116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
I still can remember the first time I saw an American woodcock.
Toward the end of my high school days, I did a fair amount of hunting. I remember walking a stand of timber and flushing an unfamiliar creature from the leaf litter. Having a well-rounded animal background, I wondered why something that looked like a shorebird would be flying through the woods.
It turns out my suspicions were correct. The woodcock is indeed a shorebird; however, it has adapted to a life on the forest floor.
Woodcocks are found in the Upper Midwest and Northeast, including southern portions of Canada, where they are breeders only in the warmer months. They are permanent residents of the southeast and wintering residents in eastern Oklahoma and Texas, southern Louisiana and southern Florida.
The common name comes from the Old English 'wudu cocc,” which means 'little chicken of the woods” or 'woodland bird easily caught.”
The woodcock is a master of disguise. They are very well-camouflaged, having a beautifully detailed backside consisting of dark-centered feathers with buffy edging accompanied by long gray stripes. The underside is more of a solid buffy coloration.
Woodcocks are plump birds with an oddly shaped head. They have a long, flesh-colored bill. The head is peaked with large eyes sitting on the sides near the apex. This eye position gives them 'bubble vision,” which offers a 360-degree surrounding view, including vision above them while they hide on the forest floor.
They use their long, narrow bill to probe the soil for invertebrates such as worms and grubs. The top mandible of the bill can flex like a finger to help grasp food.
Woodcocks make a couple characteristic sounds during mating season. The classic sound is the 'peent,” which is a very short, insect-like sound. This vocalization is made on the ground. The woodcock can move its head in different directions while peenting in a stationary position, which makes them sound closer or farther away.
They also make a twittering sound when doing their 'sky dance.” This flight display consists of a male shooting up into the air, sometimes hundreds of feet, while zigzagging back downward. The outermost flight feathers are modified to cut the air, which helps make the unique sound.
Females do all the nesting, which occurs in a shallow depression on the forest floor. Nestlings are born well-developed, leaving the nest and being able to run almost hours after hatching. After about a week they can already forage on their own efficiently, breaking the bonds with mom after about a month.
Woodcocks are difficult to see during the day. With a little luck, quietly and carefully hiking around woodland/grassland edge habitat might be fruitful. An easier time to hear or see one is around dusk and throughout the nighttime hours. A spotlight helps to find them by following their peenting sound. Some popular places to look or hear woodcocks in the area include: Pleasant Creek SRA and Wanatee Park in Linn County; Atherton Wetland, Waterworks Prairie Park and Mormon Handcart Park in Johnson County.
One odd behavior of the woodcock is their 'shuffle” walk. This walking style shifts their weight from one foot to another as they repeat stepping forward and backward. It is thought that the weight shifting causes worms and other invertebrates to move underneath them, which they can apparently sense.
Funny link to the woodcock 'shuffle” walk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ne6nj9AgY7M
BIRDS TO LOOK FOR APRIL
- Baltimore oriole will show up in late April, so have your feeder setups ready by the last week of the month. By the earliest of May, they should be back in full force throughout Eastern Iowa. Rose-breasted grosbeak shows up in a similar fashion.
- Yellow-rumped warbler should already be around by the beginning of April. Other wood warblers to look for in late April include ovenbird, northern parula, common yellowthroat, Louisiana and Northern waterthrush, black-and-white, Tennessee, orange-crowned, yellow, palm, pine and Nashville warblers.
- Five of our six swallow species start coming back in April. Tree swallows should be detectable by the end of March. Purple Martin along with northern rough-winged, barn and cliff swallows should steadily increase in detection throughout the month. Bank swallow is the last to show up, around mid-April.
- Golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglet should be detectable throughout the entire month of April. By mid- to late May these two species have migrated northward and out of Iowa to breeding grounds.
- Blue-gray gnatcatcher and house wren will show up early April, steadily increasing in numbers throughout the month.
- Gray catbird will start arriving in numbers at the tail end of April.
- April is the peak month of migration for hermit thrush in Iowa.
- While dark-eyed junco and American tree and fox sparrows exit Iowa to their northern breeding grounds toward the end of April, other sparrow species, like chipping, field, vesper, Savannah, Lincoln's and Eastern towhee all grown in abundance throughout April. Lark sparrow shows up toward the end of April and will be one of the first Iowa breeding sparrow species to leave, typically in late August.
- Look for the peak of broad-winged Hawk migration toward the end of the month. They are gregarious migrant raptors, often found in large groups as they slowly progress northward. Some will remain in Eastern Iowa for breeding.
- Lots of shorebird species either show back up to breed or migrate through Eastern Iowa in April. If habitat persists at places like Hawkeye WMA or Coralville Lake and/or sheet water persists in agricultural fields, shorebird viewing can be very exciting throughout the month.
- Early to mid-April still can be exceptional for waterfowl diversity. Cone Marsh in early to mid-April can host an impressive variety. Hawkeye WMA also is another great place for heightened waterfowl diversity in April.
Brandon Caswell has undergraduate degrees in biology, anthropology and geology. He enjoys bird-watching and nature photography. He helps instruct introductory and advanced courses in environmental science and geoscience at the University of Iowa. Email firstname.lastname@example.org