September 28, 2021
Pity the poor woodcock. His name inspires snickers and his nom de plume, timberdoodle, is hardly an improvement. Dig deeper, and names like bogsucker and hokumpoke emerge. Boys and grown men playing at being boys can’t help but giggle.
The little bird looks like he was designed by a committee of fools that had too many drinks. Doubt that? Then why is his brain installed upside down? Why does his mating-ground dance resemble a drunken uncle trying to impress the bridesmaids at a wedding?
But forget about his name, anatomy and herky-jerky dance moves. Witness the woodcock's mating flight and you'll come away with newfound respect for the bird. The first time I saw it was deep in northern New Brunswick at a bear camp on the banks of the Upsalquitch River. I had shot my bear the day before and was spending that evening alone, watching the campfire while sipping a cold beer.
At dusk I noticed an odd sound, a single nasal note that seemed almost electronic. It repeated many times before a woodcock took to flight. I could barely see him in the fading light as he whirled and swirled and soared and twirled until the light was gone and I lost visual contact. Even then, I could hear his whistling wings for a while yet. That was a long time ago and most of the details of the bear hunt have faded, but the memory of that woodcock soaring on singing wings will travel with me to my grave.
In truth, all of his perceived design flaws serve a purpose. We laugh because we don't understand. But then, we don't live in his world; the bogs and alders are not people friendly. Like most things we don't understand, we mock. The woodcock is uniquely designed to thrive in his rather narrow choice of habitat. I suppose there is genius in the chaos of his design.
Worldwide there are several subspecies of the woodcock, but the American woodcock (Scolopax minor) is the only one on the North American continent. His eyes are on the side of his head, and his long bill has a prehensile tip. His nostrils are located high on the bill, close to the skull. His ears are ahead of his eyes, between the base of the bill and the eye sockets. I have no idea why except that somebody brought a bottle the night the woodcock was designed.
His eyes, though, can see 360 degrees horizontal and 180 degrees vertical, which is a huge asset to a ground-dwelling bird. He can see predators coming from any angle. His ultra-long bill is designed for probing the soft ground for worms, invertebrates and insects. Its prehensile tip can open and close independent of the rest of the bill, which allows the bird to grab any little tasties that he finds lurking in the soil.
The brain of the American woodcock is unique among birds. The cerebellum, which controls muscle coordination and balance, is below the rest of the brain and above the spinal column. In most birds, the cerebellum occupies the rear of the skull. One theory holds that as the woodcock evolved, the eyes moved back in the skull, the bill lengthened and the nostrils approached the base of the bill, allowing for enhanced ground-probing abilities. As a result, things got rearranged so that today the woodcock has an upside-down brain. Maybe, but Darwin got a lot wrong so I am sticking with the drunk design crew theory until it's proven otherwise.
The woodcock is a plump, compact bird about the size of a robin. Females generally average a bit heavier than males, 7.6 ounces vs. 6.2 ounces depending on the time of year. The bird’s plumage is an overall mottled russet or brown. It is described as "cryptic," which means camouflaged in ornithology-nerd speak.
It may well be the best camo ever designed, as woodcock are all but impossible to see on the ground unless they move. Finding a dead bird without a dog after the shot is often a Herculean epic. The only easy one that comes to mind was shot by my buddy Tony Kinton. He found a spot of blood high up on the bushes and we "blood-trailed" the bird's trajectory to the ground. That does not happen often. In fact, we might be the only guys alive to successfully blood-trail and recover a wounded woodcock.
These birds can be hunted without a dog, of course. By walking slowly through their habitat and pausing often, you can incite a flush. This requires quick shooting reflexes and good legs. I know it works because it was my preferred method to hunt them for decades. Then I met Bob Rose.
The Difference with Dogs
Bob Rose was a pilot for a major airline and has since retired. We met when he was squadded with me at a United States Practical Shooting Association pistol match in northern Vermont. He had gone through the program for carrying a handgun in the cockpit and was shooting the match to keep his skills sharp. I was just there for my monthly dose of humiliation on the pistol range. We got to talking (something we both excel at), and the conversation turned to woodcock hunting. He mentioned a dog, and I told him that I had hunted with the dogs of both friends and enemies and they always brought more trouble than success.
"Usually the guys spend the day yelling at the dog," I said. "The dog ignores the commands while it runs around busting every bird in the covert. By the end of the day, I am not sure who I would rather shoot, the owner or the dog. Since I am a dog lover and social restrictions dictate I not shoot the owner, I have found it best just to hunt alone."
"Come give my dog a try," Bob offered.
So I did.
Now I understand.
Hunting woodcock with a well-trained dog should be high on any life-list of hunting experiences. My regret is I didn't learn that years ago.
Bob's dog Zephyr showed me a new world, and my annual hunts with Bob have become a huge part of life. Zephyr grew old far too soon, as all dogs do. His protégé Fionn replaced him. It's a touchy subject to approach, but I think Fionn might be even better. I have ventured to say he is the best woodcock dog in America, and nobody has ever called me on that.
When we were hunting last fall I could see that Fionn was getting stiff in the joints and his super-hero stamina was waning just a bit. He never wavered, but it was obvious it required more effort. This fall he will be instructing a youngster, Spur, a pup just starting his training. I am honored to have hunted over the first two dogs and look forward to seeing Spur discover his destiny. Bob says he is showing hints of greatness, and having spent a little time with the dog, I believe it.
Bob's dogs are a bit special. They are English setters from the Old Hemlock line that was started by the legendary writer and hunter George "Bird" Evans. He was an author, illustrator and dog breeder. He was also a friend of Bob’s father. Evans wrote 27 books and 115 magazine articles about upland hunting. He and his wife Kay also jointly wrote five mystery books, using the pen name Brandon Bird.
In 1939, Evans bought a farm near Brandonville in Preston County, West Virginia, near the Pennsylvania border. It was there he developed the Old Hemlock line of setters. Today, Old Hemlock setter owners have an annual meeting near the Evans homestead, and I was honored to attend a few years ago. It was an amazing display of great dogs and old shotguns, and included much talk of woodcock hunting.
The woodcock lives in young forest, usually near streams, rivers and wetlands. Like many other species, woodcock rely on early successional habitat, which was historically created by forest fires. After we started putting out the fires, that habitat was, until recently, created by logging operations performing clear-cuts. Now that it's considered better to hug a tree than to cut it down, good habitat is becoming harder to find in the northern United States. As a result, according to the woodcock-management website timberdoodle.org, the woodcock population has fallen by about 1 percent each year since the 1960s.
It's just a bad time to be a ground-nesting bird. With trapping all but gone due to social pressures, the number of predators is very high. If the eggs hatch there are all those ground creepers, plus the airborne threats. Predatory birds, hawks, owls and the like were in trouble back in Rachel Carson’s time but are doing well today. If you’re a woodcock or a woodcock hunter, you might say too well.
Loss of habitat, more predators and other factors have affected grouse numbers as well. Many places are experiencing record-low populations. But woodcock hunters have an advantage. While grouse live out their lives close to where they hatch, not so the woodcock. They breed across eastern North America from Atlantic Canada to the Great Lakes and spend the winter in lowlands, mainly in the Southern and Gulf Coast states. Their migratory nature means that a Northern hunter, in addition to finding native birds, can depend on flights heading south out of Canada to provide enough woodcock to keep things interesting.
Coverts that were nearly empty can fill up overnight and provide great shooting opportunities. Then later, usually as cold weather arrives, they empty just as fast and the hunting is pretty much over for another year. But for that one magical month of October, the great American woodcock will make a dog’s life memorable.
October is the finest month in New England. The mornings are crisp, and in later days the frost will sparkle in the first rays of the sun, looking like so many millions of gold flakes. It’s on these mornings that you wake up and feel like a hunter. The air is clear, clean and free from the oppressive humidity of just a few weeks ago. The foliage is turning bright with color so each day and every step brings with it new and impossible beauty.
Summer is fleeing and winter is waiting. Each day of October is a gift to a woodcock hunter. It starts with native birds and ends with the flight birds, and every morning launches a new adventure as it’s impossible to predict what you will see when you enter the woods.
You will find woodcock in a few different habitats, but nothing holds them like an alder swamp. This boggy lowland contains a wide range of flora, but the predominant tree is the alder. For those of you who don’t know, alders are hateful things, designed by the devil while sporting a massive hangover.
If you have never been in an alder swamp, let me describe it for you. The trees grow so thick that a dog has to back up to bark. They shoot off at all kinds of crazy angles, and you step over as many as you crawl under. The ground is a soupy mixture of water, plants and earth that isn't sod, but isn't exactly mud either. Most of the time it supports your weight, but every now and then it has as much substance as Joe Biden. The moment when its support will wane is hard to predict, and this usually catches you by surprise. It lures you in by being trustworthy enough for you to establish a rhythm with your steps, but when you suddenly stick your foot on a broken promise, the reason for your hip boots becomes clear. Your weight shifts to nothing, and your foot sinks into an abyss. The usual result is a face-plant onto ground that is surprisingly solid where your nose hits.
Cursing doesn't help and rage only makes things worse. You can't bully your way through and begging brings no results. It's a bad place to be under any conditions, but it's where the woodcock hang out, which makes it simply wonderful.
What to Wield for Woodcock
Double guns with open chokes get the nod.
Experienced woodcock hunters prefer a shorter gun, which makes double-barrel models the top choice. Pumps and semi-autos will work, but they spend a lot of time tangled in the brush.
I love my 1920s-era 16-gauge Fox side-by-side and carry it often. In fact, I shot my first woodcock over Bob Rose's dog Zephyr with that gun. When the bird flushed, it went right over my head. I leaned back like Neo in the Matrix and dusted it with the right barrel. I had Briley install thin-wall choke tubes years ago, and the gun is a delight to carry and shoot.
I do well with my Fox, but the gun I shoot the best is a Caesar Guerini Woodlander 20-gauge over-under that I bought almost by accident, never intending to hunt with the gun. Plans changed, and I shoot it so well it’s become my go-to gun for most upland hunting.
Bob shoots a vintage side-lever Purdey 16-gauge. Made in 1895 it has 2 1/2-inch chambers and is worth as much as a new pickup truck. I cringe when I see it in the woods, but his thinking is simple: "I bought it to hunt with, so I am going to hunt with it." I think I saw him miss a bird with the gun once, but I might be mistaken.
My friend Tony Kinton hunts with a 20-gauge Browning Citori at home in Mississippi. I happen to own the same shotgun, so he claims it when he travels north for woodcock.
Fine shot, No. 8 or No. 9, works best for woodcock, particularly early in the season when the foliage is on the trees. Go with open chokes, of course. I use cylinder and skeet in my barrels early, and then switch to skeet and improved cylinder as the leaves fall.