Woodcock Memoriesby R. Michael DiLullo
As late September days become shorter and cool evenings awaken to vibrant blue skies with sugar maples beginning to blush crimson and as the beeches turn to gold, my spirit seems to be revitalized once more. Maybe it is a calling somewhere deep in my primeval memory to prepare for the coming winter. Or maybe it is because I am acutely aware of the approaching hunting season, of the adventures which lie ahead and the beauty of nature that awaits outside the confines of my four walls. Autumn, after all, is a glorious season and a time of reflection.
It seems while most of God’s creations are preparing for the sleep of winter, the hunter in me is just awakening. In the field, there are certain subtle nuances, which are not immediately obvious or instantly recalled until they are once again revisited. The sights, sounds and smells of autumn may be abstruse to the passer-by, but the upland hunter will relate to the images that the canvas smell of a Filson vest or the jingle of a dog’s bell can instantly bring to mind. Fond memories of seasons passed, of shared experiences with hunting partners and the reverence for the wild creatures pursued.
Although I hunt a variety of upland birds and waterfowl, I have always been fascinated by woodcock. There is a uniqueness to this petite game bird. Even his names, depending on what region of the country you are from, share unusual monikers. He is most commonly called the timberdoodle, but is also referred to as the mud sucker, mud bat, and bog sucker. There is a curiosity about woodcock, which is shared by most who have spent any time in pursuit of the elusive little bird. Many upland hunters call it "the mystic of woodcock". It is probably because he is so different from any other game bird.
He is a solitary bird that has an uncanny way of blending into his surroundings. Nature has blessed him with a combination of camouflage coloring and stealth. His brown and russet feathering perfectly matches the leaf littered floor on which he resides. He will hold much longer than his neighbor, the ruffed grouse, and I have seen woodcock wait until almost stepped upon by dog or hunter until flushing. I sometimes wonder how many woodcock I have walked by when hunting without a dog.
The woodcock - an American classic.
Photo by: Author
Nature may have blessed him with concealment, but she also played a trick on him when it came to looks. The northern indigenous American Indians believed that the woodcock was a compilation of leftover parts. And it is no wonder, for he has a somewhat comical appearance. He carries a long flexible bill that he uses to probe soft loamy soil in search of his main diet of earthworms. He has two large black eyes that are set far back in his head, enabling him to see behind better than ahead (helping him from becoming a meal for an owl or hawk). And his ears are positioned in front of his eyes so he can better hear his prey. His rotund body sports a pair of stubby wings and he sits on delicate slender legs. He is truly a strange looking little bird. They come in two sizes, with the male slightly smaller than his female counterpart, each weighing only little more than six to eight ounces, about the size of a bobwhite quail.
Some hunters consider the woodcock as a "bonus bird" while pursuing grouse. Others who have never seen him because they do not enter his haunts, often mistake him as a snipe or "shorebird". Because of this, he is also sometimes called a mud or wood snipe. To the uninitiated, the American woodcock is a woodland enigma.
The woodcock has been the cause of many accomplished wing shooters to miss on more than one occasion, and anyone who says they are easily shot has never really hunted woodcock before. His zigzagging butterfly-like flight seems to be almost out of control at times. When first viewed, he seems very slow in flight compared to most other game birds. But, with his erratic flight pattern and because of the habitat in which he resides, he is far from being an easy mark.
Since the 1960’s, the woodcock population has declined by more than fifty percent on the eastern portion of his range. The main cause for this decline is the loss of suitable habitat. The woodcock is a bird of young immature forests and woodlands. The maturation of northern forest and the lack of old stands of timber being harvested have caused his numbers to drop significantly. Knowledgeable woodcock hunters understand that Mr. Timberdoodle only habitats certain environments. One of the criteria for locating woodcock is finding an area suitable for his favorite food, the earthworm. There is an old adage amongst northern woodcock hunters that says, “No worms, no woodcock!” Good woodcock locations, known to New Englanders as “coverts,” are well kept secrets that amongst ardent upland hunters and are seldom shared with outsiders.
"A bird in the hand", the Author displays an October timberdoodle taken near a beaver meadow in upstate New York.
Photo by: Jim Caltabellatta
Woodcock coverts are generally areas of soft damp rich loam, soils that produce and hold earthworms. Stands of young saplings, whose shade and density shield against raptors, restrict the growth of grasses and other plants. Aspen, alder, birch and poplar stand along the banks of streams, beaver ponds and marshes. These are classic woodcock coverts. Small clear-cuts, overgrown meadows, old logging roads and openings with sparse understory, can also make for good woodcock cover. But, I have also flushed him from briar thickets near abandoned apple orchards and around old cemeteries in New England, hedgerows and tree lines in the Mid-Atlantic States, near abandoned homesteads and from the edges of hay fields in the south. If any one rule is true about the woodcock, it is that he is as inconsistent as he is predictable.