Sunday, March 16, 2014

Timberdoodles

With the longer day lengths and warmer weather that March has provided, American Woodcocks (also known as bogsuckers and timberdoodles)have begun their mating ritual in Missouri. These charming little ground nesters with big, baleful black eyes are about the size of a robin, though more rotund and with extremely long beaks that allow for probing the ground for earthworms, their primary food source. Timberdoodles winter in the Deep South, and are among the first of our breeding birds to arrive at the first hint of spring.

Timberdoodles inhabit areas near marshy or moist conditions with an open character. Their preferred landscape conditions are ubiquitous in the Ozarks: woodcocks choose edge habitat around wooded settings with vegetative scrubby second growth openings. The breeding display occurs during twilight hours either in the early morning or just after sunset. Males will call with a sound best described as a "peent" (hear the various woodcock calls here) as they rest on the ground. When they make their display flight, they fly high into the air with audible wingbeats similar to a duck, and then descend rapidly in a straight line directly to the ground. The descent is similar to a nighthawk's.

My local Audubon chapter hosted a Timberdoodle Trek last night to a local natural area best characterized as an old field with scattered 10 year old cedars and warm season grasses with small anthropogenic wetlands hosting thousands of spring peepers. As the crepuscular hour set in around 7:15 and our eyes adjusted to the darkening sky, the late day calls of Northern cardinals, American robins and white-throated sparrows filled the air. Big brown bats began flying around randomly hawking insects and the full moon came into view. We heard the first peent of a timberdoodle behind a cedar in a thicket of broomsedge. Several more peent calls occurred and the second call, a warbling t-chok that indicates the presage of a flight, happened. All eyes were on the side of the trail where the birds were located. Around 7:30 a timberdoodle took flight in a straight line above our heads, calling and beating those wings with all his might high up into the sky. The bird ascended a height out of our view and moments later we saw him again as he made a bee-line to the ground. "Peent." Another woodcock in the same area. We saw this one on the ground under a cedar, little brown mass of mottled feathers and that enormous beak. The full moon brightened the sky and we watched as two more timberdoodles performed their mating display.

Timberdoodle chicks are mobile immediately after hatching. They stay close to the ground-based nest and return to the area upon hearing an alarm call from the mother bird. One timberdoodles reach maturity, they generally have a life expectancy of approximately 2 years (though a banded bird was discovered at 7 years old in recent years). When spring comes on full bore, the ancient mating displays will end. March is the ideal time to see these remarkable creatures in their full glory.

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