The Cryptic Woodcock Is Secretive Unless It’s Flirting

A Woodcock opened our Christmas bird count with a cheer! At our Christmas bird count this year, we started early looking for owls and other birds that get rolling before the daylight.  My team managed to find a number of Great Horned Owls, but when Cathy and I met up with Carl and Dave and Lori, they had heard American Woodcocks calling before dawn. I am not usually out before dawn this time of year, so I couldn’t wait to go find some on my own.  (Lori says when the 6:30 ferry lands, you could hear them calling, so she was not as surprised!


Which is how I found myself bundled up before dawn on a cold January day, listening at the edge of a marsh for a tell-tale “peent” sound that sounds to me like the call of a Common Nighthawk.  Since those are wintering in the tropics,  we knew to watch for the appearance of a Woodcock.  Apparently they call just before dawn and after sunset to attract a mate.  Most of these birds will migrate north to breed.  They use the peent call to announce themselves, and then their feathers make a twittering sound as they descend, but I wasn’t able to catch that part on the video.

"Cryptic" coloring means perfect camouflage

While it was exhilarating to hear them and see them flutter across the sunrise, I really wanted to see one.  Luckily for me, the opportunity arose a few weeks later, when we stopped in the road to chat with neighbors.  Suddenly a bird burst from the leaf litter, startled by the dog, and settled a few yards away.  We were stunned by the way the bird could freeze in place and virtually disappear. (I digitally altered the second image in order to make the bird “pop” against the background! Like a Chuck Wills Widow, you wouldn’t know the bird was there until you practically stepped on it!

American woodcock digitally altered to reduce camouflage

Adaptation of Eye Placement

American Woodcocks have eyes way back on their heads: see how, even when feeding, they can see in every direction?  Their field of view is almost a full 360 degrees! This means they can probe for prey even while keeping an eye out for hawks, owls, raptors, and other predators like dogs and coyotes.  (Birds that hunt from the air, on the other hand, have close-set eyes with narrower fields of view, but also binocular vision!)

A Woodcock by any other name...

I was fascinated by the variety of names for this bird that popped up during my research.  I can understand “night partridge” and “bogsucker” but the other two leave me a little perplexed.  I did get a good laugh when I posted a photo on social media and asked for ID suggestions, and my friend Alex said, “a heart attack if you aren’t prepared”!  For sure, the sudden eruption of the woodcock was a surprise.  

Checking the Historical Records of Arthur T. Wayne

While I have never seen or heard a Woodcock out here on Dewees Island, I had seen one in Mount Pleasant years ago, and a resident of Lake Timicau lane had mentioned one.   All sightings on Dewees in ebird were between December 15 and February 1.  (Following chart from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology).  This could be skewed data because I am guessing many of those sightings were due to the Christmas count, so more birders will see more birds.  So I thought I’d look into Arthur T. Wayne’s records.

…the Woodcock Peeps and sings from the last of December until the middle of March this being its love song.

Arthur T. Wayne, a huge contributor to Ornithology, frequently birded in or near our location.  He describes huge flocks of American Woodcocks just across the waterway,:

Courtesy of the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Montgomery County Audubon Collection, and Zebra Publishing

In the summer months, however, it is very hard to find.  The Woodcock is very erratic in its movements in winter. During some Winters scarcely more than a few pairs are to be seen and these I take to be the resident non-migratory birds. In intervals of five or six years, enormous flights take place, and the region about Mount Pleasant seems to be the objective point. A great flight occurred on December 27th 1892,  and the numbers were so great that many clumps of bushes contained from 10 to 15 individuals!  The greatest flight on record took place on February 13th and 14th, 1899 and I quote the account I published in the AUK, the Woodcock  (Philohela minor) arrived in countless thousands. Prior to their arrival I had seen but two birds the entire winter. They were everywhere and were completely bewildered. Tens of thousands were killed by would-be sportsman, and thousands were frozen to death. The great majority were so emaciated they were practically feathers and of course were unable to withstand the cold. One man killed 200 pairs in a few hours.  I shot a dozen birds. Last Tuesday evening I easily caught several birds on the snow and put them in a thawed spot on the edge of a swift running stream in order that they would not perish, but upon going to the place the next morning I found one frozen.  These were fiercely emaciated and could scarcely fly.  Two birds were killed in Charleston on Broad Street. It will be many years before before this fine bird can establish itself under the most favorable conditions.

Arthur T. Wayne, Birds of South Carolina, published by the Charleston Museum in 1910.

Messenger of Spring

I love the idea of this little round bird being a messenger of spring– several sources say it is one of the first signs of a thaw in the midwest.  And I will forever keep my eyes out for this cheerful little dance: How much fun would it be to see this in person?!