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Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche: Everyday Wonders

Ranger Steve

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Every day brings newness from what were yesterday’s normal everyday events. We might ask if anything has changed in the past 24 hours, week or month. Things are different from a month ago and the wonders of change capture our attention as nature’s progression transitions into April.

The “plump robin-sized” American Woodcocks perform a ground dance by stomping feet and twisting from side to side in evening’s last glow. Eyes bulge from the side of the head looking in opposite directions. How is it they avoid confusion from seeing two different views of the world at the same time? They see nearly everything on each side but combine the scenes into one understandable picture.

They benefit from seeing in every direction at once. It becomes difficult for predators to approach unnoticed. For mating, the bird stomps feet and turns from side to side. It makes a nasal buzz called pneeting every few seconds in evening’s dusk. I count pneets of the bird that is usually not in view. My ears triangulate the direction and distance to the sound in the brushy field.

I dare not approach for fear of stopping the spring dance. The number of pneets has reached 17 and stopped. The long-billed bird flies toward me at a low climbing angle. I get to see its long bill piercing the darkening sky ahead of its plump body. It does not see me as it concentrates on a series of climbing spirals over the field. Short stubby wings are in rapid flutter as the bird reaches higher altitude with each spiral. It becomes difficult to keep track of the dark spot shrinking in size with each successive upward loop toward heaven. It seems the woodcock is on an invisible spiral staircase that it climbs with ease. I run to where it left the ground while it is in the air. On its zigzag return to Earth, I will be close to where it will continue its ground dance.

While it is in the air, I invariably lose sight of it as it fades from view into high clouds or haze of the darkening sky. Suddenly I hear a twittering sound that indicates it reached its flight apex and is now plummeting earth bound. I scan for the bird in sky dive. When it is well on its way downward, I catch a view. Before the long bill pierces the ground, leaving a dead bird’s body sticking up like a sucker ball on the end of a candy stick, it levels its downward flight before crashing and safely lands.

Safely on the ground, it pneets with more foot stomping and turns from side to side. As the evening sky darkens the bird spends longer on the ground and the number of pneets between aerial flights increases. Their antics impress me more than TV mysteries. It has been nearly 50 years that I have watched the spring ritual and still do not know mating details. Somewhere a male and female mate.

Friends have found ground nests and photographed females sitting on eggs in a forest or shrub thicket. I have found recently hatched young running about soon after gaining freedom from the cramped quarters of eggshells. My presence has caused these little fuzz balls to lay still and flat on the ground in hopes that I will not see or eat them. Several young lay still nearby as I photographed. Most will not survive to perform next spring’s mating dance. During the lifetime of a mated pair, most offspring will not survive.

American Woodcocks populations seem stable. Having four to five young annually during a four to six-year life span is enough to maintain the population but habitat is decreasing in our area. At Ody Brook, we have maintained suitable nature niche habitat to meet woodcock needs. Once a year in late October, I mow an upland dancing ground to ready it for spring. Little Cedar Creek’s muddy floodplain is kept natural. Woodcocks probe their long bills deep into mud in search of worms and insects. Muddy lowland shrub thickets along creeks are essential as are upland fields for mating. Clearing along creeks for a manicured lawn and view reduces woodcock populations as well as eliminates a multitude of plants and animal communities. Share space with life on Earth. Grandchildren will appreciate your efforts.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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