Jan/Feb 2017For Wildlife Watchers: American Woodcockby Rob Simbeck

Evolution is a constrained opportunist, forced to make do with what it has. To understand the bat's wing, for instance, is to envision the patient transformation of a distant ancestor's forelimb through countless small steps to its present form - a tarp-like covering over thin, light bones. On other branches of the tree of life, that same forelimb became the horse's leg, the whale's flipper or the human arm.

Any piece of anatomy can be that plastic, given time and necessity. One great example belongs to a bird that moves through the underbrush, using a long, prehensile bill to probe moist ground for earthworms, grubs and the like. The Eastern oyster's vital role in South Carolina estuaries is underscored by SCDNR Biologist Nancy Hadley, "Oysters are ecosystem engineers - they build habitat; they control water quality; they modify their environment. They are keystone species, like coral reefs..

Happily enough, nature has tinkered with basic bird design and come up with the next best thing: the woodcock's eyes have migrated toward the top and rear of its skull, giving it a field of view most likely comprising everything around and above it - a 360-degree panorama. The process involved quite the rearrangement: the woodcock's ears are actually between its bill and its eyes, and its brain is essentially upside-down, with the muscle-coordinating cerebellum sitting just above the spinal cord, under the rest of the brain rather than at the rear of the skull.

American Woodcock - Scolopax minor

Description: Stout, long-billed shorebird, mottled to blend with leaf litter, ten to twelve inches, up to half a pound.

Range and Habitat: Eastern U.S. and southern Canada. Moist thickets, young forests.

Viewing Tips: In South Carolina, winter is best time.

However, there's a lot about the woodcock that isn't textbook. It's a shorebird - a sandpiper, to be exact - but it is plumper than any of its beach-dwelling cousins, has a short neck and remains decidedly landlocked. At ten to twelve inches long, it's about the size of a bobwhite, although heavier, up to eight ounces, and has a slightly longer wingspan at sixteen to eighteen inches. Its nostrils are at the skull line so it can breathe while probing, eating up to its weight in invertebrates every day. Its head is black with rufous crossbars, its breast and sides tan to near white, its short red and black tail tipped with pale gray spots, and its small feet a reddish brown.

The American woodcock lives in the eastern U.S. and Canada, mostly breeding in the north and wintering in the south, although South Carolina has a small breeding population.

"Our breeding records are limited to those obtained opportunistically," says SCDNR Chief of Wildlife Regional Operations Billy Dukes, "but they are everywhere but the higher elevations of the Blue Ridge, although most that I am aware of are from the coastal plain."

According to Dukes, they are much more widespread here in winter, found from the foothills to the coast and probably occasionally even in the mountains, along major rivers, creeks and streams, and in bottomland hardwood forests with moderate to heavy understory and midstory.

Summer or winter, these are not birds the casual wildlife watcher will spend much quality time with, as they blend into their surroundings and stick to thickets. Still, there is a big annual exception. Each spring, shortly after the males get back to their breeding grounds, they perform a courtship ritual involving a display of aerial acrobatics that must be seen to be believed. Each carves out a little territory in a clearing called a singing ground. He will fight off other males and then, settling down, start his show, usually in the evening but occasionally at dawn. He begins with a "peent" call, sounding like a little electric buzz, then takes to the air in a spiral ascent whose arc gets ever wider. When he reaches fifty to one hundred yards in the air, he starts a zig-zagging fall notable for his liquid, warbling twitter and the sound of the wind rushing through his wing feathers. Once he's back on the ground, he starts all over again, sometimes for thirty minutes, sometimes into the night if the moon is bright.

"Woodcock have relatively high nesting success," says Dukes, "and chick survival rates indicate they face less of a problem than most ground-nesting, ground-dwelling birds when it comes to coyotes and feral dogs and cats, although this is probably location-specific."

By October, woodcock begin what has been called a "leisurely" migration from northern nesting grounds. They travel at night, usually not much higher than the treetops, to wintering grounds from the Carolinas to eastern Texas, with most going to Louisiana and Mississippi.

"Like all migratory birds," says Dukes, "their arrival tends to be dictated to some degree by weather. However, given that woodcock migrate in short 'hops' of twenty-five to fifty miles a day, you could expect migration and departure would be somewhat more protracted than true long-distance migrants like waterfowl. It appears we start getting birds around Thanksgiving, with numbers peaking around mid-January. They begin heading back north in February or March."

As with so many birds, woodcock numbers are in decline due to encroachment on and destruction of breeding habitat. Still, it is the most common sandpiper, and its population is estimated at five million in the U.S., diminishing by one percent a year.

"There have been long-term declines in their numbers since the 1960s," says Duke, "with a decline of about 35 percent in the Eastern Management Unit, according to the only index of population." Still, the ten-year trend is "stable," he says, and South Carolina provides more than adequate habitat for overwintering woodcock, which benefit from broader efforts to improve habitat essential for dozens of species.

"The SCDNR and partners are involved in habitat restoration for quail and grassland birds, things like development and enhancement of forest understudy and groundcover, which will also benefit woodcock," says Dukes. "We have four quail focal areas around the state where we specifically manage for open forest and grassland habitats. In addition, we manage for open forest conditions, fallow fields and mature bottomland hardwoods on many of our Wildlife Management Areas across the state to benefit woodcock and other species that depend on similar habitats."

For those of us who recall much more plentiful populations of ground-dwelling birds, the challenge is to encourage our elected and appointed officials, our agencies and large landowners to work to set aside land suitable for species under threat now. That too is part of what it means to be an engaged wildlife watcher.

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