Oh Wondrous Woodcock!|
By Wayne Selfridge
This gamebird is the smallest fowl that can be legally hunted. The dark breast meat barely fills the palm of your hand. In fact, it would take a half dozen to make one sportsman's meal. It inhabits only the thickest of covers. Their appearance for the shot is mere seconds before they disappear above the canopy. They don't land nearby for another opportunity. They don't get nervous and chirp their presence or start walking away from a hunter showing themselves. They are patient, waiting until you almost step on them before they burst forth. Their perfect camouflage prevents you from seeing them until they make that shocking eruption. With so many strikes against it, why do so many upland gamebird hunters worship the woodcock so?
It is such a challenging bird to hunt for the reasons I listed above. As much as I like to hunt partridge I love seeking the timberdoodle. Such a unique bird with the Pinocchio beak typifies a fall hunt, usually only present for us when the foliage colors are at their zenith. Before the late fall these migrators are usually settled in their southern climes. They are an ecological and habitat sensitive bird that has been declining in years due to their favorite covers of second growth poplar and other hardwoods being cut. Unlike other gamebirds that have a survival trait of being more omnivorous, the woodcock for the most part is a meat eater. Probing for worms with that pencil length proboscis in soft, wet earth is this flighty bird's favored fare.
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As with any game animal we seek, finding the right seasonal habitat is paramount. My favorite woodcock haunt is in Washburn, on a hill overlooking the Aroostook River. Five poplar and birch tree groves of several acres each surrounded on three sides by wild fields with an alder swamp on the downhill edge of the hardwoods makes up this hunting range. This environment is an area for woodcock that stop and nest here in the spring remaining for the hunting season. In the autumn it is an attractive feed and rest stop for those migrating from the north. So when I'm hunting these covers around the second and third weeks of October the timing and location give me a productive woodcock season.
Some seek woodcock as a secondary species while after partridge. I and other hunting buddies consider these funny looking birds a primary pursuit. I recall a hunt when my cousin from Portland came north for an upland game hunt. I only told him on our way to a woodcock cover that we would spend the day searching for them. He had never hunted them before, nor had he even seen one. Even though he didn't say it, I knew that he wasn't keen on this, expecting ruffed grouse to be our day's fun. He is an awesome wing shooter so I knew that if the timberdoodle cooperated I would be present for a treat. We walked in a line formation about twenty yards apart, walking with the sun at our back strategically in the eyes of the bird.
I explained that the woodcock is different from a partridge. The latter rising from the ground and flying parallel anywhere it can escape to. The woodcock on the other hand will fly straight up like a missile and when just above the canopy will then go horizontal. Because the opportunity for a shot is so fleeting I told him that if he anticipated this he would score. The bird came through for me and cousin blasted woodcock all day with a bead welcoming them at their flight's weak point. When he left he was a woodcock hunting convert.
You could be, too. Aroostook has many woodcock infested coverts just waiting for you to traipse in a wood. When I write about wood cocking I'll meet with readers who are lifelong Aroostook sportsman who never experience this bird. I point out that they need to get out of the partridge habitat and look for woodcocky environments. This also means get out of the truck and off the logging roads. You don't have to use a bird dog either. Just be more watchful of where they drop since they usually crumple and fall right away when hit, not coasting or gliding on a flight path where you'd lose them.
Wayne Selfridge is an outdoorsman who has hunted and fished throughout the world as a 23-year military veteran. He is a freelance outdoor writer, member of the New England Outdoor Writers Association and is President of the Friends of Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge.
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