American Woodcock, The Forest Species Few Have Seen

By Ashley Peele 30 Jan 2018

Figure 1. American Woodcock Female (Brian Murphy)

For many, the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) remains a somewhat mysterious species and for good reason.  A forest-dwelling bird species doesn’t seem remarkable until we consider that the woodcock is in the shorebird family, Scolopacidae.  Suddenly, this species takes on a much more intriguing aspect.  Adding to it’s mystique, the American Woodcock is highly cryptic, displaying beautiful tawny, black and gray plumage that blends perfectly with brown grasses and woody debris of forest floors.  Lastly, they are not well studied and gaps exist in our knowledge of their life history.

Given all of this, what DO we know about the American Woodcock (AMWO)? 

Where AMWO dwell…  Open fields or large forest openings are ideal for the display flights of male American Woodcock.  In particular, males prefer to use young forests and abandoned farmlands for singing grounds.  When foraging, woodcock prefer moist forest floors, which are likely to have an abundance of prey like earthworms lurking in the soil.  Their long bills, similar to that of a snipe, are extremely sensitive and used to probe for prey in the soft soils.  During the breeding season, female woodcock similarly place nests in young or middle-aged forests with lots of openings and damp soils.  An Atlas volunteer located an AMWO nest in shrubs and grasses ~10 yards from an ephemeral stream (Figure 2).

Figure 2. AMWO nest location in SW VA Atlas Block (Brian Murphy)

What AMWO sound like… Many people are familiar with the ‘peent’ call given by males, both to communicate with other males and to attract females.  Males give this call, before and after doing their characteristic display flight in which they fly to a great height before spiraling back down towards earth.  As they ascend, the male woodcock produce a ‘twittering’ sound.  This was long believed to be a vocalization, but researchers have demonstrated this is actually a mechanical noise, produced by air moving between the outer flight feathers, or primaries, of each wing.  Upon reaching the peak of their ascent, males spiral downward, producing a complex series of call notes prior to landing.

When AMWO arrive… They are already here!  According to the VA Gold Book, American Woodcock are uncommon to common winter residents in the coastal plain and uncommon winter residents in the Piedmont, Mountains and Valleys.  A quick look at eBird reports show that birders around VA have been reporting male ‘peenting’ calls, since late December.  These displays are likely resident or overwintering birds.  Peak migration of woodcock occurs from February-March in Virginia.

Figure 3. AMWO nest after hatching. (Brian Murphy)

When AMWO breeding begins…  While American Woodcock are considered uncommon summer residents, their cryptic plumage and quiet behavior in the forests means they may often go undetected.  Egg laying dates range from: 11 Feb-21 Apr (Coastal Plain), 3 Mar-20 May (Piedmont), and 1 Apr-18 May (Mountains and Valleys).  However, local reports of AMWO nests in southwestern VA show AMWO females consistently laying eggs by late February or early March.  If this is the case in the mountains, it’s likely that more eastern nesting woodcock are similarly active by late winter.

So, with all of these uncertainties, how should Atlas surveyors assess AMWO in their block?

Identifying likely habitat is the key step.  Consider whether your block has open habitats and young forests or regenerating farmland that AMWO prefer.  Then, do a little evening or dawn stake out for displaying males.  While woodcock will display during migration, their presence in winter indicates that the location is indeed a good one for the species.  Once the nesting season has begun (early February), strolling through likely forest patches is the best way to pick up woodcock on nests, flush family groups, etc.  However, this effort should be combined with your regular Atlas efforts.  I only recommend directing effort toward AMWO searching, if you have good habitat and reason to believe they may be nesting in the area.  The hunters amongst us may already know likely areas to check out for AMWO, since their time in the woods can familiarize them with AMWO and other cryptic forest species.

Story of an AMWO confirmation!

Brian Murphy, an atlas volunteer and professor of Fisheries Science at Virginia Tech, shared his story of finding American Woodcock breeding on his property last winter.  After documenting males displaying in February of 2016, Brian’s dog, a pointer, flushed the female off her nest.  He was able to find the nest and confirm the female was on eggs.  (Note!  Great care was and should always be used when approaching potential nest areas.  Females can abandon nests if too much disturbance occurs, so always use caution.  Dogs are in fact a great tool for assessing AMWO presence, but only well trained animals should be used.)  In April, Brian’s dog found the AMWO chicks and Brian was able to confirm all four eggs hatched and chicks had fledged.  This female nested in grass beneath tall shrubs (see Figure 4).  The shrub cover, moist soils, and adjacent fields made this an ideal location for an AMWO nest.

Figure 4. AMWO Fledglings. Can you spot them? (Brian Murphy)

The American Woodcock is an interesting species and one that is typically under-reported for breeding bird atlas projects.  If you think you may have good habitat in your Atlas block or your property, spend some evening listening for the plaintive ‘peents’ and twittering of male woodcocks displaying.  You may be surprised what you find.

Huge thanks to Atlas volunteer and VT professor, Brian Murphy for contributing his photos and sharing his experience.

-Ashley Peele, PhD, State Coordinator for the VA Breeding Bird Atlas