Woodcocks and Snipes return for spring nesting

Barbara Hootman Columnist

February’s thaw in the first few days of the month brought sunshine and temperatures near 60 degrees. And then winter returned with a vengeance. What more can one want? Spring flowers come to mind.

Some early daffodils sway in the cold February wind, skunk cabbage is pushing through in swampy areas, and a few dandelions are poking their sunny heads through lawns, to the disgust of the “perfect yard” keepers.

Skunk cabbage, a perennial, begins to emerge from mid- to late February and continues through May. Most wild animals avoid it. It grows in the woods near streams where it is wet. The plant produces heat that allows it to emerge and bloom even when the ground around it is still frozen. It gets its name from the unpleasant odor it emits. Bears eat the young plants and suffer no ill effects.

A few dandelion blossoms have shown up in Valley yards. Honey and bumblebees, beetles, moths and butterflies are attracted to dandelion pollen. Dandelions are among the first wild flowers of spring and the last to go in the fall. Each dandelion flower is made of up to 100 florets loaded with nectar and pollen. It is a lifesaver for early spring pollinators.

House sparrows and goldfinches enjoy dandelion seeds. It is more enjoyable to watch them feast on a wild meal than wage war with the weeds.

Recently a female woodcock (Timberdoodle) flew into one of the Black Mountain Post Office’s windows, killing herself. Even in death, her unusual appearance sparked interest and picture-taking. These birds along with snipes are among the first to return to the mountains to breed and nest yearly. They are also difficult birds to spot due to their color and where they choose to nest.

Woodcocks and snipes look so much alike they are hard to tell apart especially in flight. Although they are from the same family, there are some subtle differences. Both are comical-looking, plump, roundish birds.

Both have a long, slender, bills measuring up to 2 inches with flexible tips for feeding on earthworms, and big round eyes that are set farther back on the head than other birds. They also have exceptionally short legs. Their eyes are good for night vision. They are the same color as fallen winter leaves, a cryptic mix of various shades of browns, grays and black. Their color gives them protection from predators.

The male woodcock and snipe walk while bobbing their bodies up and down (YouTube has several good videos of a woodcock walking). The male woodcock is best known for its springtime courtship display. He performs the “sky dance” during migration and after arriving on his breeding ground. Each male establishes a display area and defends it from other males.

The woodcock and snipe strut around on the ground in the dark, giving a loud, nasal “peent” call. The woodcock whirls around on the ground and gives the call from another direction. Periodically the male launches himself into the air, rising high in the sky while making twittering sounds that are vibrations made by the wings. He rises in large circles and then suddenly drops from the sky erratically, while making whimpering chirps. Just before reaching the ground, he levels off, skims along the surface of the display area and sets down almost in the exact spot from which he took off. Snipes perform a similar aerial dance which can reach speeds of up to 60 mph.

Males mate with any receptive female that approaches the display area and the females visit nearby fields and mate with other males. There is no pair bonding. The elaborate mating rituals often go on as long as four months. Woodcocks and snipes are easiest to spot in undisturbed fields at dawn, dusk and on moonlit nights.

Woodcocks and snipes belong to the same order as plovers, sandpipers and seagulls. Female woodcocks and snipes are slightly larger than the males. Head markings with black bars on the woodcock make it easy to differentiate from the snipe. Snipes make a cup-shaped nest, and woodcocks use an indention in the ground.

Both woodcocks and snipes have excellent vision and hearing. Their ears are placed between the large eyes and the bill, contributing to their unusual look. Both birds have the same habitat needs which are found in old brushy fields or clumps of young evergreens. Areas near springs, creeks, marshes and streams provide the moist soil they need for feeding.

Woodcocks prefer open woodlands, and snipes stick close to the woods. Both can be found in open, damp, overgrown meadows when courting and performing their aerial dances.

Keep out plenty of water of drinking and bathing.

May you always hear the whisper of wings.