Beautiful Native Plants

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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Of Timberdoodles and Ecotones

The timberdoodles are back!

American Woodcock aka the timberdoodle.
Photo by guizmo_68 on Wikipedia

We’ve probably had them wintering on our property for years, but first noticed them only last year. Their plumage, a mix of different shades of browns, grays, and black, blends in with the winter vegetation and they stay hidden during the day unless you flush them out of hiding. Last year, we saw a group of squirrels flush one out of hiding.

One night last December, as we were finishing dinner, I saw an animal rooting around in the yard, but because it was almost, dark I couldn’t figure what it was–a squirrel without a tail? A bunny digging a hole?? It was not too far from the house, but I needed binoculars to see that it was a woodcock! My husband had seen it earlier in the week down by the lake, but thought it was a shore bird. So now they are back to winter here in north Florida—a true snowbird.

Probably better known as the American woodcock (Scolopax minor), this weird bird with eyes near the top of its head, a long beak, and no neck, belongs to the sandpiper family along with snipe and other shorebirds. But the woodcock is definitely not a shorebird; it prefers a damp woods and open, sparsely-vegetated open areas where it’s most likely to find worms. They’ll also eat other soil dwelling wigglers such as insect larvae, snails, centipedes, millipedes, spiders, and other bugs. That long bill is flexible at the tip, so once they dip it into the soil, they can open and close the tip of the bill to more easily grasp their prey.

Woodcocks have been popular game birds and I can see how challenging it might be for a hunter because I have been unable to take a single reasonable photo. Unfortunately their populations have dwindled over the years, not only from the hunting, but also because of the loss of habitat.


Their preferred habitat is at the edges of forests or in young forest ecosystems. This transition area between two or three separate plant communities is called an ecotone. If you walk from a field into a mature forest, you’ll have to fight through a tangle of shrubs, vines, and low branch growth on trees before you enter the true forest where the ground is not heavily vegetated and the branches on most trees are high in the canopy. You have just experienced an ecotone. It usually has a higher density of organisms and a greater number of species than are found in either flanking community. Some organisms, such as our woodcock, need a transitional area for activities such as courtship, nesting, or foraging for food.

Maintaining Habitat

Front meadow before and after clearing out the trees.

To maintain a young forest habitat, you need to interrupt the flow of succession from field to forest. For example, when we moved into our house the former owners had sodded the area on the far side of the pond with St. Augustine grass. We decided not to mow it. After a couple of years, it looked like this—well on its way to becoming a pine forest again. I dug out the trees and chopped back most of the other vegetation so that it would remain a meadow. It probably would have been easier to rent a brush hog to mow it all down, but that way I would not have been able to save the St. John’s-worts that bloom all winter. And with our variable winter weather it’s best to have something in bloom for those lonely bees that emerge on warm winter days.

The ecotone between the lawn & the woods in the back yard.

Out in the back yard, the ecotone is a narrow strip from the mowed area to the forest. This is where we’ve seen the woodcocks and knowing what they like, I can see why.

There are at least four species of ferns, inkberries, yellow jessamine, catbriar, grape, chokeberry, black berry, poison ivy, and young trees all vying for maximum light exposure. The wooded area is populated mostly by sweet gums, black gum, pines, maples, and oaks.

Every other winter or so, I make an edging trip around the lawn where the lawn is reduced by six inches to a few feet. My edging method is pretty simple: I pull the creeping grass from the woods and mulch with the fallen leaves. And guess what’s attracted to the leaves? Worms.

This edging strategy encourages worms.

And because of those worms, the woodcocks are back again this year to winter in our yard. On the rare occasions when I see them it makes me smile. Our sustainable, no-poison landscaping practices are supporting not only this odd-looking bird, but also the gopher tortoise that we talked about last month and so many other species.

Post by Ginny Stibolt.