The weather was so pleasant last Sunday evening that I decided to do a little early evening birding. My chosen goal was to look for displaying American woodcock in an overgrown field off Rocky River Church Road in eastern Mecklenburg County. I arrived at the spot at 5:45 p.m. hoping the birds would cooperate and put on a good show.
American woodcock is an “upland” shorebird species; a member of the sandpiper family that prefers old fields bordered by low, damp woodlands instead of marsh flats and beaches. They are with us in the southern Piedmont year-round but are not commonly seen unless a targeted search for them takes place.
Birders look for woodcock in late winter and early spring to observe their bizarre elaborate courtship display flight, given only at dusk and dawn. The male starts by choosing a patch of ground and giving a nasal “peent” call while rotating 360 degrees. After a few minutes of this, he takes off with a twittering of wings, spiraling upward almost out of sight. He then descends with a swooping flight right back to the original launch site, all the while giving an odd chirping “song.”
I knew I had about 15 minutes before anything might happen, so I enjoyed the gathering dusk and the calls of songbirds heading to roost. Eastern towhees, white-throated sparrows, field sparrows, American robins, house wrens, brown thrashers and fox sparrows all sounded off. A pair of red-tailed hawks flew over headed for their roost tree, probably a large pine.
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At 5:56 p.m. the first woodcock called, not 40 yards from where I stood. He called for about five minutes before I heard the distinctive wing whistle, letting me know he was airborne. Soon the chirping song began, and I knew he was heading back to earth. With a “peent,” he started the process all over again.
Over the next 20 minutes this bird repeated the display four times, eventually being joined by two other males. I was able to observe some woodcock flying around just a few yards off the ground; I even got buzzed a couple of times. Apparently, the frigid temperatures and snowfall just a few days prior did not cool off the mating urges of these proud boys. If the weather holds, these birds could have eggs in the nest by mid-February.
Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com.