Monday, May 20, 2013

Biggest Week: Woodcock Babies - hours old!

"Where in the woods would Woody Woodcock cockily walk while Woody's woodcock wife Wanda watches woodcock kids on the sand spit?" (Say that fast 3 times without pausing ...)

Did you do it? OK, well maybe it wasn't the best tongue twister, but this blog illustrates one of our finest memories from the Biggest Week In American Birding.

I was a bit "down" this year in Ohio. Somehow I had screwed up my leg while early birding in Michigan. It's complicated, but suffice to say that even the steroids the doc had given me a few days before were not helping too much. But, I persevered and had a great time as usual. Hey, birding is like that! Anyway, after a few hours on the Magee Marsh boardwalk my leg was killing me. All I wanted to do was just make it to the car. Judy's pedometer later showed we had walked about 3 miles. Geez! It is just a short walk from the car  - and the boardwalk is not that long - how did the miles add up? But with people seeing great birds, it was back and forth. Interesting . No rest for a birder I guess... :) Great fun!

Anyway, as we were heading to the car, we encountered a new friend that we met the night before at the Birding Ohio Meet and Greet - Donna Simonetti. Donna asked us if we had seen the woodcock babies. "What? No, we have not!"  So she took us across the parking lot to the sand spit on the Lake Erie side of the lot where we found several people gathered around something on the ground. Yellow tape had been placed by wildlife agents around two spots to protect the woodcocks. There was a small plot with tape protecting the shells of recently hatched eggs, and a larger plot around Momma Woodcock and her newly-hatched chicks. When I say, newly hatched, I really mean it - they were only a few hours old!!! Enroute, Donna told us a great story about her experience with this family! She told it SO well! It really set the stage for what we were to see. After she returned home, Donna posted  a fantastic video of Momma and 4 chicks. Besides showing the cute kids, it is fascinating to see how Momma walks!

Prior to this time, Judy and I had actually only seen Woodcocks a couple of times - both times at the Magee boardwalk during the Biggest Week. We had experienced the flight and songs of woodcocks locally a during spring a couple of times, but the silly things only come out when it is too dark to really see them or to take pics, so what you really get are fleeting flighting fantasies of fuzzy buzzy birds. (People always call their flight songs as "peent", but I would call it "bzeent" - it is more a buzzing thing.)

So, here is what we saw at Magee:

Ever see a woodcock egg? These are from the newly hatched chicks. Wildlife folks had the area roped off so no one would step on them. SO cool!!! Woodcock egg shells!!! That was certainly a first!

Shells from newly hatched woodcock chicks.
In the next roped off area, we saw Momma woodcock (here I call her "Wanda"). Even with birders pointing her out, it took us awhile to see her. She is "hunkered down" with her kids underneath. Here are a few views. Any one of these pics far exceeds what we had seen before!  A big-eyed, long-billed spectacular wonder of avian evolution! Woodcocks are so well camouflaged, it is hard to see them even when you know the area in which to look! Obviously these pics are zoomed and cropped.

As we watched and photographed, one new chick emerged from under her. From personal observations and stories of others, we learned this is the "problem kid". The other three kids in the bunch are quite content just being under Momma's folds.

"Where do you think you are going?" Momma said while pushing down with her bill.
(You can see where Momma was pushing his down down ...)

"I just wanna see what is there!" (You can see the impression left by her bill. She tried ...)
Well, he wandered to the other side of Momma, and then just backed up. Momma was stoic the whole time (Mothers are like that ...). She knew a warm down blanket is better than sticks and stones any day. But some kids just have to learn on their own.

"OK! I am back! Just tuck me in!"
You can see from the bitty baby  breast bump he is home! Safe and warm!
That could have ended our woodcock saga right then, but after resting my leg, Judy and I again hit the boardwalk. And, afterwards we went back to see if the woodcocks were still in the same place. No! I suspect the attention had caused Momma to try to seek a place that felt more secure. I heard some stories that upset me about over-zealous people approaching the birds too closely, but thankfully we did not experience this.

My saga continues. The same family was still in the same general area! On this - our second visit to the same family a few hours later - Momma had chosen a new site in the grass.

Momma in the grass waits for the "problem kid" to arrive.
It seems everyone had made it - there were four kids in total - except for "Woody, Jr"! I think in his explorations he had missed the message about changing homes. Now he seems worried! He is about twenty feet away - miles away in longer-legged human terms!

"Momma! Where are you?"
"Oh heck! Here I am -no bigger than a leaf - lost forever!"
"Momma! Is that you? I am coming!"
Here is a pic of the lost kid. Can you see him?
Same pic - enlarged. Now you see his widdle-bitty Woody, Jr. birdie wings trying to help him navigate over obstacles. 
OK, stop right now and go back to the pic before the last! Can you see Woody, Jr.? These birds have wonderful camo! It is only thru binoculars or digital photography and amazing luck (!) that we can ever see them!!!

Another pic of dinky wings of a hours-old woodcock. Heck, you cannot fit everything in ashell!

Well Momma was waiting just like before. Can you see her?

Momma waits for Woody, Jr. - the "problem kid"
Momma is always watching! And somehow - I have no idea how! - she is broadcasting her location  and Woody, Jr. hears it.  All the while she hears his plaintive cries.

"I am here! Please come home!" 
Yes, indeed, this ramble has been quite anthropomorphic! But, it is the blogger in me writing this, and not the scientist! And, I think it makes it more fun. But really many questions remain as the scientist kicks in.

I know of at least three separate incidents of woodcock Mommas and chicks on that sand spit this week! Two separate ones on the same day, and another on Wednesday, two days later. Possibly more.

Why would the woodcocks choose to go onto the sand spit away from the forest in which they live to lay and hatch eggs???  Better warmth from the sand? Escape from chick predators? Escape from moisture on the floor of the marsh?

Were the birds on a nest on the sand spit all along and no one saw them, or did they just lay when the eggs were about to hatch ("drop and run")? Weird! Like, how long do woodcocks sit on their eggs? With all the pros (birders and wildlife officials) around the area then, how could they be overlooked? Any info appreciated!

I think they all returned to the forest by the boardwalk within the same day the eggs hatched. So, what is their story??? I am sure someone in the area has asked these same questions before  so please share possibilities with me! It is driving me even crazier!

And, has anyone recorded vocalizations between Momma woodcock and kids? I know for sure that with the distance and obstacles in the way, they could not have ever seen each other! How did Woody Jr. find Momma? I know that mammals (from my sea lion care-taking days and human experiences) are exactly tuned to very specific "parent/kid frequencies" and can distinguish personal sounds amid any clutter!

Oh, always so many questions! But, I'll close now.

Fascinating! A "lifer experience"!!! You never know what will provide lasting memories (as I say it - what will "flap your wings") when you go to the Biggest Week in American Birding!!!

- "Dr. Bob"


Cathy Carroll said...

Hi Bob, this is one of your best blog posts. I would have loved to see this. Thanks also for linking your friend, Donna's, video. Congratulations on some great photos of one of nature's greatest events. Cathy

"Dr. Bob" said...

Thanks, Cathy! High praise indeed! Yes, it was amazing!

Donna M. Simonetti said...

I like the "anthropomorphic" Doc Robert Setzer! Love this entire story, photos, thoughts, & wonders about why she would lay her eggs there. I wonder too! I love your writing & the details, details, details.

"Dr. Bob" said...

Thanks Donna Madrid-Simonetti !!! As you can see, by the time I posted the link on FB, I had already received a comment from a great birder & blogger Cathy Carroll. She loved YOUR video to which I linked in my blog. Fantastic video!