“Timberdoodles!”

A Timberdoodle may sound more like one of Santa’s Christmas Elves, but it’s actually one of many nicknames for a unique looking bird called an American Woodcock.  Although not a common admission to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, we recently had a Timberdoodle delivered to our care because the chunky little bird suffered head trauma, but we’re not sure how it happened.  The American Woodcock, a member of the Sandpiper family, is a stout shorebird with a plump body, short legs, a large round head and a long, straight prehensile bill.  Adults are 10 to 12 inches in length and weigh 5 to 8 ounces, with females considerably larger than males. They have very short tails which gives them a bulbous look on the ground and in flight.  Their wings are broad and rounded compared to other shorebirds.  The American Woodcock, although it is indeed a shorebird, lives in and around young forests rather than along bodies of water.   They camouflage well in  wooded environments because their color pattern is a mix of brown, black, buff and gray, so they spend most of their time hidden in fields and on the forest floor. Their underparts are buff to a tinge of dark orange.  Their brownish gray to reddish brown feet and toes are small and not considered strong body parts.  What is strong is their long bill that is used to probe the soil to find their favorite food, earthworms.  This prehensile, 2 ½ to almost 3 inches, bill not only pokes into the earth, but an amazing bone and muscle collaboration allows the bird to open and close the tip of its bill while the bill is underground. The underside of the bill and the American Woodcock’s tongue are both rough-surfaced enough to grasp slick and slimy prey such as a juicy worm or other invertebrates. Delectable items in the Timberdoodle’s diet also include insect larvae, snails, centipedes, millipedes, spiders, snipe flies, beetles and ants. To initiate the hunt for worms or insects, they stomp their bony feet on the ground to startle the prey into movement the bird can detect before penetrating the ground with their bill in efforts to capture whatever is on the run.  They also eat a small amount of plants, mainly seeds and are most food active at dawn and dusk. The Woodcock’s eyes are large and located high in their head.  Although they don’t rely on their eyes to hunt, their immediate visual field is said to be the largest of any bird; 360 degrees horizontally and 180 degrees vertically.  American Woodcocks are usually found much further north, to include Canada, rather than the southern Outer Banks of North Carolina, but they do migrate as far south as the Gulf Coast States before the harshness of a northern winter. The highest concentrations of Night Partridges (another of the many nicknames for the American Woodcock), after winter migration, according to the annual ‘Christmas Bird Count,’ are found in northern Alabama.  Although, they are occasionally sighted, even during Spring breeding season, in the western mountainous areas of North Carolina. The American Woodcock is the only species of woodcock that inhabits North America.  Woodcocks migrate at night and fly at low altitudes in small, loose flocks.  Their flight speed has been clocked at 16 to 28 mph, however, Timberdoodles are also known to fly at the slowest speed ever recorded for a bird, 5 mph!  Both October and late February migrations, where they visually follow coastlines and river valleys, are viewed as leisurely for American Woodcocks compared to the rapid and more direct migrations of most other birds. During breeding season, the male Woodcock sings a series of ground calls and performs high spiraling, zigzagging and banking flights at dawn, dusk and on moonlit nights while attempting to woo a mate (or many mates). They will also bob and bow while walking very stiff-legged with wings outstretched toward a female on the ground.  After a Woodcock hen is impressed by all that showy display and chooses her fella, she uses leaves and twigs to encircle a shallow depression on the ground to make a comfy home for her one to four eggs.  Incubation takes 20 to 22 days. Hatchlings are precocial, which means they are ready to leave the nest within a few hours of birth much like chickens, but Mom will feed them and teach them to hunt. The young will be probing for worms within a few days of hatching. It’s fortunate that, although fluffy, the young are born with their well-camouflaged coloring enabling them to blend into their surroundings, which becomes essential when predators, such as raccoons, raptors or humans, make the scene. Some observers state they have witnessed frightened youngsters clinging to their Mother’s body as she flies them away from danger.  Young Bogsuckers (yet another nickname for American Woodcocks) will make short flights within two weeks of birth, can demonstrate excellent aerial maneuvers at three weeks and are ready to move on independently after five weeks of Momma’s care. The male is not monogamous and will mate with numerous females.  Male American Woodcocks do not help to select a nest site, incubate eggs or feed and rear the young.  However, the male will continue to entertain the female with his dazzling courtship rituals for as long as four months beyond hatch day.  This chunky and most interesting shorebird suffers loss of habitat due to forest maturation and urban development, but the American Woodcock does adapt better in deforestation situations than other ground dwelling birds do.  Strides in conservation efforts since the 1960’s, especially the “American Woodcock Conservation Plan” which protects, renews and creates habitat, have helped maintain Hokumpoke or Brush Snipe (still other nicknames!) populations in North America so they haven’t moved onto the wildlife endangered list, but are considered within “species of greatest conservation need.” Groups care so much about the Timberdoodle that as recently as October 2017, the 11th American Woodcock Symposium was held in Michigan and focused on steadfastly maintaining this bird. It’s nice to know that probably due to their efforts, the estimated population of the American Woodcock is 5 million, so it does rank as the most common Sandpiper on the continent of North America, and it’s also nice to know that people are so impressed when they see an American Woodcock that they immediately come up with a nickname for this little, fat body bird with the very long, skinny bill that looks so unusual and out of place.  The maximum lifespan of a Timberdoodle in the wild has been recorded at eight years, so they are out there! If you are scouting for one, look for them in young forests, forest edges, old farming fields and wet meadows, AND look low!  The are definitely worth seeing!

Merry Christmas,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

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“The Ravishing Ruddy Duck”

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERADucks, ducks and more ducks!! We treat many a duck at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC; Mallards, Muskovies, Wood Ducks, Scoters, Scaups, Buffleheads, Megansers and even a rare Canvasback, but the Ruddy Duck, originally from Canada, is a distinct chubby little thing that doesn’t come through our door very often. However, about a month ago, during our major cold snap, a short, wintering brown, male Ruddy with characteristic white cheek patches arrived. He had been observed sitting in a Swansboro resident’s yard without moving for two days. The concerned wildlife enthusiast managed to approach the stubby winged duck, pick him up without much trouble and place him in a box for transport to our shelter. Upon arrival, the Ruddy’s examination proved emaciation was an issue, but no injury or illness was found. Migratory Ruddy Ducks dive to feed on pondweeds, algae and wild celery, as well as the seeds of sedges, smartweeds and grasses. They also eat aquatic insects and their larvae, shellfish and crustaceans. During breeding season they adjust their diet and feed mainly on invertebrates, primarily larvae and pupae while sieving bottom debris during dives. With icy precipitation and freezing temperatures occurring during his rescue, our theory is the little diving duck found it difficult to find food during the unusual cold spell he, as well as we were experiencing and was basically starving. At that point, our shelter become exactly what he needed; protection from the adverse conditions and a “bed & breakfast” where he would be assured enough good food and the opportunity to gain back the bulk the small compact duck had lost. Because it was winter, our Ruddy was not the colorful male with a gleaming chestnut body, sky-blue bill, black capped head and gray-blue feet most people see during Spring and Summer in the prairie regions breeding areas of North America. East coast bays, ponds and marshes in the south will winter 25 per cent of migrating Ruddy Ducks, but males will appear an inconspicuous dull, buff-brown with a darker brown head cap. Blog_RuddyDuck_OWLS2EFemales are always grayish brown with beige rather than white cheek patches, although in winter they appear darker. The average length of a Ruddy Duck is 15 inches and when healthy, weighs about 1- 2 lbs, with males weighing more than females. Their wings are rounded rather than angular and span 21 – 24 inches. During breeding season, which begins in April, the cartoonishly colorful and bold male ruddy will court females by beating their blue bill against their neck hard enough to create a tapping noise and a swirl of bubbles in the water. They are relatively silent ducks until breeding season, but only the male will vocalize with a “chuck-uck-uck-uck-ur-r-r,” which sounds almost like a belch, while displaying for females. They also make popping sounds with their feet while running across the water during flaunting flights. The only vocalizations known for females are hisses when threatened and a nasally noise made to call her brood. Their domed nest, made out of grasses by the female, will be hidden from predators in dense vegetation adjacent to lakes, marshes and ponds, but some nests are made from old nests of other ducks or constructed on muskrat houses or on floating logs. Ruddies will often take up residence in the vicinity of other diving ducks such as Buffleheads and Goldeneyes and are known to interbreed, which causes concern and frustration for some conservationists, especially in other countries like the United Kingdom and Spain. On the average, female Ruddies will not reproduce until they are 2 years old and will lay 4 to 8 eggs (one a day), that are said to be almost 2 inches each in length, which is very large for their size. Incubation is 25-26 days and after hatching, the lone female will feed and protect the young. The youngsters will fledge in 50-55 days. Ruddy ducks spend the majority of their lives in water and are hardly ever seen on land. Their legs are set back further than most ducks, therefore, an upright stance is difficult, but they are great swimmers and divers, and use their stiff tail, that stands straight up, similar to a cute Carolina Wren, as a rudder to maneuver when they swim and dive. Ruddy Duck, Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Huntington Beach, CaliforniaWhen taking off from a lake or pond, Ruddy Ducks are very awkward due to their unusual wing design and must use their legs and wings to “run” across the surface of the water (like a runway) and once in flight, the ruddy duck will beat its wings very fast. Some people say it looks like a huge hummingbird. When threatened by predators, of which they have many, such as raccoons, minks, crows, red-tailed and Swainson’s hawks, great horned owls, foxes, ringed-billed gulls, night herons and humans, they will sink slowly beneath the water or dive with great speed for protection rather than fly. After nesting season, Ruddies will form tight flocks on open water in great numbers for preservation from injury or harm, although habitat destruction, droughts and drainage in their breeding range and exposure to oil spills have recently decreased Ruddy Duck numbers. Their average lifespan in the wild is 2 years with 13 years the record holder. Ruddy Ducks living in zoo environments typically enjoy the longevity of 8 years. Our Ruddy Duck seemed to find pleasure in his stay at our shelter and became chubby once again. Krill, greens and beaucoup meal worms (which were his favorite meals) vanished in his presence, and he was offered as much as he could put away! Once his weight was back to normal and our southern weather turned warm again, he was released in an area where Ruddy Ducks frequent. 2012 Waterfowl Stamp ArtworkBy now, we’re sure he’s on his way north to meet up with a mature Ruddy Duck gal willing to bear his children, and probably at this very moment, like the colors of a rainbow, our little Ruddy is morphing into his strikingly handsome and vibrant summer self!

Happy Spring Everyone!!!  Wildlife babies are already blooming!!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse,  author of “Save Them All