Woodcock walk in Pomfret witnesses stunning display

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Pomfret - posted Mon., Apr. 11, 2011
Audubon sanctuary manager Andy Rzeznikiewicz led the recent woodcock walk. Photo by D. Coffey.
Audubon sanctuary manager Andy Rzeznikiewicz led the recent woodcock walk. Photo by D. Coffey.

Sanctuary manager Andy Rzeznikiewicz led the last of this spring’s annual woodcock walks from the Connecticut Audubon Society Center at Pomfret on April 7.

With spotlight and binoculars in hand, Rzeznikiewicz took 10 bird-watching enthusiasts through an open field to a bank of thickets. As dusk descended and the horizon turned pink from the setting sun, he had the group wait quietly to hear the first “buzzy beep” call of the woodcock. It would signal the start of the male woodcock’s aerial performance. It would also signal the group’s need to move in against the thickets and get out of the bird’s way.

The American woodcock is a stocky upland ground bird whose population has been declining for years in Connecticut. Much of the bird’s habitat in the state has been lost due to land development.

Rzeznikiewicz has managed the sanctuary for 17 years. In that time, he has discovered certain locations in the 700-acre Bafflin Sanctuary and Windham Land Trust properties that are frequented by woodcocks. They are territorial birds, and each male will stay in his own area to perform the courtship dance.

Rzeznikiewicz brought his group to a large field adjoining an area of moist thickets. He pointed out a swarm of swallows high in the sky and kestrels on the tops of two leafless hardwoods as the group waited for the first call. A sliver of moon grew white in the sky.

After the first call sounded and the bird began his flight, Rzeznikiewicz moved the group up against a bank of thickets. Woodcocks are difficult to see because the ‘dead leaf’ pattern on their backs helps them blend in to their surroundings. But the courtship flight is a vocal and visual performance. The bird flew about 200 feet up in the air, his wings twittering as he went. His return was swift, straight down and the landing spot predictable. Males will land in the same spot, over and over again. The females know exactly where to find them, Rzeznikiewicz said.

After several flights, a female responded to the male’s performance. She flew over and the two birds rose in the air together.

It was something that Rzeznikiewicz, in his 17 years, had never seen before.

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