Where to Watch Woodcocks Through Early April

As spring rolls in, keep your eyes peeled for this shorebird’s kooky courting ritual.

Photo via Shutterstock

It takes all kinds to populate New Jersey. Consider the American woodcock, a shorebird that appreciates abandoned airfields, rail lines and just about any place that meets its criteria for finding a mate. They’ve been spotted hanging outside the Mills at Jersey Gardens mall in Elizabeth and at Liberty State Park in Jersey City.

“They like three different types of habitat in close proximity: scrubby fields to provide cover, clearings so females can see the males’ courtship displays, and woods for shelter during the day,” says Kathleen Farley, a doctoral candidate in biology at Rutgers University–Newark. Farley details her research at woodcockwatchnj.org. 

In addition to their ability to blend in with leaf litter and perform a silly bobbing walk popular on YouTube, woodcocks are known for the male’s early-spring, acrobatic evening courtship ritual. It begins with a repeated “peent,” followed by flight some 300 feet upward, where he pauses before spiraling downward. The wind moving through his feathers creates a whistling sound to accompany his chirping.

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In March, New Jersey is typically chock-full of guided evening woodcock walks at parks and preserves, including the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Harding Township; Duke Farms in Hillsborough Township; and Schiff Nature Center in Mendham, which will hold walks March 19 and 26. Fewer may be scheduled this year due to Covid-19; check online and register early as capacity is limited.

You can also go it alone. Farley recommends scouting out an area like a small athletic field with nearby woods, or a mowed area beneath power lines with woods on either side. At sunset on a calm, dry, mild evening, listen for the male’s peenting. “Typically, a display begins 10–15 minutes after sunset,” Farley advises. 

If you find an active spot, be sure to revisit it through early April. You may find yourself, like Farley, drawn to the wonders of woodcocks, who, she says, appear to be thriving despite the degradation of their habitat. “I think that’s really incredible,” she marvels.

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