Dawn, in early November: stepping outside, I hear a twittering from on high. Against the brightening sky, I glimpse a small bird with a rounded head and a long, pointed bill. On rapidly beating wings, it pitches down and lands in the overgrown pasture below our house.
The bird is an American woodcock; the twittering comes from air moving across its outer wing feathers. Did the woodcock spend the summer in Maine or New Brunswick or Quebec? Or is it a local bird, hatched here in Vermont? No way to tell. Clearly it has embarked on its southerly migration, a series of nocturnal flights that will take it to the species’ wintering grounds in the south, mainly the Gulf Coast states.
The brownish, quail-sized woodcock is found in the eastern half of North America. People know it by a host of folk names, including timberdoodle, bogsucker, big-eye, mud bat, and night partridge. A popular game bird, the woodcock is pursued by hunters in autumn. Across the north, the woodcock’s calling is welcomed by birders and rural dwellers as a harbinger of spring.
Across the species’ primary breeding range – from Atlantic Canada through New England and New York to the Great Lakes states, and south into New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia – woodcock sightings have become less frequent in recent years.
Since 1968, wildlife biologists have been monitoring the species by counting singing males and by examining thousands of woodcock wings sent in by hunters to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The wings indicate the percentage of young woodcock that were “recruited” into the population – in other words, how many of the year’s chicks survived to become adults.
Data derived from these two sources suggest that the woodcock population has fallen rangewide by 1.1 percent each year over the last four decades. Most authorities believe that it is not hunting but an ongoing loss of habitat that has caused this drastic decline. Roads, houses, and shopping malls have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres once used by woodcock. An even larger factor is that the woodcock’s preferred young, brushy woods – also known as early successional habitat – are growing up and becoming middle-aged and older forest, where woodcock rarely venture. Today, we suppress fire, a natural force that in times past periodically created areas of small diameter regrowing forest. Also, many people don’t like to see clearcutting; in some states, and in preserves such as Adirondack Park, regulations and public opinion have curtailed this form of logging, which often creates many young-forest acres.
The woodcock has been labeled a “species of greatest conservation need” in many states, triggering research and efforts to boost its numbers. Recently a coalition of federal and state natural resource agencies, wildlife organizations, foresters, and owners of private woodlands both large and small have begun working to restore, create, and maintain the brushy habitat that woodcock need.
The American Woodcock Conservation Plan, compiled by the Woodcock Task Force and published in 2008 by the Wildlife Management Institute (WMI), indicates that to halt the decline of the species, some 4.75 million acres of habitat would need to be created or stabilized each year in the 19 states and six Canadian provinces in the woodcock’s primary breeding range. That figure represents about 1.05 percent of the 454.8 million acres of manageable woodland in the northern breeding range.
To put these numbers into perspective, Vermont would need to create an additional 21,624 acres of young forest every year – New Hampshire 22,503, New York 122,180, and Maine 251,281 acres – just to keep current population levels stable.
Such management would do more than benefit woodcock, as making habitat for timberdoodles simultaneously helps more than 50 other kinds of wildlife that need young forest during part or all of their life cycles – relatively common creatures like snowshoe hare, moose, deer, and ruffed grouse, and animals whose populations have also fallen alarmingly in recent years, such as the whippoorwill, golden-winged warbler, willow flycatcher, indigo bunting, and New England cottontail.
Four essential habitats
Good woodcock habitat requires more than a simple clearcut. By equipping woodcock with radiotransmitters and then monitoring their behavior, biologists have identified and characterized four kinds of habitat that woodcock require: singing grounds, nesting habitat, feeding and brood-rearing habitat, and roosting cover. Each habitat type provides a stage on which part of the woodcock’s life cycle plays out.
Singing grounds – which can be woodland clearings, old fields, pasture edges, log landings, grassy berms of woods roads and country lanes, or powerline rights-of-way – are occupied in early spring by males looking to attract hens. Males stake out and defend these areas, driving off other male timberdoodles by flying at them while making a harsh cac-cac-cac sound.
A male announces his romantic inclinations with a strident, buzzing peent. After sounding a series of such notes, he’ll take off and spiral into the sky. From 50 to 100 yards up comes a liquid, ethereal p chuck tuck cuck oo chuck p chuck tuck cuck oo – like a robin’s call, but wilder and more beautiful. This vocalization mixes with melodious wing twittering as the woodcock descends.
Hens, attracted by the males’ peent calls and aerial displays, flit in and land in the openings. The male tries to impress the slightly larger female by bobbing and bowing, fanning his white-tipped tail and strutting about. A male woodcock will breed with as many females as he can call in.
After mating, the hen seeks out nesting cover, usually within 150 yards of the singing ground. Prime nesting habitats include brushy woods, thornapple and crabapple thickets, and young conifer stands. Hens seek out areas of hardwoods less than 20 years old and will nest in cutover tracts as soon as two years after logging. They also nest in mixed-age woodland where pole-sized trees stand above a dense shrub layer. Nesting habitat may have little overhead cover (as in a reverting field) or trees up to 50 feet tall, with an average cover height of about 12 feet.
The hen fashions a rude nest on the ground in the leaf litter. The male plays no role in selecting the nest site, incubating the eggs (most hens lay four), or rearing the young. Woodcock plumage – an interweaving of various shades of brown – provides superior camouflage. Despite years of woods walking, only once have I spotted a hen on her nest. At first she held tight, trusting in her coloration to blend her in with the browns and grays of the forest floor. When she flushed from the nest, the eggs themselves were hard to discern: pinkish buff, covered with tan blotches and darker speckles.
Woodcock eggs hatch after about three weeks of incubation; they split open lengthwise, unique among birds. Chicks can walk away from the nest within a few hours of hatching. They’re covered with down, tan-colored, and broken up with darker brown stripes and patches.
Within a few hours of hatching, the chicks follow their mother to feeding and brood-rearing habitat: areas with rich, moist soil grown up in shrubs and hardwood saplings.
Hens and broods, and also adult males, spend their days feeding in the densely regrowing hardwoods, including clearcuts 2 to 10 years of age – places where the shoots are so thick that a person would have some difficulty getting through. Woodcock feed on abandoned farmland and old orchards that have been invaded by aspens, birches, maples, softwoods, and other trees and shrubs. They also feed in stands of young alder where the shrubs’ stems remain dense and largely vertical and where the ground is bare or supports only thin vegetation.
Woodcock like areas near slow-flowing rivers, streams, ponds, and wetlands. The birds use their long bills to probe in the soft soil – hence the old name “bogsucker.” Sensitive nerve endings in the lower third of its bill help a woodcock locate subterranean prey. The bird can open and close the tip of its upper bill, or mandible, while it is sunk in the ground; both the underside of the upper mandible and the long tongue are rough-surfaced for grasping slippery prey.
Earthworms, high in fat and protein, may make up three-quarters of a woodcock’s diet; an adult woodcock can eat twice its own weight in earthworms daily. Woodcock also eat ants, flies, beetles, crickets, and caterpillars, along with the occasional snail, millipede, or spider. They eat a small amount of plant food, mainly sedge and weed seeds.
When feeding, a timberdoodle watches for danger. The bird’s large eyes are set well back and high on the sides of the head, letting it peer behind, above, and to the sides, as well as straight ahead. Woodcock seem to have sharp hearing. When a woodcock flushes from the ground – to evade a fox or a weasel, a human or a hunting dog – it flutters up acrobatically, dodging branches and stems, then levels off and flies from 20 to several hundred yards before setting down again.
Woodcock chicks grow rapidly. After four weeks they are almost fully grown and can fly strongly. Save for minor plumage differences, they look like adults. Most broods break up six to eight weeks after hatching. The survival rate for young woodcock is higher than that for birds in general. However, the fact that a hen typically lays only four eggs and rears but one brood per year means that woodcock have a fairly limited population growth potential. As a point of comparison, a ruffed grouse clutch has between 9 and 14 eggs, and wild turkeys average around a dozen eggs.
As summer lengthens, the birds begin leaving their daytime feeding areas at dusk and flying to a fourth habitat type, roosting cover, where they spend the night resting on the ground. Good roosting areas are characterized by bare ground with scattered knee-high weeds or briars. Abandoned farm fields, utility rights-of-way, edges of gravel pits, and rural airstrips all serve the purpose. From these patchy settings, a woodcock can get airborne to escape a land predator, while the weeds and briars offer overhead protection against owls. Woodcock will fly several miles to roost; studies have shown that if roosting habitat lies more than half a mile from feeding habitat, woodcock are more likely to get nabbed by aerial predators en route.
Working with landowners to create habitat
In a best case scenario, the four woodcock habitat types would lie near one another. Says wildlife biologist Gary Donovan, of Holden, Maine, “An ideal area would have an alder swale or other forested wetland at its core, surrounded by thick daytime feeding habitats at slightly higher elevations and in patches of five acres or larger, with singing grounds and roosting cover nearby.”
Donovan works for the WMI, a nongovernmental organization administering a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to help landowners create young-forest habitat for woodcock and other wildlife and to set up demonstration areas where people can see what that sort of habitat looks like. Donovan steers woodland owners toward private, state, and federal funding that can help make wildlife-oriented logging operations commercially feasible.
Says Donovan: “When I evaluate a property’s potential for providing early successional habitat – whether a large holding or a small one of only a few acres – I look at how neighboring land is being managed. I identify which type or types of woodcock habitat are most needed in the area – maybe it’s roosting cover, or singing grounds, or brood-rearing habitat.
“Not every place is suitable for creating young forest; you don’t just go up on a mountain and start cutting down trees. Are there unique habitats or rare species that might be harmed by heavy cutting? I check for streams, ponds, or wetlands that may need riparian protection. I look for aspen and birch, hardwoods that grow back densely and rapidly after cutting and whose small wind-borne seeds can quickly reforest a tract after logging.”
One landowner with whom Donovan has consulted is Paul Brouha of Sutton, Vermont. Brouha has a strong background in forestry and wildlife science and worked for the U.S. Forest Service for many years. In 2007, he and his wife Carol retired to the hill-country farm in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom where Brouha grew up. An avid hunter, Brouha manages the woods on his 430-acre property both to benefit wildlife and to provide an income.
Thirty years of management on the parcel have resulted in four age classes of hardwoods, perpetually growing toward a marketable size, with a good portion of the land in young, regenerating forest. Brouha keeps German shorthaired pointers for hunting; while training and conditioning his dogs, he says, “We find woodcock in the brushy patches all summer and into the fall.”
Brouha converts log landings and tote roads into food plots, planting them with a mix of grasses and mowing the plots every few years to keep them open. Deer, grouse, and wild turkeys feed there. Says Brouha, “In spring, woodcock use the openings as singing grounds.” Funding from the Wildlife Habitat Improvement Project, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, has helped Brouha encourage apple trees and create singing grounds.
In New Hampshire’s Coos County, WMI biologist John Lanier, of Colebrook, is putting together a constellation of projects centered on the new Pondicherry Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. As recently as the early 2000s, much of the 5,600 acre Pondicherry tract was logged by the forest products companies that then owned the land. Today, several thousand acres of young forest, in different stages of regeneration, checkerboard the refuge, providing habitat for woodcock, grouse, bobcat, hare, beaver, and other species. Around 400 acres are in woodcock-friendly alder stands.
Three miles west of the refuge, on her 26 acres near the town of Whitefield, Marjorie Goodson created a 1.5-acre opening in a stand of gray birch and aspen in the winter of 2008-09. After the trees were harvested, a tracked machine with a brontosaurus cutting head (a tooth-studded drum that revolves at a high speed) chewed up limbs and stumps to clear the site. A WMI grant covered the machine time. Without an overburden of limbs and tops, the root systems of the aspens sent up copious shoots, quickly creating feeding and brood-rearing habitat. Another two to three acres are scheduled to be cut in the next five years. Mowed and pastured portions of Goodson’s land and nearby properties already provide woodcock with singing grounds and roosting habitat.
South of Pondicherry, Wagner Forest Management oversees a privately owned tract of 1,700 acres. Wagner has mapped out the tract in five- to seven-acre blocks. Over the next 40 years, the company plans to cut the blocks at 10-year intervals, spurring the regrowth of aspen. Much of the wood harvested during the winter of 2008–09 was chipped and sent to a local biomass electricity generating plant.
As log landings are created, they will be mowed to keep them functioning as singing grounds. Woodcock will also use cut blocks as singing grounds until aspen regrowth transforms the blocks into brood-rearing and feeding cover; toward the end of the 40-year cutting cycle, older blocks will become nesting habitat. Biologist Lanier will count singing males in the spring and believes he will document a significant population increase. He also plans to capture woodcock, fit them with radiotransmitters, and see where they spend their time on the Wagner tract.
A similar landscape-scale project recently began in the Adirondacks, where Lyme Timber Company manages 22 tracts totaling 276,000 acres, making it the largest private landholder in Adirondack Park. Because logging is prohibited on public land inside the Park’s boundary, young-forest habitat exists only on private land and is extremely rare in the region.
In 2008, Lyme adopted a plan to put five percent of the acreage in each of its tracts into young forest within 10 years. Upland Forestry, a consulting firm with an office in Fort Ann, New York, manages Lyme’s Adirondack holdings. WMI biologist Brian Schofield is working with Upland Forestry to find places where logging will create habitat that woodcock can use. Cuts range in size from patch cuts of up to eight acres to uniform clearcuts as large as 25 acres, along with shelterwood removal cuts of 5–90 acres. Logging in softwood stands will create habitat for spruce grouse, an endangered species in New York. Spruce grouse prefer early- to mid-successional coniferous forests; heavy cutting conducted near existing populations should let them expand into the regrowing softwoods.
Seeing the big picture
The biologists with WMI, in addition to working with individual landowners, are developing an overall woodcock restoration plan for the bird’s entire range. So far, as part of the Northern Forest Regional Initiative, woodcock habitat demonstration areas have been created by Dartmouth College on its Second College Grant in northern New Hampshire; on the Nulhegan Basin Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Vermont; on holdings of Cowl’s Sawmill and Land Company in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts; at Green Mountain Audubon Center, Champlain Valley, Vermont; on Crowley Island in Down East Maine, where habitat work is underway on holdings of the Pleasant River Wildlife Federation; on Hanover Water Works land in the Connecticut River Valley in central New Hampshire; on Freedom Town Forest in the Ossipee Pine Barrens in eastcentral New Hampshire; and in many other locations.
The Woodcock Conservation Plan sets up regional habitat initiatives linked to bird conservation regions fundamental biological units recognized by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, a coalition of government agencies, private organizations, and initiatives aimed at helping different bird species. Ultimately, biologists hope to have young-forest habitat-creation and -stabilization programs in all 16 bird conservation regions where American woodcock breed, through which they migrate, and where they winter.
Recently WMI biologists have begun working with forest products companies, state and federal agencies, and private landowners to create young-forest habitat in the Appalachian Mountains, Upper Great Lakes, and New England/Mid-Atlantic Coast regions.
Will those efforts, combined, yield the 4.7 million acres of new young forest habitat that, created each year, could stop the woodcock’s population decline? The goal of stabilizing the population seems within reach, particularly if more landowners become comfortable with the look and feel of early successional forests. And if they do, their efforts will benefit not only woodcock but also golden-winged warblers, Eastern towhees, brown thrashers, New England cottontails, bog turtles, and the scores of other wild creatures that need brushy woods to survive.
Aerial view of woodcock habitat cut. Note diversity of age classes. Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Charles Fergus lives in northeastern Vermont. His book Trees of New England is available through Northern Woodlands. Fergus currently contributes to www.timberdoodle.org, which is sponsored by the WMI.