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While the snow lingers and a serious chill still hangs in the air, the signs of spring are around us. By this time our friends and neighbors are desperate for a clue that winter’s not coming back. The usual greeting now is about mud, robins, crocus blooms or geese flying overhead. We want spring and we want it now!
One of my favorite signs of spring is probably missed by most folks, but only because they don’t know it’s going on. This is the time of year when the American woodcock, that built-by-committee game bird that looks like a short, fat robin, has a flexible 3-inch beak and flies like it’s not going to make it. You have to wander far and wide to see a woodcock at any time of year, but when you do finally bump into one there’s no question about it. Woodcock flutter into the air with a peculiar twitter of wings that sounds like the bird is whistling (but it’s not!), and it may fly barely over the treetops and then land again just a few yards away. It appears to be just excusing itself, flying out of the way and sorry for the intrusion! Even during the hunting season (Maine is considered one of the best places to go for woodcock, second only to New Brunswick), woodcock will get up slowly and fly only a short distance before settling down in a thicket of alders, birch or brushy edge growth. They’ll allow you one such apologetic episode, however, because if you follow them and flush them again, they’ll hit overdrive and leave the county as fast as you can say, “There he goes!”
Woodcock are generally nocturnal birds, and are the color of dead winter leaves, so seeing them is a rarity except for the lucky and the persistent. You can “hunt” woodcock all day and not see one, but this is because, during October and November, they migrate south, often in concentrations of like-minded birds (but not to say they travel in organized flocks). One day a stand of alders will be empty, and the next day you might find a dozen woodcock within 100 yards of each other. The next day there could be more birds, or none. They know where, when and why they’re going — our biologists haven’t figured any of that out yet, and until they can find a way to scan a woodcock’s backwards brain or interpret it’s vocal patterns, we’ll just have to go out there and find them the old-fashioned way.
You don’t have to see woodcock to know they’re out there. For the next few weeks you will be able to monitor their activities by simply listening. Each evening around sunset you’ll begin to hear the strange buzzing, insect-like call of a mating woodcock. The call has been described in a variety of ways (frequently called a “peent,” “beep,” or “metallic buzzing), but for me it sounds like someone holding their nose and saying “peep” in their best imitation of a cartoon Martian. When you hear it, you’ll know.
That sound is often followed by a high-pitched twittering that seems to start at the ground and go up into the sky 100 yards or more. And it is! The woodcock will suddenly leap skyward and flutter like a wind-blown leaf while uttering that peculiar squeak-and-squeal all the way up and all the way back down to where he had started.
This activity is supposedly designed to attract a female woodcock, and she may be watching from a distance or be sitting within a few yards of the display area. The display process can go on all night long (I’ve heard them going strong at 3 a.m.), and you’ll occasionally hear them in the daylight, but dusk to dawn is prime time.
The good news is that you can sneak out there and observe the display from a discreet distance because woodcock are among our most tolerant of wildlife. You can almost step on them before they’ll fly away. (In fact, more than once during my woodcock-hunting career I’ve had them fly up between me and my shotgun, which is pretty darn close!) They go about their business in silence most of the year and try to stay out of everyone’s way. Unlike deer, bears or other game, they don’t seem to mind if spectators stand nearby and watch them work.
For the moment, it’s safe to walk around in the wet alders and birches because nesting won’t begin for a few more days, but keep in mind that once breeding does begin, it’s easy to stumble over a nest and disturb the hen or ruin the eggs. You’ll be able to see the show quite easily from your back porch, along the road or standing near the edge of a woodland clearing.
Bring your binoculars and see how far into the sky you can follow the wildly gyrating male as he attempts to attract a mate. It’s one of the more interesting wildlife displays you’ll see, and one of the surest signs of spring in Maine. It’s possible that you won’t see a woodcock again until next year unless you spend a lot of time in the alders year-round, and even then it’s a rare thing to see one before the fall migration kicks in.
Get outdoors, listen to the woodcock and see what other signs of balmier weather you can find. Like woodcock, they’re small and easy to miss, but you can find them if you look hard enough. At this time of year we’re all looking for signs of something good on the horizon — and now you know where to start!
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