Woodcock Surviving the Deep Freeze in Cape May

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Cape May, NJ – For American Woodcock who winter over in Cape May, food is always the issue.

They get their food by probing the soil with their long, flexible bills for earthworms and insects.

For the hundreds of seemingly hardy woodcock that remain here rather than migrating farther south, starvation and death are a possibility if the ground freezes for long. Once the ground is frozen, food is simply unavailable.

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This winter, birders in Cape May were pleasantly surprised to find about eight to ten of these birds alive and seemingly well, despite the harsh winter weather.

The birds have been feeding along the north side of Sunset Boulevard, a traditional feeding location for woodcock in the winter.

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The ground there stays relatively thawed. The reason is a combination of shelter from north and northwest winds, salt runoff from the road that keeps the soil thawed, and a sewer pipe that runs just under the ground along Sunset Boulevard. Yes, the warm effluent in the sewage pipe helps to keep these birds alive as the pipe prevents the ground from freezing.

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The frequent snowfalls have helped, actually insulating the ground, preventing long-term freezing.

So, while the brutal cold this winter has repeatedly frozen Lily Lake, the Cape May Canal, and near shore sections of Delaware Bay, the ground along Sunset Boulevard has been an important source of worms and insects.

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Woodcock have been using the times between each new Arctic blast to feed furiously.

If we continue to have a seesaw pattern of cold then warm temperatures, these birds just might be able to navigate one of the toughest winters in recent memory in Cape May and live to breed in the spring.

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About Paul Kerlinger

Paul Kerlinger, Ph.D. is a scientist, author and nationally known expert on bird migration. He's done extensive studies on hawks, Snowy Owls and neotropical song birds. Kerlinger is the former director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, His books include How Birds Migrate and Flight Strategies of Migrating Hawks. He's an ardent fly fisherman and organic vegetable gardener.