For one thing, the drought prevented flowering and seed production by many plants. Plants were stressed and some died. Even the insect population, which mostly feeds on plants, is way down. It is safe to say the whole food base is diminished.
I am sure that is why I have seen so few sparrows and other small wintering birds. There just isn’t enough for them to eat. They came through, but soon moved on.
The lack of standing water has forced other species to go elsewhere, too. The duck populations on area ponds are reduced. Indeed, in many cases, even the ponds are gone.
Some wintering birds need only moisture in the soil to be happy. Even that may be lacking. So it may be too dry for timberdoodles!
The timberdoodle is one of my favorite birds. The timberdoodle is officially called the American Woodcock, and it is a sandpiper. But it is not like any other sandpiper you know. It isn’t found on the beach. It isn’t found in flocks. And it has a host of crazy vernacular names, like night partridge, timberdoodle and bog sucker!
These names give you some idea of its special characteristics. For one thing, the woodcock is a forest dweller. It walks about, seemingly aimlessly (“doodles”), on the moist floor of woodlands and bottomland forests hunting for earthworms. It actually sticks its long bill deep into the mud and probes for food. I guess if you came upon one up to its face in the mud, you might call it a “bog sucker” too. A woodcock is about the size of a bobwhite quail (i.e., a partridge) and is said to feed mostly at night. Hence, it has been called a “night partridge. “
Most people come upon these birds in the early morning. Woodcocks are finishing up their feeding and looking for a secluded spot on the ground to rest. In fact, that is how you usually find one in winter; you go for a walk in the woods and keep your eyes on the ground.
On one Christmas Bird Count, I was doing just that. A few paces in front of me a small, chunky, brownish bird was waddling along on the ground. I may have disturbed its slumber. Perhaps it had been dreaming, because it did an odd thing. It walked around in a small circle and then fanned its tail. It looked like a miniature turkey strutting around! He displayed for a few moments and then waddled off into the woods. He kept his eyes on me as he left. I fancied he looked a bit sheepish. I was charmed.
Ever since that encounter, I enjoy seeing the timberdoodle. Here in South Texas, that means going out in winter to places they like to be. Several suitable locations occur on Welder Wildlife Refuge, and the annual Christmas Bird Count is a good time to search for woodcocks there. This year the Welder Count was to be held on Dec. 16. I will be there, but the count compiler, Terry Blankenship, has warned me not to get my hopes up. The refuge is still very dry. The migrating woodcocks may have gone further south, or stayed north and east of here.
The American Woodcock’s winter range is all along the Gulf Coast. But it breeds as far south as East Texas and all across the southern states. Its breeding range extends north to the deciduous woodlands of Canada. This means there are a lot of places to see the woodcock put on its amazing courtship display.
As early as February in East Texas, at dawn or dusk, you can observe the male timberdoodle leaving the timber and heading for a clearing. At first, he walks about in small circles, uttering a “peent” call. This establishes his display ground and summons the female. After a bout of “peenting,” the male flies upward in a gradual, spiraling ascent, until he is as high as 300 feet. At the top of the climb, he circles, and we hear a melodious twittering. The three outermost wing feathers are narrow and, as air passes through them, the whistling twitter is produced. The bird overlays the wing sounds with a loud vocal chirping as he begins his descent. On the way down, he zigzags, dives and banks as the sounds continue. Near the ground, he goes silent. He lands, probably quite near to the waiting female. She is bound to be impressed.
Watching timberdoodles find earthworms is fascinating as well. They walk along, rocking their bodies forward-backward without moving their heads. As they slowly pace, they place their weight heavily on the leading foot. These movements almost resemble a dance. Some researchers believe that the dance mimics rain falling on the leaf litter. The motions produce vibrations that coax subsurface earthworms to wiggle. The bird may hear the worm’s movements, but it is also likely that its sensitive bill in contact with the soil feels them. Immediately after detecting the worm, the woodcock plunges its bill into the soft soil and captures it. The tip of the long bill is flexible and can open up underground to grab the worm. They can feed rapidly; one woodcock captured and ate 22 worms in just five minutes!
With a little luck and enough moisture, we participants in the Welder Christmas Bird Count may see American Woodcocks this year. The first Welder Count was in 1956. Since then, woodcocks have been seen on the counts on only 19 of those 54 years. I guess there have been a few dry winters in years gone by. But maybe, just maybe, it won’t be too dry for timberdoodles after all.