Friday, April 5, 2013
TIMBER DOODLE: Ghost in the Forest
The American Woodcock is an interesting but odd character as birds go. It is well known for its elaborate nuptial flights at dusk and dawn; perhaps the most well known courtship in ornithology.
To start off with, the “Timber Doodle” as it is commonly known is a weird name for a bird or anything else for that matter. I can’t track the origin of this name but I suppose it addresses the probing of the humus forest floor with its long beak. The “timber” part makes sense since it lives in the forest. But “doodle” sounds a bit lazy and less flattering than it is descriptive.
It is a softball-sized, rotund bird with a beak nearly as long as its body. The tip of the bill can be flexed open to capture worms and other creatures living in the forest debris. It appears to not have a neck or a tail and very short legs. It has been described as looking like "a meatloaf on a stick". That description is not just "wrong" but "politically incorrect".
The Woodcock is the only forest dwelling shorebird. In fact it is never seen on a shore. It is a nocturnal bird that is almost impossible to see on the forest floor. When approached it freezes and looks more like leaf litter than an animal but that doesn’t matter because you can’t see it anyway.
Honestly, the best way to find a Woodcock any time is by flushing one. To flush one you almost have to literally step on it. And when you do flush one you are so startled that you don’t really see anything but a softball knuckle ball fluttering just far enough away that it resumes its place as part of the forest leaf litter….where you search endlessly for where it looked like it landed without seeing anything but leaves.
The woodcock is a loner. It associates with no other birds. It won’t fly until the Whip-or-will calls in the evening. It never flocks. It is silent even when flushed and the only conversation worth having is for a female during courtship. It is a poor flier that doesn’t even fly far when flushed. It has short wings that launch the over sized bird into flight that has been described as drunken. IT lands on nothing but the ground. When the woodcock walks he does so with a shuffle and he bounces ever so much like a Spotted Sandpiper. He must be a shorebird after all!
With that said. The Woodcock has a spectacular twilight nuptial flight and vocalizations to go with it that would impress any avian admirer. Perhaps the woodcock is all about stealth, worms, and women with a little romance worked in. Incidentally, little is written about the woodcock hen. That’s a little odd too.
The American Woodcock is an awesome bird. It is a poster child for compelling us to getting outdoors and to learn and know more about our wonderful and diverse avifauna and all our natural history. The Woodcock is a special bird for me, not because it is weird, but because it is different. Without the woodcocks in nature, the world would suffer from sameness.
During the some 20 years I was involved in wildlife rehabilitation I saw hundreds of them brought in from downtown Cleveland where they were unable to negotiate migrating among tall buildings with confusing lights abound. A few survived but most died tragically and unnecessarily.
I write about spending more time in nature. The lessons are rewarding beyond description. One morning I was driving along Lake Erie and a woodcock flew directly at my windshield and lifted harmlessly over my vehicle. I may be one of the few persons that has ever seen a woodcock flying directly toward a human.
The bird in the picture for this blog was bobbing across Hoffman Norton Road and he or she was oblivious to me or my truck as I scrambled to take pictures. The woodcock is focused on what woodcocks do to survive and to proliferate. They are an important piece of the wonderful tapestry I call the Middle of Nowhere. This chance encounter is simply a gift to me and all those that appreciate our natural world. Many hours in the field make these serendipitous discoveries ever more special.