Some of our usual winter birds have not shown up this year. We have seen very few sparrow species, for instance. Most of us believe this is the lingering result of the 2011 drought.
Then we begin to look at what is showing up and are surprised. For instance: American Woodcocks are wintering in Bee County!
American Woodcocks are sandpipers – but not the beach kind. Woodcocks live in moist woodlands where they can feed on earthworms. They are, therefore, birds of the Eastern half of North America, where deciduous and mixed forests are common. In late fall, the woodcocks migrate south to the Gulf Coast states. There, they seek out river bottom woods for the winter.
Typically, some woodcocks winter in Texas, especially in coastal woodlands. They are expected to show up as far south as San Patricio County. If it has been a wet year, the Christmas Bird Count at Welder Wildlife Refuge will report several woodcocks. This year’s 2012 CBC at Welder had only one woodcock. And last year’s CBC found none. (See “Too Dry for Timberdoodles”, 12/17/2011, now archived on coastalbendnaturalist.com).
Yes, timberdoodle is a common name for the American Woodcock. It probably got this name from the way it “doodles” or walks about the forest floor. They really don’t look like most other birds, either!
So, recently, when Patty Dobson looked out her window in a quiet neighborhood just outside of Beeville, she was taken by surprise. It was mid-December, and a few wintering birds were around, but she didn’t expect to see timberdoodles in a suburban backyard. She noticed that they spent most of their time doodling around in her neighbors’ yard, where a sprinkler system kept the ground moist. Patty went to her neighbors, Mary and Leroy Magill, and pointed out the odd birds.
Mary was delighted with the funny-looking woodcocks. At first glance she thought they might be small ducks. With their plump bodies, short legs and waddling gait, woodcocks do resemble ducks. That is until you notice their incredibly long bills!
Woodcocks probe in moist soil with these bills, feeling for earthworms. When they sense a worm, they can actually open just the tip of their beaks, underground, and grab the food. The tongue and roof of the woodcock’s upper mandible are prickly to better capture slippery prey.
The most fascinating thing about American Woodcocks is not their looks or their feeding habits but their spectacular courtship display. As early as February, male woodcocks stake out a piece of open ground. This clearing is near the young woodlands they favor for breeding. At dusk, the male bird walks around in the singing-ground, uttering a nasal “peent” from time to time. Then he flies upwards about 100 yards. At the peak of his ascent he begins circling downward, singing a “liquid, chirping song” as he descends. The wind in his outer wing feathers makes a twittering accompaniment to his song.
All this music and displaying is irresistible to the female woodcocks. Once the male has displayed several times and landed on the singing-ground again, a female (or several females) will approach the handsome and talented fellow. He will make sure he has the hen’s attention by walking around stiff-legged, with his wings stretched up vertically, and bowing for her.
Once mated, the hen goes off in the woods where she makes a nest, just a shallow depression in the leaf litter. She will lay three to five eggs, incubate them and raise the young chicks all on her own. Woodcock chicks began feeding themselves in just a few days. They grow quickly and within a couple of weeks they can fly. The chicks are independent at five weeks of age.
You don’t have to travel very far to see the American Woodcock’s courtship rituals. Some woodcocks breed in East Texas. I have seen them displaying near College Station. It is a sight worth seeing!
It is nice to know that the venerable timberdoodle is here in our own county. Jane Wicker had one on her ranch a month or so ago. And CeCe Hollingsworth reported seeing one in her yard. The Magills have observed three woodcocks at a time. Timberdoodles could be all over the county! Start looking and let me know if you have any at your place!