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American Woodcocks’ Wintry Arrival

3-20-17 A. Woodcock 014Over the past decade or so, there appears to be a trend of increasingly early American Woodcock arrivals on breeding grounds in Vermont. It used to be that when March arrived, you started looking for the very first returning migrants. Now you need to keep your eyes open for this forest-dwelling shorebird in February.

The start of the Woodcock migration northward and the rate of their progress is said to be greatly influenced by photoperiod and weather. With the unusually warm weather we had in February and early March this year, American Woodcocks, as well as several other migratory species, have been returning earlier than normal. Since their return, we have had early thaws interspersed with hard frosts and several days in a row staying below freezing which created a hard crust on what snow remained. This was followed by a storm that dumped one to two feet of snow on the ground and colder than usual temperatures.

Migration is demanding enough on birds, but those fortunate enough to reach their destination then have to find food and stay warm.  It is most challenging for those species with a fairly limited diet, such as Woodcocks, whose diet consists primarily of earthworms. In a typical year there are frequently brief freezes after Woodcocks return, and even storms that leave several inches of snow. But it warms up relatively quickly and there are usually ditches and wet, thawed areas where long bills can probe the soil for life-sustaining food. Not so this year – a deadly combination of early arrivals and late frigid weather spells disaster for American Woodcocks.

The Raptor Center, a wild bird rehabilitation center in New Jersey, reports that during a recent 24-hour period, they admitted more Woodcocks than in all of 2016. After flying hundreds of miles, these birds are exhausted and very hungry when they arrive on their breeding grounds. Should you find one in distress, you can locate a wildlife rehabilitator that accepts birds (in all states) by going to www.owra.org/find-a-wildlife-rehabilitator .

Special thanks to Maeve Kim and Ian Worley for the data and information in this post.

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7 responses

  1. Alice Pratt

    That’s another very unhappy and dire forecast. I really hope all the early migrating amphibians, birds and any other animals will find shelter and food.

    March 20, 2017 at 8:34 am

  2. Phil

    So sorry to hear that. In Lamoille County I would watch the fabulous maiting rituals when the pussywillows were “furry “. The woodcock is a bird to treasure.

    March 20, 2017 at 9:23 am

  3. Thank you for this info Mary. I was just thinking about the woodcocks while out snowshoeing yesterday, in snowcovered fields where we usually enjoy watching their courtship displays in April. Those fields had been completely open a week or so ago. Will keep an eye out…poor birds, so worrisome. Hopefully this snow and ice will melt fast and some form of balance will be restored…

    March 20, 2017 at 9:31 am

  4. Kathryn

    Is there anything WE can do, Mary? I unfortunately don’t have a cache of frozen earthworms but…

    March 20, 2017 at 9:52 am

  5. Poor things – I haven’t heard/seen any yet, but I’ll keep an eye out.

    March 20, 2017 at 10:30 pm

  6. Irma Graf

    Where do they overwinter, Mary? How far away are they coming from?

    March 21, 2017 at 6:37 pm

  7. Southern U.S., Irma.

    March 22, 2017 at 7:50 am

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