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Nature’s Best By Elma Chapman -Woodcock

 

The warmer weather at the end of last week was welcomed by all. While hiking at Pine Knob Park I heard two kinds of frogs – the spring peeper and the midland chorus frog. I also saw some skunk cabbage breaking through the surface soil.

The bird chatter is increasing as are the species heading north. In my yard this week I have seen bluebirds, grackles, redwing blackbirds, robins, goldfinches, sparrows, mourning doves, cardinals and blue jays. The juncos and redpolls that have been at my feeder most of the winter haven’t headed north yet, but they’ll disappear any day now. I have seen wild turkey, hawks, vultures, phoebes and killdeer in the county this week. Not all of these birds migrate, but it’s nice to see so many different ones again. And most exciting of all for me is that there was a loon sighted on Sylvan Lake Saturday. Loons are fascinating birds and unfortunately they don’t stay with us, but we do get to host them on our lakes for a short time in the spring as they head north from the Gulf Coast.

A bird I have never seen, but hope to this week, is the American woodcock. They are very well camouflaged in a mottled brown to match the leaf litter on the forest floor where they forage for worms. They live year round in the Southeast U.S., but expand their range as far as Southeastern Canada in the summer. So why do I hope to see one this week? Because I plan on participating in the Woodcock Watch that the LaGrange County Parks is having this week. On Tuesday night they will be at Delt Church Park at 7:30 p.m. to look for the woodcocks. On Wednesday they will try to find some at Pine Knob Park, also at 7:30 p.m. They have been seen in the past at Delt Church, but this will be a first to try to find them at Pine Knob. The habitat is right, so there is a good chance we might see them both nights.

Last week the LaGrange County Parks Department had scheduled a frog census in the parks, but had to cancel it because it was just too cold. The frogs are very temperature sensitive. So I asked Scott Beam if the woodcock watch was likely to be canceled and his response was no, that woodcocks go by the calendar and not the temperature, and this week is the week to see them.

So what’s so special about a woodcock, and if they are so well camouflaged, how do I expect to see them? The answer to both questions is that the males have a spectacular mating ritual that involves calling on the ground a sound called a “preent” and then flying up in a spiral to a height sometimes over 300 ft. and then chirping while diving down in a zigzag to land silently next to a female and then do the whole thing over again, just to impress her. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, the male does not participate in parenting responsibilities and may do his preenting at several different singing grounds with several different females.

 

The female for her part may visit four or more singing grounds, even after she is caring for her young. Sounds like these woodcocks are real party animals!

Woodcocks are not tiny birds: their wingspan is between 16-18 inches and their length is 9-12 inches. They have quite a long bill for poking around in the leaves and soil looking for earthworms and insects. They nest in a shallow depression on the ground and their eggs are creamy buff with brown spots concentrated near the large end.

I encourage you to meet at the parks Tuesday or Wednesday to look for woodcocks with the naturalist. (Check your copy of the park newsletter, 13 Lines, for details.) The weather is expected to take a dive early this week, so dress warmly and be ready to watch quietly for woodcocks.

And keep an eye on your lake for a loon, too!