American Woodcock

April 12th, 2019: A quick walk in the spring snow and an American Woodcock

Yup. This is a post in the second week of April. More snow…

And it hasn’t happened often, but I don’t have a photo of the focus of today’s post: American Woodcock. I’ve not seen many other than in flight, and when i’ve seen them, it’s almost always been a chance encounter where birding wasn’t the point of the trip…so I haven’t had my camera with me. I know, I know: always bring your camera…

Anyway, I was heading up to Minneapolis and had time to stop off at a nice spot called Minnesota Valley NWR, which has many trails along the Minnesota River and Long Meadow Lake. The area with the bass ponds is quite nice and quite well birded, but not often on days like today.

The weather itself wasn’t horrible, but we’d recently had a lot more snow. In light of this, I wasn’t sure what I’d find, if anything really. But I came across few species of waterfowl, lots of active woodpeckers, a couple of Hermit Thrush, and an early-ish Eastern Phoebe, when I came across a large mixed flock (~60) of mostly sparrows. I set up my scope and picked through them with great anticipation. (This, I believe, is the only way to pick through a mixed flock of sparrows.)

This was my walk to work the day before...ugh.
This was my walk to work the day before…ugh.

About half of them weren’t actually sparrows, but Dark-eyed Junco. This was fine. The rest were mostly American Tree Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, and Song Sparrow. The bonuses were one Savannah Sparrow and one Swamp Sparrow. Well, not exactly earth-shattering, but I found myself believing that spring was in fact on its way, though the weather clearly hadn’t got the message.

There was a fair amount of flooding at the Minnesota Valley NWR bass ponds as yesterday's snow started to melt, compounding the problem from the heavy rains we'd had in March.
There was a fair amount of flooding at the Minnesota Valley NWR bass ponds as yesterday’s snow started to melt, compounding the problem from the heavy rains we’d had in March.

This was already a pretty good showing this early (I’d counted 26 species pretty quickly), but I thought I’d walk a little further. A small, awkward, cryptically patterned football jumped off the edge of the path in front of me, rapidly flapped about 15 feet up the path and plopped down out of view again. What? Was that a snipe? Something was off… It couldn’t have been an American Woodcock already could it? Very slowly, I crept closer, hoping to get a view of it without flushing it again.It was incredibly skittish though and after only a few steps it took to the air again. This time it flew a small loop around the little pond beside me, giving me great flight views before it settled elsewhere. Definitely an American Woodcock! Awesome!

This was really exciting for me, not having seen this species many times before (I’m not from the midwest or plains areas). This was also by far the best look I’d ever seen of this stunning species. I’ll do my best to get a photo of one in the future. If I’m lucky maybe I’ll even snag some video or audio of their mating displays. The displays are both awesome and hilarious as the males vocalize and flap furiously to hover high overhead at dusk.

Zoom in on this map to see if there are some reported American Woodcocks near you and try to catch them between mid-April and mid-May for the best chance to view the mating displays (they can start as early as March at this latitude though). You won’t be disappointed!

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