American Woodcock

Hey guys! Welcome back. If you read my last post, then you know that I said in my teaser for this one that I’d be profiling the bird that made me officially start my life list. So how did a funny-named, strange-looking, not-very-bright shorebird that’s almost never found on the shore accomplish this?

The fall of 2014 was when I started getting serious about birding. I was fortunate to be working in Central Park as a Discovery Guide at the time. Basically, it was my job to wander the park as a sort of roaming info center, that is, when I wasn’t doing an event or program. So I was basically getting paid to wander one the top urban birding spots in the northeast with a pair of binoculars 5 days a week. I was also providing back up to the birding walks which were jointly led by the Park and NYC Audubon. I learned a ton from the Audubon guide, Nadir, that fall. By the following spring, I was toying with the idea of signing up with eBird. Really, I was just curious how many species I could spot in Central Park that year. In early March, word got around that there was an American Woodcock in the Park. I went out with my colleagues to see if I could find it. I had never seen one before. We got a tip about the approximate location it had been seen, but no one had spotted it that day. I scanned the leaf litter with my binoculars, and boom, there it was. To spot a bird like that, that can be extremely difficult to find. To spot it without anyone pointing it out was a huge confidence booster. My spotting skills were strengthening, but I didn’t know if or when I’d see another one. It was that uncertainty that convinced me to start my official life list, to make sure I documented the woodcock.

American Woodcock4
American Woodcock, Central Park, NY

The American Woodcock, sometimes referred to as a Timberdoodle (boy, this guy really gets the short end of the stick in the name dept.), is a rather derpy little bird. It is technically a shorebird, though it’s rarely found in places where you’d find shorebirds. They prefer wet woodlands with lots of leaf litter. They aren’t the smartest birds, nor are they particularly adept at flying (except mating, more on that later.) Camouflage is their only real defense. They are also one of the earliest migrants to arrive in springtime. In NYC, they typically arrived late February thru mid March. Every year they’d show up in moderate numbers. In the spring of 2017, however, there was an unusually high number of them that arrived in the city following a winter storm. There was something like 20 or more reported in Central Park alone, with dozens being reported at parks throughout the city. The event was even covered by the New York Times. The Wild Bird Fund was inundated with over 50 injured Woodcocks! They were injured in collisions with buildings (which is an unfortunate and all too often occurrence for any bird, especially during migration), or simply starving. Remember how I said camouflage was their only real defense? Well, it’s a great defense when you look like leaves, and surround yourself with leaves. It’s not a great defense when you look like leaves, and the ground it covered in 4+ inches of snow. This left many of the birds unable to probe for food in the mud, and left a lot of them sitting ducks (pun intended) for NY’s raptor population. I remember finding a few spots of woodcock feathers, and no bird in sight. Despite not all of the birds making it that year, it was still quite a sight to see.

Speaking of sights, one which I haven’t been lucky enough to witness (at least not yet) is their mating display. Earlier I said they weren’t the most adept fliers, they are, however, known for their elaborate display flights. I believe you can find videos of this on YouTube if you want to check it out.

The woodcock is unique in what it looks like. Though it does look similar to the Wilson’s Snipe, habitat will often help in distinguishing the two. Your best bet is to scan low-lying, often wet, leaf litter in forests. Or visit Bryant Park in Manhattan in early March. There’s almost always at least one that shows up there. That’ll do it for this installment. We have a couple woodpecker species coming up next! Stay tuned!

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