How to ... find woodcock during the October migration

  • Article by: BILL MARCHEL SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE
  • Updated: October 3, 2013 - 2:36 PM
hide

A woodcock, well camouflaged against the forest floor, probes for earthworms, its primary food.

Photo: BILL MARCHEL • Special to the Star Tribune,

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

– They are arriving, hidden by the night — dropping into aspen and alder thickets, one by one, until their numbers suggest they entered en masse. Unseen by most and so well hidden, these creatures are masters of camouflage in varying shades of brown, black, white and salmon.

It is woodcock of which I write. Woodcock flights now are filtering in from the north, sent and guided by instincts man has yet to understand. Their numbers will peak in this area during the next few weeks.

This fall, because of low ruffed grouse populations, hunters may want to concentrate on woodcock instead. After all, the habitat preferred by both birds often overlaps. During the past cyclic grouse low, I hunted woodcock almost exclusively during October, taking the occasional grouse that presented itself.

Hunting action can be very fast when migrating or “flight” woodcock are in. However, the birds have a “here today, gone tomorrow” reputation, which adds to their already secretive existence.

I remember hunting an aspen thicket so thick with flight woodcock that, at sunset, the end of legal shooting hours, I had to leash Ace, my German wire-haired pointer, to get him out of the woods. Even while on the leash, he pointed out two woodcock at the edge of a field. Then, against the afterglow of the setting sun, we sat quietly and watched bird after bird, silhouetted against the orange sky, twitter over the tops of the aspens and settle into a nearby meadow for the night.

Two days later they were gone, basking, I assumed, somewhere to the south. Only their characteristic “chalk mark” droppings were left to hint at their presence.

Biologically, woodcock or timberdoodles as they are often called, are curious little birds. Not much bigger than a robin and with a similar diet consisting mostly of earthworms, the woodcock is Minnesota’s only migrating upland game bird. Of particular interest to hunters, fall migration peaks in mid-October.

Timberdoodles sport a 2½- to 3-inch bill, which is used to probe soft ground for earthworms. Their proportionately large eyes are set high and to the rear of their skulls, allowing the woodcock to detect danger from above and behind even while its bill is buried in soil. Even stranger, the woodcocks’ brain is positioned upside down in its skull. Among naturalists, the bird is most noted for the male woodcock’s unusual spring courtship flights, often called the “sky dance.”

For hunters, the key to finding flight timberdoodles is the earthworm diet. Since worms must be in the top 2 or 3 inches of soil for the birds to get them, areas of moist — but not wet — ground are the best places to look. Aspen clear-cuts less that 15 years old and alder thickets near creeks or lowlands are excellent places to find woodcock. Since woodcock prefer to forage on open ground, free of heavy grasses, the overhead canopy must have been thick during the summer.

If there was ever a bird made to be hunted with a pointing dog, it’s woodcock. Since the birds usually rely on their camouflaged plumage and lie motionless to escape predators, they seldom wild flush like ruffed grouse or sneak out from under a point in pheasant fashion. Pointing dogs as young as five months of age can do admirable work on woodcock, even after only a few outings. The flushing and retrieving breeds also do well. No matter the breed, the dog becomes all the more important after the shoot. Woodcock are so wonderfully camouflaged that downed birds are difficult to find.

As table fare, woodcock are highly touted by some, less so by others. Want my take? Woodcock breasts wrapped in bacon and grilled to medium-rare are a treat.

Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.

ADVERTISEMENT

Tennessee 13 FINAL
Jacksonville 21
Philadelphia 12/20/14 3:30 PM
Washington
San Diego 12/20/14 7:25 PM
San Francisco
Minnesota 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Miami
Baltimore 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Houston
Detroit 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Chicago
Cleveland 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Carolina
Atlanta 12/21/14 12:00 PM
New Orleans
Green Bay 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Kansas City 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Pittsburgh
New England 12/21/14 12:00 PM
NY Jets
NY Giants 12/21/14 3:05 PM
St. Louis
Buffalo 12/21/14 3:25 PM
Oakland
Indianapolis 12/21/14 3:25 PM
Dallas
Seattle 12/21/14 7:30 PM
Arizona
Denver 12/22/14 7:30 PM
Cincinnati
New York 97 FINAL
Chicago 103
New Orleans 99 FINAL
Houston 90
Milwaukee 108 FINAL
Sacramento 107
Oklahoma City 109 FINAL
Golden State 114
Florida 2 FINAL(SO)
Philadelphia 1
Colorado 0 FINAL(OT)
Pittsburgh 1
Toronto 1 FINAL
Carolina 4
Washington 5 FINAL(OT)
Columbus 4
Anaheim 2 FINAL
Montreal 1
St. Louis 4 FINAL
Los Angeles 6
Edmonton 3 FINAL
San Jose 4
St Thomas (TX) 61 FINAL
Rice 72
Stony Brook 59 FINAL
Canisius 60
Temple 82 FINAL
Delaware 62
FIU 58 FINAL
Long Island 69
Lehigh 65 FINAL
Quinnipiac 80
South Alabama 54 FINAL
Richmond 65
Seton Hall 89 FINAL
South Florida 69
Ga Southern 76 FINAL
Stetson 67
Yale 57 FINAL
Vermont 56
Cleveland State 54 FINAL
Virginia 70
Wright State 69 FINAL
Western Carolina 56
Nicholls 54 FINAL
Louisiana Tech 79
Morgan State 48 FINAL
Rider 62
Idaho State 72 FINAL
South Dakota St 75
Oakland City 52 FINAL
Austin Peay 76
Eureka 38 FINAL
Bradley 80
Appalachian St 65 FINAL
Charlotte 75
Connecticut 56 FINAL
Duke 66
Southern Miss 46 FINAL
Jackson State 66
Coastal Carolina 68 FINAL
Ole Miss 71
Montana State 53 FINAL
South Dakota 55
LSU 79 FINAL
UAB 70
Ohio 69 FINAL
Evansville 81
CS-Dominguez 50 FINAL
Cal State Fullerton 72
Walla Walla 39 FINAL
Idaho 86
DePaul 59 FINAL
Oregon State 90
Nevada 65 FINAL
Pacific 69
Portland State 40 FINAL
San Francisco 77
CS-Bakersfield 56 FINAL
Utah State 57
Nevada 12/20/14 10:00 AM
Louisiana
Utah State 12/20/14 1:20 PM
Texas-El Paso
(23) Utah 12/20/14 2:30 PM
Colorado State
Western Mich 12/20/14 4:45 PM
Air Force
South Alabama 12/20/14 8:15 PM
Bowling Green
BYU 12/22/14 1:00 PM
Memphis
Marshall 12/23/14 5:00 PM
Northern Ill
Navy 12/23/14 8:30 PM
San Diego St
Central Mich 12/24/14 11:00 AM
Western Ky
Fresno State 12/24/14 7:00 PM
Rice
Niagara 76 FINAL
Cleveland State 58
High Point 59 FINAL
VA Commonwealth 81
Towson 64 FINAL
Wake Forest 74
Presbyterian 50 FINAL
Charlotte 66
Chicago State 62 FINAL
Bradley 59
Northwestern Coll 58 FINAL
Drake 102
Vanderbilt 67 FINAL
Marquette 80
Temple 78 FINAL
Howard 48
Southern Miss 66 FINAL
Ole Miss 68
UMBC 55 FINAL
Rider 67
Miami-Florida 74 FINAL
UCLA 67
St Mary-KS 51 FINAL
South Dakota 115
William & Mary 71 FINAL
Wofford 51
Troy 82 FINAL
Evansville 94
Loyola Marymount 54 FINAL
USC 96
St Francis-PA 52 FINAL
Duquesne 92
Indiana-Southeast 45 FINAL
IUPUI 95
Delaware State 52 FINAL
Detroit 74
Tenn Temple 48 FINAL
Gardner-Webb 68
West Virginia St 58 FINAL
Radford 52
Fairfield 47 FINAL
Seton Hall 79
Dartmouth 44 FINAL
New Hampshire 60
Ball State 47 FINAL
Pittsburgh 59
Jacksonville 61 FINAL
Tennessee St 64
Trine 45 FINAL
Western Mich 81
Tenn Tech 53 FINAL
Lipscomb 72
Samford 56 FINAL
Tulane 57
New Orleans 55 FINAL
Tulsa 78
Incarnate Word 61 FINAL
TX-Pan American 65
Ark-Little Rock 42 FINAL
South Dakota St 67
CS-Northridge 77 FINAL
Northern Ariz 71
Santa Clara 88 FINAL
Oregon 92
(19) Oklahoma St 55 FINAL
Weber State 49
Washington 69 FINAL
San Diego State 48
Cal Poly 68 FINAL
New Mexico 84
(10) Louisville 65 FINAL
Grand Canyon 51
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close