Woodcock feeding (Photo by Don Reimer)
Woodcock feeding (Photo by Don Reimer)
Driving to Bangor last week, I spotted an American woodcock feeding close to the margin of busy Route 1 in Searsport. With no real time to spare and scant space to pull safely off the highway, I motored onward. On my return trip three hours later the bird hadn’t budged as it nuzzled for worms in a small muddy seep of snowmelt a few feet from the pavement.

Try as I might, I could think of no compelling reason (aside from the constant heavy traffic and a limited pull-off zone) why I shouldn’t just brake and position my vehicle for easy photos of the probing timberdoodle. After all, woodcocks are generally reclusive creatures that offer few unrestricted views or extended opportunities for clinical behavior watching.

Let’s consider this intriguing species from stem to stern. Woodcocks are plump, short-necked members of the shorebird family that live in upland terrains rather than beaches or mudflats. Unlike the typically long-winged shorebird species, woodcocks have short, rounded wings that work efficiently in tight wooded settings. The outer wing has three narrow primary feathers that produce a twittering sound during the bird’s dawn and dusk flights. The stubby woodcock tail is fanned out during ground-based phases of its courtship.

Except for the nasal “peent” calls and occasional chuckled notes given by courting males, the species’ song repertoire is rudimentary. However, their crepuscular vocal and aerial courtship displays are well worth your attention in spring.

The woodcock’s “upside-down” brain configuration is truly unique among birds. As an adaptation to its feeding style, the cerebellum (which handles muscle coordination and balance) is located just above the spinal column rather than the rear of the skull. The woodcock’s large eyes are set high and far back on the head, providing a 360-degree horizontal plane for monitoring danger while probing in soil. The oversized eyes are useful tools during those low-light periods when woodcocks are most active.

The tip of the woodcock’s long, flexible bill functions like a set of tweezers. Additionally, its prehensile bill is loaded with sensory receptors for detecting and grasping earthworms beneath the soil surface.

I watched closely as the roadside bird inserted its bill deep into the muddy substrate, apparently unfazed by rumbling trailer trucks and whizzing cars. Five inches of fresh snow had fallen, but these hardy shorebirds are mid-March arrivals in Maine. Its foraging success became quite evident as the bird extracted one earthworm after another from beneath the wet, decaying leaf litter. If you’ve not witnessed the woodcock’s odd syncopated walking gait, you must! This is a slow, rocking body motion as the bird steps heavily onto its front foot. Theory has it that these rhythmic motions cause earthworms to move around in the soil. Species of plovers perform similar foot tapping motions that trigger prey responses.

Ending its several-hour feeding session, the woodcock began to bob again as it slothfully exited the mudded depression by foot. Where was it headed now? The bird padded up a slight incline, its feet sporadically breaking through the loose snow cover. I pondered its halting exertions. Would a short bout of flight have been more efficient and perhaps conserved some physical energy? But the woodcock continued to tread the snow depths, eventually bobbing its way beneath a protective spruce bow farther up the hill. Maybe this resourceful bird had a survival strategy beyond my feeble human reckoning. Having discovered a reliable hotbed of worm activity, perhaps it was more sensible to make overnight camp close by and then rejoin the wriggling feast with the new morning light.