Thom Smith | Naturewatch: In search of the elusive timberdoodle

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For many, the timberdoodle is a mythical creature known only through stories or accidental encounters under the cover of darkness. Hearing its bizarre sounds from newly thawed pasture or clearing, should be on everyone's "bucket list." Fortunate, indeed, is the individual who spies one in the twilight or, even better, the moonlight. Such was the case recently at the Housatonic River Valley Wildlife Management Area. I parked across from the boat launch on New Lenox Road and entered the overgrown fields. As twilight gained strength, I walked across freshly thawed, spongy earth,with patches of snow here and there between blueberry and other bushes. I was almost immediately surrounded by a number of male timberdoodles. They also go by the unlikely names, bog sucker, night partridge, big eye, wood snipe and mud bat. The more proper name, the one that you would use to find it in a bird guide or dictionary, is American woodcock, and many hundreds pass through the Berkshires, and southern Vermont for about a month or so every spring. Some will linger for the summer to breed in our moist open woodlands.

I saw "my" first woodcock in 1958, when Rick Oltsch, now deceased, and I were able to get face-to-face with a timberdoodle at Springside Park, in the fields behind the main house off North Street in Pittsfield. We located a male on the ground beginning its courtship display. It was repeating a series of loud "peent" calls, and after a minute or so, it flew upward in a wide circle, at which time we carefully snuck to the place where it flew from and we dropped to the ground. As the bird got higher, its wings started to twitter. At about 200 feet, the twittering of its wings became intermittent and the bird began to chirp as it descended zig-zag toward the ground, and, we hoped, near us. Our insistence paid off and one bird landed close by, and we saw it eye-to-big black eye!

Arrival begins as soon as the first bare grass and seeps afford the birds a place bo dine on earthworms and to perform their mating flight, usually beginning in mid-March. Migration usually lasts for about a month or so and stalking them is more pleasant as the season warms.

A more romantic account of the woodcock than you are apt to get in modern bird literature was written by Arthur Cleveland Bent in his classic "Life Histories of North American Shorebirds" (Dover Publications, (1927). He writes, "This mysterious hermit of the alders, this recluse of boggy thickets, this wood nymph of crepuscular habits is a common bird and well distributed in our Eastern States, widely known, but not intimately known. Its quiet, retiring habits do not lead to human intimacy. It may live in our midst unnoticed. Its needs are modest, its habitat is circumscribed, and it clings with tenacity to its favorite haunts even when encroached upon by civilization."

With the exception of the male's spring ritual, this is a quiet, camouflaged species. There is no bonding between sexes, and no help for the female in rearing young. Woodcocks are plump, 10- to 12-inch birds with a long bill used for probing soft soil for earthworms and other invertebrates. They have large black eyes, located high on the head that provide what may be the largest field of view of any bird, 360 degrees. Plummage is a mix of browns, grays and black, with a yellowish to tan breast, making them nearly impossible to see when quiet.

SEE FOR YOURSELF

Learn for yourself that "Love is in the air as the sun sets in early spring. Wet meadows and fields become the American woodcock's 'runway' for a beautiful aerial courtship display." We will visit the meadows at dusk and listen and watch for the woodcock's performance on its breeding grounds, just before darkness envelops the sanctuary. With any luck, male woodcocks will be heard peenting from the tall grass before spiraling hundreds of feet into the night sky. Viewing the woodcock's sky dance is a natural spectacle that shouldn't be missed. Where and when: Canoe Meadows, Holmes Road, Pittsfield Mass.; Wednesday April 5 or 12, 7 to 8:30 p.m. Fee: $5 members; $7 nonmembers; Children free. Dress warmly and bring binoculars if you have them. Registration not required. For more information, call 413-637-0320 or go to berkshires@massaudubon.org

PIGEON CLARIFICATION

In last week's column I should have written, south into South America. David Skryja caught my error and wrote, "In your Bennington Banner article, you mention, 'Now feral (or descendants of the feral population) live across the Continent into southern Canada, and south through Central America.' I, personally, have seen countless rock doves (or rock pigeons, Columbia livia) in Ecuador and Peru, and a friend confirms that they are common in Buenos Aires, Argentina."

Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at Naturewatch@live.com or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.


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