pat and clay sutton



Timberdoodle Time

american woodcock
Photo: Pat and Clay Sutton

Posted November 17, 2008
by Clay and Pat Sutton

It was a mission as simple as taking some table scraps to the compost pile, yet this sunrise short walk turned into a treasured Cape May bird moment.

As we neared our back garden gate, a bird whirred out of the leaf litter, and on whistling wings, made a short flight before settling back into the tangle. After a few moments it began a bobbing, rocking walk into an opening and started to probe for food. Since we rarely go to the compost pile without our binoculars (who knows what you might see?), we enjoyed a magnificent look at an American Woodcock.

Now is the time to see and enjoy one of the Jersey Cape’s most iconic birds, for this is the peak period for American Woodcock to migrate through Cape May.

Woodcock - a Strange, Secretive Bird

The woodcock, lovingly called the “Timberdoodle” by many, is one of our stranger birds. It is a shorebird, related to the sandpipers, yet makes its home in wet woodlands rather than along shorelines like other shorebirds. It is a ground-dwelling bird that uses its extremely long bill to probe for earthworms in wet woods and nearby low-lying areas. Its eyes, set on the sides of its head, give it 360 degree vision, a protection from predators.

One would expect an iconic bird, a hallmark species, to be commonly seen. Woodcock can be abundant following autumn cold fronts, yet are only rarely seen.

There are a number of reasons for this. First, the woodcock is incredibly well camouflaged – its intricate tan and brown plumage allows it to blend in with fallen autumn leaves as if it weren’t there. Also, woodcock “freeze” (remain still and unmoving on the forest floor) when any possible danger approaches, be it a patrolling hawk or woodland hiker. Their camouflage is their best protection.

Finally, woodcock are largely nocturnal birds, usually feeding and migrating only at night under the cover and safety of darkness. In daytime, they are normally only seen when accidentally flushed.

If rarely seen, how can American Woodcock be such a hallmark of Cape May? Many studies have shown that the woodcock numbers that pass through the Cape are truly exceptional. From U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banding studies, Christmas Bird Count results (the Cape May Count often sets the “National High” for numbers of woodcock, a late November and December migrant), and finally radio telemetry tracking data, we know that Cape May hosts higher numbers of migrant woodcock than virtually anywhere.

In a major U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study, fully 25% of woodcock fitted with transmitters in Maine, where they breed, were ultimately recorded migrating through the Cape May Peninsula. A number of them stopped off for many days at a time to feed in the rich, wet woods of the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge and similar wet woods.

Where to See Woodcock

Despite their periodic abundance, seeing American Woodcock takes special effort. They are common at Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area, but are rarely, if ever, seen by those walking the trails. To see woodcock, you must visit their favorite habitats. Get off the trails and go into the woods, poking into the lower, wetter spots.

You probably won’t see a woodcock until it flushes from under your feet, bursting up through the trees on characteristic twittering, whistling wings. If you are very lucky, you may see it alight again where you can study it camouflaged in the leaves. To increase your chances of success, remember to try this following the passage of a cold front -- when the northwest winds carry many woodcock to Cape May County.

Cold Weather Sightings

Perhaps our favorite memory of watching woodcock is during a cold November nightfall. Following sunset, we watched from the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge as a full moon rose over Cape May City. By training our spotting scopes on the low, full moon we saw several woodcock migrate across the face of the brilliant moon as they headed out over the meadows and Delaware Bay. This experience was the drama of migration at its finest.

Many woodcock remain to winter on the Cape, and following cold weather freeze-ups can often be found feeding in daytime on sunlit roadsides and lawns.

Here, sunny edges provide thawed ground where woodcock can successfully probe for worms. This is a rare opportunity to enjoy the odd yet characteristic “bobbing” motion woodcock use when feeding – a behavior not really well understood by scientists.

Spring Mating Flights

Come early spring, woodcock can be seen performing their magical, musical, breeding display flights against the last light of sunset. This occurs throughout Cape May County and is most often seen over fields with small trees and shrubs (early succession fields) like those found at Higbee Beach WMA or Cape May National Wildlife Refuge.

Yes, iconic birds are usually abundant, plus frequently and easily seen in good numbers.

Laughing Gulls, Brant, Snow Geese, Black Ducks, Northern Harrier, and Osprey are some of the classic Cape May hallmark birds that readily come to mind.

But, although secretive and nocturnal, the American Woodcock is a symbol too. It was a key species that figured heavily in the protection of both Higbee Beach WMA and the Cape May NWR. Its continent-wide conservation status makes it a species of special concern, and its proven numbers in Cape May County especially make the woodcock a high priority here as well.

On top of that, the woodcock’s subtle beauty and spectacular courtship flights bestow a special status upon it among birders.

We think that the extra effort needed to see the bird only adds to its cachet and mystique. It is a special bird. The American Woodcock has long been a hallmark of Cape May, and with our diligence, will long remain a symbol of frosty, fall mornings in wet, sun-dappled woodlands of the Cape.

That reminds us, we think that there are some more scraps that need to go out to the compost pile.

Let’s get our binoculars. It’s timberdoodle time.

Clay and Pat Sutton are noted Cape May birders and authors.

Learn more about the American Woodcock in the Suttons’ landmark book, Birds and Birding at Cape May.


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