Special features

Species profile: American Woodcock, America’s sky dancer

The spectacular courtship flights of the American Woodcock are highlights of the spring season
By Chuck Hagner | Published: 2/21/2012

American Woodcock photographed in Wheatley, Ontario. Photo by Brad Ouellette

American Woodcock photographed in Wheatley, Ontario.
Photo by Brad Ouellette

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Not all shorebirds are found at the shore.

One, the American Woodcock, never sets foot on a beach. It’s a dry-land shorebird, the only member of its family to seek out the hush of the forest floor.

Round, long-billed, and short-tailed, it may be the oddest shorebird you will ever see — author and birder Pete Dunne famously summarized its appearance as “meatloaf on a stick” — but the truth is, you may never see the bird well.

That’s because the woodcock spends the daylight hours on the ground in shady, damp deciduous or mixed woods, not in sunny open spaces, and because its dark brown, buff, and black plumage lets it blend perfectly into the leaves of the forest floor, where it nests. My best views have come on rare occasions when I nearly stepped on the bird, causing it to burst loudly from the forest floor and fly away in a panic, legs dangling.

A better strategy for seeing American Woodcock is to watch its spectacular courtship flights, which the male makes annually to attract a mate. They occur not in the woods, but in abandoned farm fields, forest gaps and cuts, pastures, power-line rights of way, and other open areas.

Birdwatchers consider the displays highlights of the spring season, but you’ll have to get up early or stay out late to see them, since they occur only before dawn and after dusk. The best times are about 45 minutes before sunrise and half an hour after sunset.

Since the action occurs in near darkness, the birds are difficult to see, but they’re a delight to listen to. Your first clue that the show is about to begin will be a low-pitched nasal beeping call, often written as peent! or beezp! The woodcock makes the call while still on the ground.

Listen to the song of American Woodcock.

Next you will hear a musical twittering or tremolo sound, created as the bird spirals upward 200 feet or higher and wind rushes past its three outermost wing feathers, causing them to vibrate.

After the flight reaches its apex, the performance concludes with a chorus of vocal chirping, sung by the woodcock as it falls back to earth, zig-zagging left and right, banking, and then pitching down near where it started.

It’s a great show, well worth looking for, and the best part? Wait just a minute, and the bird will repeat the whole performance, sometimes as many as 20 times, and often in the company of other displaying males.

American Woodcock breeds throughout the eastern half of the continent from southern Canada to the Gulf states. You can enjoy its courtship flights as early as January in Texas and other southern states and as late as June in Wisconsin, Maine, and other northern areas.

See an interactive range map for American Woodcock.

Chuck Hagner is the editor of BirdWatching. A version of this article also appeared in the April 2012 issue of Cabin Life magazine.

Have you photographed the American Woodcock? Share your photos in our galleries!