Owner, MN Backyard Birds
At dusk each spring, three birds take to the air and use their aerial skills to display for females and to hunt. These three birds are the American woodcock (scolopax minor), common snipe (gallinago gallinago) and whip-poor-will (caprimulgus vociferus). They can be heard more often than seen in central Minnesota. Both the woodcock and snipe are considered shorebirds but are rarely found on the shore. They are most likely to be encountered along a wooded edge near water. The whip-poor-will is in the nightjar family and is strictly nocturnal.
The woodcock is a medium sized shorebird 9-16 inches in length and is mostly brown with gray streaking found on the back along with some black bands atop the head. The woodcock has very large eyes and a long bill that is used to probe for worms in moist soil. It is a well camouflaged bird that spends most of its time on the ground feeding on earthworms. Woodcocks are known for their elaborate rituals that take place each spring. These evening aerial displays attract females and warn other males to stay away. The “skydance” takes place in open fields where males spiral upward to heights of over 100 feet where you can hear the twittering notes and chirping calls before they spiral back to the ground. Once back on the ground the males give several calls, sounding like “peent,” before taking to the air again. This ritual can start as early as March and last into early June. The female then nests close to the “skydance” area, laying four eggs; the chicks leave the nest within hours of hatching.
The common snipe, also formally known as Wilson’s snipe, is a shorebird like the woodcock. It is similar in size but less chunky than the woodcock and the bill is much longer and thinner. There are many various shades of browns on the back and head with a whitish chest. The Snipe is generally found in more typical shorebird habitat like flooded fields, moist grasslands and wetlands. The snipe also performs a ritual at dusk called “winnowing.” During these spiraling flights a “winnowing” noise is caused by rushing air going over their modified tail feathers. One interesting note about the snipe is that the male will take the first and/or second chick away from the nest to raise as the female continues incubating. Their main food source is also earthworms, which they find using their highly sensitive bill.
The whip-poor-will is the least common of the three and their numbers are declining. At dusk the bird starts calling out its own name repeatedly, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will. It is smaller in size, about 8-10 inches, which makes it better suited for catching insects in flight similar to a bat. They feed primarily on flying insects (including moths and beetles), and have a large mouth that allows them to capture insects up to 2 inches long. When not feeding, mostly during the day, they often perch in a tree or on the ground. No nest is built, but rather the eggs are laid on ground in a leaf litter making it very difficult to locate. The adults are also very well camouflaged. The eggs are laid prior to a full moon so that both of the adults can forage during this moon phase and bring back more insects. The food is then regurgitated and fed to the newly hatched young. Whip-poor-wills prefer mature mixed forests of pine and deciduous trees with an open understory. During the writing of this article I was hearing whip-poor-wills calling out from the woods near my home. Two years ago a birder from Mesa, Arizona contacted me to see and hear the Whip-poor-wills at my home. The species was recently split in 2011 into two separate species known as the Eastern and Mexican Whip-poor-will.
Listen for these birds at dusk or during a full moon in your area now through June. If you see one of these birds consider yourself lucky since they are only active at dusk and during the night. Enjoy the sounds of the American Woodcock “peent,” the winnowing of the Common Snipe and the repeating call of the Whip-poor-will. Happy Birding!
This spring thousands and thousands of birds will be arriving from a long migration and will need to refuel and rest. This is great time to clean your bird feeders and refill with fresh seed and to check how to make your windows more bird safe. MN Backyard Birds offers our complimentary consultation to help you attract and enjoy more colorful songbirds this spring. Judd Brink is the owner of MN Backyard Birds and offers birdscaping for homes and businesses. Please contact us at MN Backyard Birds (218) 838-4784 or email firstname.lastname@example.org