by Jamie Bogart, Lloyd Center Research Associate
Each year on the last Tuesday of March, a time of transition when the woods are still quiet of songbirds but other species may be active and visible, we venture out to open landscape used by the American Woodcock, a shorebird that evolved an inland habit and which is renowned for elaborate courtship display rituals held at twilight.
Woodcocks thrive on early successional habitats (vegetation stages prior to mature forest) which provide cover, nesting substrate, and space for aerial displays. Proximity to wetlands is ideal for a high biomass of earthworms, the primary food source for woodcocks. Noquochoke Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Dartmouth has all these features and is one of many areas in the northeast managed specifically for woodcocks. Conservation areas such as this are critical due to the overall decline in early successional habitats and impacts to various species dependent upon them.
For the walk, we circled the open area of Noquochoke WMA, scanning for any bird life and noticed an immature red-tailed hawk soaring overhead at the beginning from the lot. Bird life was quiet otherwise as expected under cold and blustery conditions. However, the walk provided perspective on the various habitats present, the historical land uses on abandoned farm fields and the former gravel extraction areas, and a convenient way to pass time before the “main event”.
Towards 7:30 p.m. we settled into the viewing area waiting to hear the first woodcock “peent”. The first bird flew onto the trail in what is clearly a favored display spot and called, offering a stellar look at the large eyes and long bill used to probe for worms. Soon other woodcocks began calling back, and the displaying began. With skies still light to the north and west, onlookers witnessed both the looping ascents where birds are seen but quickly vanish against a darkening sky, and heard the “teardrop” descent back to earth, when the displays would resume. For many minutes we observed the woodcocks, tracking the various landing spots chosen by any given bird. After close approach to a calling bird in tall grasses, but which in owl-like fashion evaded our light, we were satisfied and called it a night.
Back at the Lloyd Center property, in addition to the owl prowls the prior week, weekly walks offered glimpses at other interesting bird life. In the woodlands away from the feeders, great looks at more obscure species including Eastern Phoebes, Hairy Woodpecker, and Hermit Thrush were offered. At the feeders the Red-headed Woodpecker, that attracted visitors and press is still present, nearly sporting its adult plumage, made a timely appearance. On the Slocum most wintering waterfowl had departed, but we were still seeing bufflehead, goldeneye, red-breasted mergansers, black ducks, and common loons. On Little River black ducks were still present regularly and a Great Blue Heron was seen on the far shore in the marsh. Juvenile Bald Eagles were seen more than once soaring above the property, in a year when more Bald Eagle sightings than usual occurred in our estuaries, including an adult pair that landed on our oldest Osprey platform one late March afternoon.
While the eagles have moved on to nesting areas, other birds have arrived to nest here, including the pair of ospreys that has arrived in a timely fashion, after last year relinquishing its platform to a Canada Goose pair, and offered the eagle pair a quick stop.
Stay tuned for updates on breeding birds such as terns and plovers, and further sightings on bird walks as the diversity of species quickly increases!