A spring twilight spectacular: American Woodcock’s courtship display

American Woodcock
WOODLAND SHOREBIRD: American Woodcock can be found in forests in the eastern half of North America. It’s the only member of the genus Scolopax in the Americas. Photo by Dalton Rasmussen/Shutterstock

On a spring evening in 1966, biologist Al Geis took Columbia, Maryland’s founder, Jim Rouse, to a clearing in the woods. They hunkered down. As the embers of daylight faded, they witnessed the acrobatic, shuffling, twittering showcase of the American Woodcock’s courtship display. Rouse, the innovative designer of this new suburban community between Baltimore and Washington, was so inspired that he preserved an extra 500 acres of open space in Columbia’s footprint. That tract is now permanently protected in what became the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area.

Fifty years later, I joined 10 other birders in Patuxent River State Park, west of Columbia, on a similar mission. The wide, mowed horseshoe-furrowed trail allowed our group to easily reach the site where we suspected woodcocks would show. The evening program, coordinated by Columbia’s Robinson Nature Center, was entitled “Timberdoodles in the Gloaming.” Gloaming is a synonym for twilight, and “timberdoodle” is the most popular of the many nicknames the American Woodcock has earned since colonial times. No one knows the name’s exact origin, though program leader David Cummings of the Howard County Bird Club has an idea. “Maybe the name ‘doodle’ comes from the way he’s shuffling around when he’s doing his display, but that’s just a guess,” he said. The woodcock’s other nicknames included “big-eye,” “bogsucker,” and “mudbat.”

The woodcock is a plump, oddly shaped bird, between a jay and crow in size, 5 inches tall with an 18-inch wingspan. Dull brown and black camouflage patterns compose its plumage, with a tan to orange underbelly. No neck separates its bulbous body from its round head, from which big black eyes face sideways. A long, narrow bill protrudes at least 2 inches from its face. Being a land relative of shorebirds — in the family of sandpipers and Dunlins — helps explain its unique appearance.

Cummings has seen many a woodcock display — after all, he has been birding for about 50 years. “I used to bird a lot with my family,” he said. Cummings came to Columbia in 1978 and joined the bird club soon after. In 2012, Cummings tied for the club’s record in single-year bird sightings, identifying 231 species in Howard County.

All of us were banking on seeing the woodcocks demonstrate, which happens in specific time windows after sunset and before sunrise. Cummings was a little concerned; though he had seen woodcocks at the site before, that does not necessarily mean they would display here on this particular night. Also, clouds covered the afternoon sky, so we didn’t know when the birds would display.

Male woodcocks typically begin displaying at the first sign of spring, but the exact dates can change each year. “It’s up to the birds,” said Joshua Detweiler, an environmental educator with the Robinson Nature Center who assisted Cummings on our evening excursion.

We reached a clearing and set up camp chairs in a line facing the falling sun, fortunately now visible amid the parting clouds. The clearing was about 120 feet long and half that in length, and the horse trail continued past the other side. Calmly enthusiastic about the upcoming show, we chatted and zipped up our jackets against the mid-March chill. The group ranged from Howard County Bird Club members to fans of the Robinson Nature Center to biologists who study insects and bacteria. A robin’s song brightened the setting, joined every so often by a crow or dove. A drone of distant planes and cars filled the background.

The site seemed to be the perfect place for woodcocks. Woodcocks occupy a particular niche — edge habitats between open field and young forest filled with low brush. Snipes, a close relative, live in marshes or damp fields near water’s edge with low, thick vegetation for cover. So, woodcocks should find this former field, now repopulated naturally with young trees, vines, and matted tufts of grass, to be a suitable home.

View photos of American Woodcock in our galleries

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Adam Gattuso

Adam Gattuso is a science writer based in Maryland. He previously worked as a field geologist.

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