When thick snow falls, game birds called American woodcocks gather at road edges in South Jersey, giving people a rare peek at a supremely camouflaged creature.
Sometimes called timberdoodles, the birds are known for their jitterbugging walk, which experts said helps them find earthworms underfoot.
But with their bobbing and swaying, woodcock seem to be grooving to music only they can hear.
The birds are beloved in Cape May County, where there is a Woodcock Trail at the end of Woodcock Lane off Route 47 in Middle Township.
“Cape May and Cape Henlopen are two hotspots for woodcock. It’s a really neat bird for this area,” said Heidi Hanlon, a biologist at the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge.
They have cryptic brown and orange camouflage that makes them disappear in the leaf litter when they freeze, she said.
“When they’re motionless, their colors blend right into the ground,” she said.
New Jersey Audubon will host an evening walk March 12 to watch their equally bizarre courtship flights.
“It begins at the edge of darkness with the male woodcock peenting,” said Don Freiday, program director for New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory.
“He will fly up into the air and circle and you can hear his wings twittering. He will descend in a manner similar to a leaf falling from a tree, swaying this way and that way, all the while whistling in a wonderful array of high-pitched notes.”
The birds are common in South Jersey, especially where forest meets farm fields.
“One of the reasons the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge was established was to protect woodcock,” Freiday said.
The birds are found year-round in South Jersey but many migrate through on their way to warmer places in the Southeast. They feed on earthworms and grubs that they find by probing the soft ground with their long flexible bill, he said.
“Imagine sticking two fingers into the mud and trying to spread them apart. It’s difficult,” Freiday said. “But the woodcock can bend and open their sensitive bill at the tip.”
But it’s that undulating strut like a child’s wind-up toy that is most distinctive.
“It’s a really interesting dance to see,” Hanlon said. “They kind of like bob their heads and sort of rock back and forth. I’d say it’s like a groovy funk.”
Self-described bird-lover Margot Schoeffel, a dance teacher from Egg Harbor Township, watched a video of a woodcock bopping along the ivy at Cape May Point State Park. She said it’s hard to characterize the woodcock’s strut.
“It’s not like an Egyptian Dance. It’s not Bollywood. It doesn’t look like hip-hop. It’s certainly not ballet. Maybe a little tap,” she said.
Schoeffel, who runs a 250-student studio in Egg Harbor Township called Miss Margot’s Ensemble Arts, said woodcocks lack the panache of other dancing fowl like the birds of paradise she admired in the BBC series “Planet Earth.”
“He’s got rhythm but not much variety,” she said. “But he’s adorable. If this guy was on ‘America’s Got Talent,’ I’d vote for him.”