Monday, September 24, 2007

American Woodcock

Kim Counts of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) brought the Public Event Series to the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest. Today's field trip was entitled "Birding in the Headwaters of the ACE Basin" and birding they did. This trip and others will be highlighted on SCETV on or about October 13th. Check local listings!

Along the way, participants saw White-eyed Vireos, Black-and-white Warblers, Hooded Warblers, Veerys, American Redstarts, Northern Waterthrushes, and a Barred Owl. However, the surprise bird sighting was announced by one of the children in the group. The first image shows you what the young man saw when he spotted the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). Can you spot the bird? The images that follow show a closer look of the bird. In the first image, find the big leaf shown next to the bird in the closeup image and see if you can find the bird on your second try.

It was a surprise to see the woodcock because the bird is nocturnal and well-camouflaged. Both groups of 12-13 people stopped and looked at the bird on the way out. The bird remained perfectly still, was still there when the groups returned toward the nature center, and was still there an hour later when some follow-up images were taken. American Woodcocks eat primarily earthworms and can eat their weight in worms every night! Note the long bill that is used to probe moist soils to locate their prey. Although this individual did not move, the woodcock has a unique method of walking about. With each stiff-legged step, it rocks forward and back in the horizontal plane without moving noticeably in the vertical plane. The walk is accurately portrayed by the band Madness in their video (drag the video bar to the -1.00 position).

Although the walk is unique, the American Woodcock is known more for the male's breeding display. From the ground and often at dawn and dusk, the male will begin an advertising flight that takes it up in a tightening sprial to 300 feet. The bird then falls like a leaf generating a twittering sound as the air passes through its wing feathers. All the fancy footwork and acrobatic flying has not helped to maintain American Woodcock populations, which continue to decline at a rate of 2.8% per year. Once again, habitat loss is the main cause for the declining numbers even as 2 million birds are taken each year by hunters. The woodcock in the image will not need to worry about hunters and it could not have selected more prisitine habitat to spend the winter!

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