It was a cool day and supposed to get cold overnight—below freezing. Would it be warm enough 15 or 22 minutes after sunrise to start counting woodcock? The air temperature has to be a minimum of 40 degrees. It was 50 degrees at 6:30 pm, looked like it wasn’t going to drop quickly, and so off we went to Amity to count woodcock.
Woodcock are a small migratory, wading, woods-living bird. They’re difficult to see, often not making themselves known until you almost literally step on them. They let you know of their presence by bursting up into flight a few feet in front of you, causing swear words and heart palpitations.
I don’t remember how many years I’ve been volunteering in the US Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife’s Woodcock Singing Ground Survey but it must be nine or ten by now. I run two routes, Amity and Danforth, both in Aroostook County, with help from Steve. He’s my chauffer and extra set of ears.
Woodcock start peenting, a nasally sound they make to attract females, around sunset during their breeding season. At the end of the peenting cycle they burst nearly horizontally into the evening sky. They fly as much as 250 feet off the ground during their dance. When they reach their desired height they fly in an erratic pattern (could be mistaken for a bat) for several seconds before returning to the ground to restart the sequence.
Counting begins 22 minutes after sunset if the sky is three-quarters or less overcast (sky condition). If the sky is more than three-quarters overcast, counting starts 15 minutes after sunset.
Counters record the time of sunset, the time counting starts, mileage, wind, sky condition and precipitation. Notes are made on anything that might interfere with our ability to hear. We don’t count in high winds or rain. If possible, we count in perfect weather conditions so that we can get an accurate count of how many males are in the breeding ground.
The route is predetermined. Each year you start in the same place and stop in the same ten spots. Each is four-tenths of a mile apart. You count for exactly two minutes.
We started counting at 8:09 pm because the sky was overcast. Stops one and two were quiet. I watched a snowshoe hare hoping around at the first stop. It’s unusual to not hear at least one woodcock at this stop.
Stop three started at 8:16 pm with three peenting males. This stop is on a long stretch that allows sound to carry. An oncoming car blocked out some of the time I counted but I’m confident there were three birds peenting. A barking dog in the distance didn’t block sound.
The number of birds peenting are counted, not the number of peents. Let’s say I’ve done this for ten years, always running two routes each year, each route consisting of 10 stops. In 200 stops I’ve seen one woodcock. We’re counting by sound. It’s easy to count the number of birds because they’re far enough apart to distinguish between them.
Stops four, five and six each had one bird. I wished the dog would stop barking so I could hear well. I admit, barking dogs are a pet peeve of mine. Stop six had a lot of loud frogs which might have kept me from hearing peents in the distance. This doesn’t change from year to year. There’s always a boggy area with a lot of frogs.
Stop seven turned up one woodcock and something, probably a deer, walking away through the brush away from us. A barred owl hooted the entire time. “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”
Stop eight had two birds and was easy to count thanks to almost complete silence.
Stop nine had one, possibly two males peenting. I recorded one because I’m not sure of the second. Thank you, Mr. Barking Dog. I look at the ditch on the north side of the road for moose at this stop. We saw two young moose there several years ago, and I always hope there will be another. Highly unlikely that it will happen, but I hope anyway.
The last stop, at 8:41 pm, had one bird. That’s unusual.
There was less traffic than usual, and while loud, the frogs weren’t as loud this year as in years past. There was very little logging truck traffic. This was the best year for this route. It averages around 60% of the stops having birds to count, and this year it was 80%. I have no idea what this means for the woodcock population. Maybe the numbers are up, or maybe I happened to hit it on a good night. Or something else.
We usually see bear, moose or deer when counting. We heard what was probably a deer, and on the way home saw a yearling bear cub run from the side of the road into the woods. It’s the first bear sighting for me this year.
I’m counting in Danforth tonight. Of the two routes, this one is my favorite. I’ll be out toward the wind farm in an area with less traffic and more deer.