
The outing even inspired a little poetry from one participant. Enjoy, thanks for coming out, and here’s to more birds and more tours in 2021!
Searching for the American Woodcock
We gather at dusk
To see or hear the spring dance
of the mating woodcocks,
who cock their heads to hear their worms.
Their eyes on the sides, to better score their food.
(The record: 22 worms eaten in 5 minutes)
But there were other agendae for observers-
49 souls cooped up all winter
Coming outside to witness nature
Perhaps to breathe in spring.
Maybe to see others (masked, hats, bundled, only their eyes exposed),
but at least with fellow humans, in nature.
We walk down the silent farm road