By Eamon Corbett
It’s been a rough winter here in Cambridge, and while the weather has gotten cold again, for a few days last week it finally felt like spring. One of the best signs of spring, if you know where and when to look, is the return of the American Woodcock, a strange bird related to the sandpiper that can be found in wet woodlands across the Eastern United States.
Beginning in late March, woodcocks return from their wintering habitat, and start to try to find mates. The males’ strategy to dance: they have a complex courtship display that they perform constantly every spring evening at dusk. They’re also among the goofiest birds on the continent, so their opening routine of spinning in circles and uttering a loud peennnntt sound at intervals hardly seems out of character. Apart from this, their eyes set so far back in their heads that they can see 360 degrees without moving their head, but their brains are flipped upside down to make room in their skulls. They also have been recording flying at 5 miles per hour, the slowest speed of any bird (though they can also make it up to 30mph).
So on Friday evening, six members of the club headed to Alewife Reservation, at the end of the Red Line on the border between Cambridge and Arlington, to look for these birds. We arrived just before sundown, and as we walked into the preserve spotted a singing cardinal and a couple species of waterfowl, including a handful of hooded mergansers.
We soon almost tripped over an exciting (and slightly unnerving) find: a dead raccoon lying in the path, totally untouched and without any obvious injuries. We carefully walked around it, hoping that it wouldn’t sudden spring back to life.
After 15 or 20 minutes of walking it was starting to get dark, and suddenly we began hearing strange buzzy calls in the distance: peeeeennnnttt. brrrreennnnttt. peeeeennnnttttt. The woodcocks were warming up. The calls intensified as we approached a clearly in the woods, and we were suddenly right in the middle of probably a half dozen of them doing their spring displays.
First, we would hear the repeated nasal calls, which meant that the bird was on the ground. Then, with a twitter of wings, they would take off, unseen in the low light, and begin spiraling upwards. This was how we saw most of the birds: wings whistling, flying in ascending circles out of sight. When they had gone so far up that they were no longer visible from the ground, the sound would change: they would chirp as they began their descent, still hidden in the sky. As they approached the ground, the chirps would cease, and we would look around wildly to catch a glimpse as they plummeted back to earth silently and disappeared into the grass and underbrush. A second or two later, the cycle would restart: peeennnnttttt. brrrrreeennnttt.
There were a lot of other sightings just as night well: a pair of wood ducks flew overhead, and a couple of Big Brown Bats (both an apt description and the official name of the species) flitted around our heads. Corey also picked up a large mottled feather, which we realized had to be from a Great Horned Owl.
We retraced our path back through the woods, towards a clearly that was a great spot for woodcocks last spring. Sure enough, just as we arrived we heard one calling loudly from the path right in front of us. We approached slowly, and I spotted it in the beam of our flashlight just ahead of us on the trail. When it took off, we hurried close to the spot it had left from, knowing that it was likely to return. Sure enough, we soon heard the chirps of a descending woodcock, and it alighted right next to us, not more than 15 feet away in clear view.
We all got fantastic looks as it scurried around on the ground, noting the huge and far-back eyes, the cryptic orange-brown coloration, and the long flexible bill. These birds really look like nothing else in the region. I even got a few photos: it was totally dark and I used my phone through my binoculars, so they aren’t the best quality, but its a testament to how close the bird was that you can see anything at all.
Our goal for the walk achieved, we continued back to the T stop, skirting the fallen raccoon in the dark along the way. And now, even though it’s in the 30s and snowed yesterday, we can be sure that the woodcocks are back, and spring can’t be too far behind.