With the rise in evening temperature over the last two weeks, the Woodcocks have made their presence known. A very secretive and well camouflaged resident and migrant of New Jersey, the American Woodcock blends in easily with the under-story and can go unnoticed save for its explosive flight from underfoot should you almost step on one. Eyes situated almost behind their head, they have better vision behind them than in front of them…which I guess helps see your foot!
Of course, the other time you might be fortunate enough to see a woodcock (or Timber doodle, as they’re also called) is during their elaborate nuptial display flights. We’re pretty lucky in that we have a nice wet field adjacent to the woods behind our house, and so we get a few woodcocks each year, strutting their stuff on the ground, and taking flight in a whirring, twittering display. It’s both wonderful and comical.
Last night I was able to record one bird doing his typical “Peent” call. I had positioned myself in the field just before dark, on the edge of some cedar trees so that I could “blend in” as much as someone as imposing as myself can blend into a field. Just before it got too dark to see, a woodcock came flying across the field, banked slightly toward me about 10 feet away, and coasted into the bare area of field just 5 feet away from where I was seated. I was shocked! There was a tiny little cedar tree in between the bird and myself (about 1 foot tall) and I couldn’t see the bird. I decided this was okay, because it probably couldn’t see me either…so I pointed the microphone at it and waited.
A few seconds later I heard this guttural sound that I know was the bird, but had never heard before. I’ve heard Cape Sable seaside sparrows do a little pre-song bill clapping only audible at very close distances, and this was similar in that it sounded like some kind of pre-song gurgling. Then it happened
So this went on for a good 4 minutes, without the bird flying up and doing its aerial display. I think it was just a bit too cold and a bit too windy for the full ensemble. I then realized that I was picking up a rustling noise in the leaves to my right, but I dared not move. I glanced to the right with my eyes only, and noticed another Woodcock coming in. Each time the first one went “Peent”, the second one would waddle a little closer in the direction of the singer. What a funny looking bird- waddling around the field floor. Then I picked up another sound, more rustling, this time louder. A rabbit! A rabbit came hopping up; in between me and the second bird (the other bird was about 4 feet away- so the rabbit was at about 2 feet). “This is crazy” I thought. “Okay rabbit, don’t blow my cover!” The rabbit took one look at me and seemed disinterested and moved on. Woodcock number two made it within a foot of woodcock number one, and then number one exploded into the air and away over the woods. Not interested? Spooked? I have no clue. Woodcock number two kept waddling toward the spot where number one had been calling from, and within a minute of number one leaving, number two took flight in the same direction. I still don’t know what caused it, maybe I finally got into view for the birds, or maybe they were just heading off in search of better fields. Either way, no more woodcocks were heard over the next ten minutes, and at that point it was too dark to see, so I packed up my things and headed back to the house.
Unfortunately the weather has turned cold again, so I’ll have to wait for a little warm up before getting anymore impressive displays. In the meantime, I’ve made several clips of the recordings so you can check them out. There are 4 in total:
1. A segment of the “peent” vocalization, at regular speed.
2. The same recording, but incrementally slowed down to 1/2 speed, then to 1/4 speed.
3. The same recording as #1, but at 1/2 speed
4. The same recording as #1, but at 1/4 speed (you can really hear the individual notes that make up the guttural vocalization)
Recordings made with a Sennheiser ME66 shotgun mic connected to a Marantz PMD670 Compact Flash recorder
Click on the image to view full-sized
Sonograms made in the awesome and FREE program Syrinx
You gotta love the Birds of North America species accounts. This is from the American Woodcock account:
Most commonly heard are the Peent, Tuko, Chirping, and Cackle of males during display at dawn and dusk. Limited information otherwise.
The Peent is a single, short (0.2 s), buzzy note ( Fig. 3a) repeated repetitively while on the ground (see Fig. 4); usually described as peent but also eeee, eeent, wheent, among others (Pettingill 1936: 292). Peents are unmistakeable, yet may be confused with sound made by high-flying common nighthawks (Chordeiles minor). Visual inspection of spectrograms may differentiate among a small number of males. Total call duration, frequency, and pulse rate at 30–36 and 36–42 dB contours best differentiate males (Weir and Graves 1982), yet sophisticated analyses cannot completely distinguish individual males over time from large population. No convincing evidence that females Peent. Male rotates on ground causing directional change in intensity of Peent. Audible to humans ≤ 235 m (Duke 1966). Male performances at dawn and dusk begin and terminate with long, slow Peenting bouts: in New Brunswick, ≥ 7.0 min (n = 66) and ≥ 6.0 min (100), respectively (DMK). Excluding these slow first and last sessions, Peenting bouts average 10 per crepuscular performance and their duration averages (± SD) 1.6 ± 1.4 min (n = 840, range 0.1–10.4 min); Peenting rate in these bouts averages 19.3 ± 6.4 Peents/min (2,039, 15 males over 4 yr, 0.4–81.1 Peents/min; DMK).
Individual Peent preceded by Tuko, a short (0.3 s), subdued (1kHz), quavering tuukoo, also interpreted as wh’ook, koo, and ka-rurr (Pitelka 1943), among others (Pettingill 1936:294). The two sounds usually merge into one, e.g., tuukooeeent ( Fig. 3a). Male may utter Tuko alone at widely separated intervals (0.2–30 s) initially after alighting on display area or when alert to strange sound. Male Tukos during display to female (J. Longcore pers. comm.). Audible to humans at about 50 m.
Chirping is a fast, repetitive series of 4–6, melodious, twittering notes at 2–6 kHz ( Fig. 3c) during Song Flights, rendered as chirp-chirp-Chirpchirpchirp, … (Pettingill 1936: 290, Sheldon 1967: 38). Duration of Chirping about 15 s. The rapid, harsh Cackle is most intense at 3–5 kHz ( Fig. 3d), given as ca-ca-ca-ca-ca. Given by a male flying low over another peenting male, cackling appears to be aggressive challenge; may cause resident to increase Peenting rate or give chase; may Cackle during chase. Cackle sometimes given while bird on ground, particularly if two Peenting males close. Other vocalizations elicited by females and chicks not well known, most appear to reflect alarm or brood cohesion (Sheldon 1967: 39–40).
From: Keppie, D. M. and R. M. Whiting, Jr. 1994. American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). In The Birds of North America, No. 100 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists’ Union.