Tiny Treats

"It is at once the most enchanting and antagonizing little game bird I've had the pleasure to hunt, this American woodcock."

Woodcock enchant me because they’re beautiful to behold in their camouflage plumage of russet, blue-gray, tan and black. A woodcock almost looks exotic when you factor in its long, slender bill and odd, upright flight. They lure me to lovely, wild places, they’re delicious to eat and timberdoodles are pure, simple fun to hunt.

But woodcock can antagonize a poor soul, too. Because they’re migratory, they might be here today, gone tomorrow; not here yet, or maybe they just flew on past. And woodcock can be devilishly tricky to hit with a string of shot. Each year, those enchantments and challenges lure me to remote woodlands and secluded thickets as color fills the trees and autumn gives way to winter.

If you’ve hunted them you know the allure. Beautiful woodcock, and the wild and deliciously lonely places they call home, beckon strongly. The journey is even more memorable with a good pointing dog or close-ranging flushing dog.

If you haven’t hunted woodcock, it’s not too late to experience the attraction and addiction of this classic North American game bird.

Understanding Woodcock

While game managers and biologists officially classify it as an upland game bird, the American woodcock is anything but. Timberdoodles would more aptly and accurately be described as “lowland” game birds!

With its long, slender bill designed to probe mucky soil for earthworms, this shorebird somehow got lost and has adapted well to life in the moist woodland thickets, streamside tangles, timbered marsh edges and damp bogs. You can also find woodcock in alder runs, willow patches, wet abandoned fields, bottomland brush and other places where dense cover protects the birds from avian predators above, and soft, moist soil lets them probe for earthworms below.

With wide-angled eyes set on the top and back of its head, a feeding woodcock can easily see predators approaching from the ground or above. Woodcock tend to freeze in place and let their magnificent camouflage do its job until danger passes by.

Although woodcock don’t flock up, the fall migration can bring many birds to a covert. A particularly dry autumn can further concentrate birds in the limited wet areas available. A rainy fall expands the number of places attractive to woodcock, and you might have to walk farther to find birds.

Timing Woodcock

Woodcock breed across their summer range, which provides good hunting early in the season, when the weather is still warm and the leaves are just starting to change. But better hunting comes with the woodcock migration. This begins in early October in the North, and progresses southward until the birds reach their wintering grounds in the south-central and southeastern states in December.

As the ground hardens and freezes from north to south, earthworms begin to dig below the frost line and woodcock run out of food. So the birds keep moving south, staying ahead of the freezing weather. But if conditions are good, a flight of woodcock might stay in one area for a week or more until the freezing air catches up again.

On average, the flight occurs at the same general time each year, but the exact dates can vary widely. I’ve seen the migration peak in central Minnesota as early as October 8, and even as late as Halloween.

There are several ways to pinpoint when woodcock will be coming through your hunting area.

Keep a hunting journal. This helps organize important data like dog work, points, flushes, birds missed and birds shot each year—and pattern historical trends of when the birds arrive.

Talk to biologists, game wardens and sporting goods store clerks in the area you plan to hunt. Get their feedback on when the woodcock flight usually peaks, and glean what they’re hearing or experiencing about present conditions.

Watch the weather as migration time approaches. When the first hard freezes start hitting to the north, woodcock will begin moving south.

Know the wind. Northerly winds bring birds in. Also know that woodcock don’t like to fly against the wind, so a great situation arises if the flow shifts from the south. This often happens during rainy periods, and the weather pattern might stack up woodcock on your hunting grounds. Bad weather also holds woodcock because they seem to need clear skies for good navigation at night, when most of their flying is done.

Be flexible. Make plans, but try to stay flexible within the general migration window. I save several vacation days just for woodcock hunting every fall, to take when conditions are right for a flight.

Study topographic maps. Look for rivers running north-south, then pinpoint places where east-west flowing tributaries join in. Birds follow the north-south river valleys but find good habitat conditions for stopovers where the smaller tributaries intersect.

Know the moon phases. Recent research has shown woodcock might move more during a waxing or new moon, with migration peaking in the days leading up to the full moon. This period before the full moon is probably best for hunting. Perhaps the birds use the emerging moon as a compass of sorts. The week after a full moon can be OK, too.

Finding Woodcock

Although a walk in the autumn woods is always a joy, you’ll find more woodcock if you concentrate on specific types of habitat. These birds are citizens of the young forest—clear-cuts growing back to brush and saplings, burned-over areas that are regenerating and abandoned farms. In the North, look for aspen, willow and birch. In the South, cypress bottoms, stunted hardwoods and pines, clear-cuts and burns offer suitable woodcock habitat.

Woodcock prefer brushy cover that offers protection overhead and a relatively clean and moist forest floor below. Alder patches make great woodcock cover, as these places are always in low spots where the soil is soft. Follow brooks, creeks and their tributaries. Walk marsh and swamp edges that border good timbered or brushy cover.

A few clearings are good. Forgotten meadows and abandoned fields can hold woodcock, and the birds seem to have a propensity for goldenrod.

For positive proof that woodcock are present, look for their chalky-white droppings. These milky-looking splashes wash off leaves easily, so if you find some it’s a good sign woodcock are around.

Hunting Woodcock

Hunting woodcock isn’t a complicated affair, and that’s part of the attraction. Walk slowly. Meander through the kinds of habitat described, sticking to the edges and seams between cover types. Cheat toward lower and moister ground. There’s no need to hunt in standing water, though.

When hunting without a dog, pause often. Woodcock sit tight and are perfectly happy to let you pass by. So re-hunt any good-looking areas, taking a slightly different path back through it.

Woodcock seem to offer a strong scent to canine noses, so these birds are perfect for good dog work. They like thick cover, and your flushing dog should work tight so you can get shot opportunities at flying birds. Don’t expect a lot of warning before a flush: Woodcock don’t move far or fast when they’re on the ground, so your dog hasn’t got much time to get birdy before putting up a timberdoodle.

Pointing dogs are classic companions for woodcock hunting because the birds typically sit tight and don’t usually wander off. I’ve trained two young Brit­tanys, and their early training came on cooperative timberdoodles.

I put a light bell on my dog to keep track of her whereabouts, but also make her work within eyesight so I can find her when the bell stops and she’s on point. We just wander along in good woodcock cover, casting to and fro along the wet edges of cover. A staunch, quivering point on woodcock is a beautiful thing to behold.

Whether you hunt them with or without a dog, woodcock don’t fly very far after flushing. Forty or 50 yards is average, with 60 or 70 yards a long flight. You can often see the bird descend toward cover again, and know about where it’s located. Woodcock usually don’t move far, if at all, once they land.

So follow up any flush or miss. Keep your eye on the bird. Start moving that way. If I have a real good idea of where it is, I’ll swing wide with my dog and come at the landing area with the wind in our favor (from the bird to the dog’s nose).

Hitting Woodcock

Woodcock don’t fly especially fast, but they have a way of humbling you. The initial flush is usually straight up, presenting a tough target. Most shotgunners’ tendency is to shoot under a rising bird. Plus, woodcock like to twist and turn as they rise, which makes hitting them even more difficult.

Don’t get too antsy. The best time to shoot is at the momentary pause the bird makes at the apex of its flight, when it has reached cruising altitude but hasn’t yet shifted gears to fly off.

Of course, timberdoodles don’t always follow the rules. They’ll sometimes choose to flutter along 2 feet above the ground so that you’d hit your dog if you shot; flush directly back into your face; and perform every other trick in the book, including the old keep-a-tree-trunk-between-me-and-you maneuver.

There are many different names for a gathering of game birds—a gaggle of geese, a skein of ducks, a flock of doves, a covey of quail, a drove of turkeys. But I’m not aware of a formal name for a gathering of woodcock—the kind of gathering that takes place when the autumn moon is full, the colorful leaves are fading and dropping, and the nights are turning consistently colder.

So I call it a celebration—a celebration of woodcock—when I venture forth into the lonely haunts of the timberdoodle, with my beautiful little Brittany eagerly leading the way and a song in my heart.

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