Sunday, March 05, 2017

In Search of Timberdoodles

The reports of the arrival of woodcocks began a few weeks ago in Missouri. These charismatic birds are a signature sign of early spring, small, brown birds, the size of a quail, with a long, black probing beak that can penetrate the roughest soils to find insects. In the Ozarks and elsewhere, woodcocks are also known as Timberdoodles, birds that hang around old fields near the timber line. They're not the most gracious birds, flitting about as gracefully as a Northern bobwhite quail, but when they arrive, it usually means spring is around the corner so they're always a welcome sight. Their big black eyes and long beak are hard to mistake for any other bird, but their breeding behavior is really quite spectacular.

For the past four years, my Audubon chapter has set out at sunset in perfect timberdoodle habitat to find these birds and to witness their mating dance. In the past four years, we've seen decreasing numbers of these charismatic birds, due to either the habitat being overgrown and without fire or a general decline in their numbers across the board. Missing the timberdoodle isn't likely due to observer error, this bird makes it abundantly clear when present. With a characteristic "peent!" call, the timberdoodle will call from a woodland edge or another scrubby, shrubby area. Our traditional birding site is an old farm field with rank warm season grasses and scattered cedars. The whole area is reverting to woodland with lots of trees moving in, which is good for woodland birds but not so good for the timberdoodles.

We set out at 5:30 and hiked to the junction of the trail where we've traditionally seen these birds flutter high in the sky and then plummet down in accordance with the traditional mating ritual. The shrubby area played host to a lot of lingering white-throated sparrows and the sunset calls of the American robin were definitely part of the evening soundtrack. We saw one song sparrow with that big blotch on his chest, and then started playing a recording of the timberdoodle call: "Peent!" "Peent!" No answer. A barred owl started calling with the customary "Who Cooks for You!" call, but no woodcocks. With so many old fields in the Ozarks these birds should be in good shape from a habitat perspective, but through time, as we're seeing at our traditional birding site, the habitat is disappearing. I think that traditionally these birds used savannas, areas of open grown oaks with a thick grass-forb layer. This landscape type is uncommon now, and for birds, the surrogate is old fields.

There are areas around our traditional timberdoodle stomping grounds that still offer ample woodcock habitat. These areas are managed with regularly occurring prescribed fire to keep the woody brush at bay while stimulating the herbaceous layer. I do love timberdoodles like I adore Chuck will's-widow and Whip-por-wills, signs of the Ozarks and of spring. This ancient breeding ritual continues in shrublands across the Ozark Highlands, so hopefully you'll see it soon. While March is our snowiest month, even the natives have been triggered that spring thaw is near.

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