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Walking with Woodcock

June 22, 2015

AmericanWoodcock Twp 43 Burdick2 x 2Promptly at 8:30 on a cool evening in May, an American Woodcock swooped low over the tree tops and dropped into the middle of a clearing on Dougherty Ridge, just outside of Grand Lake Stream.  Immediately, he began his high-pitched nasal peenting sound.  With a whistle of his wing feathers, he took flight, circled the group and climbed higher and higher in long spirals.  At about 300 feet up, he turned downward and let out a rapid series of chirps as he dived headlong toward to ground, zigzagging as he came.  In the absence of a willing female, the plump little bird plunked back to his singing ground and resumed his amorous peenting.

This nuptial flight was the object of the Downeast Lakes Land Trust’s Woodcock Walk, part of the 12th Annual Down East Spring Birding Festival.  During the four days of the festival, participants can enjoy birding walks, paddles, offshore trips, lectures, and other events from Trescott to Talmadge.  Downeast Lakes Land Trust was pleased to offer the Woodcock Walk to festival attendees as a way to enjoy one of the most impressive spring birding spectacles in the Maine woods.

The casual walk was led by DLLT Executive Director David Montague.  The group chatted about birds and forest management as they climbed the hill from the Grand Lake Snowmobile Clubhouse.  In 2012, DLLT partnered with the Ruffed Grouse Society to implement an early-successional forest management plan to improve habitat for woodcock and grouse on Dougherty Ridge.  More than a dozen small patches, each 2 to 5 acres in area, were cleared to allow young hardwood trees like aspen and birch to regenerate.  The plan prescribes another harvest in 2022 to connect these patches, which will be densely packed with young trees and shrubs following 10 years of growth.  In 2032, a third series of patches will be harvested abutting what will then be 10- and 20-year old regenerating sites.

Throughout this timeframe, woodcock will use the youngest clearings for their springtime displays, rooting through the leaf litter in the older stands for worms to eat.  Meanwhile grouse will find food, cover, and sites for nesting and breeding amongst the dense, woody understory.  Moose and deer will benefit, too, by browsing on the buds and leaves of the young trees and hiding their young in the thick cover.  A variety of small rodents and birds are already making their homes in the brush piles created during the timber harvest, and these, in turn, support predators such as bobcats, coyotes, owls, and weasels.  Over the decades-long cycle of periodic timber harvesting, this managed ecosystem will provide a continuous supply of young forest habitat to benefit these and other species.

The effect of this management was not lost on the group that ascended Dougherty Ridge on that cool evening in May.  After inspecting frog eggs in a vernal pool and watching a deer browsing in one of the clearings, the group paused beside one of the small patch cuts to listen for birds.  The chorus started off slowly with a few distant hermit thrushes and one drumming grouse, but as things settled, the woods came alive with red-eyed vireos, white-throated sparrows, chickadees, and wood thrushes.

At dusk, the woodcock arrived right on schedule.  The nuptial display was repeated many times, and on some passes the woodcock circled low over the heads of the onlookers.  At dark, the group slowly retread the path down the ridge by flashlight, hearing peenting woodcock in each clearing they passed.  With the distant call of a loon echoing up from West Grand Lake, one breathless participant exclaimed, “I had no idea this was happing right on the edge of town!”


The Downeast Lakes Land Trust regularly hosts speakers, community forums, work parties, and workshops and leads outdoor adventures that highlight the natural and cultural history of the Maine woods and waters.  Visit our website to discover what is happening next!