SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Do you know the birds of the Ark-La-Tex when you see them?
John Dillon, past president of the Louisiana Ornithological Society, is a guest contributor for KTALNews.com. Once a month, he shares his extensive knowledge of how to recognize the birds of our region.
November’s Ark-La-Tex Bird of the Month features the American Woodcock.
Perhaps the oddest bird species in North America, the American Woodcock also has one of the cutest nicknames of any of our wildlife: the Timberdoodle.
This species (Scolopax minor) which returns to Louisiana mostly in November, is the American Woodcock, and, as the name woodcock suggests, the woodcock is a game bird. In Louisiana, woodcock season runs from mid-December to the end of January.
I’ve never tasted woodcock, but I can imagine it would not be a culinary experience I would make great efforts to pursue, given their diet is primarily earthworms.
They are technically shorebirds, but they eat all day in the woods and roost in fields and pastures. The tip of their long bill is bendable and squishy, and they sort of wiggle it when they stick it deep into moist soil to probe for earthworms. When they walk in the open, they look like they’re dancing. They take a step, bob their entire bodies up and down about three times, take another step, bob some more, and so on.
If you have no real ambitions for a meaningful afternoon, search for “woodcock dance” on YouTube. There’s a particularly good one of a woodcock dancing to “Tequila.”
My favorite weird fact about such a bizarre bird is that their brains are essentially upside down and backward. That’s right. Upside, down and backward.
Perhaps I’m partial to them because I have so many students who seem to have the same configuration.
Because woodcocks spend so much time on the ground with their faces stuck into the dirt, their eyes evolved to sit almost on top of their heads so they could watch for predators. Their brains and skulls evolved accordingly. Their ears are actually below and in front of their eyes.
A new birder emailed me recently asking how she can find her first woodcock. I will give you all the same advice I gave her.
First, understanding woodcock habitat is crucial in finding them. As stated, they spend all day in damp woods or swamps and roost in large fields. Seeing them in the daytime is difficult because of their excellent camouflage. Suppose you should be lucky enough to flush them. In that case, it will only result in their giving you a heart attack because their wingtips pop together very loudly when they take off underfoot.
The easier (and healthier) method of finding a woodcock is to look for them going to or leaving roosts, but you have to be quick, and you won’t get good looks. Find a sizeable brushy field, pasture, or cutover adjacent to a large patch of mature woods. Get there at sunset to be early. Once it dims, woodcock will fly directly out of the woods and zoom past you about eye level into the field.
Unless you’re quick, binoculars are useless, and getting a flight photo is nearly impossible.
If you’re an outdoorsman, and you know what Mourning Doves look like when they fly, picture that–if not, imagine the dove swallowed a football, add a long bill, and you’ve got an accurate mental image of a woodcock in flight. VERY wobbly, VERY fast, and VERY fat, but almost always around eye level.
Wilson’s Snipe also may be seen flying late, as well as Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers, but all of these birds will fly above the tree line. You can wake up at dawn to see them leave their roosting fields, but woodcocks are even wobblier then because they haven’t had coffee yet.
Woodcocks have a unique courtship display, and you can see it here in Louisiana when they’re roosting. Male woodcocks will be on display starting in mid or late December, usually about 20-30 minutes after dark. They’ll give their buzzy “peeent” calls from the ground about 4 or 5 times, then they take off and silently fly in a big loop maybe a few hundred feet overhead. When they descend, though, they’ll do so in a spiral, and their tail feathers make a very high-pitched, insect-like winnowing sound that gets louder and louder the closer they get to the ground. When they land, they recommence their “peeent” calls and do the whole thing over and over again.
If you’re lucky to find a roost field with open, bare patches and the birds will land directly in front of you. But be careful not to scare the “peeent” out of them.
Dillon is a regional reviewer for Cornell University’s www.ebird.org and is on the Louisiana Bird Records Committee. He sits on the Board of Directors of the Briarwood Caroline Dormon Nature Preserve, teaches English Literature at Minden High School, and is the Minden High School Nature Club, founder.
A little birdie told us that Dillon was recently awarded the Jimmy D. Long Louisiana Scholars’ College Distinguished Alumni Award during NSU’s Homecoming game!
Read more from John Dillon and learn to recognize the birds of our area in no time!