This Thing Called Courage

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

American Woodcock, Part III: Timberdoodle with Venus


THERE WAS A PROGRAM LISTED ON THE WEBSITE for the Massachusetts Audubon's Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, touting the American Woodcock. These are the odd looking, beautiful birds that arrive in late March from the Gulf area, and immediately get down to the business of breeding. It is one of the joys of the birder to see the male American Woodcock's spring mating ritual, the nasal peet peet peet call, then the bursting upward (as much as 300 feet) and then the return dive, during which it emits a series of shrill whistling fluttering sounds.
So Chris and I signed up for the program, and went last night up to the Audubon's Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, located in Topsfield, Massachusetts, in what we call the North Shore, Essex Country. It's beautiful country of rolling hills and farmland, horse farms, and of course ocean (and, of course, suburban developments of greater or lesser tackiness). The Sanctuary is the largest Audubon property in the state, at 2265 acres. It was a cloudy, raw daw, but the sky cleared just as we were heading north. The Sanctuary Headquarters are located in a cluster of buildings at the top of a rolling hill, looking out over meadows and forests. American Blue Bird nesting boxes decoate the fields, and wood duck boxes are scattered over the ponds, rivers, and marshes of the Sanctuary. I had been told yesterday when I was trying to register for the program that it was at capacity. I think the very nice woman on the other end of the line felt bad for me, as I moaned and groaned and generally whined something fierce. She called back an hour later to say that she had sought out the program leader for the evening's adventure, a guy by the name of Scott, and he said two more would be okay. Whoopee!!!
We got there in plenty of time and even had time to dawdle a little at the local Richdale store down the way. It was lovely and bright out now, and we met in the barn, a wonderful old building with a great barny (some would say musty) smell. There were about 20 participants, and Scott introduced himself to everyone as we came in, and provided a very welcoming atmosphere. He gave a thirty minute talk on Woodcocks and there habitat needs and characteristics and behaviors, a Q and A session, and then Scott passed around Woodcock feathers, a woodcock's egg, and two woodcock skulls. He also had a stuffed woodcock for us to look at. Then he had us go around the room and introduce ourselves and talk about why we were there. One older couple were visiting from Alberta, Canada, and wanted to see Eastern birds. Well alright! Another guy said he was there for the eroticism.
Then we saddled up and headed out. Scott had explained that woodcock are crepuscular, meaning that they operate and are most active at dawn and again at sunset-- this keeps them out of the way of many of the predators that can go after them. So, the males perform their ritual flight dance at dawn for 30-50 minutes, and again after sunset for the same time, depending on the weather-- more during the full moon and clear skies, less when its cold and/or cloudy and/or rainy. He also explained that Woodcock are odd birds (with the their three inch long, needle-like bills) in that they are shore birds that, somewhere along the line, decided to change their habitat to upland meadows at the edges of woods. (Shades of Eddie Albert singing 'Green Acres.') They now subsist chiefly on earthworms-- on a good day, a woodock can eat his/her own weight in earthworms. They can live up to eight years-- but most of them only make it to two years of age. There are many risks and threats, from loss of habitat (as New England fields and farms revert to woods, or are developed) to hunting (2,000,000 a year are killed by hunters-- bastards!) and predation, by weasals, skunks, owls, hawks, etc. One of the things the female will do is burst from the nest when a predator is near, fluttering about on an (apparent) wounded wing to lead the predator away from the nest, risking her life to save the young. The young are 'precocious,' which means they hatch out, not naked like many birds, but fully feathered. They immediately can start walking around, and can fly at 2 weeks of age, but generally stay with Momma for at least a month to fifty days, by which time they have reached adult size. If the male is successful in attracting a mate during his ritual flight and dance, a female emerges from the woods with her tail feathers raised, they mate, and then the male goes right back to his mating dance, trying to attract another female.
So, we went outside, and Scott told us when the male took off upward during his flight, we would move silently closer; when he returned (when the whistling started) we would have to remain still. We tried one field, but no go, though there were about half a dozen, beautiful white-tail deer grazing there. Then we tried another field-- bingo! We soon heard the distinctive peet peet peet call, then-- there he goes! The burst upward and the crowd oohed and ahhed. We moved closer each time the male flew off from his 'singing ground,' and finally got quite close-- close enough that I could hear the whistling sound of his return, which I had never heard before.
In the meantime it was growing darker, and from the height of this west-and-south facing sloping field we had a panoramic view of a glorious sunset and twilight, and then the stars and planets came out blazing-- especially Venus to the west-- breathtaking. When we were looking at the latter through the binoculars, we spotted just to the northwest the Seven Sisters, the Pleides (sp?) of the constellation Taurus. Really just beautiful. After about 40 minutes of woodcock watching, we returned to the barn area, and there Scott had us listen to the Barred Owl-- haunting and wonderful. Click here to hear the Barred Owl: http://www2.biology.ualberta.ca/uamz.hp/BarredOwlCal2.wav
Scott from time to time would put his hands up to the sides of his mouth and give his rendition of the call to see if he could 'get him going.' It was actually a pretty good imitation. But the neighborhood dogs seemed to respond to it more than the owls themselves.
All told it was simply a magical night, and we felt so lucky and privileged to be able to witness something that's been going on for hundreds of thousands of years. I am definitely joining Audubon, and will take advantage of the many wonderful programs the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary has to offer.

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