The American Woodcock: A Winter Apparition
Article by Henry Chappell
Photos by Timothy Flanigan and Todd Steele
Woodcock appear. Then, just as suddenly, they’re gone.
Let’s say you’ve checked a promising cover several times in late fall and early winter and found little but squirrels, titmice and a snorting doe that tempted your Lab. Then, on a January morning, in that same cover, your Lab gets birdy amid blackberry tangles. You notice a chalky white splash on damp fallen leaves, and bore holes in patches of bare loam. You adjust the grip on your shotgun and watch the dog and wait for her snuffling to be interrupted by whistling, twittering wingbeats.
Unlike other migratory game birds, woodcock aren’t seen perched on utility lines or paddling around on big reservoirs or stock tanks. You won’t hear great, noisy flocks of woodcock overhead at night.
As autumn progresses, woodcock migrate southward from their primary breeding range—the upper Midwest and Southern Canada eastward to New England and New Brunswick. Bird hunters along the Central and Atlantic flyways await the arrival of the “the flights.”
The birds travel at night, flying just above the tree tops, 15 or 20 miles per hour. They must stay ahead of severe weather or starve; they can’t probe frozen ground. Depending on weather and favorable winds, woodcock hunters in Missouri, Kentucky and West Virginia may have only a few days—or a few hours—of good hunting.
Migrating woodcock begin lighting in East Texas creek bottoms and pine plantations in late October and early November. The winter population usually peaks in January. Most travel the Central Flyway from the Great Lakes states and arrive unnoticed by hunters, even Pineywoods natives.
On the opening hunt of every season, I can’t help but doubt that the birds are there. But if I shoot well, I’ll take the limp, warm bird from my dog, stroke the cinnamon breast, throat and belly, the black bars across the head, wipe bits of moist loam from the long, prehensile bill, and yes, consider the large dark eyes that watched so diligently for predators. Then I believe.
Through New England down the eastern flyway, and in the Upper Midwest, fine lightweight shotguns and pointing dog blood lines are tuned for tight cover and a bird that flushes straight up through the aspens and alders, then darts and disappears like a shadow.
Woodcock have inspired some of the finest literature in the sporting canon. Works like The Upland Shooting Life by George Bird Evans, Making Game: An Essay on Woodcock by Guy de la Valdéne, and Aldo Leopold’s brief “Sky Dance” in A Sand County Almanac, sit alongside the very best American nature writing.
Yet, though the woodcock’s winter grounds in East Texas cover an area larger than some New England states, only a few thousand hunters pursue the birds for only a couple days per season. A statewide harvest of 5,000 amounts to a big year. My selfish side would keep things this way, but the “little russet fellow,” as writer Burton Spiller called him, could use more advocates in Texas.
The Pineywoods host most Texas woodcock unless freezing weather drives the birds farther south to the Gulf Coastal Marshes. The Post Oak Savannah region gets most of the rest, although hunters take a few birds in the Blackland Prairie region near Dallas.
Although biologists long believed that woodcock court, nest and raise their broods almost exclusively in the North, a growing body of evidence suggests that a significant number of our birds are homegrown. In the 1990s, Monte Whiting, a serious woodcock hunter and now professor emeritus at Stephen F. Austin University, documented significant breeding activity in the Pineywoods.
Courtship typically begins in January followed by full clutches on the ground in February. Whiting suspects a shift in breeding area over the past half-century due to declining northern habitat and improving habitat in the South due to certain logging practices. These findings have implications far beyond academia. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department ended February hunting because of the likelihood of local nesting.
Regardless of region, the woodcock’s courtship dance is one of the most striking displays in the avian world. Late afternoon, the male flies from his daytime resting cover to the edge of a forest opening such as a road or clearing amid mature timber. Just after sundown, he moves into the opening, and begins his courtship with a series of nasal “peents” often compared to the sound of a finger running over the teeth of a comb.
Aldo Leopold’s description in “Sky Dance” bears no improvement: “Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter. Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy.”
Compared to gallinaceous game birds such as quail, woodcock aren’t prolific. After courtship and copulation, the hen lays three or four cinnamon and brown spotted eggs in a low, moist spot, often in a recently logged or burned area growing back in briars and pine.
The precocial chicks hatch after 23 days and begin feeding themselves almost immediately. Perfect camouflage hides the young birds from predators.
Hens are so reluctant to leave their broods that they can easily be captured with a hand net. Biologists often rely on pointing dogs to locate woodcock broods and have observed hens resorting to exaggerated, labored flight to lure dogs away from chicks. The young woodcock fly after about four weeks.
Woodcock spend their days in young pine plantations with trees that are head-high to about 12 feet tall. They prefer areas grown up in briars and other low growth, providing overhead protection from avian predators and open ground for feeding and easy movement.
At night, the birds fly to fallow fields, new clear-cuts, roadside ditches and other moist open areas where they feed through the night, probing with their prehensile bills, consuming as much as half their weight in earthworms and other invertebrates. At dawn, they fly back to their thickets. Little wonder people live out their lives in the Pineywoods and never see a woodcock.
If you want to flush as many woodcock as possible, hit the thickets. Think head-high pines and briars. Especially briars. You’ll know you’re in the right spot when you can’t reach your dog on point 10 feet away because you’re stuck in a wicked morass of thorny vines. If you get lost in the tangles, just follow the trail of tatters you left hanging on the way in. I’m almost serious.
If, on the other hand, you’d like a few shots, stay out of the thickets, if possible. This bit of wisdom cost me the better part of a decade, three pairs of “briar proof” brush pants, a couple pints of blood and whatever dignity I possessed before stepping into the tangles.
Finally, the aforementioned Mote Whiting pulled me aside and pointed out that I couldn’t shoot while festooned with briars; that I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) shoot at what I could hear but couldn’t see; that a decent shot at a bird or two beats no shots at a dozen; and that, for various reasons, woodcock sometimes come out of the thickets during the day.
So, I started hunting along the edges of recently thinned or cut areas toward the end of legal shooting hours. Sure enough, the dogs often found birds along the edges and sometimes in the middle of fire breaks and old logging roads. The same approach worked in recently burned areas grown up with clumps of sweet gum or baccharis.
During dry years, when the ground in clear-cuts and thickets becomes too dry for woodcock to probe, the birds may move to more open, mature forest where thick duff holds moisture. Even there, woodcock like overhead protection provided by blackberry, southern wax myrtle and eastern baccharis. Look for bore holes in sandy loam soil. Scenting conditions are best early and late in the day.
At times—the middle of most days, for example—woodcock just aren’t in the open. If you want them, you’ll have to hit the briars. January temperatures in the sixties are common in the Pineywoods, but sweating is preferable to bleeding.
Forget jeans or those lightweight brush pants favored by warm weather quail hunters. Stick with heavy canvas and Cordura®. Wear a heavy chamois or canvas shirt. Buckskin gloves help, but you’ll still come out looking like you’ve been hand-washing barn cats.
Wear a hunter orange vest and cap, otherwise your buddy won’t be able to see you 20 feet away. Don’t wade into the briars without eye protection.
Shots will be close and quick. Short light guns are the standard tools. Straight cylinder or skeet bore in the thick stuff; improved cylinder in the big woods. Woodcock are roughly quail-size and aren’t especially tough. An ounce of Number 8 shot will do the job.
In theory, the ideal woodcock dog quarters close in tight cover and ranges from 60 to 80 yards in the big woods. In practice, most good quail dogs make passable woodcock dogs as long as they mind, check in often and can be directed to promising cover.
My German shorthairs came from a big-running field trial bloodline, yet I had very few problems in the Pineywoods, because the cover slowed them and restricted their range. Still, I nearly blew the pea out the top of my whistle a few times.
Although woodcock and pointing dogs are a perfect match, flushing dogs can be very effective so long as they work within shotgun range and aren’t cover-shy. I have no first-hand experience with flushers but look for future reports of trials, tribulations and lessons learned. The 15-week-old Lab puppy gnawing at my shoe laces will be hitting the thickets come the 2020-2021 season.
Woodcock dogs must retrieve, or you’ll lose nearly every bird you shoot. Most gun dogs readily pick up and carry woodcock. There are exceptions. My father’s Llewellin setter Toby, a fine retriever of bobwhites and doves, preferred rolling on downed woodcock to fetching them. Fortunately, he had to find them before he could roll on them.
Even close-working pointing dogs will be out of sight much of the time. A bell or beeper collar will help keep your blood pressure at reasonable levels. I despise the constant electronic beeping, so I operate the collar in the “point only” and follow my dog’s movements by the sound of a brass bell.
Woodcock are abundant, delicious, hold for pointing dogs and live in beautiful country. During poor quail years, when you’ll run your pointers into the ground for a covey or two, woodcock can save your season and give your dogs the chance to do what they’re born to do—but only if you’re willing to put in the work.