On the Wings of Woodcock

 

story by Joshua Bergeron

Wisps of clouds brushed the starry sky over Sherburne WMA. It wasn’t ideal weather for spotting American woodcocks. The birds are easily spotted during cloudy, gloomy weather, but hide when skies are clear to avoid becoming prey.

Despite the lackluster conditions, the staff of the Louisiana Conservationist set out to experience woodcock banding first-hand.

Since the beginning of the Singing-Ground Surveys in the late 60s, woodcock have seen a steady decline in population. The surveys’ are conducted to evaluate the status and population trends of American woodcock. Wing-collection surveys also show a decline.

According to LDWF Biologist Jeff Duguay, the population declines are believed to be caused by habitat loss.

“As communities are built, they often level the landscape, clear trees and build a house,” Duguay said. “After trees are cleared and the landscape changes, the woodcock loses its habitat.”

Duguay began a study to examine woodcock response to habitat manipulation by creating several nocturnal habitats at Sherburne WMA. He used four land-management techniques – mowing, burning, disking and a combination of mowing and burning.

First-Hand Experience

Shortly after leaving Sherburne’s headquarters, we passed several houses and trailers. The small community lay dormant, but is frequently used as temporary homes for hunters. Tonight, only one Chevrolet truck populated the abandoned village.

Our convoy continued until we reached the 32-acre plot of land specifically dedicated to trapping woodcocks. The land is divided into 2-acre sections with specific habitat types. Some habitat types are flat, with little vegetation — disked. Others are populated by saplings and trees that have been sliced in half to provide cover for the American woodcock — mowed.

Our cruise slowed to a crawl when searching for the woodcocks. We turned off all lights, except for a hand-held searchlight. The light rotated on a 180-degree axis, scanning for any sign of woodcocks, but our search was fruitless on our first pass through the 32-acre plot.

We abandoned the 32-acre plot for another plot that had been recently mowed. Duguay explained that the recently mowed habitat is more popular with woodcock.

“The second location had a lot more debris, since it was recently mowed,” he said. “We mowed the other location for a second time this year. After it was mowed for the second time, it cleaned up a lot of that debris.”

The left-over branches made our journey on four-wheelers more treacherous and provided extra cover that was removed after the 32-acre plot was mowed a second time. The woodcock’s plumage – the pattern, color and arrangement of feathers – matches the landscape well. But it wasn’t long until we spotted our first woodcock of the night.

The bird took flight as soon as the spotlight hit its brown plumage; biologists used the term “flush” when birds take flight early. We followed the bird with our spotlight, taking note of where it landed.

“Let’s get after it,” said University of Louisiana – Monroe graduate student Cody Haynes.

We sped through the field toward the woodcock’s location. The four-wheeler was about eight feet from the bird when Haynes jumped off, net in hand. It was a routine he had practiced many times. The net fell perfectly around the woodcock, trapping it inside.

University of Louisiana-Monroe graduate student Cody Haynes bands a woodcock on Feb 4.

The Banding Process

Haynes carefully picked up the bird. “In woodcocks we have something called reverse sexual dimorphism,” he said. “Females are usually larger than males. I can tell just by the size of this bird in my hand that it is going to be a female.” 

The bird was plump and round. Its long beak lead up to its dark black eyes, now firmly locked on Hayes.

When banding the bird, Haynes said he always picks the same leg, the right leg. He wrapped the small aluminum band around the woodcock’s leg and recorded its number. Haynes then spread the bird’s plumage, looking at the outermost primary feathers. The primaries are the largest, outermost features on the edge of a bird’s wing. But on female American woodcock, the outermost primaries are significantly wider than the males.

Determining the age is a more difficult than sex, according to Haynes.

“There’s normally nice symmetrical modeling on the innermost secondaries, if the bird is a juvenile,.” He said. “That pattern or modeling goes away as the bird gets older.”

The secondaries are the located in the middle of the lowest layer of feathers on a woodcock — located between the primaries and the tertials on the wing.

The final step before releasing the bird is to measure its weight. Haynes placed each bird in a small cloth bag, folded the top and attached a pencil-shaped scale. The scale, pulled down by the weight of the bird, measured weight in grams. It weighed 214 grams.

“Wow, that’s the biggest bird I’ve ever caught out here,” Haynes remarked.

He recorded the information in a small notebook and released the bird into the night before hopping back on our four-wheeler to continue the hunt. If a banded woodcock is ever recaptured or killed, it can be tracked using the band on its leg.

Although it’s fun to trap and band woodcocks, Duguay said it’s equally important to get return data on the birds.

“For example, a hunter might shoot the bird and call the 800 number on the band,” he explained. “It goes into the national database and then we can get information about its location, where it was shot and anything else they might provide.”

We banded 3 woodcocks, but saw a total of five birds. The next two got away.

Like the first, the next woodcock took flight as soon as our spotlight hit its plumage. I grabbed the net and hurried to its landing spot on foot, but as the net smacked the ground, I watched the bird fly off into the night. I missed.

The next opportunity produced similar results. I approached the bird slowly, took aim and launched the net. Luckily the woodcock landed nearby after my miss, allowing us to band the 174-gram juvenile female.

After a brief flurry of success capturing woodcocks, our luck ran dry. We combed the area several more times before deciding to return to Sherburne’s main complex.

Duguay explained that our lackluster evening could be blamed on the weather.

“Cloudy, overcast conditions are the best time to see woodcock,” he said. “When it’s clear, it is easier for owls to see the woodcocks.”

Future of the Program

Although the program is only two years old, Duguay said he has gathered some valuable information about nocturnal woodcock habitats. For example, mowed habitats and burned habitats have been the best locations for finding woodcocks. Disked habitats are rarely populated by woodcocks because of the open landscape, according to Duguay. The disked habitats leave little to no vegetation for woodcock to hide under.

Duguay will use the data collected from the past two years to improve future research. He said he believes the optimal nocturnal habitat for woodcock would use a combination of burning and mowing.

He said that mowing a plot of land two years in a row, eliminated some of the cover that woodcock used to hide. In the future, he plans to alternate mowing and burning. For example, one year he will mow a plot. The next year he would burn the plot with drip torches and not mow the plot.

But nocturnal habits aren’t the only thing Duguay is interested in. He also raised the possibility of continuing research to include daytime or diurnal habitats.

Haynes is has also expressed his excitement about what their data could mean for future research.

“I think we have gotten some solid data from what we have done so far,” he said. “I think we’ll certainly use it to help whatever research we do in the future.”

 

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