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Song and dance: woodcocks announce spring

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Every spring, a Department of Environmental Conservation biologist drives along north country highways at dawn or dusk, stopping every so often to pull over and listen. They're listening for the distinctive "peent" of the singing American woodcock, a brown speckled bird a little larger than a songbird with a long, narrow beak for pulling earthworms out of the ground.

The little game bird is under threat New York state, and the survey each year is meant to get a handle on what population trends are in this region. DEC regional spokesman Stephen Litwhiler is the happy host to several of the birds in his backyard in southern Jefferson County. He says the birds' appearance each year is his personal "harbinger of spring."

For this Heard Up North, reporter Joanna Richards donned camouflage and hid behind the birds' favorite tree in Litwhiler's backyard to get a close-up look - and listen.

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Joanna Richards
Watertown Correspondent

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Litwhiler: What they do is they sit on the ground and they sing and they do a little dance. They call this their “singing ground.” And when – they do a little dance, and then it gets dark enough, they fly up into the air, and they do this spiraling flight way up into the air, and then they do this tumbling fall back down to the ground. And they're doing this – they repeat this over and over until it gets well after dark. They're trying to attract a mate.

(whispering) That one's flying, right up over our heads. These two guys are competing for the same girls. He's in free fall. He'll start singing anytime.

Peent...peent...peent...peent...peent.

After the peent, you'll hear a little “erck,” and he's doing that, also, as he's dancing around.

Peent...peent.

They start singing as soon as they come back in the spring. Because woodcock feed almost exclusively on earthworms and things that are in the ground, they have to fly south, to where there's always going to be some ground that's thawed.

One thing I love about these little birds – they are my personal harbinger of spring. I know spring's on the way when the woodcocks show up. And they're always faithful that they're here about the 10th to 12th of March.

Peent.

Woodcock are one of the species that are of greatest conservation concern. Their habitat is a limiting factor. They like these brushy areas, with the openings, and those type of areas tend not to be that common anymore, as farmlands grow up into small woods and then mature woods, the type of cover that woodcock like is just – it's dwindling.

Peent. Peent.

Overgrown pastures are one good type of habitat, and one of the things that I'm doing here on my property is to try to keep these openings from growing up into trees. The foresters think I'm crazy because I'm trying to promote the brushy alders, but it's important for my favorite little birds, the woodcock.

Peent. Peent. Peent.

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