Of woods and woodcocks

Woodcocks are a wonderful signal of the arrival of spring in northern Michigan, but habitat loss is threatening the bird's survival.

American Woodcock Scolopax minor, Parc-nature de la Pointe-Aux-Prairies, Montreal, Canada.Woodcock are among my favorite species of spring, although I cannot claim to hunt them, at least not with a shotgun. But I do anxiously wait to hear the males calling on their dancing grounds. It’s one of the surest signs of spring.

The vocalization of a woodcock is called a “peent.” It’s a fair approximation of the sound if you say the word with a nasal tone or if you have a stuffed-up nose. If you’re fortunate enough to know about local peenting grounds, you can hear this understated plea during the twilight hours of either dawn or dusk. I prefer dawn.

Photo at right: American Woodcock Scolopax minor. Photo by Flickr user guizmo_68 under a Creative Commons license.

The woodcock, sometimes called a “timberdoodle” is an odd looking bird that you would not think could possibly fly due to its small size and overly large beak. Yet, they spend their winters in the southern states.

Nobody more eloquently described the “sky dance” of the woodcock than Aldo Leopold in his landmark book A Sand County Almanac. The book should be required reading for everyone interested in conservation. I can trace my interest in land management to when I read the book at age 12. I still have that beat-up 1949 edition in my library.

On my morning walks, I listen for the plaintive peents, often heard with the winnowing of snipe. On weekends, when I have more time, I’ll sometimes stalk the source of the sound and wait. I know where the peenting grounds are and arrive early, before the birds. Occasionally, I’ll get to see the bird as the morning begins to lighten. More often, I’ll spook them away. I can tell by the rapid whistling sounds their wings make, a bit like a mourning dove.

Woodcock are among a growing number of bird species, and other taxa, whose numbers are dwindling due to habitat loss. They like habitats that we often label as wasteland; places to put parking lots, housing developments and sub-divisions.

Young forests, in the brushy stage, are ideal. Aspen, alder, willows, and upland brush make for good woodcock habitat structure. Young forests and upland brush are becoming increasingly uncommon, probably at about the same pace as woodcock are becoming increasingly uncommon.

The Upper Great Lakes Young Forest Initiative began in 2007 to help encourage habitat retention that favors woodcock and their allies. The initiative has a tough row to hoe. Young forests are created by disturbance, such as fire and logging. In some quarters, these activities are inappropriately regarded as negative. To the contrary, they provide habitat for early successional species, landowner revenue, forest products, and employment. It’s management that pays, in more ways than dollars.

There exists a large body of science, and decades of on-the-ground experience, including my experience working for Michigan State University Extension, that demonstrate the many positive aspects of forest management, especially clearcutting, when applied to the right forest and the right time. Of course, early successional species are only one suite of wildlife, albeit a threatened one. Many of these species live on the short end of the stick of public perception.

I well know the science and like to think that I can explain it to most people. However, I have to admit, nothing grabs my attention like the promise of listening to the spring peenting of the woodcock, hearing the whistle of its high speed flight, and the hope of witnessing the sky dance.

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