Of Timberdoodles and Ecotones

American Woodcock

American Woodcock aka the timberdoodle. Photo by guizmo_68 on Wikipedia

The timberdoodles are back! We’ve probably had them wintering on our property for years, but first noticed them only last year. Their plumage, a mix of different shades of browns, grays, and black, blends in with the winter vegetation and they stay hidden during the day unless you flush them out of hiding. Last year, we saw a group of squirrels flush one out of hiding.

One night last December, as we were finishing dinner, I saw an animal rooting around in the yard, but because it was almost, dark I couldnt figure what it wasa squirrel without a tail? A bunny digging a hole?? It was not too far from the house, but I needed binoculars to see that it was a woodcock! My husband had seen it earlier in the week down by the lake, but thought it was a shore bird. So now they are back to winter here in north Florida—a true snowbird.

Probably better known as the American woodcock (Scolopax minor), this weird bird with eyes near the top of its head, a long beak, and no neck, belongs to the sandpiper family along with snipe and other shorebirds.  But the woodcock is definitely not a shorebird; it prefers a damp woods and open, sparsely-vegetated open areas where it’s most likely to find worms. They’ll also eat other soil dwelling wigglers such as insect larvae, snails, centipedes, millipedes, spiders, and other bugs. That long bill is flexible at the tip, so once they dip it into the soil, they can open and close the tip of the bill to more easily grasp their prey.

Woodcocks have been popular game birds and I can see how challenging it might be for a hunter because I have been unable to take a single reasonable photo. Unfortunately their populations have dwindled over the years, not only from the hunting, but also because of the loss of habitat.

Habitat
Their preferred habitat is at the edges of forests or in young forest ecosystems. This transition area between two or three separate plant communities is called an ecotone. If you walk from a field into a mature forest, you’ll have to fight through a tangle of shrubs, vines, and low branch growth on trees before you enter the true forest where the ground is not heavily vegetated and the branches on most trees are high in the canopy. You have just experienced an ecotone. It usually has a higher density of organisms and a greater number of species than are found in either flanking community. Some organisms, such as our woodcock, need a transitional area for activities such as courtship, nesting, or foraging for food.

Maintaining Habitat

Front meadow before and after clearing

Front meadow before and after clearing

To maintain a young forest habitat, you need to interrupt the flow of succession from field to forest. For example, when we moved into our house the former owners had sodded the area on the far side of the pond with St. Augustine grass. We decided not to mow it. After a couple of years, it looked like this—well on its way to becoming a pine forest again. I dug out the trees and chopped back most of the other vegetation so that it would remain a meadow. It probably would have been easier to rent a brush hog to mow it all down, but that way I would not have been able to save the St. John’s-worts that bloom all winter. And with our variable winter weather it’s best to have something in bloom for those lonely bees that emerge on warm winter days.

An ecotone

The ecotone between the lawn & the woods in the back yard.

Out in the back yard, the ecotone is a narrow strip from the mowed area to the forest. This is where we’ve seen the woodcocks and knowing what they like, I can see why.

There are at least four species of ferns, inkberries, yellow jessamine, catbriar, grape, chokeberry, black berry, poison ivy, and young trees all vying for maximum light exposure. The wooded area is populated mostly by sweet gums, black gum, pines, maples, and oaks.

Most winters, I make an edging trip around the lawn where the lawn is reduced by six inches to a few feet. My edging method is pretty simple: I pull the creeping grass from the woods and mulch with the fallen leaves. And guess what’s attracted to the leaves? Worms.

Edging strategy

This edging strategy encourages worms.

And because of those worms, the woodcocks are back again this year to winter in our yard. On the rare occasions when I see them it makes me smile. Our sustainable, no-poison landscaping practices are supporting not only this odd-looking bird, but also the gopher tortoise that we talked about last month and so many other species.

© 2011 2012, Ginny Stibolt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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About Ginny Stibolt

Ginny Stibolt, a naturalist with a master's degree in botany, lives in Green Cove Springs in northern Florida.  She's written a book, Sustainable Gardening for Florida published by University Press of Florida.  Her website, Green Gardening Matters contains a six-year log of Florida gardening, nearly 100 articles, and links to more than 100 podcasts about gardening in Florida.  She's an active member of the Florida Native Plant Society and is one of the primary FNPS bloggers.  She is also an active member of the Lawn Reform Coalition.

Comments

  1. Sue Sweeney says:

    Ginny I should have know this was your article I was enjoying it so much! Nice refresher on the term ecotone and a wonderful edge-habitat species.

    I often only have vague idea of where my local summer birds go for the winter. Good to know that the wonderful woodcocks have at least you looking out for them.

    Reply
  2. Donna@Gardens Eye View says:

    So much wonderful info here from ecotones to woodcocks to edging for the forestmarvelous infoit does give us great pleasure to know that the critters appreciate our efforts !!
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..Chance vs Choice

    Reply
  3. Elephant's Eye says:

    Maybe related to our dikkop, which they have renamed thick-knee! Large ground-nesting birds, who complain bitterly in the night if disturbed. Ours must make to with the open space in fallow back gardens, but our house has edged them out of this space sadly.
    Elephants Eye recently posted..Pushed Out of Paradise and Roses

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  4. Elizabeth Smith says:

    Ive never seen one in Florida,let alone knew they had such an interesting nickname! I wonder how timberdoodle came about in the first place? Really enjoyed reading this post.
    Elizabeth Smith recently posted..Gaillardia

    Reply
  5. Ginny Stibolt says:

    Thanks for the comments. Maybe someday Ill actually be able to take a decent photo of my woodcocks, but Im not holding my breath; their secretive winter habits make it difficult. Elizabeth, north Florida is the southernmost wintering range for the woodcocks, so you may not have them where you are.

    As for the timberdoodle name: I think the doodle part comes from the wobbling gait while its drilling the soil for worms, but the timber part is because of where it lives. Its odd appearance and behavior have earned it other names as well, such as, big eye, night partridge, bog sucker and mudbat.

    Reply
  6. Carole says:

    I usually see woodcocks feeding on the damp roadside in my northwest Florida neighborhood. Ill keep piling on the leaves in my yard. If I dont get woodcocks, at least Ill get worms.

    Reply
  7. Carol Duke says:

    Ginny, It is fun to consider that your winter woodcocks might be the ones that become our harbingers of spring. It is an early spring ritual that I always look forward to. Here we watch and listen at dawn and dusk for the incredible mating flight of the male woodcocks. There is nothing quite like it and a joyous sharing with my son over the years. Thank you for maintaining a safe and nurturing habitat for them! I have never been able to get a photo of one. Good luck to you! Wonderful article!
    Carol Duke recently posted..Beginnings and Endings Days and Months Painted Sky and Canvas

    Reply
  8. Loret says:

    Great description of ecotone! I love my st. johns wort (I too pull rather than mow down some areas to preserve it). I want some timberdoodles.send em further south, please :)
    Loret recently posted..Bug Gangs

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  1. A Rough Day for Ruffed Grouse says:

    [...] cool bird found in clearings in the woods is the American woodcock, or Timberdoodle.  You can read a great post all about these birds  by Ginny [...]

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