Every year about this time, on calm rain-free nights, Refuge staff and volunteers go out and stand along the roadside in the fading light of day. This may seem like an unusual way to spend an evening, but biologists and their friends are unusual people. What these folks are actually doing is surveying the Refuge’s American woodcock breeding population.
The woodcock survey is run from April 20 through May 10 and is the first Refuge bird survey of the year. It is a very simple, yet effective way to count woodcock. On the Refuge, the survey consists of six separate routes, each about 2.5 miles long. The survey is conducted by recording the number of “peenting” woodcock heard at the first stop during a two-minute listening period. Then the surveyor quickly drives 0.4 miles to the second stop and listens again, repeating this process until the route is completed.
Peenting is what the male woodcock does to attract a mate. He essentially stands on the ground teetering back and forth and makes a noise that sounds like “peent”. After doing this for a minute or two, he flies up high into the air and eventually spirals down, making a twittering sound as the air passes through and around his wings. He usually lands in the same spot he flew up from and starts peenting again. This ritual continues until well after dark and will start again around sunrise. Often, several woodcock can be heard together in suitable displaying areas. These areas are usually moist openings located near young forest stands or shrublands.
The Refuge offers many acres of good woodcock habitat, although like other areas in the northeast, its shrublands and young forests are maturing to the point where they are becoming less attractive to woodcock. Woodcock are a species of concern due to their long-term population decline. The Refuge actively manages many of its shrublands to provide habitat for species such as woodcock and other shrubland nesters like the golden-winged warbler and gray catbird.
This year’s survey results show that the breeding woodcock population on the Refuge appears to be stable, although their overall population across the northeast continues to decline. If you have the opportunity to hear or see the courtship display of the male American woodcock before the spring is over, do yourself a favor and check it out. This little bird’s antics are sure to be music to your ears.