run away! run away!

May 16, 2005

in Birds,Field work,Natural history

On Saturday I participated in the North American Migration Count, in which individual counties are scoured by teams of birders each year on the second Saturday in May to produce a “snapshot” of spring bird migration. I live in a very urbanized county, but nonetheless came up with 96 species, even though the weather turned windy and drizzly by afternoon.

We saw 19 species of warblers, including outstanding ones such as Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera) and many Blackburnian Warblers (Dendroica fusca).  Even so, the highlight of the day was flushing an adult American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) and her brood of four young. Woodcock are chubby, clumsy-looking shorebirds adapted to life at the interface of woodlands and open areas, where they feed upon earthworms and other soil invertebrates with their long, rubbery bills. Their dietary Amwogr habits require them to spend lots of time looking down, so in order to detect predators, their eyes are situated far back and high up on their heads, adding to their rather witless looks. Personally, I disregard the awkward construction, and think that woodcocks are one of the most beautiful of birds. Their plumage is intricately patterned in an array of earth tones, providing expert camouflage in dead leaves and vegetation.

Woodcocks are probably best known for their spirited and novel courtship displays, which involve a male stomping around in an open area at dusk, making a “peenting” sound. He then launches himself high into the twilight, spiraling on twittering wings and falling slowly to earth, all the while emitting twinkling, chirping music. Peent, launch, land, repeat. Such is the renown of this sky dancing, it has earned the woodcock many nicknames, including timberdoodle, night partridge, dropping snipe, and Labrador twister.

On Saturday, as my husband and I entered a forest trail from a clearing, he flushed a woodcock. I have scared up many of these birds, as they tend to hang around my field site and sit in my net lanes, rocketing up underfoot as I open the nets at dawn. This woodcock, though, flew away slowly, legs dangling, and making a pathetic sound.

“That’s weird,” I said to my husband, “Is there a nest nearby?”

We looked in front of us and saw not a nest, but a woodcock chick about 10 to 14 days old, judging by its size and extent of feathering. Some down remained, but the partially feathered chick was already gorgeously patterned, and it appeared to melt into the trail side vegetation. I reached for my camera, but suddenly the chick stood up, raised its wings straight into the air, erected its stubby, fan-shaped tail, and ran away. Within seconds, another chick popped up and did the same, followed by another sibling, and still another. These chicks had been completely invisible, and now they were dashing pell-mell through the forest, zig-zagging in different directions, wobbling and wavering as if they were racing on a tightrope, their wings high over their backs as if miming “We surrender! We surrender!”

It was an incredibly charming sight, although it made us wonder why, if the young were so perfectly camouflaged, would they make such a wildly conspicuous retreat? Apparently, in addition to being inexperienced runners, especially over an uneven forest floor littered with randomly placed obstacles, woodcock chicks have a difficult time keeping balance simply due to their ungainly physique. Raising their wings, then, helps them keep their balance. After witnessing this hilarious get-away firsthand, we decided it must also serve to completely disarm an enemy, who would only be able watch in surprise and delight as the next generation of timberdoodles made their great escape.


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