Catching Up With Woodcock Before Their Disappearing Act
Of all the critters that prosper in the squishy woodlands of the lower Eastern Shore, none is more peculiar or unpredictable than the little brown woodcock, which migrates south in winter as the ground freezes.
Woodcock don't look as if they belong in a freshwater bog. No one knows why they evolved over the millennia from shorebirds digging for sea worms in salt marshes into upland birds probing the damp forest floor for land worms with their slender, two-inch-long bills. To stay ahead of the hard frost, they fly a secretive coastal route each fall, mostly at night, from Canada to the southern United States, chasing their daily diet of worms.
Their migration follows no reliable timetable, says Bob Poole of McLean, a nature writer and editor who chases after woodcock as if it were his job. "They could be here or they might not," he says with a shrug. "They come and go. You never know."
It's been a difficult year for Poole and his aging Brittany spaniel, the grandly named Linville's Blazing Black Bart. They started in October in New Brunswick, hunting with guide Andre Godin, but the weather was too warm in Canada and birds from farther north hadn't yet arrived.
On the long drive home Poole skipped Maine, where he usually hunts with guide Billy Gillespie, but worked the New Jersey Shore hard with dog trainer Steve del Rossi and later hunted in Maryland and Virginia.
His tally for the season is just more than 20 woodcock, each one a bit smaller than a healthy pigeon. That's a lot of driving and hunting for 20 little birds and it's way down from his best year, when he bagged 61. Now, another woodcock year is drawing to a close. Virginia's season finished Jan. 5; Maryland's closed Saturday.
Time's winged chariot was hurrying by as Poole, Bart and I charged down Route 50 twice last week, hoping a fresh blast of frigid air might push some birds south. As he sped through the commercial strips of Easton, Cambridge, Salisbury and Snow Hill, Poole reminisced about the day several years ago when we'd joined Virginian Barry Truitt on some bedraggled farmland and Bart and Truitt's English setter, Hooch, found 42 birds.
In bird-hunter parlance, we stumbled that day into a glorious "fall of woodcock," where scores of birds descend simultaneously into a small area one night and every few steps the following day yields a wild, whirring flush. "That's what keeps you coming back," Poole said. "You just never know."
Our destination last week was E.A. Vaughn Wildlife Management Area, 2,630 acres of public hunting land stretching from Girdletree to Stockton at the southern end of Maryland's Eastern Shore, three hours' drive from Washington. Poole knows quite a few woodcock coverts there and Bart, now 14 and in what seems likely to be his final year of hunting, knows what to do.
That's good, because he is now as deaf as a traffic light. "Find the birds, Bartie," said Poole as he turned his old pal loose. "He can't hear a thing I say," he confided, "but he knows where to go."
No kidding. Within seconds, old Bart was in the thickest of the dank, tangled woods, rushing around looking birdy, while Poole and I struggled through greenbriers to get near enough for a shot. " Whoosh!" Fifteen yards in, a woodcock went airborne right between us. I threw the gun up and touched off a load but never dusted a feather.
A minute or two later Bart locked on point, legs aquiver, nose pointed staunchly toward a tangle of vines. Poole orchestrated the approach, striding in from my right as I pushed in from the left. Up went the second bird in a timely way and we both got off two shots, the bird tumbling on somebody's second try.
"Got him!" crowed Poole.
"No, no, no, I got him," I insisted. And no one will ever know for sure.
Two flushes in the first 10 minutes had us envisioning wonderful things, and the optimism level jumped again when Bart went on point 100 yards farther up the line. "He's not much for false-points," Poole said. "There's probably a bird in there."
Again he orchestrated the flush, but this time the bird darted behind a thicket of tree trunks before either of us could line up a decent shot. With three birds jumped, two of them still out there, things looked fantastic--except for one small problem.
Fairly close by we could now hear another party of woodcock gunners working their dogs and banging away. Poole hates hunting in a crowd. With two sections of Vaughn not far away, he reckoned we could find another little spot and do our own thing apart from the others.
Personally, I believe in the old angler's axiom, "Never leave fish to look for fish," and argued to that effect, but Poole's mind was made up. We bundled Bart into his elegant kennel with its red-checked Martha Stewart blanket and burned rubber, leaving the birds behind.
Naturally, those were the only woodcock we saw until dusk. The rest of the morning yielded no flushes at all at Vaughn, so after lunch we drove two hours up the shore to Millington Wildlife Management Area on the Delaware border. There, Bart found four birds in the last, dying light of day and we managed to knock one down, both taking credit again.
"No problem," said Poole, "we'll go back to Vaughn tomorrow and get those birds before anyone else bothers them. They should still be there."
The next day, of course, those birds were gone without a trace. We never flushed one, never saw one, which is how it goes with woodcock -- here today and gone tomorrow, like the northwest wind. You just never know.