The Return Of The Bog Sucker
By C.C. McCotter
You might not have heard the name woodcock or timberdoodle unless you are over 40 but you might have noticed a bird that makes an odd whistling sound when flushed during a deer drive. If hunter reports are accurate, the bird that makes this sound, the American woodcock, is experiencing an uptick in population numbers not seen in recent times.
In the last century, woodcock were abundant because many thousands of acres of young forest existed across their range. But many of those acres have grown to become mature forest, where woodcock rarely venture. Urban and suburban development and clean farming practices have destroyed other acres once used by woodcock. Today we suppress fire, a natural force that in times past periodically created vast areas of regrowing young trees. Also, many people today react negatively to heavy timber cutting, which once yielded a continual supply of young-forest acres.
All these factors add up and until recently, woodcock were less and less common in the woods around the Commonwealth. In fact, government data has not even caught up quite yet with what appears to be two years of noticeable increases. Regardless of what federal wildlife managers say, Virginia hunters know there are more of these odd-looking birds in the woods than there have been in a long time.
So what exactly is a woodcock? Well, it’s probably the most forgotten of upland bird by Virginia hunters. It’s a small, brown bird (about the size of a dove) with a long, slightly curved bill and eyes that google out on each side of its head. When flushed, hollow feathers make that distinctive whistling noise hunters hear. They usually don’t fly far either – 30-40 yards.
Woodcock eat mostly worms. They use their long beaks to probe into soft, moist soil to find these tasty morsels. Consequently, you find them in wet woods. Mountains, Piedmont and coastal plain habitats all attract these migratory birds. As long as they have young forest, soft soil and worms, they can be happy.
Though state game biologists are unsure if we are seeing an increase in resident birds or migratory visitors they are cautiously optimistic about the perceived increase.
Al B , Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries’ woodcock specialist notes, “
Landowners of 20 acres or more looking to better manage for woodcock should consider creating young forest through logging, mechanical brush-cutting, the use of herbicides, and controlled burning. Creating better cover for the birds in breeding regions equals more birds during hunting season.
Virginia woodcock hunters or would-be hunters might want to plan a visit to Wildlife Management Areas that are actually managed for the birds. Mattaponi Wildlife Management Area in Caroline County.
“Mattaponi Wildlife Management Area has some of the best woodcock habitat in Virginia,” says Wildlife Management Institute biologist Steve Capel, “certainly the best woodcock habitat on a Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries WMA.”
The WMA, in central Virginia’s upper coastal plain, includes extensive floodplains along 6.5 miles of the Mattaponi and South Rivers – damp soils that offer prime earthworm-feeding for woodcock.
The saturated soils bring worms up close to the surface, within probing range of the birds, which feed by inserting their long bills into the ground.
The floodplains hold moisture year-round, so food is available to woodcock even during dry spells. That food nourishes woodcock that breed or hatch on the Mattaponi, ones that stop there during the species’ fall and spring migrations, and a population that winters on the area.
Near the Caroline County town of Bowling Green, Mattaponi is one of VDGIF’s newest acquisitions, with many partners involved in securing the 2,500-acre tract: The Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Lands, the U.S. Army (Fort A.P. Hill is nearby), and Ducks Unlimited.
The WMA has many acres of wetlands, including marshes and old oxbows left after the Mattaponi and South Rivers changed course in the past. The property had been owned by a private company that used it for quarrying rock and harvesting timber – disturbances that resulted in a fair amount of young forest. Today, the WMA is a magnet for many different kinds of wildlife from waterfowl to songbirds to mammals.
Wildlife biologists have also worked to enhance habitat.
VDGIF biologist Mike Dye worked to develop a plan that would provide ample acres of the slightly different habitat types that woodcock need, including open, treeless areas for flight displays and breeding in springtime; dense vegetation where the birds can keep hidden from predators as they nest, rear young, and feed; and semi-open sites for roosting on the ground in late summer and fall. Those different habitats also get used extensively by bobwhite quail, songbirds, wild turkeys, rabbits, white-tailed deer, and other wildlife.
Among the management actions are prescribed burning (small, purposely set, carefully controlled fires that enrich the soil while knocking vegetation back to an earlier, denser growth stage) and commercial forestry (logging that opens the way for young trees to grow back quickly and thickly). “Forestry operations bring in revenue,” notes VDGIF’s Dye, “which can then be used for more habitat improvements.”
A key aspect of the current management plan is “daylighting” logging roads: using burning, timber harvests, brush-hogging, and mowing to create a band of thick habitat 50 feet on each side of the 8 to 10 miles of skid trails and logging roads that vein the Mattaponi.
These techniques remove taller trees and let the sun shine in. The increased light spurs the growth of low plants, including grasses and wildflowers; shrubs like blackberry, greenbriar, buttonbrush, and silky dogwood; and small trees, including American holly, red cedar, river birch, and loblolly pine – yielding a matrix of dense, mixed cover that’s excellent for both woodcock and quail.
Logging decks or clearings sited at intervals along the logging roads, where logs are stored after harvesting and before being trucked to lumber mills – were enlarged and also seeded with wildlife food plants. Male woodcock launch their springtime aerial flight displays from these openings and attract females for mating.
Logging operations included thinning 220 acres of loblolly pine, which took place in May and June of 2013. Now grasses and weeds can grow in the bright sunlight that penetrates between the remaining trees. “In two or three years,” Dye says, “we plan to go back and thin the pines further,” both for the financial return and to make the intervening habitat even better.
In the northern part of the WMA, a recent 60-acre clearcut provides even more young forest on a higher, drier site than the river floodplain. The harvest area was a softwood stand stocked with 20-year-old loblolly pine. “It needed to be thinned or harvested,” says Dye. The agency opted for an even-aged harvest, cutting all of the trees and replanting the site to shortleaf pine, which grows more slowly than loblolly. “That will keep the area in a young-forest stage for a longer period,” Dye adds. The pines were planted relatively far apart to allow other vegetation to come in between them.
“Early on, woodcock will use the clearcut for singing and mating. In three to five years, the site will be nesting cover. And in very wet years, it may provide feeding opportunities for woodcock.”
Capel characterizes Mattaponi WMA as "a showpiece. The habitat work is regular and intense, logging is carefully planned and executed, prescribed burning is happening on a significant scale, and judicious herbicide use helps give native shrubs an edge."
“We definitely consider the financial aspects of all our management decisions,” Dye says. “But this is a wildlife management area, and so we consider wildlife first.”
Mattaponi WMA is a fee-use area, free to those who have a Virginia hunting or fishing license. Others must obtain daily or annual use permits by contacting the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries at wildlife.virginia.gov or 866-721-6911.
Mattaponi WMA is located on Paige Road, State Route 605, in Caroline County, approximately 40 miles north-northeast of Richmond and 20 miles south-southeast of Fredericksburg. From Bowling Green, head north on State Route 2 for 0.3 miles. Turn left on Paige Road which is State Route 605 for 1.5 miles. The property begins at the railroad tracks on the right and the Mattaponi River on the left.
Two other good woodcock hunting areas the T.M. Gathright Wildlife Management Area, Bath County, Virginia and the Chickahominy Wildlife Management Area off Rt. 5 near the confluence with the James River.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries manages Gathright which borders Lake Moomaw, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project in western Virginia. Most of Gathright’s 13,428 acres are mountainous and forested, with about 70 acres of low-lying old fields where managers are renewing and creating environments for woodcock, golden-winged warblers, and other wildlife in a region where young-forest habitat is scarce.
On 25 acres of old fields wildlife technicians are opening up a series of 16-foot strips by shear-dozing off over mature shrubs. In two to three years, new strips will be cut next to the first ones, and in another several years, the final strips will be cut.
In another area, several small fields will have their shrubby edges expanded, making the field borders of alder and buttonbush more useful to wildlife. Managers will disk sod bound cool-season grasses; use herbicides as necessary; lay out commercial logging and firewood cuts; and plant native shrubs (indigo bush, silky dogwood, and alder). On nearby Bolar Mountain, mowing and brush- hogging open areas, as well as expanding logging operations, will create more young- forest habitat to help upland wildlife.
Woodcock Hunting Tips
Three things should be paid careful attention to when hunting for woodcock; 1) Locating proper habitat, 2) locating sign of woodcock in this habitat and 3)using the right equipment to succeed.
I’ve given you three great places to find woodcock so #1 is covered.
As far as #2, you need to look carefully for “chalk”, the white droppings of woodcock that are found on the ground in the areas they inhabit. These areas typically feature wet ground where earthworms abound. Woodcock also like protection from airborne predators so under some kind of shrub, bush, briar patch or small tree is where you’ll find them.
Using the right equipment is fairly simple. You’ll need a 20 ga. shotgun, preferable an over-and-under with a modified choke on one barrel and an improved on the other. Dove shot or #8 lead shot is fine for woodcock A hunting vest or jacket with a large portion of it in blaze orange is critically important as is a blaze orange cap. While a pointing dog is not necessary, they do make the hunt much more predictable.