Year of the Bird Series: February – American Woodcock

Editor’s Note: 100+ bird organizations declared 2018 the “Year of the Bird” as it is the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act’s ratification. Many are pledging to do 1 thing per month to help birds. As Ruthven Park National Historic Site has a bird banding station in collaboration with the Haldimand Bird Observatory, we are featuring one blog post per month on different birds! Below, you will find the second installment in this 12-part series.

Article by Christine Madliger, Post-Doctoral Researcher (University of Windsor and Carleton University)

On this cold and very snowy February day, I am choosing to look forward to spring with this month’s ‘Year of the Bird’ entry – the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). Starting as early as March, those with a keen ear can find this bizarre shorebird working to impress potential mates at the edges of woodlands. At dawn and dusk, males perform elaborate aerial “sky dances” that feature spiraling flights, melodious chirps, twittering wings, and zig-zagging descents. While on the ground, males can also be easily identified by their buzzing “peent” call, which can be heard on The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website.

The American Woodcock has captured the hearts of many bird-lovers and is known colloquially as the timberdoodle, Labrador twister, night partridge, and bog sucker, depending on where you travel. Aldo Leopold, whose natural history writings helped spark the conservation movement of the mid-twentieth century, was mesmerized himself and wrote that the woodcock’s flight display is “a refutation of the theory that the utility of a game bird is to serve as a target, or to pose gracefully on a slice of toast.”

Apart from the boisterous courtship period, the likelihood of spotting a woodcock is relatively low. They are extremely well-camouflaged, nesting on the ground and blending in spectacularly with the surrounding leaf litter due to their brown, mottled feathers. If you do manage to get a close look, you will likely notice that the bird’s eyes are positioned in a peculiar way. They sit high and far back on their head, giving them a slightly goofy looking appearance. However, this arrangement gives the bird rear-view binocular vision – they can easily keep an eye out for predators at all angles, including in the sky, while they are foraging for food on the ground.


(tip: click on each photo above to enlarge it for a closer look)

The bill of the American Woodcock is also unique. It is long for probing in the soil, with the upper half being flexible to allow for easy capture of earthworms. Interestingly, the birds will often place their weight heavily on their leading foot while walking. This may be a tactic to create vibrations in the soil to cause earthworms to move, and there is speculation that the woodcock hears the motion, allowing them to better locate their wriggly prey. The probing behaviour they exhibit during feeding reminds you that they are indeed a type of shorebird, despite having no desire to nest or forage near water.

Unlike many migratory birds who are facing declines due to human-driven changes to their habitats, this species may actually be expanding its range because of human activity. The shrubland and young forest that regrows after harvest of northern coniferous forests is ideal breeding habitat for woodcocks. As harvesting continues, this species will likely have opportunities to occupy new areas north and west of its range.

While this species is not often captured by the mist nets used at banding labs, Ruthven has been lucky enough to band a few. Also, a couple of years ago while setting up a net for the coming spring banding season, banders accidentally spooked a nesting woodcock and discovered she was brooding newly hatched chicks. This occurred in mid-April, meaning that the female had been sitting on the nest for over three weeks, enduring the frigid temperatures and snowfalls of early spring.

This March, consider taking a walk at sunrise or sunset near a local woodlot; you just might get to see the sky dance of North America’s most quirky shorebird.

January 2018 Newsletter

Dear members and friends,

With the office closed for the first week of January, the month really got away from us! Therefore, your January newsletter is 2 days late, but not lost by any means. We hope you all managed to get through the quirky weather last month and are excited about being one step closer to spring.

Inside January’s newsletter, you’ll find a call for volunteers (with details about a Volunteer Information Night!), an update on the stewardship work being done along the Grand River, a story about the Mansion service wing’s new door, and more.

You can download the newsletter PDF to your computer, laptop, or device, by clicking here: January 2018 Newsletter

We hope you enjoy reading it, and as always we welcome your questions and comments in person, via email, or on the phone.

See you at one of our upcoming events!

Warm winter wishes,

Ruthven Park staff

Year Of The Bird Series: January – Snow Buntings

Editor’s Note: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Geographic, National Audubon Society, BirdLife International, and more than 100 other organizations have declared 2018 the “Year of the Bird.” 2018 Coincides with the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act’s ratification. Many bird organizations and enthusiasts are pledging to do 1 thing per month to help birds. Ruthven Park National Historic Site has a bird banding station in collaboration with the Haldimand Bird Observatory that is 1 of 27 sites that make up Bird Studies Canada’s Canadian Migration Monitoring Network. Our Bander-in-Charge Rick Ludkin has taken up the task of organizing one blog post per month on different birds to celebrate the Year of the Bird at Ruthven Park! Below, you will find the first installment in this 12-part series.

Article by Rick Ludkin, Ruthven Park National Historic Site Bird Banding Station Bander-in-Charge

What better way to start off a monthly series to commemorate the Year of the Bird than with the Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis). This bird is “circumpolar”; i.e., it is found around the world, breeding in the Arctic and spending the Winter in more temperate (but still cold!) areas. For example, birds that breed in the Canadian High Arctic spend their Winters in the southern Prairie Provinces and birds from Svalbard (500 N of Norway) winter in Kazakhstan – conditions in these areas can be pretty harsh. One of the intriguing things about the Snow Buntings that we see in southern Ontario is that they quite likely have come from Greenland – there are a number of reports of banded birds exchanged between us and Greenland – one of “our” birds (a bird that we banded), in fact, was recovered there.

I first became really aware of this hardy bird when I was working in a field camp on Devon Island at 78 degrees N. A pair had built a nest under a huge boulder, safe from Arctic Foxes and Polar Bears, but within 10 meters of the open water polyna with its relentless chilling wind. Despite the conditions, these birds raised a family of 8 young ones! And many of the other pairs in the area had large broods. 

One of the reasons for their success was that the hatching of their eggs coincided with an enormous emergence of midges in the small ponds at the bottom of the cliffs, nesting habitat for 9,000 Northern Fulmar pairs. Getting food for their young, the parents would snatch up insects at the rate of almost 2 per second; they would then fly off to the nest sporting a black fuzzy moustache. (Interestingly, in Svalbard where insects were very few, the adults fed mainly seeds and plant material to their young…but still seemed to have similar success.)

(tip: click on each photo above to enlarge it for a closer look)

Once the young have fledged both they and the adults go through a moult. They are then ready to head South. Very little is known about the travels of Canadian Snow Buntings. A few birds fitted with geolocators on Southampton Island showed that they flew to the west side of Hudson Bay where they stayed for about a month (probably to fatten up) before heading south to spend the Winter in southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Curiously, birds that had lived through the Summer no more than 200 meters from each other, separated by more than several hundred kilometers in the South. They flew the same route in reverse to return. Another bird that David Hussell and I fitted with a geolocator in Iqaluit also headed to the west side of Hudson Bay before wintering in the Prairie Provinces. But it took a big circle route to get back, flying up through the James Bay area and northern Quebec.

The most moving display of their southern migration I witnessed in mid-September going through Davis Strait on a research vessel – the “narrows” between Greenland and Baffin Island.. A strong north wind was pushing up big waves but in the troughs small flocks of Snow Buntings and American Pipits were winging their way West staying low to keep out of that wind. I would suggest that many of these birds likely spent the Winter in our local farm fields. Amazing!

Long distance migratory flights and extreme conditions must have an impact on the longevity of these little birds but…..we just received word from the Banding Office that a bird that we recovered just this January had originally been banded along the north shore of Lake Erie in February 2014. At that time it was at least in its 3rd year, making it 6 or more years old.

February Family Fun at Ruthven Park

Ruthven Park National Historic Site is putting the focus on families for February 2018 by offering two fun events to help Haldimand County get through the last full month of winter. Mark them on your calendar today to make sure you don’t miss out!

Families Go Wild at Ruthven Park on Family Day 2018

Date: Monday, February 19, 2018 (Family Day)
Time: 1:00pm – 3:00pm
Tickets/RSVP: Not required, but you can let us know you’re coming on Facebook
Cost: By donation
Address: 243 Haldimand Highway 54, Cayuga, Ontario, N0A 1E0
Location: Ruthven Park’s grounds and Coach House
Description: Come for a hike and scavenger hunt around the Ruthven Park grounds, then stay for a Wild Ontario bird show in the Coach House! Following the show, there will be a “nose-to-beak” meet and greet with the performers! Timeline: 1:00pm hike and scavenger hunt with light refreshments; 2:00pm Wild Ontario LIVE bird show.
Note: This event is appropriate for all ages – fun for the whole family!

CANCELLED – Big Foot Trivia Night

This event was cancelled as of 4:00pm on Wednesday, February 21, 2018. We apologize for any inconvenience.

Date: Friday, February 23, 2018
Time: 7:00pm – 9:00pm
Tickets/RSVP: Register by calling 905-772-0560 (ask for Education Coordinator Natalie) or email
Cost: $10.00 per person
Address: 243 Haldimand Highway 54, Cayuga, Ontario, N0A 1E0
Location: Ruthven Park’s Coach House
Description: Edinburgh Square (one of Haldimand County’s museums) and Ruthven Park invite you to gather your family and friends together to test your wits and general knowledge at this always-entertaining evening in the pursuit of Haldimand County’s Trivia Champion!
Note: The ticket price includes a prize and light refreshments!

Applications Open for 2018 Summer Student Positions

With sprawling grounds, unique historic buildings, a picturesque position on the Grand River, over 150 years of history, and diverse historic and environmental projects, Ruthven Park National Historic Site offers a one-of-a-kind summer employment experience to university and college students.

Do you want to work at Haldimand County’s only National Historic Site this summer?

Ruthven Park is seeking three (3) students for the 2018 season:

Please click on the link beside each position to download their respective job descriptions. If you have any issues, please call 905-772-0560 or email with the subject line: “Send summer student job postings.” Thank you.

Please note that these positions are contingent upon the receipt of funding.

Deadline for all positions is Friday, April 20, 2018 at 5:00pm.

Only applicants who are selected for an interview will be contacted. We appreciate your interest in employment at Ruthven Park National Historic Site.

Winter 2018 Hours of Operation

The Gate House: office open Mon – Fri, 9:00am to 5:00pm

The Grounds: open Mon – Fri, 9:00am to 5:00pm

The Mansion: tours by appointment Mon – Fri for 6+ people

Contact Us:
Phone: (905) 772-0560 
Toll-free: (877) 705-7275

Mailing Address: 
243 Haldimand Hwy. #54,
Box 610
Cayuga, ON N0A 1E0