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Winter Woodcock

If you're looking for a new hunting challenge, head to the Pineywoods for this elusive, and tasty, quail-sized bird.

By Henry Chappell

I checked the cover along the little creek a few times in December and found it empty, except for garrulous bands of titmice and chickadees, and a few cottontails and squirrels that sorely tempted my pointer. Then on an early January morning, as I work through the briars and vines, I find chalky splotches on the duff and pencil-sized bore holes in the dark, loamy spots. Up ahead, out of sight in the tangles, the dog’s bell goes silent. I adjust the grip on my shotgun, noticing my sweaty palms. I have visitors from the north.

Unlike other migratory game birds, woodcock won’t be seen perched on utility lines or paddling around on big reservoirs or stock tanks. You won’t hear great, noisy flocks overhead at night. Woodcock appear. Then, just as suddenly, they’re gone. One afternoon a patch of woods seems empty; the next morning it’s so full of scent that your normally well-mannered pointing dog turns into a drooling maniac and rids the thicket of birds with one gleeful, wild-eyed dash.

On the opening hunt of every season, when my German shorthair locks up for the first time on a clump of yaupon or a blackberry tangle, I doubt that the bird is there. After all, I haven’t seen or heard one since the end of last season. But if I shoot well, I’ll take the limp, warm bird from my dog, stroke the cinnamon breast, throat and belly, the black bars across the head, perhaps wipe bits of moist loam from the long, prehensile bill, and yes, consider the large dark eyes that watched so diligently for predators. Then I believe. This year’s woodcock have appeared.

Woodcock have engendered an impressive body of sentimental literature among generations of writers in New England and the Upper Midwest where fine lightweight shotguns and pointing dog bloodlines are tuned for tight cover and a bird that flushes straight up through the aspens and alders, then darts and disappears like a shadow.

As autumn progresses and the birds migrate from their primary breeding range — the upper Midwest and Southern Canada eastward to New England and New Brunswick — bird hunters along the Central and Atlantic flyways await the arrival of “the flights.” The birds travel at night, flying just above the tree tops, at 15 or 20 miles per hour. They must stay ahead of severe weather or starve; they can’t probe frozen ground. Depending on weather and favorable winds, woodcock hunters in Missouri, Kentucky and West Virginia may have only a few days — or a few hours — of good hunting.

Migrating woodcock begin lighting in East Texas’s creek bottoms and pine plantations in late October and early November. The winter population usually peaks in January. Most travel the Central flyway from the Great Lakes states and arrive unnoticed by hunters, even Pineywoods natives.

“Woodcock are a very underutilized resource in Texas,” says Jay Roberson, TPWD’s webless migratory game bird program leader. “Only a few thousand hunters bother with them, and most of those hunt only two days per season.” Statewide, a harvest of 5,000 birds constitutes a big year.

According to Roberson, the Pineywoods hold most of Texas’ woodcock, unless freezing weather pushes the birds farther south to the Gulf coastal marshes or drought sends them to more hospitable areas. The Post Oak Savannah region gets most of the rest, although hunters take a few birds in the Blackland Prairie Region near Dallas.

Although biologists have long believed that woodcock court, nest and raise their broods almost exclusively in the North, a growing body of evidence suggests that a significant number of our birds are homegrown. According to Monty Whiting, a serious woodcock hunter and recently retired professor of wildlife management at Stephen F. Austin University, East Texas boasts a significant breeding population. “Courtship usually begins in January, and we have full clutches on the ground in February,” he says. “I believe we’ve had a shift in breeding area in the past 30 to 40 years. The northern habitat is not as ideal as it once was, whereas in the South it’s much better due to logging practices.” Whiting isn’t a lone voice. “We’ve observed their courtship displays. We’ve seen nests and eggs. We know they’re breeding here,” says Roberson. These findings have implications far beyond academia. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and TPWD ended February hunting because of the likelihood of local nesting.

Regardless of region, the woodcock’s courtship dance is one of the most striking displays in the avian world. Late afternoon, the male flies from his daytime resting cover to the edge of a forest opening, such as a road or clearing amid mature timber. Just after sundown, he moves into the opening and begins his courtship with a series of nasal “peents” often compared to the sound of a finger running over the teeth of a comb. Next comes an ever-narrowing corkscrew flight towering to an apex as high as 350 feet, then a fluttering, vertical descent accompanied by a liquid chirping song.

The woodcock's courtship dance is one of the most striking displays in the avian world.

Compared to gallinaceous game birds such as quail, woodcock aren’t prolific. After courtship and copulation, the hen lays three or four cinnamon and brown spotted eggs in a low, moist spot, often in a recently logged or burned area growing back in briars and pine. The precocial chicks hatch after 23 days and begin feeding themselves almost immediately. Perfect camouflage hides the young birds from predators. Hens are so reluctant to leave their broods that they can easily be captured with a hand net. Biologists often rely on pointing dogs to locate woodcock broods, and have observed hens resorting to exaggerated, labored flight to lure dogs away from chicks. The young woodcock fly after about four weeks.

Woodcock spend their days in young pine plantations (head-high to about 12 feet) grown up in briars and other low growth that provides overhead protection from avian predators and open ground for feeding and easy movement.

At night, the birds fly to fallow fields, new clear-cuts, roadside ditches and other moist open areas, where they feed through the night, probing with their prehensile bills, consuming as much as half their weight in earthworms and other invertebrates. At dawn, they fly back to their thickets. Little wonder people live out their lives in the Pineywoods and never see a woodcock.

If you want to flush as many woodcock as possible, hit the thickets. Think head-high pines and briars. Especially briars. You’ll know you’re there when your dog is on point 10 feet ahead, but you can’t get to her because you’re festooned on a wicked morass of barbed vines. You may never flush that bird, but if you tear free, you can retrace your steps back to safety. Just follow the trail of tatters hanging about the thicket. Eventually you’ll spot your cap hanging head-high at the point where you entered what New England woodcock hunters politely call a “covert.”

On the other hand, if you want to maximize your chances of a woodcock supper, then stay out of the thickets, if possible. Let me explain. This bit of wisdom cost me a decade, several pairs of brush pants, and a pint or two of blood. At least that’s what I expended before two real woodcock hunters took pity on me and pointed out the obvious: 1) You can’t shoot if you and your shotgun are hung in the briars. 2) You can’t (or shouldn’t) shoot what you can’t see. 3) It’s better to have decent shots at three birds than one shot at a dozen birds. 4) For various reasons, woodcock sometimes come out of the thickets during the day.

Jeff Reid, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in Lufkin, recommends hunting along the edges of recently thinned or cut areas. “Near the end of legal shooting hours, the birds come right to the edges. Those thick spots are full of birds, but I don’t even let my dogs go in there,” he says. “If someone were coming to East Texas to hunt woodcock for the first time, I’d tell them to walk the old woods roads and fire breaks. The dogs will cover more ground and they’ll pick up birds here and there.” Reid also concentrates on recently burned areas. “Prescribed burning creates a mosaic pattern — not everything burns. You’ll look out there and see a big clump of sweetgum or baccharis, or something covered in vines. Usually when you check it, the dog goes on point.”

Woodcock often favor more open forest during dry years. Monty Whiting suspects that the ground in the thickets and clear-cuts becomes too dry and hard for the birds to probe, so they turn to the moisture-holding duff on the floor of the mature woods. Even there, woodcock like overhead protection. “Look for lots of blackberry, southern wax myrtle, eastern baccharis and sandy loam soil,” Whiting says. “Scenting conditions are critical. Early and late are best. You can just about forget it on a hot, dry afternoon.”

Of course there are times when the birds just aren’t in the open — the middle of most days, for example. If you want them, you’ll have to plow through the briars. Forget jeans or those lightweight brush pants favored by warm-weather quail hunters. Stick with heavy canvas and Cordura. January temperatures in the sixties are common in the Pineywoods, but sweat is preferable to blood. Wear a heavy chamois or canvas shirt. Buckskin gloves help, but you still may end up looking like you’ve been hand-washing alley cats. Wear a hunter orange vest and cap, otherwise your buddy won’t be able to see you 20 feet away. Don’t like messing with eye protection? Did I mention briars?

Even in what passes for open areas in the Pineywoods, shots are close and quick. Short light guns are the standard tools. Straight cylinder or skeet bore in the thick stuff; improved cylinder in the big woods. Woodcock are roughly quail-size and aren’t especially tough. An ounce of number eight shot will do the job. Some old hands prefer number nine shot.

In theory, the ideal woodcock dog quarters close, adjusting his range to match conditions. In the big woods, he’ll range out to 60 or 80 yards, then tighten up in heavier cover. In practice, most good quail dogs make passable woodcock dogs so long as they mind, check in often, and can be directed to promising cover. My German shorthairs come from a big-running field trial bloodline, yet I’ve had very few problems in the Pineywoods because the cover slows them and restricts their range. Nevertheless, I’ll admit to nearly blowing the pea out the top of my whistle a few times.

Needless to say, the dog should retrieve. Otherwise, you’ll lose nearly every bird you shoot. Most pointing dogs readily pick up and carry woodcock. There are exceptions. My father’s Llewellin setter Toby, a fine retriever of bobwhites and doves, preferred rolling on downed woodcock to fetching them. Fortunately, he had to find them before he could roll on them.

Even close-working pointing dogs will be out of sight much of the time. To keep track of their helpers, serious woodcock hunters rely on bells or beeper collars. I despise the constant electronic beeping, so I operate the collar in the “point only” mode and follow Maggie’s movements by the jingle of a sweet-sounding brass bell.

Woodcock are abundant, delicious, hold well for pointing dogs and live in beautiful country, yet I’ve never met another woodcock hunter in the woods. Perhaps, given the tough shooting, brutal cover and small bag limit, most bird hunters feel their time is better spent on quail or waterfowl. That suits me just fine.

Hunting Woodcock in WMAs

Four East Texas wildlife management areas offer excellent woodcock hunting: Moore Plantation WMA in the Sabine National Forest, Alabama Creek WMA in the Davy Crockett National Forest, Bannister WMA in the Angelina National Forest, and Sam Houston National Forest WMA. Forest Service lands outside the management areas also offer hunting.

Texas’s woodcock season typically runs from mid-December through January (December 18, 2005 - January 31, 2006). Bag limits are three per day, six in possession.

For complete details, contact the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, (800) 792-1112, <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild/hunt/season/2006/>.

For maps and information on hunting in the national forests, contact U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, (409) 639-8501, <www.fs.fed.us>.

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