Monday, November 3, 2014

Tracking the American woodcock

SHERBURNE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE -- Clusters of headlamps bob through the field of grasses and young willow shoots well after dark.

"We got one," calls a voice from one cluster. "You guys?"
"Six!" is the cheery response.

The two clusters meet amid what might to the outsider look like a series of badminton nets erected for who knows what purpose. The headlamps illuminate hands holding half a dozen cloth sacks, each occasionally squirming.

Inside each is a live American woodcock.

This was the scene this month as a team of researchers and volunteers set out to catch woodcocks and fit them with small satellite transmitters. The badminton nets are "mist nets" that birds simply fly into unawares as they head toward evening roosting grounds.

The project, headed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, aims to unravel lingering mysteries surrounding the odd and diminutive migratory game bird.

With a long beak and toes, the American woodcock looks similar to a shorebird. Yet it lives generally in the woods, using its flexible beak -- which it can open just at the tip if it so desires -- to forage on insects and grubs in the damp forest floor. Adding to its idiosyncrasies: It's eyes appear sort of backward; in fact, its brain is essentially upside down.

And then, of course, there is its name, which can't help but evoke a chuckle in boys of a certain age. Its alias is downright silly: the timberdoodle.

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