The cold bite of the April evening breeze has me wondering if I’ve dressed appropriately for our night’s activity. Four of us, sitting on white deck chairs spaced evenly across the width of a mowed path in the middle of roughly 100 acres of tallgrass planted prairie, are anxiously waiting for the main feature to begin. Debra and I have been invited by our dear friends, Kris and Penny Kubly, to witness the incredible aerial courtship dance of the American woodcock. Four Oaks, Kris and Penny’s property, is well known for woodcocks, but why are we sitting in the prairie and not near one of the known places woodcocks frequent such as aspen thickets, woody riparian areas or shrub-carrs? Kris is up to something, I think. I’m determined not to let him pull one over on me.
Not long after the sun sinks behind the skyline ridge in the western sky, we hear it. We all fall quiet, listening. Yes, there it is again, the nasal buzz, or peent, call of the male woodcock. The call is coming from the ground in an area of thick, dried cup plant stalks. Everyone is excited. I play along. There must be a speaker hidden in there, I think. Suddenly, Penny points into the sky and whispers: “There.” An airborne object is rocketing skyward in a wide-sweeping spiral pattern. I watch it disappear from view, apparently too far up into the evening sky for me to see anymore. Stunned, I look at my drink. What did Penny put in this? She’s in on this too! Debra blurts out: “It’s back.” I watch in amazement as the object falls back into view, descending fast in a sharp zig zag pattern, chirping excitedly. Moments later, it’s on the ground just a few feet from us. Holy cat, I think, it’s a woodcock. At least it looks like a woodcock. Can it be a drone – a timberdoodle drone? Kris is a very capable engineer, but drones can’t fly like what I just witnessed!
The American woodcock, also known as timberdoodle, night partridge, bog sucker, Labrador twister, is an at-risk species in Wisconsin. It’s on “The State of the Birds 2014 United States of America Watch List” for bird species most in danger of extinction without significant conservation action. The woodcock uses its long bill to extract earthworms and other invertebrates from the soil. In the spring, males undergo a complicated and spectacular aerial display in open areas to attract females. Females nest on the ground and lay 1-5 eggs. Their habitat is consistently listed as forest, especially young, shrubby deciduous forest. The Wisconsin DNR also lists calcareous fen, surrogate grasslands and wet prairie habitats as moderately associated with woodcock.
In my field work, I have found woodcocks in forested habitat, but also have seen them nesting in prairies near woodlot edges. Small thickets of shrubs in large open wet prairie tend to be a hot spot for finding a brood of woodcock. Large prairie reconstructions with moisture-holding soil, like Four Oaks, have proven to be very attractive to woodcocks for courtship displays and nesting habitat.
Randy Hoffman, retired from the Wisconsin DNR, has been closely observing nature for more than 50 years. He’s known for his birding skills. He shares some of his insights on woodcock habitat and explains why the American woodcock is well adapted to grassland habitat.
“The American woodcock needs courtship habitat, nesting habitat, and post-hatch habitat, all of which are different, to successfully raise young,” Randy explained. Nesting extends west to the edge of the Great Plains, from Oklahoma through the Dakotas, and these areas are only sparsely wooded. The range of aspen - the species proclaimed as critical for the survival of the American woodcock - is largely absent from these regions. The Wisconsin Wildlife Action Plan states wet prairie, wet-mesic prairie, oak opening and southern sedge meadow also are habitat for the American woodcock.
Before European settlement, Randy asked, what did Native American prairie fires contribute to the American woodcock’s habitat? The fires would consume most everything available to burn, he said, thus opening areas with scant vegetation for courtship aerial displays. Areas that didn’t burn, such as wet pockets and riverine areas with willow and alder brush, would provide nesting habitat. Later in the season, these same areas with lush new prairie growth, especially if near an oak opening, would provide brood foraging habitat.
“Through personal surveys at the Lodi Wildlife Area, I have recorded as many as 14 displaying American woodcock in April,” Randy continued. “Similar surveys along the Wisconsin River Valley have produced well over 30 displaying American woodcock. These numbers were limited to time available by one person and may be well into triple digits if comprehensive surveys were conducted. Both of these areas have limited aspen groves with many woodcock display areas having no aspen present.”
I gulp down what remains of Debra’s drink and join the others as we try to follow the bird’s erratic flight in the closing darkness. How lucky am I to be able to witness this amazing flying acrobat? And how lucky for all of us that there are landowners like the Kublys working to ensure the American woodcock graces our night skies for generations to come.