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

New England 2/1/15 5:30 PM
Seattle
Detroit 69 FINAL
Philadelphia 89
Portland 94 FINAL
Cleveland 99
Sacramento 102 FINAL
Toronto 119
Boston 98 FINAL
Minnesota 110
Dallas 94 FINAL
Houston 99
Denver 93 FINAL
New Orleans 85
Brooklyn 102 FINAL
Atlanta 113
Oklahoma City 92 FINAL
New York 100
Charlotte 86 FINAL
San Antonio 95
LA Clippers 94 FINAL
Utah 89
Washington 98 FINAL
Phoenix 106
Toronto 1 FINAL(SO)
New Jersey 2
Pittsburgh 0 FINAL
Washington 4
Chicago 3 FINAL
Los Angeles 4
Temple 86 FINAL
UCF 62
Winthrop 75 FINAL
Coastal Carolina 68
Lafayette 59 FINAL
Colgate 54
Northeastern 60 FINAL
Drexel 65
Wake Forest 76 FINAL
Florida State 82
Rhode Island 64 FINAL
Fordham 63
Delaware 82 FINAL
James Madison 88
South Carolina 58 FINAL
LSU 64
New Hampshire 63 FINAL
Maine 58
Seton Hall 80 FINAL
Marquette 70
Binghamton 68 FINAL
UMBC 56
American Univ 54 FINAL
Navy 64
Elon 65 FINAL
UNC-Wilmington 82
Wright State 76 FINAL
Oakland 84
Minnesota 58 FINAL
Penn State 63
Duquesne 55 FINAL
Richmond 86
SMU 63 FINAL
South Florida 52
Hartford 66 FINAL
Stony Brook 72
Albany 47 FINAL
Vermont 44
Hofstra 79 FINAL
William & Mary 100
UNC-Asheville 74 FINAL
Longwood 64
Radford 84 FINAL
Char Southern 77
Holy Cross 0 Postponed
Loyola-Maryland 0
Duke 73 FINAL
Notre Dame 77
Texas Tech 36 FINAL
Oklahoma 81
Oregon State 55 FINAL
Arizona State 73
Morehead State 82 FINAL
Austin Peay 69
Drake 69 FINAL
Bradley 57
Lehigh 62 FINAL
Bucknell 68
Rice 48 FINAL
Houston 59
Missouri State 57 FINAL
Illinois State 67
Loyola-Chicago 47 FINAL
Wichita State 58
Nebraska Omaha 64 FINAL
South Dakota St 86
Northern Iowa 59 FINAL
Southern Ill 52
Louisville 81 FINAL
Boston College 72
St Johns 74 FINAL
Creighton 77
East Carolina 58 FINAL
Memphis 70
Georgia Tech 70 FINAL
Miami-Florida 50
Miss State 73 FINAL
Ole Miss 79
Clemson 68 FINAL
NC State 57
Indiana 67 FINAL
Purdue 83
Kansas 64 FINAL
TCU 61
Oregon 56 FINAL
Arizona 90
Air Force 66 FINAL
San Jose St 52
Stanford 84 FINAL
Washington 74
Rider 56 FINAL
Siena 49
Dayton 76 FINAL
Richmond 62
Eastern Kentucky 53 FINAL
Jacksonville St 73
Saint Josephs 0 Postponed
Saint Louis 0
UMBC 71 FINAL
Binghamton 55
Akron 60 FINAL
Ohio U 72
Ball State 72 FINAL
Miami-Ohio 55
Memphis 56 FINAL
Cincinnati 44
East Carolina 32 FINAL
(2) Connecticut 87
Murray State 59 FINAL
Eastern Illinois 75
Kent State 63 FINAL
Central Michigan 65
UT Martin 64 FINAL
Tennessee St 58
Eastern Michigan 56 FINAL
Western Mich 83
Bucknell 61 FINAL
Lehigh 76
Indiana 57 FINAL
Michigan State 72
Colgate 56 FINAL
Lafayette 58
Fordham 66 FINAL
Davidson 45
Duquesne 76 FINAL
St Bonaventure 64
George Mason 66 FINAL
VA Commonwealth 70
Detroit 59 FINAL
Youngstown St 58
Army 0 Postponed
Boston U 0
Loyola-Maryland 0 Postponed
Holy Cross 0
SMU 58 FINAL
Tulsa 74
Oklahoma St 54 FINAL
Kansas State 52
West Virginia 57 FINAL
Texas Tech 73
Denver 56 FINAL
South Dakota 82
Northwestern St 46 FINAL
Central Arkansas 63
Austin Peay 67 FINAL
SIU-Edwardsville 87
Kansas 61 FINAL
Iowa State 56
Bowling Green 50 FINAL
Northern Ill 67
Penn State 64 FINAL
Minnesota 75
San Jose St 80 FINAL
Air Force 83
Boise State 82 FINAL
Colorado State 83
Utah State 51 FINAL
Wyoming 86
San Diego State 50 FINAL
Fresno State 57
Nevada 52 FINAL
UNLV 75
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