Profile of a light brown bird with dark speckling on the ground. Very long bill and tail cocked upright.

Greg Lambeth

Environmental Almanac - March 18, 2016

Return of the American woodcock—another March madness

One of the early season highlights of birding in central Illinois is the widespread return in March of a bird called the American woodcock. Indeed, for some birders this phenomenon holds just as much interest as that other one more commonly known as March madness.

The woodcock belongs to the shorebird family, whose more familiar members include sandpipers and plovers. But unlike its cousins, the woodcock prefers habitat composed of moist woods, open fields, and brushy swamps. You won’t see a woodcock poking along beaches or mud flats the way other shorebirds do. Most of the time the woodcock is so secretive and so well camouflaged that unless you witness its courtship display, you’re likely to see one only if you come close to stepping on in it, and it flushes. Then you are startled by an explosion of wings at your feet, after which you’ll have five to ten seconds to watch the bird fly before it lands and takes cover again.

On the ground, the woodcock’s appearance suggests that it was constructed by a birdmaker who didn’t pay strict attention to the shorebird blueprint. It’s a plump bird, about eleven inches long altogether, although its bill accounts for three of those inches. This bill is highly sensitive, which enables woodcocks detect the vibrations made by earthworms underground. And it features a flexible tip that can be opened to grasp worms even while the rest of the bill remains closed. 

A woodcock’s eyes bulge out like black, stick-on doll-eyes that are attached in the wrong spot—just a little too high up, and too far back on its head. Odd as it may look, this arrangement allows the woodcock a super wide field of vision—nearly three hundred sixty degrees. This is quite a useful adaptation for a bird that spends so much time with its nose to the ground.

Appearances aside, what endears the woodcock to birders is the strange and elaborate courtship ritual that the males perform at dusk and dawn in the spring. Many people have written to describe this behavior, although none so eloquently as Aldo Leopold, whose book, A Sand County Almanac, has done so much to inspire the modern conservation movement.

This is how Leopold describes the male woodcock’s “sky dance”:

He flies in low from some neighboring thicket, alights on the bare moss, and at once begins the overture: a series of queer throaty peents spaced about two seconds apart, and sounding much like the summer call of the nighthawk.

Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter. Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began and there resumes peenting.

Depending on conditions, the male woodcock may repeat this performance for a half hour or more.

If you would like to see the sky dance for yourself but don’t know where to look, check out one of the upcoming “Woodcock Walks” conducted by the Champaign County Forest Preserve District

See more bird photos by Greg Lambeth at http://greglambethbirdphotos.smugmug.com/

Rob Kanter

Environmental Almanac - March 04, 2016

Appreciating Illinois amphibians and the habitats that support them

It may be too early in the year to contemplate April showers bringing May flowers. But in much of Illinois heavy rains in late February and early March trigger an astonishing and ancient natural phenomenon—the annual congregation of amphibians in the waters where they breed.

Two small birds perched on a branch. They are

Environmental Almanac - February 18, 2016

Birding abroad: Part 2

Although the other members of my family enjoy a range of outdoor activities when we travel together, I like to spend more time birding than they do. I especially enjoy staking out a spot where I can spend some quality time with my camera early in the morning.

Dark bird of prey soaring against a blurred background of city buildings.

Environmental Almanac - February 05, 2016

Birding abroad

Dakar is home base for my daughter Jane, a UI junior majoring in Global Studies who is studying in Senegal for the academic year. So that’s where our family’s two-week visit with her over the recent holidays began, and where I had my first opportunity to see African birds.

Rob Kanter

Environmental Almanac - January 21, 2016

Wildlife moments from 2015

Why would a blackbird attack a deer? Why would a green heron drop a crabapple into a pond and fish it out again? Find out in this week's episode, as the author looks back at some puzzling observations from 2015.

Rob Kanter

Environmental Almanac - January 14, 2016

2016 is the year for rooftop solar in Champaign County

Do you own a house, a business, or a farm in Champaign County? If so, you can benefit from a new program sponsored by the City of Urbana that secures a big discount in the price for rooftop solar by bringing consumers together to buy as a group, from a contractor selected through a competitive bidding process.

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