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Inside the Outdoors: A riot of robins, a whisper of woodcock

Photo illustration, Metro Creative Graphics, Inc.

There is an assortment of labels sometimes used to describe groups of animals. There is the "pride" of lions, the "gaggle" of geese and the "murder" of crows, the last of which says a lot about how we have regarded these conspicuous black birds down through the ages.

I think there is room for a new one. Just days ago I was driving through the city of Superior, Wisconsin, on the way to a fishing destination along the southern rim of the big lake. The big thaw that has freed us from the grip of winter has also ushered in a host of bird migrants that have spent the worst of winter elsewhere, somewhere to the south.

On the lawn of an old Superior residence, a tall, bare-limbed tree was alive with a frenzy of wings in motion. A multitude of birds were swooping, flitting, diving and generally creating an air traffic controller's nightmare in miniature. The object of this frenetic movement was the remains of a crop of crabapples still clinging to twisted branches, and apparently — based on the landings and take-offs — littering the ground below.

It was a legion of robins, the first I had seen in large numbers this spring; the first other than lone pioneers. Robins are among the more conspicuous of returning migrants. Some don't actually migrate, and by some perverse streak these stay on and tough-out the winter, like Minnesotans who forego warm climate vacations, or refuse to move south for several months each winter after they have retired.

But logic says most robins will migrate, if for no other reason than their preferred foods of earthworms and insects are unavailable from November through March or April. But fruiting trees and shrubs are a pantry of stored energy that is there for the taking, so when robins return and find them — apples in particular — it's like a prospector finding a mother lode.

Male robins arrive before females, which makes sense given the fact that they compete for preferred territories, and those disputes are best settled before it's time for the critical business of mating, egg laying, incubation and rearing of nestlings. One reason robins are so abundant is their habit of rearing two, even three broods each year, often in the very same place.

It's also arrival time for a very different, far more secretive bird, the American woodcock. Unlike the familiar red-breasted songbird, the woodcock is a gamebird, but even unfamiliar to most hunters; let alone the average Joe. The woodcock is often found in the company of ruffed grouse. Not in the sense of banding or flocking together, but in occupying similar habitat; woodlands with aspen, birch and alder the primary cover. Woodcock are likely to be found in lower, more moist-soil areas than grouse, where earthworms — their preferred food — can reliably be found near the surface.

Woodcock are about robin-sized, though the robin seems sleek in contrast to the woodcock's squat, plump shape. Where the robin's plumage is conspicuously colored — as is the case with many songbirds — the woodcock is a marvel of cinnamon, brown, cream and black camouflage. Both rely heavily on earthworms for survival. Woodcock have a very long, pointed bill with a hinge near its tip, perfectly suited not only for probing deep into the soil, but for grasping the earthworms they find. When available, earthworms can be as much as 90 percent of a woodcock's diet.

When woodcock arrive in spring they're likely to home in on places where the soil thaws first, places like seeps or springs where even a trickle of water can accelerate the thawing process. That's where food is likely to be found first. Occasionally woodcock are double-crossed by Nature and a late winter cold snap or blizzard snow puts them in danger of starving or freezing to death before the weather reverses itself.

Males put on one of the most unique mating displays in Nature. The arena might be an idled farm field, a brushy cutover, a dry bog or a forest opening. Ornithologists—bird scientists—call it a singing ground. The ritual, morning and evening when conditions are right, begins on the ground with a series of vocal notes said to resemble an insect-like, buzzing "peent." This is followed by a vertical, often circular flight, with a whisper of twittering wings as the woodcock reaches an altitude nearly as high as a football field is long. At the summit the male hovers briefly, uttering a series of chirps, then glides back to the ground near his launch site. The performance may be repeated for a half hour or more. If he impresses a nearby female, she'll join him on the ground and mating will follow.

Woodcock migrate at night, which has made it difficult to pin down their flocking behavior. You'll never see them high in a bright daytime sky in V-formation like ducks, geese or swans! Limited observations in scientific literature suggest they travel in loose flocks of as few as a handful, to several hundred. I've encountered them during the hunting season in such dense numbers that it was clear many had arrived at roughly the same time. Unlike the nonstop flights to southern wintering grounds of some migrants, woodcock are more leisurely, stopping to feed and rest, moving as cold weather seals off their earthworm supply and motivates them to move on.

Unlike the robins that most of us may see on an everyday basis, the "sky dance" of the recently-arrived woodcock will be seen by only a few. They are one of Nature's better-kept secrets, but not readily forgotten by those of us who witness it.

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