By Margo D. Beller
“The woodcock is a living refutation of the theory that the utility of a game bird is to serve as a target, or to pose gracefully on a slice of toast. No one would rather hunt woodcock in October than I, but since learning of the sky dance I find myself calling one or two birds enough. I must be sure that, come April, there be no dearth of dancers in the sunset sky.” -- Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac 1949
The sun goes down as a warm early-April Sunday that begins to chill thanks to a clear sky. We're on a damp path near a small pond - Esox Pond, to be exact, in Somerset County's 950-acre Lord Sterling Park - looking at a brushy field and waiting for an American Woodcock to start its mating call.
From late February to about May, these plump, Robin-sized, land-based shorebirds, whose brown, mottled covering helps them blend well in cover, do something very unusual as they attempt to perpetuate the species.
To eat they probe for earthworms with their long bills in brushy fields, near wetlands, which is why Lord Sterling naturalist Ben Barkley and Mike Anderson, director of New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary, have led a dozen of us to this spot, where Barkley knows some males like to congregate. According to Barkley, there could be as many as 30 Woodcocks at Lord Sterling, while Scherman Hoffman has about a dozen, including two males heard within the last few days from the fields by the Vernal Pool, according to Anderson.
As the sun goes down (see at left) and we wait, we see Great Blue Herons, a Cooper's Hawk and Wood Ducks, among others, fly over as they look for a good place for the night's roost. Robins are calling. As the darkness spreads, male frogs - Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers, at this time of year - begin a loud, continuous chorus as they try to attract mates.
In the middle of this cacophony, at around 7:30 p.m., we hear the first nasal peent of the Woodcock. We have been led here earlier to get the birds used to our presence, ahead of the hoped-for show.
One peent leads to another and then six more before there is silence. No one makes a sound as the sky gets darker. Then the peents begin again, this time from another direction. And then another. Soon there are four or five male Woodcocks calling.
But that is not what we are there to see.
When I have seen an American Woodcock, it is usually when it is almost literally underfoot. Because they blend into the leaf litter so well, you frequently don't see one until it flies up at your approach - as one did a few years ago near the entrance to the Scherman Hoffman yellow trail along the Passaic - or scurries away, its crunching of the underbrush the only way I could find it.
Sometimes these nocturnal birds will be along roadsides, which is how Mike Anderson got his picture (see below) of one near New Jersey’s Sparta Mountain a few years ago. I've never been able to photograph Scolopax minor, even on the very early morning a few springs ago when a Woodcock was peenting from the roof of my house!
At dawn or dusk during breeding season, the Woodcock shows why it got its other name of Timberdoodle.
Imagine a 9-inch elephant (as seen sitting from the back) sprouting small wings, taking a giant leap into the sky - 200 to 300 feet - and then coming back to earth in a zig-zag pattern while its three outer primary feathers make a twittering sound as it lands on or near its jumping-off point.
"There it goes," said Anderson. While I didn't hear the sound of the wings I did see the bird - once I realized it was not a particularly large bat flying where the little bit of remaining light allowed me to see it.
As with the calling, once one started flying, so did other males. One female flew in low to investigate. Once she and a male mates, she will build a nest on the ground and lay three to five eggs. She will sit on the nest for three weeks. The hatched young will leave the nest after two weeks.
According to Barkley, Woodcocks are considered a "resident" species in New Jersey, although individuals do migrate.
Woodcock is not an endangered bird but its life is not easy. According to the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, the Woodcock can be hunted during migratory duck season in Autumn. The state lumps Woodcock in with Rails, Snipes, Coots and Moorhens in its rules of what licensing is required.
According to Mike Anderson, overhunting is just one reason for the decline in the Woodcock population. Another is disappearing habitat. There are fewer brushy fields, and those that were around 40 years ago are becoming wooded areas that, in turn, are cut down for housing developments.
Places like Scherman Hoffman, Lord Sterling and the nearby federal Great Swamp, as well as other parts of the National Wildlife Refuge system, are managed to help the Woodcock population, Anderson said.
Meanwhile, in the darkness there are male Woodcocks flying around everywhere. One takes off in front of us and I follow it with binoculars as it rockets into the dim light and disappears, only to suddenly swoop down and buzz us about 10 feet away as it lands. Barkley puts on his flashlight and there he sits, the star of the show, the Timberdoodle, still as a statue, waiting for the light to be turned off.
But we don't want it off. We want to look at the mottling of its back and take a picture of this strange creature few of us see. Several of us grab our phones but we're too late and it silently takes off for the brush.
"Can't do much better than that," Barkley said. And so we leave to a mounting chorus of Woodcock, Wood Frog and Peepers calling in the cold darkness of a not-so-silent night.