Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — March 2009

Flight of the Timberdoodle Graces Early Spring Skies

by Dr. Stan Kotala

Lengthening days and warming temperatures bring the voices of spring peepers, wood frogs, and migrating swans and geese to central Pennsylvania. A lesser-known herald of spring, the timberdoodle, also begins performing its springtime ritual at this time of year. Timberdoodle is one of the aliases of the American woodcock, a member of the wading bird family which includes snipe, plovers and killdeer.

The woodcock is a rather odd-looking bird with its brown, black and buff mottled plumage, and large eyes set far back on its head and long bill. The sexes are similar in appearance, with females being a little larger and having a slightly longer bill.

Woodcock are usually solitary, not forming flocks. They are active during daylight and, periodically, nighttime hours. During the daytime, they are usually found in moist, young forests with adequate understory where they use their long, flexible-tipped bill to probe for the earthworms that make up the bulk of their diet. They also consume various insect larvae, ants, crickets, and beetles. During the night, they use nearby fields and openings to roost, feed and mate.

The best opportunity to get a glimpse of the timberdoodle is from March till May. During this time of year, around dawn or dusk, and sometimes throughout the night if the moon is bright, males will frequent the fields and openings near moist woodland habitat to perform courtship displays. During the display, the male begins making a “peent” sound on the ground for about a minute which is followed by his spiraling to several hundred feet above ground while creating a twittering sound with his wings. He then descends, making a chirping sound, landing at the point of takeoff. The sequence is then repeated, and the entire display may last up to 45 minutes.

Most people have access to woodcock habitat — be it private or public. If you are unfamiliar with this bird or have never witnessed its courtship display, it is worth the effort to get acquainted.

Some excellent places to observe the woodcock’s ritual include Bald Eagle State Park, the Woodcock Trail in the Stone Valley Recreation Area in northern Huntingdon County, and Canoe Creek State Park in Blair County.

On Saturday, March 21, 2009, Juniata Valley Audubon will host a walk to observe the flight of the timberdoodle at Canoe Creek State Park, near Hollidaysburg, Blair County. The park has a variety of wetlands and old fields that provide ideal habitat for woodcock. Meet at Pavilion 1 in the park at 6:30 p.m.

Alternatively, you can explore woodcock habitat on your own by following the Woodcock Trail in the Stone Valley Recreation Area just off of Charter Oak Road in northern Huntingdon County. The Charter Oak Woodcock Demonstration Area is being managed to provide woodcock with habitat requirements for breeding, nesting, and migration. Points marked along the orange-blazed demonstration trail show suitable cover types and management practices that enhance woodcock habitat. The trail is less than 1 mile long.

Dr. Stan Kotala is the Endangered Species and Wildlife Chair on the Executive Committee of the Moshannon Group of the Sierra Club