Return of the Woodcock
March Madness…but not the basketball madness. It’s woodcock madness. Each spring our beloved little russet-colored bird returns north from their winter vacation. Although they mate, raise their young and spend most of their life in the North, they feed on worms, grubs, ants, etc. With their long beak, they must probe deeply into the earth to locate their food. Once the ground is frozen, the birds can no longer probe so to survive; they must fly south to find softer ground.
Mother Nature tells them when it’s time to leave their winter hideout and begin their journey to their spring breeding grounds. Little satellite backpacks placed on selected birds tell us a lot about their long journey going in both directions. Researchers have discovered that these little birds are capable of traveling 400 miles in one night. Or, when traveling north, they may sense a snow storm or freeze and hang-out in one location for a two or three days. They typically travel the same route North and they did coming South for the winter. However, that’s not always the case. One bird is reported as leaving Texas, arriving in Manitoba, Canada, and the heading east to New Hampshire.
Whatever gets them here, we’re anxious to have them back. The earliest I recall an arrival was the last week in February and that was in 2017. Unfortunately, we had two snow storms after their arrival. There had to be many fatalities from those storms. Fortunately, this year they didn’t arrive in coastal New Hampshire until March 20th. We’ve had some freezes since their arrival; however, open seeps have provided ample opportunity for feeding.
Woodcock March Madness means bird dog owners have an excellent opportunity to train their hunting partner. And, the birds can be found almost any place that provides cover and a small patch of open, wet ground. At our home, the dogs have found them within 30’ of the house. However, there are three covers, about 30’ x 40’, that almost always have birds. And, these are different than fall covers. In the fall, you can find woodcock on a hillside full of popple; but never in the spring. During the spring, they must have those spring type seeps that are found in lower ground.
There are a few rules that we follow during the spring migration. First, we never allow our dogs to follow-up on a flush. These birds are exhausted, weak and anxious to move on to their breeding grounds. We don’t want to put more stress on their little bodies. Next, we don’t hit the same cover every day. We alternate amongst the three covers we use. And, finally, we stop working the birds after ten days from our first find.
Regarding stopping after ten days of our first find, we’ve discovered over the years that we occasionally have a bird that stays in our area and nests. Most of the birds we have traveling through our small section of the New Hampshire Seacoast are transient. They’re headed to Northeast Maine or New Brunswick, Canada.
If one of those little hen birds decides she likes it here and finds a lover, we want her to be comfortable and not located by a bird dog and flushed by a dog handler. And, this brings up a sticky question. One that I’ve found biologists prefer to tread lightly. Does a hen, with a clutch, return to her nest after being flushed? Over the past thirteen years, our dogs have located three nesting hens, away from our normal three cover routine. I returned to those three nests, without dogs but with field glasses, and, from a distance, discovered that none of the three hens ever returned to their nest. I can’t say that these experiences are scientific or definitive, however, they have convinced me to be cautious about how long I work the spring woodcock migration.
Let’s hope for a great hatch this year on both woodcock and grouse. Hope to see you in the field someday.
Copyright 2019 Paul Fuller