When my friend and fellow bird hunter Sam invited me to join him in Canaan Valley for a woodcock workshop, I jumped at the chance to learn more about these game birds, their habits, and habitat. Woodcock or Timberdoodle populations have been declining at about 1-2% per year over the last 40 years due primarily to habitat loss from development and the lack of young forest habitat important for nesting and brood rearing as well as feeding and roosting areas.
Woodcock populations were highest when farms and forestlands dotted the landscape when brushy field edges, orchards, fields, pastureland, and managed woodlots created a mosaic of habitats that woodcock and many other species depend on for survival. The workshop we attended turned out to be a graduate level program and field trip conducted by The State and Student Chapters of The Wildlife Society in conjunction with the DNR for current wildlife and forest managers and students from WVU who will be our future managers of the forest and wildlife. The purpose of this workshop was to introduce a set of best management practices for improving habitat in the Appalachian Mountain region, historically some of the best breeding habitat in the species range.
The day began at the Wildlife Refuge Headquarters in Canaan Valley with biologist Jim Rawson, from the Wildlife Management Institute presenting a brief history of Canaan Valley and past land management activities in the area followed by Bill Igo a research biologist who presented the life history and management of the unique migratory woodcock in the valley. Then DNR biologists Keith Krantz and Sean Head outlined the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Plan (WHIP) for woodcock, which incorporates various management practices to improve singing grounds, feeding, nesting, brood rearing, and roosting areas and how they along with John Schmidt, biologist, FWS Partners For Fish and Wildlife program are implementing the practices on the Sarah Fletcher Tract of land adjacent to the refuge property in Canaan.
The plan on Mrs. Fletcher's property involves clear cutting mature aspen stands to provide short-term clearings and stimulate new growth of aspen saplings creating thickets that woodcock, rabbits, ruffed grouse, ruffous-sided towhees, golden winged warblers and a wide variety of other songbirds need for nesting and brood rearing.
Brush grinding and mowing of over-mature shrubs and alders along the Blackwater River is being done on a rotational basis over the next ten years with cuts every other year to rejuvenate the stand. This provides woodcock singing grounds when first cleared, then feeding and nesting areas where they can forage for earthworms and insects in protected areas with minimal ground cover once the shrubs re-establish.
Woodcock need open areas to perform their elaborate courtship flight at dusk and dawn that involves an audible "peenting" sound in a clearing on the ground followed by an aerial display where the males fly straight up, sometimes three hundred feet or more. Then after hovering for a few seconds will come spiraling back down emanating a twittering sound to the same place he took off from where he continues the "peenting" sound. One male will occupy a single singing ground of approximately a quarter acre and will drive other males away, which is why there is a need for many small clearings in suitable habitat. The females seek out the males on the singing ground and usually nest within 150 yards of it where they depend on the dense brush and shrubs to protect their eggs or young from predators.
These openings also provide roosting areas that woodcock use to spend their time at night to seek protection from nocturnal predators, basically they need areas open enough so they can detect ground predators while providing overhead protection from aerial predators, most commonly owls.
Planting of shrubby dogwoods, willows, hawthorn, viburnums, etc. as well as alders and aspen in rich, moist soil locations create wildlife friendly brush and thickets, providing feeding and daylight habitat. These areas when relatively free of ground cover are utilized by woodcock to obtain their favorite food earthworms as well as providing them protection from aerial and land based predators.
After the presentation at the Refuge Center, we had a chance to tour Mrs. Fletcher's property and view first hand some of the progress being made on this demonstration area. Keith and John began the first cutting and clearing during the past two winters and we witnessed the clearings made for singing grounds and the start of regeneration of aspen from clear cuts made during the same period.
Although the project is still in it's infancy on this 370 acre parcel of land the early results are very encouraging. Along with similar projects in PA, MD, VA, and NJ the success of the management practices should be noticeable in a short amount of time, as woodcock respond favorably within one year or so of habitat improvements and many landowners report witnessing the aerial acrobatics of the males the first spring following the creation of singing grounds. If this project works out on this small demonstration area, other government agencies will utilize the plan on larger tracts of public property where everybody can view the benefit from the increase of populations of the over 80 species that require young forest and shrub land habitats for survival
This project along with other similar projects throughout the woodcocks breeding range represents a growing trend in forest and wildlife management that recognizes the importance of young forest habitat. It also points out the benefits of a balance between old growth and early successional forest habitats that support a diversity of wildlife and vegetation and how it is important in the life cycles of many different species.
Being a relative newcomer to the sport of woodcock hunting, I was grateful to take part in this workshop and will be able to use the knowledge I gained in my pursuit of woodcock this fall with my young pointer. It was a pleasure to walk the same area I have read about as described by George Bird Evans in his excellent book 'Grouse and Woodcock in the Canaan/Blackwater', a diary of his hunting experiences in the area. In his book the Fletcher property is described as the Ben Thompson Farm (Sarah's Father) where he chronicles the wonderful hunting he experienced during the 50's and 60's when the area was mostly farmland. Cows grazed the grasslands and stands of alders so the area was not as overgrown, the birds were plentiful, and the resorts and luxury homes were still a long way off.