These rock-loving sandpipers are occasional visitors to jetties and rocks on the Vineyard. Squibnocket in Chilmark and the rocks at the base of the Gay Head Cliffs in Aquinnah are the best spots to find them on the Island. This individual purple sandpiper was photographed on the small jetty at Inkwell Beach in Oak Bluffs. Photo by E. Vernon Laux
February, typically a hard month for wintering bird life on Martha's Vineyard, is behind us. March arrives today, and spring, despite protestations from the calendar, is literally in the air. The sound of birds singing in the mornings is now pervasive.
Beginning on a handful of calm nights at dusk in February, the calls and display flight of the American woodcock were heard in a few places. This bizarre and ridiculous looking sandpiper that lives in the woods is a delight to hear and see. It is a regular annual event that is as eagerly anticipated by many Island observers as is the return of the osprey, which is little more than two weeks away.
Woodcocks on display
From now through the end of May, especially in nice weather, woodcocks will perform their nocturnal display flights.
The woodcock looks like some sort of bird created on another planet. Sci-fi critters for sure are these robin-sized, cryptically colored birds with enormous beaks and eyeballs on the top of their heads. They are perfectly adapted for probing for earthworms in fields and open woodlands.
Superbly camouflaged, possessing strong legs and a stealthy demeanor, they are virtually undetectable in daylight, as they remain motionless in leaf litter. For all that humans ever see of them, one would think they are rare on the Island. The reality is that they are widespread and fairly common. One has to know how to look for them and, more importantly, when.
Little can compare to the excitement of attempting to get close to a woodcock at dusk. The birds begin calling in overgrown fields at dusk. The call is an unmistakable and extremely unmusical sound that is reminiscent of a sound one might hear from something in a joke shop. For an attempt at a description call it a short, loud, emphatic "peeent."
At any rate, the birds begin calling and continue on throughout the night. The trick is to find an area with several calling birds. Pick out the one that is closest and listen to its pattern. After a couple of minutes of "peeents," it will take flight, climbing into the night sky. A twittering sound is then heard that is caused by specialized flight feathers as the bird drops to the ground to resume calling.
Just after the calls stop and the bird gets airborne is the time to drop into a quiet run and throw oneself into the grass/brush/poison ivy that you thought the bird was calling from. The bird will continue its ascent until dropping back into the field, often in extremely close proximity to the skillful listener/runner.
If only practiced occasionally in the spring this type of activity does not seem to bother or disturb the woodcock, except temporarily. Many of the displaying birds are just passing through on migration and are perfecting their technique for when they arrive on breeding grounds farther north. Be forewarned that the sprint and dive pursuit of these birds can be a hazardous pastime
The hazards include ticks in the hair and all over oneself, falling on unseen poison ivy, and/or tripping and hurting an ankle or leg. But it is definitely fun and this writer certainly recommends giving it a try.
If you're up to making the attempt, it is best to go scouting in daylight. Find a "benign" field and then come back just after dark to see if there are woodcock calling. Come back on another night and go for it. Afterwards go home, take a shower, and do a thorough tick check.
Protect and procreate
Many changes are about to occur in the natural world. Resident birds are setting up and beginning to defend breeding territories. They sing to announce their presence and defense of this territory from other males of their kind, both at dawn and dusk, increasing this behavior on a daily basis as the days grow longer.
Resident birds are shifting gears and beginning preparations for the upcoming breeding season. Migration is underway and things are looking up, now that winter is over. Red-winged blackbirds have appeared at feeders Island-wide and many more are expected in the next few weeks. Common grackles and brown-headed cowbirds are due to arrive with each southwest wind, joining the red-wings. American robins have also arrived from the south, augmenting the numbers of robins that over-wintered here. The migrant flocks seen on slowly greening grass, Island-wide, may be arriving to breed here or continue to points further north.
There is evidence of spring in bird's behavior everywhere one looks. It is an interesting time of year to watch familiar birds do unfamiliar things. Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!
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