, Gloucester, MA

October 2, 2012

Woodcock hunting season begins

Dave Sartwell

---- — Wells, Me.---The years change and we get older, but the flow of nature seems to be unending. Although we are hunting with the offspring of dogs gone by and we ourselves are getting slower, some of the covers we hunt have been there our whole lifetime, welcoming us back each year like old friends waiting to pick up a conversation that simply continues.

Memories of days gone by mingle with the reality of the moment, sometimes merging as we round a familiar bend in the brook or slip over a knoll that has always had the apple tree. And, the woodcock and grouse that burst up from the alders are surely descendants of the same birds we hunted here thirty years ago. Thoughts of the past come easily now.

Magic running through alders, head down and nostrils flaring, trying to suck up every scintilla of scent the moist earth below had to offer. His brother, Pirate, a blur of white off to the left as he too coursed through the Maine woods, trying to snuffle up a migrating woodcock. There is nothing like watching two young English Setters strut their stuff on the opening day of upland bird season, even when the woods is wet and the earth under foot sopping with the drizzling rain.

Although the dwellings along the main road to the north have changed from a few farms to a plethora of new homes, the woods along the brook have remained remarkably the same. It is the resting place for thousands of woodcock that flood through here both on their way north in the early spring and on their way south in the fall.

Pirate wheeled around the end of a small trickle that flowed out of a plateau of hardwoods and came to a skidding halt. He froze into a classic setter point, his whole body trembling in anticipation. As his nostrils filled with the sent of the hiding bird, he turned his head toward a clump of grass near a knob of alders. His tail slowly rose from straight out behind him to straight up in the air. His frame was stock still, but he just couldn’t control all of his muscles. They twitched like they wee getting a thousand tiny shocks a second.

Magic saw his brother come to his point and swung in to back him. He was not close enough to smell the holding woodcock, but he trusted Pirate. He knew that if his kennel mate was hard to the bird, he should point as well. There they were, brothers working together as their ancestors have for hundreds of years. Steve smiled at me and we shared the moment in silence. Selective breeding and years of training all coming together at this point in time.

I worked around to the left and Steve went right. With a nod from Steve, I moved in next to my pointing setter. The woodcock could not take the pressure. Up he came, wings beating the air as he rose straight up like a helicopter. The long-beaked bird broke toward Steve. I watched as my partner brought his gun to bear. A shot rang out and a feather floated to the ground. Patting Pirate on the head to release him, I let him go retrieve his prize.

The woodcock is a solitary bird that does not migrate in flocks. Instead, they all seem to move at approximately the same time along the same routes that they have forever. Although weather does play a role in when the birds move, studies show it is light and the phase of the moon that are the greatest determinants as to when migration takes place. During a full moon the added light seems to aid in navigation. These sturdy little fellows will fly about 1,200 miles in roughly sixty days back to their wintering grounds in the deep south.

The woodcock population is in a serious long-term decline all across the country. Although wildlife managers have worked for years to reverse the trend, there does not be a solution in at least the short term alter this decline. The problem is directly attributable to a loss of habitat. In the north, where the birds breed and raise their young, the demand for single family homes continues to grow. Those places that are ideal for woodcock breeding grounds are also those spots that are great for housing. The same is true for their migratory path south. In this conflict, the birds lose every time.

How many times have we spent the morning working through the covers along the north side of the brook? Time after time watching setters perform their magic, finding their quarry wherever they hid; resting on a small knoll and eating our lunch, dogs curled up at our feet waiting for a bit of peanut butter sandwich to be thrown to them.

Afternoons hunting back to the truck on the south side of the creek. Most of the time we just take pictures or flush the birds ahead of the dogs for practice. We passed the point many years ago where we needed to fill our limit on every hunt. It is always enough to watch the setters do what they had been trained to do.