Biologist enjoys observing male woodcock mating ritual

Posted April 27, 2010, at 12:27 a.m.

Brad Allen is the first to admit that one of his spring hobbies could be considered frivolous … or worse.

Still, at this time of year, when the sun begins to set, you’re likely to find the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife biologist sitting in a field near his home, sometimes with a buddy, waiting for a tiny bird to show up.

“It’s fun. It’s silly, two grown men out there, chasing around a little woodcock. But it’s fun,” Allen said. “I am so stupid about this that I built a little blind, even. I have lawn chairs out there. And one of my favorite pastimes is going out there with a cold beer and just watching it.”

It, for the uninitiated, is an intricate mating ritual staged by male woodcocks at this time of year.

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Around the state there are many folks who would agree with Allen: Watching and listening to the tiny birds as they try to attract a mate is worth the effort.

And once you make the effort to find the right sitting spot, Allen said, you’re likely to have found a yearly source of cheap entertainment.

“It’s kind of like the proverbial snipe hunt, except this is a real hunt,” explained Allen, who serves as the bird group leader for the DIF&W. “The male woodcock advertises — every morning and every evening, at dawn and at dusk — his presence by maintaining a small singing ground.”

Allen said that near his house, a couple of suitable singing grounds exist. Both are about twice as large as his small office. And once a bird finds his stage, he’ll be back every night until increasingly unreceptive females let him know that the party’s over for another year.

“That bird will be there every single night at [nearly the same time], and he will begin his courtship display,” Allen said. “It starts with a call on the ground. Then, so that he can project himself out over a larger landscape, he flies up probably 300 or 400 feet and does some other calls, and then he comes down again and repeats it. He’ll do that for probably half an hour.”

The fact that Allen knows there’ll be a show to watch each evening helps make the bird-watching rewarding.

“It’s very predictable,” he said. “That’s the fun part about it. It’s very predictable.”

Allen said birds hone in on the kind of mating habitat they’re looking for, and if that habitat remains suitable, they’ll continue to stage their evening April displays year after year.

Birds need an opening to work in — picture a small stage — and when that stage is present, the show will go on.

“I’ve kept one spot open, with just a little bit of brush clipping, and he’s there every year,” Allen said.

On second thought, it’s not a particular “he” who is always there, Allen admitted.

“I say, ‘he.’ Obviously, over 25 years [that I’ve lived in the same spot], it’s not the same bird. They don’t live that long,” Allen said, “But it’s the image [all male woodcock are] looking for. They’re looking for an opening near an area where females would like to nest. That search image, all male woodcock are guilty of getting sucked into it. So if you maintain the singing ground, you’ll have birds as long as the habitat’s there.”

Allen said knowing a bird will return to the same spot each night for a month or so each year can be useful for a bird-watcher trying to impress his friends.

“You can sit there, and I’ve done this before: I asked, ‘What time is sunset? Add 22 minutes to that.’ I said, ‘Well, this bird should be here right about …’ and before I said, ‘Now,’ the bird flutters down and lands right there,” Allen said. “You can really impress some people with that.”

That predictability is good for bird-watchers, to be sure. Unfortunately for the tiny woodcock, the same trait can often lead to his demise.

“I went out one night [last year] and the bird was dead there. There was a pile of feathers,” Allen said. “A hawk had killed him. They’re very vulnerable to predation when they’re advertising. Certain hawks, like goshawks, will catch him right in the middle of that flight.”

Foxes will also watch the singing ground and patiently wait for the evening dinner theater to begin.

Those kinds of natural events can thwart curious human onlookers, of course. But if they don’t? Well, for the next week or so, Allen says it should still be show time.

“You can almost guarantee there will be a bird there [in traditional singing grounds],” Allen said. “Unless he died that day.”

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