On a gray morning in early May, Gabby and Sage, both seasoned English pointers, bound off into the northern Michigan woods. Their noses are sharp, and the soggy young aspen forest they’re sweeping is ideal habitat for the game they’re after. But for a half-hour or so, the morning hunt is fruitless. “We going to turn around, Jerrie?” yells Randy Strouse, a retired General Motors millwright in knee-high waterproof boots and a blaze-orange hunting jacket. “Or go deeper in?”
The small search party opts to backtrack along the dirt road they followed in while the dogs continue exploring a forest carpeted with the brown of last year’s ferns. Gabby and Sage wear special collars that beep periodically and transmit location information to their handlers. When Jerrie Schultz’s GPS device shows his dog, Sage, standing rail-still 121 yards away—the way pointers indicate they’ve picked up a scent—the group turns in her direction. As the hunters approach, a nervous American Woodcock flushes. False alarm: It’s a male—smaller than a female, and not what they’re seeking today.
But soon both dogs are on point again, diligently holding a scent in a different patch of forest. The hunters scramble to catch up, climbing a low ridge tangled with brambles. This time a female woodcock erupts skyward, zips through the still-bare canopy, and vanishes in an instant. Unfazed by the commotion, Strouse and Schultz creep forward, scanning the forest floor. Within seconds Schultz drops a pink marking ribbon. There, impeccably camouflaged, crouches the hunters’ quarry: a fuzzy, roughly 10-day-old woodcock chick.
It's the first success of the day for this unusual search party. They’re part of a larger contingent of hunters who fan out across Michigan's woods every spring, not seeking birds to shoot, but in pursuit of data as part of a long-running research initiative. The program’s dozens of trained volunteers—predominantly off-season sportsmen—record woodcock nest locations and the size of each brood. They round up the downy chicks, which are able to run around just hours after hatching, and outfit them with coded leg bands for future identification. Over the decades, knowledge generated through the program has helped scientists better understand woodcock populations so that forest managers can better protect the vulnerable species.
To date, these catch-and-release hunters have tagged around 38,000 young birds. “We band more American Woodcock in Michigan than anywhere else in the world,” says Al Stewart, a state Department of Natural Resources specialist who coordinates the program. “Not just by a couple birds, but by thousands.”
The beloved American Woodcock—whose nicknames include timberdoodle, bogsucker, and Labrador twister—is a plump, saucer-eyed, long-billed member of the sandpiper family. It lives on the ground in young-growth forests throughout eastern North America, its blend of light- and dark-brown feathers all but indistinguishable from the leaf litter. Among the year’s first migrants, woodcock are a welcome harbinger of spring. The males announce their arrival at their breeding grounds with spectacular courtship flights in which they flutter up to 300 feet into the sky, with air whistling through their wing feathers, before rapidly descending. “Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky,” the conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949. “Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane.”
But for decades, woodcock numbers have been likewise tumbling. Both of the bird’s subpopulations—central, which includes Michigan, and eastern—have declined about 1 percent annually since 1968, the first year of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Singing-ground Survey, an annual population estimate derived by counting the number of males making “peent” calls on the sites where they perform their trademark sky dances. In recent years, the eastern population has stabilized, but the woodcock’s long-term loss was still severe enough to land it on the North American Bird Conservation Initiative’s 2016 watch list. “I believe it’s serious,” says Mark Seamans, a FWS biologist who authored the agency’s 2018 woodcock status report, of the trend. “That’s just not a good pattern.”
The underlying cause of the decline is well-established: For roughly a century, across the country the bird’s habitat has been steadily disappearing. Woodcock—like Golden-winged Warblers, Ruffed Grouse, and several other avian species—depend on the shrubby, early-succession forests that pop up in the openings created by fires, clearcutting, or busted beaver dams. Once commonplace, those kinds of disturbances were eventually tamed by forest management practices that favored old growth. Other habitat was converted from woods to neighborhoods. “When you think about how much young forest we’ve lost,” says David Luukkonen, a research biologist at Michigan State University, “it’s no wonder we don’t have as many woodcock.”
Michigan remains among the most productive woodcock regions in the world. Its vast woods, including nearly 4 million acres of state forest, still offer plenty of prime habitat, largely because of management practices. For about half a century, the state has allowed timber companies to periodically cut much of its public land in sections, fostering a mosaic of old and new growth. The aim, Stewart explains, is to support both a thriving forest-products industry and a deep-rooted hunting culture, by maintaining habitats that support numerous species, including woodcock. “It’s really a giant circle where everything is interconnected,” he says. “And we think about that.”
The banding program began in 1964 with an environmental health mission. At the time, heavy metal contaminants were turning up across the Great Lakes region, and woodcock, which eat fresh worms, served as a useful species for biologists to measure rural soil contamination. The program has relied on hunting dogs all along to help find the mottled birds, but it wasn't until the late 1980s that it transformed into what became a much larger volunteer operation. Prospective banders must attend training seminars and become licensed, learning how to properly band birds and record data. At the end of each season, the DNR submits its records to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Bird Banding Laboratory, where they’re added to a massive dataset that allows for tracking of each enrolled bird. A chick banded in Michigan in early May, for example, might be found nearby a few weeks later by a different bander, or shot the following winter by a hunter in Louisiana and reported to a state or federal wildlife agency.
“The banding data is really the only information that we have that can provide direct data on survival rates,” says Sarah Saunders, a quantitative ecologist at the National Audubon Society who used the woodcock banding data as part of her postdoctoral research at Michigan State. The program’s decades-long dataset is “basically unheard of,” she adds. It has helped scientists understand the species’ migration patterns and flyways, essential knowledge for tracking population dynamics.
Insights from the banding data, in conjunction with the Singing-ground Survey and another estimate, the FWS Wing-collection Survey, have also helped wildlife managers to set annual harvest guidelines and drive protection efforts. Results from all three programs informed the comprehensive 2008 American Woodcock Conservation Plan developed by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, which squarely blamed the loss of young forest for the bird’s plight and urged the establishment of more than 20 million acres of new habitat to restore the population to 1970s levels. “If we didn’t have all those together,” Luukkonen says of the three indices, “we wouldn’t know why woodcock are declining.”
The volunteer force that has helped to build that trove of data now counts some 100 annual banders, many of whom have been scouring Michigan’s woods for chicks for decades. Over the years, the banders, who live throughout the state, have formed their own tight-knit community. They gather for summer picnics and stay in touch year-round, passing along career or health news.
Earlier this spring, the group—mostly male and wearing a variety of plaid—filed into a wood-paneled conference room at a rustic DNR center for a biennial training seminar. Stewart began the afternoon session by reminding the volunteers why their contributions matter. “We really want to help brighten the future of woodcock,” he told the group, “and the way to do it is to get involved.” Other speakers took the microphone to offer presentations on everything from record keeping to banding etiquette, while audience members piped up with questions about the impact of West Nile virus or the merits of using a net. At one point, a dozen or so inexperienced banders—known as apprentices—were directed to stand so they could be paired with mentors. Later, toward the end of the seminar, the group held a moment of silence for two old-timers who had recently died.
Virtually all of the spring volunteers will also hunt woodcock in the fall. Although the birds are small, they’re prized for their rich, gamey meat and often hunted in combination with Ruffed Grouse. In Michigan, woodcock season runs from late September to early November; in 2017 an estimated 24,000 hunters in the state shot 66,000 birds, the highest counts of any state. The banders, who take great pains to avoid harming birds while searching for chicks, see no contradiction—they love and respect the species and are devoted to maintaining a healthy population. Hunting is carefully managed to avoid accelerating the woodcock’s decline; Stewart points out that Golden-winged Warblers aren’t hunted, and their population is shrinking three times faster. And it’s hunters, he adds, who provide the majority of funding for wildlife management, through license fees and taxes on their gear.
“I have no problem with somebody shooting one,” Strouse says. “And I will shoot one if I don’t know it’s banded.” But the soft-spoken outdoorsman, who began hunting as a boy and banding some three decades ago, admits he now bands in different areas than he hunts. “I’d just as soon let the bird go south and come back,” he says, “make as many trips as they can.”
Indeed, after years of perfecting banding techniques and countless miles of forest walked, many volunteers have come to cherish their spring research outing even more than the fall hunt. “It’s a nice time just to get out in the outdoors,” says Schultz, a retired automotive engineer who still remembers shaking with nerves when he found his first woodcock brood more than two decades ago. “And I do love to see the dogs work. I really do.”
Now, in the brambly patch where they’ve spotted the day’s first chick, Schultz and Strouse begin what’s known as the “bander’s shuffle”—rather than walking, the two methodically slide their feet along the ground to avoid stepping on chicks while searching for the rest of the brood. In 15 minutes, the group finds only one more baby woodcock, hidden on the ground several feet away. Schultz and Strouse carefully scoop up one bird each. The group moves to a nearby clearing, where Stewart supports one bird between his index and middle fingers while Krista Hubbard, a younger DNR employee, uses pliers to affix a small aluminum band to its right leg. “And then we have a little banded chick,” Stewart declares.
After returning the youngsters to where they started, the banders resume the search, moving briskly while periodically cracking jokes about each other’s hairlines or shotgun aim. Gabby leads the group through a deep marsh and points a snipe, a close woodcock cousin. Then she finds another woodcock hen, near a tree stump along the forest edge, that flushes only to drop back groundward in a nearby spot. She’s imitating a broken wing—a defense mechanism intended to lure predators away from her brood. Again the banders crouch forward, finding two tiny chicks, likely only three days old, they estimate based on the length of their beaks. “Settle down, little doodle,” coaxes Schultz, cradling one in his palm before banding. “Settle down.”
By early afternoon the sun has cracked through the clouds, and the group drives a few miles along empty rural roads to a new spot. There, Strouse and Schultz let Gabby and Sage rest, and they bring out a pair of younger, less experienced dogs. For 45 minutes the trainees run enthusiastically, finding a turtle but no woodcock. The banders return to their trucks, muddy and mostly satisfied. Some days they band a lot more than four chicks, but then again, some days they find none. No matter—hunters and dogs alike will be back out here soon enough. The woods are greening up, and there’s more than a month left of banding season.
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