By Adrienne Fawcett
Lake Bluff real estate received top billing from American Woodcocks in Lake and Cook Counties, according to a recent birding survey.
Members of Illinois Audubon Society’s Lake/Cook Chapter conducted the survey at the request of the University of Arkansas, which is studying American Woodcock migration. Lake Cook Audubon President Rena Cohen said her organization covered 35 sites in Lake and Cook Counties and that birders counted 12 woodcocks in one night in Lake Bluff’s 35-acre Skokie River Land & Water Reserve, the highest number recorded by the group. The surveys were completed by April 9 because the University calculated that birds staying beyond that date are here to nest, not just migrate through the area.
More recently, on April 19, Lake Bluff Open Lands Association held its annual Woodcock Walk in the same area, and the Woodcocks didn’t disappoint.
So … What’s an American Woodcock and why should we care? Allaboutbirds.com describes American Woodcocks as “plump, short-legged shorebirds with very long, straight bills.” (Click here to listen to the woodcock’s peent call, flight and wing sounds and growling challenge call.)
For images of this interesting bird, please click here.
Lake Bluff’s David Barkhausen ventured out at dusk on Thursday evening, April 17, to see if Woodcocks were in town, and he heard at least three or four from the middle of the Skokie Preserve, which is located south of Route 176, west of Green Bay, and east of the Skokie River a quarter mile east of Route 41. He heard several Woodcocks and had a decent look at one circling overhead and then landing a few times. He also got very close to a Woodcock dancing in circles on the ground while uttering its every-few-seconds loud “peent” cricket-like call.
“After doing this for a minute or more, the male Woodcock takes off high in the air and circles rapidly at around 100-200 feet,” said Barkhausen. “He then descends suddenly, and you hear the whistling flutter of his wings and can often see the bird drop down just before he hits the ground and resumes the ‘peenting’ sound. The bird I was near was in some fairly tall brush, so I could not see him or his dance on the ground even though I was within 50 feet of him.”
Intrigued, he followed up his birding exploration with an email to Lake/Cook Audubon’s Rena Cohen. Here’s a Q&A between the two (published on GazeboNews with their permission).
Barkhausen: Do birdwatchers in search of Woodcocks sometimes use flashlights to try to spot the birds on the ground, or will that scare them off too readily or stop them from doing their “peenting?”
Cohen: Flashlights are discouraged but I can’t tell you for sure if the light will distract the birds in any way.
Barkhausen: How long are they apt to stick around? Do they nest here, or are they migrating? I gather this springtime activity is a mating ritual. How long might it last?
Cohen: Woodcocks do nest here but some just stop here and continue on their way during migration.
A few factoids – these birds arrive early (in late March) because they eat worms and don’t need insects like most spring migrants do. Their beaks have a flexible tip that helps them dig up worms, and their “dance” (Google it if you haven’t seen it) is believed to help them locate worms under the ground. They typically make a 360-degree turn as they peent so it frequently sounds as if they’re moving away even if they aren’t. Also, the sound they make when they fly up in the air to display is made by air passing through three very thin wing feathers that are noticeably thinner than the rest .
Barkhausen: Another question is how long is the mating ritual dance apt to continue? You did say that some of them stay and indicated that if they’re still here (after April 9th), they’re likely to make this home. Would that be until late fall?
Cohen: Hmm, good question! I don’t know when they stop displaying, but the literature says they continue to display long after most females have laid eggs. That can happen as early as March, but I can tell you that one of them at Heller Nature Center was still displaying on Wednesday, and they’re certainly still active now.
Their mating habits are also interesting. Some males display at several singing grounds and mate with multiple females. The female often visits four or more singing grounds before nesting, and she may keep up these visits even while she cares for her young. The male gives no parental care. I guess that’s why he has the energy to keep on doing his courtship flight – which has given him the nickname “sky dancer.”