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Blane Klemek column: Woodcock is delightful woodland shorebird

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I recently enjoyed the delightful antics of one of my favorite woodland and upland gamebirds, the American woodcock.

After finishing an evening grouse hunt and loading my gear into the truck, it was time to drive out of the woods and head home. As I bounced along the forest tote road, I occasionally encountered water-filled holes that I'd have to drive slowly through. At most of these mud holes, a lone woodcock would flush in front of my truck and fly ahead of the headlight beams away from me.

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At one especially large water hole, I decided to approach slowly to see if one of the forms I saw in the water was indeed a woodcock and not just another dirt clump. The squat form turned out to be a woodcock all right, and so I stopped 15 or so feet in front of the bird to observe what it would do. "Will it flush?" I thought, or "Will it allow me to watch?" I soon found out.

Much to my amazement, the rotund little "shorebird of the forest," allowed me to sit inside my truck and observe the show. Typical of all shorebirds, yet coming as a surprise, was the bird's obvious comfort at wading - I hadn't realized how deep into the water a woodcock would venture.

On a few occasions the woodcock almost completely submerged itself as it bathed. And as the bird waddled around inside the water hole, it probed the soft mud with its long beak in search of invertebrates, which is a behavior characteristic of all long-billed shorebirds.

Relatives of shorebirds, the American woodcock is found throughout the eastern half of the United States and southern Canada. Woodcock inhabit all of Minnesota (part of its breeding range), but primarily throughout the central and northern regions of the state. Even so, woodcock regularly appear in unlikely haunts, especially during migration. Their wintering range includes the south Atlantic states and states along the Gulf of Mexico.

A small bird of only about eight inches in length, the bird's most conspicuous feature is its incredibly long three-inch bill. The reasons for such length become obvious when the birds feed. They use their bills to probe the moist woodland soils for worms and other soft-bodied invertebrates. The ends of their beaks are pliable, which aids in their ability to detect, maneuver, and grasp prey underground. And their eyes, large and oddly posterior on their heads, allow them to see in the dark and detect danger behind, beside, and above them. Even their brains are unusually positioned; upside down.

But perhaps the most fascinating of the woodcock's many and appealing attributes, is what happens when the male of the species returns to its breeding range in early spring. Here in Minnesota that can be as soon as mid-March. Male woodcock set up shop in forested openings and fields near dense woods. The male will aggressively defend this turf - called singing grounds - from other males. And it is in these places that they perform their amazing aerial courtship flight displays to attract females.

Beginning every day during the breeding season for about 30 minutes to an hour at dawn and dusk, the performance is both musical and spectacular. The male starts by "peenting," as it's called, from the ground, which is a nasal sounding vocalization produced from its throat. After numerous peents, the male abruptly departs into the sky above.

Special primary wing feathers produce a twittering noise as the male woodcock's flight carries him some 100-300 feet above his singing ground. At the apex of the flight, he begins a corkscrew descent, creating a wonderfully musical bubbly, chirping and warbling song until, just moments before alighting back to the ground, he quits and glides to nearly the very spot he took off from. Almost immediately he begins his series of peents again. The flight, lasting about a minute, is repeated continuously until full daylight or darkness overcomes the woodland.

Of course the whole idea behind the commotion is to attract a mate. And for reasons unbeknownst to me, a certain female that finds a certain male's flight display particularly attractive, joins him at his singing ground where copulation occurs after his return to earth. The female birds nest in nearby cover, often only a few hundred feet from the singing ground, in preferably dense, young aspen stands.

Nesting in these types of cover offers the utmost in concealment and protection from predators, especially from the aerial attacks of raptors. In a cup-shaped depression on the ground, four blotchy brown eggs are incubated for about three weeks. Upon hatching, the precocial chicks leave the nest and follow their mother.

Even so, woodcock chicks, though able to move about on their own, are one of only a few species of birds that are totally dependent on their mother for food after they leave the nest. For the first week they are fed by their mother, yet in just two weeks the chicks can already fly. And by the time they reach four-six weeks of age, the young woodcock are independent.

Subsisting on mostly a diet of earthworms and other soft-bodied invertebrates, woodcock begin their annual migration when foraging and finding their preferred foods become too difficult, which is usually when frozen ground prevents them from doing so. Minnesota's woodcock hunting season begins around the third week of September before migration begins and extends through migration. Most woodcock have left the state for their wintering grounds by the first half of November.

Indeed, the odd-looking, erratic-flying, yet jovial-behaving American woodcock is a very special Minnesota shorebird. Their incredible aerial courtship displays are enjoyable ways to spend an hour or so observing in early spring woodlands, and they make sporting quarry and fine table fare in the autumn months as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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