Over 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.
Among ground-nesting birds in the Northeast, the American Woodcock, also known as the Timberdoodle, is one of the earliest to lay eggs – usually around mid- to late April. The female shapes a shallow depression in the leaf litter and then incubates her eggs for about three weeks. During this time, if she is sufficiently disturbed, the female will flush and feign injury. She usually lands nearby, runs about with her tail spread, wings drooping and her body quivering, uttering a cat-like sound to distract potential predators.
Upon hatching, the precocial chicks are brooded until their down dries and then leave the nest, usually within hours of hatching. For the first week or so they are dependent upon their mother feeding them, but soon are finding their own food. In a little over a month, the chicks become completely independent. (Thanks to Susan Morse and Phillip Mulligan for photo op.)