According to past diaries, my earliest sighting of a woodcock was on Jan. 4, 2009. Eldon York, who lives on Armenia Mountain, had called to tell me that he saw a woodcock near a spring seep on his property. I went to Eldon's and took pictures of the bird in the snow.
Because most woodcock spend the winters in Louisiana, we here in northern Pennsylvania usually don't see this member of the snipe family until the beginning of March. By mid-April, the migration is complete, and courtship is in full swing.
Our American woodcock's scientific name is Philohela minor. The genus name comes from two Greek words: philos, meaning "loving," and helos, meaning "marsh or swamp," in reference to the bird's habitat. The species name is Latin, meaning "smaller" because the European woodcock is larger than the American woodcock.
The common name of woodcock comes from its woodland habitat. It is a shorebird that has changed its habitat from mudflats and marshes for the woodland areas.
Our American woodcock belongs to the Scolopacidae family, which commonly is called sandpiper, with the name coming from the Greek word skolapx, which was used by Aristotle for "woodcock." The word skolapx, came from skolops, a Greek word meaning "anything pointed," apparently referring to the pointed bill of the woodcock.
The woodcock is well suited to the woodland habitat because of its dead-leaf pattern of variegated brown, black and gray above and rusty color on chest, making it very difficult to see.
Both sexes are colored alike; however, the female is larger. The bird has a large head with large dark eyes that are set far back and high on the head. The three outer primary feathers are stiffened and produce a twittering whistle when the bird is startled into flight.
Although the woodcock is seldom seen during the day, one nice April afternoon when my wife Mary Alice and I were traveling on a back road in Potter County, I noticed a woodcock in the middle of the road. I stopped to take some pictures, and the bird never flushed. It simply walked off the road into the woods.
Although the area was open, the woodcock blended in with the leaf-covered floor, and I had a difficult time seeing it through the camera lens.
The male establishes a territory knows as the "singing grounds," which usually are reverted fields next to brush or woods. The male performs on the singing grounds twice a day, once at dusk and again at dawn.
While on the ground, the male calls to attract a female. The male call is described as a "peent." After peenting for several minutes, the male will take off on a courtship flight that can go as high as 300 feet.
During the spiral movement climb, the wings of the woodcock make a twittering sound. Once the woodcock reaches its peak and starts back down, either in a zig-zag motion or again in a spiral flight, the male will give off a warbling song as he descends. The bird will land in almost the same spot that he had taken off from and again will start peenting.
While the male is on the ground calling, he will fan his tail and strut around, somewhat compared to a turkey. The female then seeks out the male. One male could mate with several females.
The female will nest near the singing ground. The nest is simply a slight depression on the forest floor. She will lay one egg a day, and incubation will not begin until all eggs are laid.
A normal clutch consists of four eggs, and incubation takes about three weeks. The female sometimes will sit so still on the nest that she actually can be touched.
Have you ever heard a woodcock in its mating flight? If not, find an area that is near a swamp or a reverting field that has been taken over by aspen trees. On a day in April, go out at dusk with a flashlight, preferably one with a red cellophane covering over the lens.
Plan to get to the area 15 minutes after sunset, and dress warmly because at this time of the year the evenings still are cool. After doing all of the above, listen closely to one of nature's many amazing shows. You'll be glad you did.