Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Signs of Spring: Birding Tours, American Woodcocks Return

Over the last few years, we have cultivated a relationship with the NYC Audubon, resulting in biweekly Birding Tours of the park during migration. We've been delighted as our Audubon Guide Gabriel Willow teaches us about the avian life of NYC, and helps us spot some of these magnificent creatures up close. Below, Gabriel talks about a species that bird watchers may soon see in the park. 

Next Tuesday we will resume our seasonal bird walks in Bryant Park. They provide New Yorkers with an opportunity to view the unexpected diversity of bird-life that can be found in NYC parks, even a tiny park in bustling Midtown Manhattan. According to crowdsourced website eBird, 107 species have been recorded in the park. The walks are free, and no registration is required. Just look for us by the birding sign inside the north-western corner of the park, near the 'wichcraft kiosk.

One of the first early-Spring migrants to arrive is the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor), an unusual upland shorebird. Several have been seen in Bryant Park in past years.  Although none have been reported from the park yet this Spring, they are passing through NYC now (en route from their Wintering grounds in Southern states to their breeding grounds in the North-East), and there is a good chance we'll encounter one or two next week!

This illustration of an American Woodcock is by Gabriel's own hand.
American Woodcocks are cousins of the snipe (yes, a snipe is a real bird, and they can really be caught using bags and a flashlight!, although we won't be attempting that here). Woodcocks are specialized nocturnal hunters of earthworms. They use their comically long beak to probe for the worms in moist soil. They have huge eyes and excellent night vision. Their eyes are also located unusually far back and high on their head, which affords them binocular vision behind their heads to see oncoming predators when they have their beaks stuck in the ground: they literally have eyes in the back of their head! Their eyes are so far back in fact that they lie behind the bird's ears. Freaky.

As they are ground-feeding birds, Woodcocks are cryptically colored to avoid detection by predators. When approached, they sit very still in the hopes that this dead-leaf-like coloring will hide them, and then burst into the air with twittering wingbeats when nearly stepped upon. In Bryant Park, Woodcocks typically shelter and feed in the hedge rows on either side of the lawn.  They will allow close approach and observation, a real treat as they are typically such difficult birds to spot and observe.

Lacking colorful plumage, male Woodcocks rely on display and song to impress the female. They engage in an incredible aerial display on early Spring evenings, around sunset in damp meadows and fields. They have a loud, frog-like "Peent!" call, which they give every few seconds, before leaping into the air and flying in ever-larger circles over their meadow stage, while the female watches and listens from the ground.  The Woodcock's wings make a distinctive twittering sound as they fly, and when they reach the apex of their spiralling flight, the males sing a beautiful liquid song, before suddenly folding their wings and plummeting back earthward in a silent, zig-zagging glide.  Once they alight, they resume calling their vigorous "Peent!"

People give American Woodcocks a number of colorful local names: "Timberdoodle," "Swamp-Sucker," "Bog-Sucker," "Labrador Twister."  They are relatively common, although they are frequently hunted, and in NYC they often collide with buildings due to being low flyers.  But many survive to return to their breeding grounds to display again.

Join us in Bryant Park next week to look for transient Timberdoodles!
Birding Tours of Bryant Park
Mondays, 8am - 9am
Thursdays, 5pm - 6pm
April 7 to May 22
Meet at corner of 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue

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