CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In another month or so, I'll be listening for several familiar sounds as I walk the woods. One will be the low muffled drumbeat of a displaying ruffed grouse, a cryptically colored, crested, chicken-like woodland bird. Sometimes I think I feel the drumming more than hear it.
The drone of an accelerating "drumbeat" means a male grouse is advertising his territory to all the hens in the area. From his drumming site, he grips a large fallen log firmly with his feet, braces with his tail, and beats his wings furiously. The rapidly beating wings cause the drumming sound.
Though males drum all year long at any time of day, drumming peaks March through May well before dawn. When a hen arrives at the drumming log in the spring, the male launches his visual display. He fans his tail (which has a broad, black band near its tip), droops his wings, raises his ruffs (the collar of black feathers that encircle his neck), and struts his stuff. If the hen is impressed, mating occurs, and a new generation results.
Ruffed grouse require a specific arrangement of vegetation. They live in deciduous forests that include small openings and nearby stands of poplars or birches. They roost in conifer trees when they're available, but they also roost in large deciduous trees.
In the spring and summer hens bring their broods to small openings in the woods where insects abound. Openings up to an acre in size may be caused by fire, the blow-down of a large tree, or a conservationist's chainsaw.
The other sounds I'll be listening for are those of displaying male American woodcock. The show begins at dusk when woodcock move to open areas where they can be seen and heard. Opening with a series of nasal "peents," the display culminates with twittering calls and wing whistles as the bird descends from the apex of its display flight, what Aldo Leopold called the "sky dance."
Woodcock are plump, quail-sized migratory birds. Though classified as shorebirds, woodcock live in the woods. They usually begin returning in February, but I can always count on them in March.
Large, dark eyes, a long bill, and a plump body are a woodcock's most prominent features. Their eyes are positioned high and far back on their skulls, so woodcock actually can see above and behind their heads. They use their long, flesh-colored bill to probe moist, soft soil for earthworms and other invertebrates. These "probe holes" and whitewash splash are often seen more than the birds. Since woodcock spend so much time with their bills in the ground, their near 360-degree field of vision helps them detect aerial predators.
Like ruffed grouse, woodcock require a mixture of openings and young forests. And they are well camouflaged. Dappled in shades of brown, woodcock are almost impossible to see as they rest among leaves on the forest floor.