American Woodcock

by John Shackford

Did you ever stop to think what an odd bird the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) is?  Here is a shorebird that shuns shores for thickets, brush and grassy areas.  A shorebird with stripes on the top of its head that go the “wrong” way—laterally, across, rather than longitudinally, the usual way for shorebirds.  There are other odd things.  Woodcocks have a sensitive and flexible tip of the beak that allow it to probe in soft ground more efficiently for food—reminiscent to me of the sensitive bill tip of the Kiwi of New Zealand.  Its eyes are placed very high on the head:  it has 360 degree vision horizontally and 180 degree vision vertically.  It is one of the few shorebirds with short stubby legs, and it, along with the Killdeer, is one of the few shorebirds that nests inland in the southeastern U. S.  It is a shorebird that may show up and probe for earthworms on a lawn in your neighborhood, not a place for most other shorebirds, except Killdeers.  The American Woodcock is related to the Wilson’s Snipe, but considering how many differences there are between the two species, I wonder just how close the relationship between them really is.

The status of the American Woodcock, according to Sutton (Oklahoma birds, 1967) is as a “Transient and summer visitant in eastern and central Oklahoma.”  Woodcocks likely nest at Lake Draper, in Oklahoma City, but this is hard to prove:  the species is quite effective at selecting nesting sites where humans rarely go.  The most reliable way to see the birds themselves is on their courtship grounds, as they do courtship flights and calls.  I gathered much of the remaining part of this paragraph from Wikipedia—their information was a little clearer than most others.  Calls are done around dawn and dusk.  A courtship call the males make on the ground is described as a short, buzzy peent, repeated a number of times.  The male will then rise into the air about 50-100 yards, and begin a downward “zigzagging and banking, while singing a liquid, chirping song.”  The downward flight produces a “melodious twittering sound produced by air rushing through the male’s outer primary wing feathers.”

The woodcock begins courtship displays very early in the year:  we already have reports, in January, of the birds doing their courtship calls at Draper Lake.  Jimmy Woodard has taken field trips to see these displays at Draper in the past, and he is leading a field trip there on March 5.  For further details see field trips listed in this newsletter.  If you cannot make Jimmy’s field trip, but still want to hear and possibly see woodcocks on your own, here are the directions to the Draper spot:  Exit I-240 at Douglas Blvd. and turn south. At the T, turn right (west) onto the access road that runs along the north end of Lake Draper.  Follow this road west for about ¾ mile. Just before Midwest Blvd, there is a dirt parking area on the left (south) side of the road. You will see a port-a-potty and a couple of small structures. Park here and watch and listen for the woodcocks.  (Douglas Blvd. runs just outside the eastern border of Tinker Air Force Base).

I suspect there are other woodcocks at other places at Draper.  While working on the Black-capped Vireo on the east side of Draper several years ago, I flushed at least one woodcock several times one year at the edge of a blackberry thicket there.  This, as best I remember, was likely in at least May and June.  So if you get to kicking around at Draper, keep in mind the possibility of finding a woodcock.

Jimmy Woodard and Nadine Varner found a woodcock below the dam at Lake Overholser on our Christmas Bird Count this (last) year—December 15, 2012.  With some detective work, perhaps we will find that they are likely nesting there also.  Jumping a bird or two there during late winter and spring this year would be a great clue that this could be happening.

A. C. Bent (1962, Life histories of North American shore birds) said that “in over 40 years of fieldwork I have seen but one nest with eggs” of the woodcock and this one was shown to him; he also stated that “I have never known how or where to look for its nests,” and adds that for nesting an “abundance of leaves seems to be an essential requirement.”  The woodcock usually lays four eggs, and this is one similarity to most other shorebirds.  Eggs hatch after about 20-21 days and young leave the nest within a day or two.

There are two wide-ranging woodcock species in the world.  The most wide-ranging of these is the Eurasian Woodcock, found over most of Eurasia. The other wide-ranging one is the American Woodcock, found over most of the eastern half of the U.S. and well north into eastern Canada.  In the world, there are a total of 5 or 6 other woodcock species, all found on islands; the 5-6 “hedge” is because one island species, the New Guinea Woodcock (Scolopax (saturata) rosenbergii), may be extinct.