Woodcock Trip Blog
Twelve participants joined Eileen and me as Alula BNHT went searching for the American Woodcock, in hopes of watching them during their annual Spring mating flights. Our destination was the Calverton area of the Pine Barrens which contains significant tracts of preserved open space managed by the County and State and the former Calverton airport now owned by the Town of Riverhead.
Before looking for woodcock we went to the grassland areas of the former Airport which provides important and vanishing breeding habitat for a number of grassland- and open country- dependent bird species. We saw several of these moments after we arrived, enjoying quite a few looks at Eastern Meadowlarks perched on the dried stalks of last year’s Common Mullein plants (an attractive non-native wildflower apparently brought over in the latter part of the 18th century). What a splendid songbird with its beautiful lemon yellow breast and black chevron, and melodic song. Their flight is also distinctive with very shallow wingbeats, reminiscent of spotted sandpipers, as they glide over the grass. We also saw a number of American Kestrels, both male and female, a pair of Northern Harriers (male and female), several Red-tailed Hawks, one being dive-bombed by a Kestrel, one Eastern Bluebird, and a few Northern Mockingbirds. It was too early for Grasshopper Sparrows, a common breeding bird at the airport, who are several weeks out from migrating north from overwintering grounds in the southeastern United States, Caribbean, and Mexico.
We left there and drove half a mile west, parking on the south side of Grumman Boulevard. The fields, forests, and ponds south of the road are a reliable site to watch the annual nuptial flight of American Woodcock and to listen for Spring Peepers. We headed south on a trail to the western corner of Preston‘s Pond, first to hear Spring Peepers and then to listen for woodcocks. Unfortunately, it was about 41 degrees which proved to be a bit too cold for these wonderful little tree frogs and harbingers of Spring, although we did hear a cold bullfrog call a few times. We waited for the evening sky to darken, then listened intently for the telltale “peeent” call that male woodcock make as they strut around on the ground. After several minutes of waiting we finally heard it, coming from a bird in the northern part of the field. This was soon followed by the classic twittering sounds caused by the outer primary feathers, as the displaying male flew around in broad circles; the third phase of the nuptial flight soon followed – a series of “kissing“ sounds vocalized by the bird. Then silence as the bird plummeted to earth against the violet colored sky – most of us couldn’t see the bird in the gathering darkness but two participants noted they saw him drop to earth. This cycle of ground peenting followed by twittering and kissing went on for about fifteen minutes before we headed back to our cars.
The night sky proved alluring and before calling it a night I put the birding scope on the four planets that were visible in the celestial heavens- Saturn, Mars, Venus, and Jupiter. We could clearly see the ring of Saturn as well as four of Jupiter’s moons. We also looked at the gaseous clouds around some of stars in the “sword hilt” of the conspicuous winter constellation Orion before calling it a night. It was a great way to end a fun and successful night.