By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw
The group of birders clustered in the semidarkness. A huge full moon had just crested the eastern horizon. The air was still and felt cold. Tom, who would always hear something before anyone else, called "There it is!" and pointed out toward some thick brush to the southwest. We all strained our ears and then heard it too -- "Peeeent" -- the breeding call of the American Woodcock.
This is a strange bird, almost unknown to non-birders. Every time I teach a birding class in the spring, it includes an evening woodcock session. Because, even though it keeps a low profile, it is very predictable in its behavior. If you know where to go on Nantucket, from late February through the end of May, you can get a good woodcock show any night when the conditions are right.
American Woodcocks are sandpipers, even though they almost never visit the beach. Hunters think of them as upland game birds and they are highly regarded, both for the sport, and also for a tasty dinner. The season this year runs from October 16 to November 15.
They are chunky and fairly good sized, eleven inches from beak to tail, but the long beak counts for several of those inches and they have almost no tail at all. Woodcock are generally speckled brown above, but close examination shows this to be a stunning collage of black, gold, slate blue, and rust. The top of the head has black and gold bars across it. Underneath, woodcocks are almost a robin-red color.
They are here year 'round, but most leave us in the dead of winter, heading for the southeastern U.S. Our Christmas Bird Counts find them most years with a high count of 7 in 2002. The breeding population is probably in the hundreds, because Nantucket abounds with the brushy, damp habitat that they love.
Arthur Cleveland Bent waxes poetic when he talks about this bird -- " This mysterious hermit of the alders, this recluse of the 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." 'Crepuscular' is a marvelous word, referring to something, which is active at dusk or dawn. I know people who fit this category!
So let's go back to the evening show. We listen carefully for the 'peeeent' call, which sounds ever five seconds or so. Soon we can hear three or four -- different directions -- different distances. Then someone calls, "He's up!" and points to a spot in the sky. It is too dark for most of us to see but what we hear is a marvelous twittering whistle, which seems to fade in and out as the bird spirals upward. This may last fifteen to twenty seconds as this stubby missile rises high in the sky to hover in the wind, perhaps 300 feet up. On a good night, with the sky still lit by the recent sunset, he becomes just a speck, beating into the wind to keep his spot above his boggy home.
Then the exquisite part of the show begins. The bird folds his wings and starts a death dive, hurtling toward the ground. A wing is thrust out here and there making him careen dramatically left and right. Most of us can't make this out in the dark, but we are all mesmerized by the sound. We hear a rich, warbling whistled pattern, repeated over and over, with increasing volume as he rushes toward the earth, finally silencing as he levels off a few feet off the ground and then blasts past our heads to alight within a few feet of the take-off point. Several seconds later, the 'peeeent'ing starts in again. It's like Clark Kent turning into Superman and then back again, before our ears.
This behavior continues on into the evening, the birds making this aerial show twenty or thirty times an hour, all done to impress Mrs. Woodcock who is waiting silently on the ground.
There is much discussion about how this wonderful song is produced, whether by voice or by the wind rushing through the wings. Most agree that the wings are more likely.
Other than this, American Woodcocks stay well nigh invisible. They nest on the ground, but the combination of cryptic coloration and the fact that the female will only leave the nest under the most dire circumstances make them almost impossible to stumble upon.
If you do find a woodcock out and about, then you are in for a very comical show. This round sandpiper is seldom content to just walk along. No, instead it has a rather bobbing, swaying movement back and forth as if it were doing the rumba. A man called me from Quidnet one time to describe this as two woodcock were feeding at the edge of his yard. Edith Andrews remembers finding one crossing the Polpis Road doing it.
So, if you are crepuscular, and find yourself out in a boggy area just after sunset, and hear that "peeeent" sound, pause for a moment and wait for the aerial display which will quicken your heart. Then think of the Walter Mitty-like character that is doing it and be thankful for the wonder of the natural world.
George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.
If you enjoy social birding, every Sunday a group meets in the parking lot in front of the Nantucket High School at 8 a.m.
To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.