The Great American Woodcock in Bryant Park

Jeanne Tao

American Woodcock

Spring is here, and with that, we have resumed our seasonal twice-weekly bird walks in Bryant Park, which coincide with the spring & fall migration season. In NYC, spring bird migration runs from roughly mid-March until early June, with the peak being mid-April to mid-May. Our walks run for six weeks from mid-April until the end of May to encompass the migration, and track the changes as leaves emerge, flowers bloom, and more and more birds pass through (and then move on to their breeding grounds, which are mostly farther north or in areas with a greater amount of available habitat).

One of the hallmarks of early-spring migration, arriving just as the snows begin to melt in mid-March, is a curious bird called the American Woodcock.They are nocturnal, very well-camouflaged, and generally shy and hard to see, but every spring a few touch down to rest and feed in Bryant Park and provide unparalleled opportunities for observation.

This spring was no exception: up to five American Woodcocks were found in the park at one time. Unfortunately most of them had moved on before our spring walk series began, but one was obliging enough to stick around for our inaugural walk of the season last Monday.

Woodcocks are a type of shorebird in the sandpiper family. Although most of their relatives are found in marshes or on beaches, woodcocks are a forest-dwelling bird, the landlubbers of the shorebird family (the name “shorebird” doesn’t even really apply to them). There are about eight species of woodcock worldwide. Six are tropical forest creatures found in Southeast Asia (on islands in the Philippines, New Guinea, in Sulawesi, etc.). Two are temperate species, one ranging across the Old World from Ireland to Japan, and the other throughout the eastern United States. That is our American Woodcock.

They are comical-looking birds: very plump, almost spherical, with huge doe-eyes and ridiculously long beaks. They are superficially similar to the Kiwi bird of New Zealand; although completely unrelated (Kiwis are actually distant relatives of Ostriches): both are forest-dwellers that feed primarily on earthworms, so have evolved under similar adaptive pressures into a similar form (such as the aforementioned long beak, which is used to probe the soil in search of worms). This is known as convergent evolution.

Woodcock bills aren’t just unusually long; they also have a particularly flexible, cartilaginous tip, with musculature that allows the woodcock to open just the tip of its beak even while it is fully buried in the ground, in order to grab worms, which are then yanked from the ground and sucked down like spaghetti. You can see some amazing video of this behavior filmed last spring in Bryant Park here.

The other particularly striking trait about woodcocks is their huge eyes, which are placed very high and far back on the head. Many nocturnal creatures have large eyes of course, but the location of the eyes is remarkable: they are further back on the head than those of any other bird. In fact, the woodcock has stereo vision behind its head but not in
front! This is probably in order to see predators approaching from behind while the woodcock is feeding on the ground. It’s not as important for the woodcock to see in front of itself, as it feeds mostly by touch. It does
make it challenging for the woodcock to see obstacles as it flies; perhaps for this reason, they have the slowest-known flight speed of any bird (recorded as slow as 5MPH). Presumably due to their limited front-facing vision, they are also frequently victims of collisions with buildings in urban settings such as NYC (which I documented in a past
Bryant Park blog post).

Woodcocks rely largely on their cryptic coloration to avoid detection by predators. Females on their nest are known to sit quietly, allowing approach to within a few feet, so as to not draw attention to themselves or their eggs. The birds in Bryant Park are not on nests (there isn’t enough habitat), they are merely stopping by to rest and feed on their journey north, but they too sit very still and often allow close approach and observation. One has to be a sharp-eyed observer to even notice them in the first place however! Many people have probably walked past numerous woodcocks and never even realized it.

In fact, although I scouted around the park prior to my first walk of the season, I didn’t find any woodcocks. It wasn’t until we had finished the walk, and a few participants were hanging around and talking, that a sharp-eyed participant spotted the single woodcock sitting quietly under some Boxwoods in the NW corner of the park. It was gone by the next day. Hopefully it successfully dodged the tall skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan, and continued northward to participate in their beautiful
& ethereal aerial courtship display in an overgrown rural meadow
somewhere.

Who knows what other hidden wonders will be revealed on this spring’s walk series? Join us to find out!