TOWNSHIP 32, Maine — Brad Allen knows quite a bit about a lot of different birds. But thanks to the predictability of one of his favorite species — the American woodcock — the longtime wildlife biologist sometimes stuns unsuspecting spectators with what amounts to an outdoor parlor trick.
“I had some college buddies up to my house one time, turkey hunting,” Allen said, recounting one of his favorite moments. “I look at my watch, grabbed these guys, and said, ‘Grab a beer. Come with me.’”
Just after sunset, on cue, a woodcock began grunting its low, nasal mating call.
“PEENT! PEENT! PEENT!”
“I told them what was going to happen,” Allen said. “He started singing, and I told them, ‘He’s going to fly away, and he’s going to come back. He’s going to land right here in 30 seconds.’”
And that’s what the bird did.
“They thought I was the woodcock whisperer, there’s no doubt about it,” Allen said with a chuckle.
“It’s so funny. It’s very predictable. They’re a quirky little bird,” Allen said. “And they’re so much fun.”
On a recent evening, Allen, the bird group leader for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and Dan McAuley, a research biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, demonstrated that “trick” at a forested location on Stud Mill Road, not far from Milford.
McAuley, one of the nation’s foremost woodcock researchers, according to Allen, said introducing others to the annual mating ritual is something he enjoys doing.
“You can look like you really know what you’re doing,” McAuley joked.
If, that is, you know what you’re looking for … and you know when to start looking.
But that, according to the biologists, is the easy part.
Here’s the first thing McAuley and Allen want you to know: Starting in late April, and lasting throughout the month of May, a woodcock’s mind turns to thoughts of love … or, at least, mating.
Then the male will look for a suitable spot for the courtship to begin.
“You’ll see that a bird will come out, sit on a little area — we call it a ‘singing ground,’ and he’ll go through his whole courtship display,” McAuley said.
That’s good to know. So is this: Woodcock like young, thick forest. Old-growth stands of evergreens won’t do. New, regenerating forests — 2 to 20 years old, according to McAuley — are ideal.
Then, after you find a likely spot, and a likely clearing, it’s time to look at your watch.
(This is where the magic comes in … just don’t tell any unsuspecting newbie the secret.)
“They’re like clockwork. You can set your watch to them. On a 75 percent overcast night, it’s about 15 minutes past sunset. On an open night, it’s 22 minutes after sunset.”
Individual birds might show up a little later, or a little earlier, he said. But he finds that the 22-minute estimate works remarkably well.
“Tonight I think sunset’s at 7:31 [p.m.], so he’ll be out there probably at 7:53 [p.m.] or something like that.”
As it turns out, the woodcock didn’t turn up at “something like” 7:53 p.m. He showed up at exactly 7:53 p.m.
Just like the biologist had predicted.
McAuley explained the rest of the courtship dance, which is quite dramatic.
“He’ll do what we call a ‘peent’ [while he’s on the ground],” he said, describing a nasal vocalization that sounds just like it’s spelled. “Every time he does it, he’ll spin a little bit. A lot of times it will sound like he’s in a different place, but he’s just broadcasting in different directions.”
The woodcock’s hope, the biologists said, is that a nearby female bird will hear the song and come closer. And if she does, she’s in for quite an air show.
“Then he’ll go up on a courtship flight, and he goes up about 300 feet in the air, circles around, and you’ll just hear his wings, twittering,” McAuley said. “At the end, he’ll make this melodious chirping sound, and when he does that, he’ll start a steep, swooping dive. Then he’ll come back, and he’ll land in the same spot again.”
That predictability, McAuley said, aids biologists when they’re conducting research. Since the male woodcock will land in the same spot he took off from, there’s little guesswork.
“When we want to catch a bird, we’ll watch a display or two and then set up a net right in that spot,” McAuley said.
The bird’s predictability can get the better of it in other ways, according to Allen.
He said that the birds time their mating dance based on light intensity, cueing in on the amount of light that exists 22 minutes past sunset. That can be easily foiled, especially during years when woodcock return to Maine before the ground thaws, and their preferred food — earthworms — are not yet available.
“Say a month ago a woodcock landed in [a parking lot], just because he got tired on his way to New Brunswick,” Allen said. “If there are streetlights there that emulate sunset, or 22 minutes past sunset, he’ll start singing … he might go all night long because the street lights don’t change.”
McAuley, who has been studying woodcock for more than 35 years, said the birds are faring better than they were when he got started in the business.
“From 1968 on, we were just going downhill, about 1 percent [population decrease] a year,” McAuley said. “About 10, 12 years ago, we kind of steadied it up, and we’ve been going along fairly evenly.”
In Maine, that’s true because the state’s timber is still being harvested, and new forest is always being created, he said.
“If you look at the forest in the rest of New England, you’re still 85 percent forested, but if you look at that forest, it’s aging,” McAuley said. “It’s [turning] into 70-, 80-year-old trees. And that’s not good for woodcock.”
Or, for woodcock whisperers.