HOWARD - The nicknames mudsucker, night partridge, big-eye bogsucker, mudsnipe and timberdoodle can conjure up images of some unique-looking creatures.
These are some of the nicknames given to the American woodcock, which lives in Pennsylvania from November to February.
"During the winter months most woodcock are located in the southeastern United States," said Ian Gregg, wildlife biologist and game bird section supervisor at the state Game Commission.
The woodcock looks quite different from other forest birds. Well camouflaged, they share the coloring of a grouse but have a stocky body that is low to the ground; large, round eyes; and a long bill.
Sensitive nerve endings on the lower third of the bill help it locate food such as earthworms, according to experts.
"The tip of the upper mandible is flexible, so they can grasp worms while probing in the mud without opening their mouth," said Nick Thomas, environmental education specialist at Bald Eagle State Park. "The tongue is long and rough-surfaced to grasp and pull slippery prey."
Counting by ear
Woodcock populations are monitored throughout the state during counts of singing males in April and early May, according to Gregg.
A singing ground plays a major part in a woodcock's life. Without this habitat, the birds would not breed.
Singing grounds are natural or manmade clearings used by male woodcock for courtship activities during the spring breeding season, Gregg said.
When counting for woodcock, he said, for comparison between sites, numbers are expressed as the number of males per 10 stops - the usual length of a singing ground survey route.
"For Pennsylvania as a whole, monitoring routes have averaged about 1.3 males heard per 10 stops over the past 10 years. This number is relatively stable over the past decade but has declined significantly over the longer term," Gregg said.
At Bald Eagle State Park, officials are trying to restore a solid woodcock population by creating more habitat options. Their ideal habitat includes:
Small clearings used for courtship;
Young thickets for foraging;
Early successional forests for nesting and brooding; and
Clearings for summer roosting.
Thomas said the park has many successional stages. "Some good examples of this are at Lower and Upper Greens Run. One of the best and most accessible places to view woodcock is along Marina Road in the main park area."
He said the staff maintains an early successional habitat by removing invasive species and encouraging native plant growth.
"We do this on a set cycle so that there is a constant area that woodcock can find what they need," he said.
The most important part of the woodcock's habitat, Gregg said, is dense shrublands, clearings for singing grounds, and young forest thickets on good soils. These provide woodcock with their main source of food - earthworms.
He said the overall population declines are due to the loss of shrubland and young forest habitat throughout Pennsylvania, as well as in the rest of the woodcock's range. Such decline results, in part, from land development but mainly to forests simply getting older.
Experts note that the majority of forested land in the state is virtually in the same growing stage as it has been for 30 to 40 years. With little to no forests in the "young growth" stage, the woodcocks have declined.
"Creating shrub and young forest habitat is crucial to reversing the woodcock population decline," Gregg said. "An additional benefit of management at (Bald Eagle State Park) is that it offers an opportunity to inform and educate the many visitors to the park about these habitat issues."
About 12 to 15 areas in Pennsylvania have demonstration areas that combine the habitat with an educational component, he said.
"A few times a year, we go out in search of this elusive bird," Thomas said of the woodcock. "We typically do one-hour programs where we will learn about the bird, its habitat requirements, and then we go out and usually see at least one doing its courtship display."
Plant species that make ideal habitats are aspen, alder, hawthorn and goldenrod.
"There is some recent research suggesting that invasive plants like autumn olive and multiflora rose are lower quality for woodcock habitat, even though they may create structurally similar thickets to native plant species," Gregg said.
The park contains two monitoring routes that have been covered for about 10 years, Gregg said. The results from both can be used to measure the population response to the habitat improvements.
"One route averages 3.5 males heard per 10 stops and the other averages about 18 males per 10 stops; both routes show an increasing trend," he said. "This illustrates that habitat creation has a positive, sometimes dramatic, effect on the local woodcock population."
Agencies participating by helping with funds and building habitat include the state Game Commission, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Ruffed Grouse Society, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Habitat Forever, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Woodcock Limited.
"We could not get a project of this scale completed without dedicated partnership on all ends. Each agency has something unique to contribute, whether it be staff, equipment, personnel or funding," Thomas said.
The woodcock shares its habitat needs with a songbird called the golden-winged warbler.
"Both of these birds need early stages of successional habitat to thrive," Thomas said "They are two different species that have very different lives and niches, but they both fit well with the early successional habitat."
With other habitat changes, the park is hoping to attract a rare species - the regal fritillary butterfly.
"The regal fritillary project is a separate project but still has the same general goal in mind - reclaiming beneficial native plant species so that other animals can thrive," Thomas said. "With the regal fritillary project, we are also indirectly creating early successional habitat, which could encourage woodcock or golden-winged warblers to inhabit the area."
All the agencies involved in the project agree it's about conservation, both of the land and of the species.
The goal is to maintain and conserve a natural resource, Thomas said. In this case, it is a native, early-successional habitat.
"The primary mission of DCNR is to conserve and sustain Pennsylvania's natural resources for present and future generations use and enjoyment," Thomas said. "By creating and encouraging this unique and disappearing habitat's growth, this project benefits both the resource and the people who enjoy it."