Watching woodcocks: A favorite rite of spring
For birders, signs of spring start well before winter gives up its grip. In mid-February male cardinals started singing from high perches, and red-winged blackbirds descended on the local marshlands, setting up territories and belting out their familiar “conk-a-ree.” These are great sounds to hear after so many cold, snowy days.
Another early spring tradition I look forward to is the courtship ritual of the American woodcock. This is one of the true highlights of the local birding year and something every bird watcher should witness at least once.
As a kid, one of my first “beyond the backyard” birding experiences was a trip to the Stark Wilderness Center in Wilmot, Ohio. The center was hosting their annual woodcock watch and, frankly, I don’t recall being too thrilled about being there. It felt a lot like one of those snipe hunts at summer camp, except it was cold. Nor do I remember actually seeing a woodcock. I must have, though, because a few years ago I found an old Peterson field guide at my parent’s home—one of my first bird books. In the back there was a bird checklist and next to American woodcock was faded little “x.” The mark was mine.
Seeing this species does take some effort. As with many birds, success depends on being in the right place at the right time. Area forest preserves offering reliable woodcock sites—typically brushy fields adjacent to damp, open woodland—include Green Valley, Pratt’s Wayne Woods, Herrick Lake, West DuPage Woods and Springbrook Prairie. Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester is another good spot.
As for timing, try for dawn or just after sunset when the weather is dry and calm. Late March through mid-April is the peak viewing period.
The view you’re looking for is a male woodcock performing his aerial mating dance for the females on the ground. The chunky, long-billed bird spirals high into the sky, making a twittering sound with his wings during the ascent. After reaching his apex, he zig-zags back to earth like a falling-leaf. On the ground, in between flights, woodcocks make a buzzy, one-syllable call that’s easily recognized.
All of this takes place at twilight, so woodcocks are seldom seen in great detail. Occasionally, though, a high-beam flashlight can pick up a bird when it lands, affording a glimpse of these odd-looking birds. When darkness sets in the show is over.
Plan to join one of several woodcock outings offered by local birding clubs later this month. Non-members are welcome. The DuPage Birding Club will sponsor evening watches on six different dates beginning on March 23. Full details, including starting times and directions, are posted at www.dupagebirding.org. Or call 630-985-2956.
Kane County Audubon has a woodcock watch scheduled for March 30 at Paul Wolff Forest Preserve on Big Timbers Road, west of Randall Road near Elgin. Start time is 5:30 p.m. For more information, call 630-584-8386.
Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who enjoys birding at home and in the field. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2005. All Rights Reserved.