Spring banding provides clues to elusive woodcock
My love affair with woodcock goes back more than four decades. If you’ve read my column long enough, that should come as no surprise. Across the years I’ve taken you along as my bird dogs and I have hunted, surveyed, banded and studied these most wonderful creatures – no doubt, one of nature’s most secretive and mysterious of all upland gamebirds.
The affair began as a teenager along a little creek named Karcher in the southeastern part of the state. I was hunting without a dog and met up with a hunter and his two English cocker spaniels. They found woodcock in great numbers in alders at the creek’s spring-filled headwaters. I watched as the elder hunter shot and his dogs retrieved to hand a pair of these marvelous birds. On a subsequent hunt, I shot my first woodcock – once again dog-less, wading upstream on the same creek.
It would stand to reason that my close upland hunting companions would also be woodcock hunters. In the case of friend Mike, his passion met mine and went beyond the hunt. That included bird dogs, spring singing-ground surveys and banding.
We volunteered for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and obtained required banding licenses. In the months of April and May we used mist nets to capture and band adult male and female woodcock on their singing grounds and used our dogs to locate and band young woodcock chicks.
Forty years later, Mike and I are still at it. We get together each spring to band male woodcock that call our land home. Mike’s property lies in the heart of the Buena Vista grasslands in southern Portage County, mine in the town of Eau Pleine.
It was on Mike’s place last week that we met to use mist nets to capture performing males as they danced for females on their singing grounds. Add to the mix a bevy of University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) Wildlife Society student members and we had a recipe for several enjoyable, successful evenings.
Male woodcock “peent” and strut on the ground in clearings in the woods – then suddenly stop peenting and flush skyward in wide spirals. Higher and higher they climb, to a point in the sky nearly 300 feet above the ground. Abruptly they tumble down – back to the point of beginning and emit a soft fluid chirp along the way. There they resume peenting.
We set mist nets strategically in their flight paths. If they hit the net, we run to the net from our hiding places in the surrounding woods and slowly untangled the birds from the nylon netting. If they miss the nets, we play pre-recorded peenting calls from another male.
In defense of their territory, males aggressively attack the sound and more often than not, hit the nets. Once freed, a small aluminum band is placed on their leg, followed by measurements of beak and outer primary feathers. After necessary banding duties are completed, pictures are taken and the bird is released into the twilight away from the net.
Traditionally, local wildlife society students assist Mike and me in the banding of woodcock – last week we caught two. The first, a female, flew into a net looking for two active peenting males. The second, a net-shy male, took two nights to capture. But in the end, was fooled by the imposter recorded male and several persistent banders.
The mystery surrounding this elusive migratory gamebird slowly unwinds each year by way of banding and telemetry data that reveals clues to researchers. Thanks to this year’s UWSP students and their project leader Ashely Steadman for assisting us in contributing to this ongoing quest for knowledge.