Walk Like a Woodcock
The American woodcock is a fascinatingly strange bird. Commonly referred to as the timberdoodle, the American woodcock inhabits wet, scrubby woodlands and produces one the greatest mating ritual feats of the avian world. They are difficult to spot, but they produce very distinct noises that make them fairly easy to locate. These small shorebirds prefer shrubby open spaces that allow them to move their less-than-streamlined bodies under cover and avoid predators as they forage for their favorite food, earthworms.
Woodcocks are about the size and shape of healthy pear, with coloration that is dominantly brown with some mottling and easily blends into surroundings. Unlike many other species, their eyes are located very far back on their heads and allow the timberdoodle to survey nearly 360 degrees without moving its head. The timberdoodle also has a distinctly long and narrow bill protruding from its head. Woodcocks are very secretive during the day and often spend most of the time hunting for earthworms while practicing their notorious rocking walk.
Fear be to any earthworm near a woodcock as its specialized bill is the perfect tool to grab their wiggly prey. A specialized joint near the front of the bill allows it to penetrate sandy or loamy earth and then open, revealing a rough tongue perfect for grabbing juicy worms. If you or I were equipped with such a bill, we’d be unaware of our surroundings during this process, as our eyes would be buried into the ground. Woodcocks, on the other hand, have foregone binocular vision (eyes that point in the same direction and enable high resolution of distance judgment) for a higher vantage towards the back of their head. This gives them an ability to watch for predators while they forage.
Hunting habits and features alone, the woodcock is worthy of fandom. It is their mating methods however that are truly one-of-a-kind. In the early morning and as evening approaches the American woodcock begins an elaborate ritual. The males of the species first announce their presence with a buzzing sound that is referred to as “peenting.” This peent is onomatopoeic (if you say it, that’s exactly what it sounds like). It is hard to believe that this attracts females, but to each their own.
The real show takes place after the males feel they have made all the females nearby aware of them. Taking off with dramatic whistling, the males can soar to over 200 feet in the air before dizzily spiraling to the ground in a series of acrobatic maneuvers making “kissing noises” all the way. The males return to almost exactly the same spot from where they took off before starting the whole process over again.
The high-pitched noises they produce during these displays don’t come from any vocalization of the birds; truly a blessing as any bird that makes the sounds of the woodcock likely would not produce a pleasing flight call. instead the hollow tips of the their primary feathers produce the sound as they fly. This accounts for the whistling as they furiously beat their wings to propel their lumpy bodies into the air. As they whimsically flutter towards the ground the same wing tips produce the lyrical arrhythmic notes that make the birds seem almost majestic. Almost.
Check out this audio exploration of what to expect when you are out looking for woodcocks!
Any damp, brush-filled open space is likely to contain a couple of these birds, but importantly not dry meadows. Woodcocks prefer scrubby plants that contain limited ground-level clutter. Grasses and tall, densely-packed plants hinder the movements of the birds while areas that are too open allow for them to be easily snatched up by hawks and other birds of prey. A healthy mix of regenerative forests, birches and aspens, with a mostly scrubby landscape, scrub-oaks and alder, are the best places to find them. Multiple locations around Shaver’s Creek often host these birds, as the mix of moist, swampy terrain and early successional forest make for excellent habitat. The Scotia Barrens also host a multitude of locations where timber doodles traipse.
Look for observation areas near the West Entrance, Red Rose Road, and the eponymous woodcock trail.
The American woodcock, while a particularly well sought-after game bird, is a species in decline throughout the United States. In Pennsylvania the American woodcock has declined by 50% since the first surveys for the bird were recorded in the late 1960’s by the game commission. (source) This is mostly attributed the loss of their primary habitat to development and transitioning forests. With the deforestation of the majority of Pennsylvania in the 19th century, the first-half of the 20th saw a large spike in early successional forests and scrubland habitat. This large increase in primary habitat for the woodcock meant that their populations exploded. In more modern times, a majority of mature forests and transition of old farmland to urban and suburban development has drastically cut the available habitat for this specific species. Programs like the Young Forest Initiative in the Scotia Barrens are essential in protecting and preserving the very specific biomes these birds inhabit.
What to Bring:
Flashlight or headlamp if out near dark
A refillable water bottle
Sturdy and water-resistant footwear capable of walking on a forested path
Long pants and high socks may be preferred for additional protection from insects and ticks
Child carrier/backpack is recommended for very young children
Binoculars for bird and wildlife watchers
Pack out whatever you bring in
Follow local rules and guidance
Be considerate of others
If parking lot is full, consider entering the Scotia Barrens from a different location
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