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Woodcocks perform in fields and wetlands

American woodcock; note the long beak and short legs. (Photo by Mark Sparky Stensaas)

By the end of March, we are past the time of the vernal equinox. Daylight is about 12 1/2 hours and lengthening each day. Though we often have chilly mornings, the days regularly rise to the 40s, 50s or 60s. We will still get more cold and snow, but the longer days have ushered us into the new season.

The changes abound. Catkins on willow and aspen are maturing and they are joined by a similar growth on alders and hazels. Thawing has opened up sites that held snow blankets for weeks. Some yards and south-facing hillsides are nearly devoid of snow. Perhaps in a sunny site we'll find the ubiquitous dandelions opening. While not appreciated later, we may be glad to see these yellow flowers now. And maybe a few crocuses are blooming, too.

Our local chipmunks have risen from their long slumber. And we might note the presence of a skunk or raccoon in our yard as well. Among the bird migrants that arrive by this early date are some that also find our yards, maybe even our feeders, as good places to feed and rest on their way to nesting sites.

Looking out in the late March yard, I see a few piles of crusty snow left from earlier. There are partially decayed leaves that were buried under the snow all winter. And then there are a few birds feeding here that recently arrived. The migrants of early spring, juncos, purple finches, tree sparrows and maybe white-throated sparrows, are mostly seed eaters. Even if the days are chilly the birds find plenty to feed on. They will call to each other, as do the redpolls that are still present, but are not likely to go into full song.

Also in the yard and along the road route that I walk regularly, I see and hear a few other migrants that could be singing by this time. Newly returned robins, bluebirds and mourning doves have unique melodies of their own. Typically, they begin singing a few days after they return. These avian songs add much to the morning walks. But the songs and sounds that I seek in late March emanate from the wetlands.

Walking by a swamp in early spring always causes me to pause. A regular spring ritual is to hear the "konk-a-lee" songs of the red-winged blackbirds. Some years, they have been present and singing by the vernal equinox; others, not until the first week of April. But they are always here. Males return to sing at their territorial swamp nesting sites about a month before the females. Usually he is on a tree branch overlooking the wetland. Here he surveys his home site and is able to have his territorial proclamation songs be heard. And with a little searching, I find him.

These songs of the red-winged blackbirds at the swamp happen in the morning. But they tell me that if I go out to another wetland site, not far away, in the evening shortly after dusk, I'm likely to find another bird doing its mating performance: the woodcock.

Red-winged blackbirds and woodcocks are quite different in many ways. While the former is a type of songbird, the latter is classified as a shorebird, a species of waterbird. The sleek blackbird is a contrast to the stout woodcock. Woodcocks have long bills, used to probe into soil to feed on worms, along with short legs. This strange-looking bird has also been called a "timber doodle."

The red-winged blackbird carries a red patch on his shoulder (the epaulet) on a dark body. The woodcock is all brown. But both are residents of wetlands and both use this time of early spring to announce their presence. With the blackbirds, in the absence of females, the songs are to tell other males that this territory is taken. Woodcocks are performing in hope of attracting females.

The sound from the male woodcocks during this ritual is not likely to be called a song, but it does serve the same purpose. I go out into a partially grown field near an alder swamp about one-half hour after dusk, about 8 p.m. for late March. In the gathering darkness, the evening is calm and I'm able to pause and listen until I hear the telltale and unusual call from the male woodcock, a "peent" note. He gives this call several times as he struts about on the ground to get the attention of any female that may be present.

Then he goes into his next act. He takes off in a zigzag flight above this scene. Once he reaches the apex of this aerial performance he proceeds to dive down again, giving tweeting sounds along the way.

This strange "peent" strutting dance and the tweeting flight is continued many times during the evenings. If I'm out here early enough, I'll hear and see it again in the predawn darkness. As with the song of the red-winged blackbird, the woodcock sound is a terrific component of the early spring, now in late March.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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