Known for migrating incredible distances, the shorebirds are often referred to as “wind birds,” a romantic allusion to their habit of taking wing for the epic journeys that astound scientists and birders alike.
Among the far-flung family known as the shorebirds are species known as sandpipers and plovers, as well as whimbrels, willets, tattlers, godwits, turnstones and an array of others.
Still, among the general public, as well as some birders, the shorebirds are a much misunderstood group of birds. For example, most people could hardly be blamed for believing that shorebirds are inhabitants of only the beach and shore.
In fact, some species are at home in a variety of habitats, ranging from woodlands and prairies to the Arctic tundra and mudflats. Some are notoriously elusive, their camouflage and low-key behavior allowing them to escape casual notice at most times.
In late winter and early spring, a true oddball among the shorebirds begins courting. The American woodcock, also known by such whimsical names as “bog sucker” and “timberdoodle,” is a shorebird that has completely abandoned the shore in favor of woodlands and fields. Beginning as early as February, American woodcocks in the region conduct nightly courtship displays, starting at dusk, that combine aerial acrobatics with an assortment of unusual acoustical flourishes. Any wet field adjacent to a wooded area could offer a stage for these evening displays, but unless you know where to look and make an effort to do so, the American woodcock might as well remain a phantom of the night.
These mating rituals provide almost the only time of the year during which this bird makes itself available for observation. It’s only during this brief window that opens into their lives that we can be assured a glimpse. Even then, our peeks at woodcocks often consist of a fuzzy twilight escapade as the bird flings itself heavenward only to make a spiraling descent a few seconds later. The displays begin with a distinct vocalization, a type of “pent,” that also has the quality of sounding like some sort of mechanical buzzer.
Once the displays conclude for the season, the birds assume nesting duties, usually unobserved by humans. The rest of the year, almost nothing but blind, sheer luck would allow a birder to stumble across an American woodcock. It’s almost as if they disappear after these spring flights of fancy.
Of course, they don’t actually disappear. They are still out there, going about their daily lives. On occasion, someone can stumble across one without even trying.
Amy Tipton can claim to be so fortunate after she and her husband, Paul, recently encountered an “unusual bird” on Unaka Mountain near the well-known Beauty Spot.
“We had gone to the Beauty Spot to watch the sunset on Sunday, June 27,” Amy wrote in a Facebook message to me. “It was the 20th anniversary of our first date.”
On the way back to the Jeep, Paul noticed a very unusual bird. He pointed out the bird and asked Amy if she knew what it was.
“It was just sitting at the edge of the parking area where the gravel/dirt road meets the tall grass,” Amy wrote. “It was not dark enough to keep us from seeing it, but plenty dark enough to keep me from getting a good photo.”
Amy said that she knew she only had one chance to get a photo.
“I set the flash and hoped for the best,” she wrote. “It’s blurry, but I’m thankful I was able to get anything. As soon as the flash fired, it made a funny noise and flew into the trees.”
Amy added, “It looked more like a sea bird to me, and we thought it might have flown off course. We had no idea such a strange bird lived on Unaka Mountain. We’ll always remember the first time we saw a timberdoodle.”
One look at Amy’s photo confirmed that she and her husband had encountered a woodcock. With its big head and large eyes, the American woodcock is rather gnome-like in its appearance. There’s something downright odd about this shorebird that has chosen to exile itself so far from seashores.
Its chosen lifestyle, however, has proven advantageous for the species. The woodcock is an efficient forager, feeding on earthworms, as well as insects, millipedes and spiders. Scientists theorize that the woodcocks can actually hear and feel the earthworms as they move underground.
About 20 years ago, Joe McGuiness, an Erwin resident and a fellow member of the Elizabethton Bird Club, found an American woodcock one summer making itself at home in his neighborhood of Rolling Hills. I got to see that bird, which to date is my only upclose and personal observation of an American woodcock.
I have traveled to locations such as Shady Valley in Johnson County and Persimmon Ridge Park in Jonesborough to witness the courting flights of these unusual birds. Of course, since these flights do not commence until dusk, the experience is more auditory than visual.
The woodcock is closely related to the snipes. The only snipe species usually found in the United States is Wilson’s snipe, formerly known as the common snipe.
There is also a Eurasian woodcock and several species endemic to islands. These include the Amami woodcock of Japan, the Bukidnon woodcock of the Philippines, the Javan woodcock, New Guinea woodcock, the Moluccan woodcock of the Malaku Islands in Indonesia and the Sulawesi woodcock, also of Indonesia.
Worldwide, there are about 20 snipe species, including species with such descriptive name as giant snipe, noble snipe, pin-tailed snipe and imperial snipe.
So, if the legend of the snipe hunt ever made you doubt the actual existence of snipe, rest assured that both snipes and their odd cousins, the woodcocks, do exist.