Surveying for the Sky Dancer
Springtime in Illinois is often a time for listening for the melodic love songs of migratory birds. One migrant’s love call, however, is best described as a raspy, nasal “peent.” Those recognizing the call immediately shift their focus from the ground to the sky, watching for a robin-sized bird to make an explosive, steep and spiraling upward flight of nearly 300 feet followed by a plummeting descent to Earth. Witnessing the courtship sky dance of an American woodcock (Scolopax minor) male has been an early springtime ritual for millennia, and one famed wildlife ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote about in A Sand County Almanac.
“Knowing the place and the hour, you seat yourself under a bush to the east of the dance floor and wait, watching against the sunset for the woodcock’s arrival….It is soon too dark to see the bird on the ground, but you can see his flights against the sky for an hour….On moonlight nights, however, it may continue, at intervals, as long as the moon continues to shine.”
A member of the shorebird family, the woodcock can be found in the eastern half of North America. According to the 2004 Illinois Breeding Bird Atlas, the woodcock was a common summer resident throughout the state in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Today it is considered a fairly common breeding species where appropriate habitat—young, shrubby, deciduous forests, old fields and mixed forest-agricultural-urban areas—exists in Illinois. Woodcock rarely overwinter in the Prairie State, with the majority of the birds wintering in the southern states. The woodcock has a stout body, thick neck, and short, round wings. Feathered in shades of tan and brown, the most unique features of the woodcock are perhaps the placement of their large eyes, which allows a bird to scan above and behind its body for predators, and a long, heavy bill that is used to probe the moist soil for earthworms. Earthworms comprise about 60 percent of a woodcocks diet, with the remainder including invertebrates, including insects, spiders and snails.
The American woodcock is a popular game bird throughout eastern North America. It is classified as a North American webless game bird, along with 15 other species of migratory shore (rails, sora, gallinules, coots, sandhill crane and Wilson’s snipe) and upland game (doves and pigeons) birds.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service implemented the American Woodcock Singing-ground Survey (SGS) in 1968 to provide indices to annual changes in woodcock abundance. Conducted in cooperation with the Canadian Wildlife Service, the roadside surveys are undertaken by natural resource agency staff from 19 states and 6 provinces as well as observers from Birds Canada, other U.S. and Canadian government organizations and volunteers. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) has participated in the survey since 1970, with wildlife biologists driving a select portion of the state’s 99 pre-established routes.
Rebecca Rau, National American Woodcock SGS Coordinator with the Migratory Bird Program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service explained “The Migratory Bird Program is responsible for program coordination and compiling, managing and reporting the data, with the U.S. Geological Survey responsible for analyzing the data collected by more than 700 natural resource agency staff and volunteer observers.”
Working to understand why woodcock have declined throughout eastern North America, in 2017 the Eastern Woodcock Migration Research Cooperative initiated a project utilizing GPS and satellite technology to track migrating woodcock. Data collected from tagged woodcocks will assist this international collaborative group to formulate a better understanding of when woodcock initiate migration, how long migration takes, the rate of survival and where woodcock stop during migration.
“Knowing where woodcock stop during migration to rest and refuel will provide valuable information on how habitats can be managed to benefit this species,” Rau explained. “The life history information to be gained from this satellite study will provide valuable insights that both private and public landowners can use to create and improve the young forest habitat that is ideal for woodcock.”
Illinois woodcock singing-ground surveys occur between April 10 and 30 in the southern third of the state, with surveys in the remainder of the state taking place between April 15 and May 5.
“Each survey route consists of 10 stops spaced 0.4 miles apart for a total distance surveyed of 3.6 miles,” Rau explained. “To maximize the potential for hearing singing males, surveyors start each route 22 minutes after sunset if the sky is less than three-quarters overcast, or 15 minutes after sunset if the sky is more than three-quarters overcast. Each route takes about 30 to 38 minutes to complete. Surveyors listen at each stop for 2 minutes with a minute or two of driving time in between.”
Data collected over the past 55 years shows that populations of the American woodcock have steadily fallen throughout their range. In the past 30 years, the decline has been about 1 percent per year. Today, the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan’s lists the woodcock as a shorebird of conservation concern.
The loss of young forest and shrubland habitats—preferred brood rearing and migratory stopover habitats—is the primary cause for declining woodcock populations. Creating or renewing such habitats will not only benefit the American woodcock but an estimated 60 additional wildlife species, including cottontail rabbits, warblers, box turtles and bobcats.
If the sky dance of the American woodcock isn’t enough to endear this bird to you, consider its colorful colloquial names of timberdooble, bogsucker and mudsnipe. And if that isn’t enough, consider its distinctive foraging walk, often referred to as the woodcock wobble. If you haven’t witnessed this behavior, check out one of the YouTube videos available. The wobble is a sight you’ll not forget.
Kathy Andrews Wright is retired from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources where she was editor of Outdoor Illinois magazine. She is currently the editor of Outdoor Illinois Wildlife Journal and Illinois Audubon magazine.