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In the woods, you often take things for granted. We will see deer almost every day out here, turkeys, songbirds, et cetera; but it is important to refrain from the callous demeanor of overlooking these things that make living out here so special. In keeping with my recent theme of wildlife sightings, I want to give credit to a local bird that is often overlooked, both because of its elusive nature and conservative appearance.
Most of my free time these days is spent trying to keep up with the grass. With rain every other day, broken up by sunshine, the lawn is relentless. So there I was this week, tooling along on the mower, just heading into a new section, when a football-sized bird flies up before me and comes to rest 30 or so yards away in a bush. Several small teetering puffballs followed suit, while others seemed to disappear into the forest floor. Not wanting to hit the young birds with the mower, I stopped and began to look for them. I must have walked over and around them for several minutes before I finally found one in plain sight, but so well camouflaged that it need only stay still amongst the leaves and twigs to effectively evade a typical glance. No larger than a golf ball, the small bird was a light brown with darker markings along its back. Just like its mother, it bore a long straw-like beak. Instantly I knew I was looking at a baby American woodcock.
The mother was still visible from a distance in the bush where she took refuge. Normally when I see woodcocks, it is for a fleeting moment before they are long gone. They tend to be fairly skittish, however, with her flock not all caught up, she appeared to be performing her motherly duties by waiting for the threat to pass. Without much ado, I clicked some close up photos of the little guy and attempted to stroke his back. This is where things got comical.
Upon moving toward him and photographing him, the little woodcock never moved or said a thing. But when it came to me touching him, it was a whole different matter. He suddenly stood up, raised both tiny wings straight over his head and began walking like a seagull on the beach while crying out, “Ma, ma, ma!” He wasn’t very fast and had a sort of toy soldier type of gait as he waddled away from me, wings still straight up in the air.
I decided not to distress him or his mother anymore and left him to be collected by her in due time. I had plenty of other places to mow in the meantime and would come back when I wasn’t worried about disturbing any other young woodcocks that had nestled about in the foliage.
After this unique little sighting in the woods, I decided to check in with the Audubon society to learn a few things about the bird I just saw. I knew what a woodcock was, but I had never actually given them a lot of thought since they are not as common as turkeys or bluebirds. Since they look somewhat like a grouse, I thought they might be related, but in fact I was surprised to learn that they are related to the sandpiper family. The long bill, as you might have guessed, is the primary reason for this. They use it to rummage around in the forest floor for earthworms and other delicious tidbits. According to the latest report from Audubon, the American woodcock is on the decline but not so much as to be considered endangered. In fact, while here in the U.S. they are in decline, our neighbor to the north seems to be reporting a growing population in areas where healthy forestry is being practiced. The brush cover and cleared timber provide the ideal habitat that these birds look for.
Ornithology (the study of birds) can be pretty fun—not that I was out actively looking for woodcocks—and it’s one of those hobbies anyone can participate in just by being outside. That’s good wholesome fun and learning, and that’s the way out here.