Woodcock of the walk: Birds show off at Dartmouth wildlife area
Anyone walking around overgrown fields at dusk this time of year may encounter a springtime marvel: the striking courtship flight display of the American woodcock.
Woodcocks are small wading game birds that live in the eastern U.S.
They may have the largest field of vision of any bird — 360 degrees horizontal and 180 degrees vertical — which helps them avoid predators, as they live primarily on the ground.
But one of their most unique features is their breeding behavior.
As the days get longer, males come out at sundown to perform a spiralling courtship dance in which they fall in a flashy corkscrew pattern accompanied by twittering chirps.
Dozens of birds can perform their dances in one field over a short window of time.
On a recent Tuesday evening, a select few came to see the spectacle at the state-run Noquochoke Wildlife Management Area in North Dartmouth.
“I have this walk here because it’s managed specifically for woodcocks,” said Lloyd Center for the Environment Research Associate (and bird expert) Jamie Bogart. “They basically have behaviors that are unique. That’s what makes people so interested in the birds.”
Bogart researches birds for the Lloyd Center, with a particular focus on a project to conserve piping plovers.
He has also been hosting weekly Wednesday bird walks at the Potomska Road property.
Among those tagging along for the woodcock walk were Little Compton residents Helen Homer and Nick Kelley, who have been coming to the bird walks every week.
“It’s really nice to be able to get out every week, listen to Jamie, and just walk,” noted Homer.
“I’ve always been interested in [birds],” she added. “But we don’t know enough.”
The walk started in the setting sun, with plenty of birds to spot — including a red-tailed hawk, red-winged blackbird, chickadees, and ducks and geese.
Bogart also played owl calls on a speaker to attempt to attract them, although none took the bait.
And just after sundown, the show began, with dozens of woodcocks sounding a distinctive short buzz before taking off twittering into the sky.
Bogart used a flashlight to find the small brown birds on the ground, following them upwards and listening for the twittering sounds as they spiralled downwards again.
“I’d never seen a woodcock before,” said Kelley. “This is great!”
“I can’t believe how beautiful they are,” added Homer. “That was spectacular!”