How to Hear and See an American Woodcock

by Ron Pittaway


Adapted April 2015 from Woodcock Woodlands, first published in OFO News Vol 15 (2): 6. Pittaway 1997.


American Woodcock at Rondeau Provincial Park


The American Woodcock is a sandpiper adapted to the forest floor of young forests up to 30 years old. Prime woodcock habitat includes: young open deciduous woodlands for nesting; alder and aspen (poplar) thickets on soft moist ground to allow probing for earthworms by day; and clearings in the forest for twilight courtship displays and for roosting at night. Woodcock avoid peatlands, pure coniferous and mature deciduous woodlands.


Courtship Call and Song of the American Woodcock


Males do their spectacular sky dances twice a day at dawn and dusk from mid-March to early June. The evening display starts about 20 minutes after sunset on clear nights or about 7 minutes earlier on cloudy evenings. The display period lasts 30 to 40 minutes until dark, but may go on and off all night when the moon is bright. Each sky dance lasts about one minute. Usually there are 10 to 20 flight displays before dark. The morning display begins about one half hour before sunrise.

Listen for the nasal nighthawk-like peent call coming from the ground in an open area. This call is often mistaken for a Common Nighthawk long before it has returned from the south. At close range listen for the muffled hiccup call just before the peent call. You will soon hear a continuous twittering whistle of the wings and probably see the male as he makes his first rise into the air. Fluttering in circles overhead, it looks like a bat and the twittering becomes faster. The twittering sound is made by air rushing through the three outer primaries which are stiffer and much narrower than the others. The height of the spiral is about 60-90 metres. At the apex of its spiral and during the steep zigzagging plummet back to the ground, the male utters a clear liquid chirping song, which intensifies and fills the night air. This song lasts 10-12 seconds and ends suddenly just before landing. Back on the ground, the peenting calls resume, followed again and again by sky dances. Rarely heard is a sharp cac-cac-cac that is given by the rival (chasing) males.

How to hear and see an American Woodcock

Pick a mild evening with no wind. Find a quiet area with a mixture of young forest and scattered openings. Try to avoid wet areas with loud singing frogs. The trick to seeing a woodcock is to locate a male's singing ground by listening for its ground call and aerial song.

Take advantage of trees and shrubs to obscure your silhouette. Stand perfectly still and wait for the woodcock to drop back to the ground. In more open areas, you will have better results if you kneel. Since the ground is often damp, you will feel more comfortable if you wear rain pants to kneel. Please DO NOT approach too closely or bother them if they seem disturbed and do not trespass on private land.


American Woodcock calling on the ground and flight display pattern by Michael King.