From Woodcock to Worms

The official window to survey for woodcock displays ended earlier this month.  As I have time between finals, grading, and preparing for my qualifying exam, I’ve been entering data. So far it looks promising (?)…. But I’m curious to begin exploring the possible explanations for why we found woodcock in some locations and not in others.  I don’t want to wait until next season!

One thing worth noting is that New Jersey has been in a mild, prolonged drought state most of the spring. Perhaps this has some impact on woodcock distribution (impact of drought on woodcock has been  studied elsewhere). Earthworms are sensitive to soil moisture levels. They don’t like it too wet (they come up out of the soil in  the rain and then fry when  the sun comes out), but they probably don’t like soil that’s too dry either.

Drought map showing northern New Jersey  (where all Woodcock Watch NJ survey sites are located) is in yellow, indicating abnormally  dry conditions. Map from United States Drought Monitor.

If woodcock  use the early part of the season to assess best territories, then they will court and breed on sites that have greater resource availability because hungry chicks don’t last very long.

This window right now should be when little fluff balls of woodcock are scurrying about, unable to fly and scouring the earth for worms. Therefore, if the males chose correctly, there should be plenty of worms.

So for the next few weeks, I’m hoping  to shift my attention from surveying for woodcock to searching for worms.  I’m teaming up with Nick Henshue (@Henshue) in my lab to investigate earthworm  abundance at the sites we surveyed for earthworms  this spring.

How does it work?

Well, last week, we headed out to Liberty State Park to give the protocol a try. Worms exchange gases through their skin, making their  skin sensitive. Mustard is an irritant. If you mix water and mustard together, then pour it into  the soil, the worms will come up  to  the surface. From there you can collect the worms.

Worm data can inform us what species are present (yes, there are many species of worms!) and how much food is available. The data can be compared from site to site and also to the number of woodcock found on each site.



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