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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Woodcocks at Ridgewood Reservoir

American Woodcock are early migrants around New York and the males begin competing for mates by mid-March. Last Sunday I went over to Ridgewood Reservoir with Scott hoping to find signs of their arrival. Lou, who lives close to the reservoir, met us there.

Woodcocks are medium-sized, plump birds with a long, slender bill that they use to probe the soil for insects and worms. Their feathers are a cryptic blend of browns, rust and other earth tones that enables them to virtually disappear into a forest floor's leaf litter. These nocturnal creatures are rarely observed unless unintentionally flushed when strolling through the woods; even then, it is just a fleeting glimpse of their rear end before they drop back to the ground and vanish. Once a year, however, they make an exception to their reticence and announce their presence to anyone interested in watching and listening.

Scott, Lou and I arrived at the reservoir at 6PM. Sunset would be at 6:56PM. We walked up the stairway from Vermont Place to the running path at the edge of the reservoir basins. Basin #3 is the south-most and largest of the three empoundments. Within basin #1 and #3's forested habitats include some small wet meadows. Wet meadows are the preferred staging ground for the woodcock's conspicuous activities. We stood at the edge of the chainlink fence that surrounds basin #3 and waited for the show to begin.

Scott was setting up his camera, I was talking softly and Lou was quietly facing into the basin. It was getting dark, but there was still enough light that we could see the floor of the basin. Something flashed through the edge of my peripheral vision and I pointed my binoculars down into the artificial valley a few yards away from the base of the retaining wall. A woodcock had just flown out of his daytime roost and was slowly walking back and forth, probing the forest floor for worms. It was pure luck on my part, but I was able to get both Scott and Lou on the bird. He eventually wandered out of view and into the darkness of the young forest.

Shortly after the sun went down, I heard the first woodcock's call.

I suppose the reason that it is referred to as a "call" and not a "song" is because it's not very melodic (at least not to us humans). It is a single, nasal note, usually described as "peent". The sound is similar to blowing into the business end of a double-reed instrument, such as an oboe, without the instrument attached. The woodcock's peenting notes are separated by pauses that can range from a few seconds to several minutes. When the suitor is confident that he has gained a female's attention, he'll take off like a rocket, heading skyward and making wide spiraling arcs. Near the apex of the flight, his wings begin making a high, twittering sound. Chirping and chattering, he will return to earth in a twisting, bat-like flight. If a female is present near the stage, he will start "peenting" and resume the nocturnal choreography

On Sunday, a strong wind was blowing towards the basin. The woodcocks launched themselves into the wind and directly over our heads. About twenty minutes after the sun had set we heard males peenting from three different locations within basin #3. Scott struggled with his video camera, trying to anticipate where the next twittering woodcock would appear over the running track. I couldn't decide whether to stand in once place or follow the peenting calls to the north end of the basin. After about 30 minutes of peenting, twittering and spiraling woodcocks, we decided to call it a day. Unfortunately, the future for this unique city habitat and American Woodcock display ground is in question as the department of parks wants to remove the forest and turn it into baseball fields. See the Ridgewood Reservoir blog for more information.

Click the play button to watch a woodcock video
by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

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