Monolithic skyscrapers burst from every inch of land on New York’s iconic Manhattan island. They stand like great tombstones for the nature that once survived on an island that grew fat on the Hudson Valley fur trapping economy. This is no longer a place for nature, and certainly not a place for incidental wildlife encounters. Or is it?
In the dense concrete jungle of Midtown Manhattan lies a small rectangle that is somewhat green. I say somewhat green because the grass of Bryant Park is covered by an ice rink for the winter months. But for a few weeks of the year, something remarkable happens. As the ice rink is lifted, and the first daffodil shoots search for scraps of winter sun, an odd little bird arrives in NYC. The American Woodcock.
It is hard to say why this twitcher’s delight decides to make Bryant Park its migration resting spot, but each year, at the end of February through to April, the woodcocks arrive.
During this time a group of strange people appear in the park. We meander very slowly, peering down into the borders and studying the ivy patches. Some of us feel guilt and shame, because people are glancing up from their papers with lingering suspicious looks. Do not worry, we mean you no harm, we are just birders.
My office is a couple of blocks from Bryant Park which means I can take the early ferry and walk the park circuit before work and again at lunch time. I have seen the woodcocks of Bryant Park each spring for the last 5 years, but the spring of 2019 was a particularly fine year. Some days I was seeing 5 or 6 of them in a short visit. They also seemed to be unusually extrovert, hanging out in crowded parts of the park and walking around feeding in between the daffodil shoots in broad daylight, with a small gathering of admirers.
The American Woodcock is a bird of many names. It has over 15 rural folk names, but the common ones that I hear are Timberdoodle, Bogsucker and Night Partridge. My personal favourite is Bumblebee Chicken which I think sums up this odd little bird quite nicely.
The woodcock knows that the soil in the park flower beds has been loosened and turned, in order to plant the spring bulbs, and it is watered regularly. This soft fertile soil is perfect for the woodcock’s hunting method. It was wonderful to watch at close range. The stalking Bumblebee Chicken studies the soil as it takes light, deliberate steps forward. The bill is then eased into the soil to its full length, with face pressed to the ground. The bird holds its position while its remarkable superpower does its thing.
The woodcock has a flexible tip to its bill which it can move independently. It bends like rubber! Using this superpower the woodcock is able to snare a worm and work it out of the ground before gobbling it down in whole.
In a place as busy as Midtown Manhattan you need to be able to blend in if you want to keep out of trouble. While a fiercely fought table tennis game was played out and city workers took their lunch, I watched a woodcock resting between feeds. As well as having fertile flower beds Bryant Park has patches of ground ivy, peppered with brown leaves, beneath the Plain trees. This is the perfect place for a woodcock to use its camouflage, that was designed for this type of leaf litter.
The American woodcock is a plump, oddly shaped little bird. It is a little smaller than a pigeon but without the tail. It’s legs appear to be set back on the body which, with the long bill and no tail, gives it a bit of a front heavy appearance. As well as a bendy bill and extraordinary camouflage, the woodcock has another superpower. The bird has very large eyes that are set unusually high on the head. This means that it has close to 360 degree vision. You can’t sneak up on a Timberdoodle!
If you find yourself in Midtown Manhattan in the late winter, early spring months why not take a walk around Bryant Park. Search under the bushes, look in between the daffodil shoots, but be careful, you might look right at it and think it is just dead leaves, as many do. But the Bumblebee Chicken is there, and it is watching you. Ask the furtive looking birders, we will be happy to point out the woodcocks.
Lying on cold dusty ground in my work clothes in a crowded park in Manhattan was definitely a new experience for me. People looked at me as though I was going through some kind of breakdown. That look of pity and a little fear.
But when they noticed the Bumblebee Chicken just a few inches from my camera lens the pity and fear turned to fascination and a stream of questions. A crowd soon gathered for Bryant Park’s most famous visitor, the timberdoodling, bog sucking American Woodcock.
Join the conversation below. Have you seen the Woodcocks of Manhattan? Where have been “twitching” or birding in an unlikely place? 👇👇👇
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