by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
In celebration of National Bird Day 2013, Barry Kent MacKay and Monica Engebretson — senior campaign associates for Born Free USA and lifelong bird enthusiasts — are taking turns in December and January to describe some of their favorite avian species. Below is the ninth and final installment, written by Barry.
American Woodcock: Gentle, Mysterious, Beautiful
When I was a kid Ravenshoe Road was a lonely country road, and one chilly evening in April my parents took me there to join with three other adults in an alder swamp, where I was about to have a memorable adventure. My mom and two of the other adults had permits to catch and band birds. And we were after a species I had never seen, the American Woodcock.
As the sky darkened we hurried into the swamp, where pools of water were losing their last rim of ice and the earliest chorus frogs were starting to call. We heard the fairy-like calls of tiny spring peepers. A full moon was rising. We had to hurry to erect special nets, called mist nets, between pairs of aluminum poles stuck upright in the ground, in openings amid the clumps of alders, birch, willow, white cedar and tamarack. Common gallinules called, unseen, from some distant patch of cattails.
As darkness rose up around us we completed the task. Our eyes adjusted to the darkening, and, with a blazing panoply of stars above, and the full light of the moon to see by, we were ready.
“Look here,” said Frank Lovesy, one of the adult banders, bending down to point to a patch of wet mud. The muck was punctured by small, oblong holes. They had been made by the long, slender beak of an American woodcock, who eats only worms.
(Original artwork by Barry Kent MacKay)
Soon I saw my first, as it flew in the night sky, briefly silhouetted against the luminous moon. A twittering tinkle of musical notes fell to earth. This was the famous breeding display flight. We also heard the very nasal “Bronx cheer” call the birds gave from the ground, a raspy “peeent” sound.
The birds seemed to fly straight up and then descend in spirals to the ground. We would move through the swamp checking each net. No captures. We heard the “winnowing” flight song of a related species, the Wilson’s snipe, but he remained entirely out of view.
As it edged toward midnight we started to talk of leaving. But on our last check, we saw something seeming suspended in air in the darkness ahead. A flashlight clicked on. There it was, a woodcock, suspended in the virtually invisible netting.
Oh what a bird, so soft of feathers, with a long, sensitive beak, huge eyes, warmly rubbery feet and colored in a woodsy harmony of tan, gray, buff, black and brown. Here were the oddly thin three outermost primary wing feathers, believed to be the source of the twittering sound of the flying bird, although one school of thought opined that so sweet a sound was vocal. The bird was rotund, and gentle, so totally harmless and also helpless. Its defenses were all passive: the cryptic coloration and the bird’s subsequent ability to remain still and hidden on leaf-covered ground.
In the following years we stopped banding birds out of humane considerations, but I never stopped admiring, and protecting, woodcocks. I often have seen and sketched another aspect of their breeding display, this one done in daylight, on the ground, when they strut about with drooped wings, spread tails and feathers puffed in a hormone-fueled burst of life-affirming dynamism.
Sadly, most woodcocks I have seen have been in my hands, as I picked them up, many dead, others injured, after they struck tall buildings and other structures during their nocturnal migration. They are among the first species of migrant to arrive in the early spring, and among the last to leave in the late fall, and they are particularly vulnerable to flying into tall objects.
Many of the still-living woodcocks are lightly stunned, and those I, and others like me (see here), have been able to save.
(Original artwork by Barry Kent MacKay)
Woodcocks face other hazards. Those arriving too early in March may die from lack of food if a late freeze-up renders earthworms — by far their major food — unavailable. They can’t probe into frozen ground, or through ice or deep snow. But those who arrive early also have their choice of best nesting in a world where such habitat continually gives way to urban sprawl and agriculture. Late migrants may be deprived of breeding opportunities.
In spite of only weighing in, on average, at about 6 ounces, woodcocks are legal game, shot by hunters. Some years ago hunters were quite distressed by the number of woodcocks found with one eye crumpled and dysfunctional, looking like a raisin in the eye socket. It turns out these were birds who had received a shotgun pellet in just one eye and somehow managed to survive.
If you drew a line, north to south, to evenly divide North America, the normal range of the American Woodcock lies entirely east of the line, and south of the more northern boreal forests. They migrate, in winter, to the southern part of this huge region, below where the ground freezes.
They are technically a type of sandpiper, or shorebird, although never found along the shore. Richer are those of us who see and admire these gentle creatures, with their beautifully intricate patterns and subtle colors, those huge eyes and that absurdly long beak.