Woodcocks are tricky.
Stop snickering, for god’s sake. They are not tricky because they have a name that ranks up with Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Tufted Titmouse in the competitive “Making Non-Birders Think You’re Making Shit Up” sweeps. Just to make things worse, they’re colloquially known as Timberdoodles, but that’s still not the tricky part.
They’re tricky because they’re sandpipers who have forsaken the sea. Some other shorebird species have done the same – the Upland Sandpiper, to pick an obvious example – but they mostly go for open fields. Woodcocks, with their cousins the Snipe*, have mastered the fine art of living in damp scrubby woods and damp woody scrubs. They have an elaborate worm-catching strategy, which involves stomping the ground (as much as a five or ten ounce bird can stomp) to make the worms move, and then probing them out with a specialized, flexible bill. To work this strategy, they need soft but not flooded earth. Take a spotty second-growth grove with some little spit of a stream running through, a stream that becomes a string of grass beaded with puddles in July, something that Mallards ignore and no self-respecting Piping Plover has ever been within a mile of, and you’ve got prime Woodcock habitat.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll see a Woodcock. What you’ll see, most likely, is absolutely nothing. Next most likely, you’ll see a feathery explosion of WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT whistling rapidly away while you put your foot down in the spot where a Woodcock was.
The only Woodcock I ever saw, I saw because I was looking for dead things. The pattern on her back, brilliant at breaking up the perceptions of predators with the search pattern ‘bird’, bore enough resemblance to a bleached ribcage partly covered in leaves that it tripped my search pattern instead. She was nestled under a crabapple bush, in last year’s leaves, and it was only while I was bending down to see what kind of specimen I’d got that I realized what I was dealing with.
I’m fairly sure that she was incubating eggs, but I can’t swear to it, because she never moved as I stood back up, walked around the bush, and studied her at length, and I had better manners than to prod her. With her eggs or whatever at stake, she seemed inclined to keep up the “I’m detritus” charade just as long as she could. Eventually we were at an impasse – I hate to walk away from a bird, but in this case, if I didn’t I might stand there the rest of the season. And the next day I was flying to Germany, so that wasn’t really feasible. I did think that if my plane crashed, she was a good life bird to go out on and I should appreciate her as much as possible, though.
I’m not sure how long I stood there, but it wasn’t long enough. Especially as I’ve never seen another one.
There is a slightly more fruitful way to see Woodcocks than by not looking for them, though, one that I hope to take advantage of this year – the Woodcock’s mating flight (stop snickering!) Each spring, before the snow melts (well, not in January, but you know, before the snow usually melts), the male Woodcock abandons his species’ usual lurking habits and begins to call. Then he flutters into the sky, spiraling up between 70 and 100 meters, with the tips of his wings making the air whistle. Then he zigzags down again, and starts over.
The temptation for some writers would be to make a tacky parallel here, either about love and chivalry or about how desire makes men stupid, depending on inclination. Happily, I’m not one of those writers. I mean, come on, they’re sandpipers. And anyway, the male isn’t all that stupid; he only performs at dawn and dusk and on occasional moonlit nights, when the hawks are asleep and there’s still enough light to see approaching owls.
In NYC, most birders favor Floyd Bennett Field as a Woodcock observing ground, but the dance is known to occur in Central and Prospect Park, as well.
The third way to see a Woodcock is to get obscenely lucky.
*Another bird that non-birders tend to take for a joke. I’m not sure why. I’m told it has something to do with going to summer camp in New Jersey.