“A gun, no matter how rare, a dog, no matter how brilliant, cannot mean fulfillment without keenness in the man. It takes the sportsman’s edge honed fine, an “eye,” a sense of what is good, the ear for what is right – the heart. There is something about the wilderness, something in the blood that draws nourishment from the game.” — George “Bird” Evans, An Affair with Grouse

By Joe Schwenke, Photos by Adam Wilson

The number of birds that had fallen over the years to this group of men could very well be countless — many seasons of hunting yielded larger totals of game with each passing fall. Now seated in chairs surrounded by land belonging to all of us, they laughed, poked fun and told tales of passed days afield.

Two Dutch ovens gave off the aromas of basil, thyme and pastry. The garden salad was nearly ready, and beefsteaks awaited the hot, iron cooktop. The three staff members of The Michigan Upland Experience tended coals, set the table and began to prepare and serve a field lunch.

It was mid-morning before everyone was introduced and our plan for the day established. Each veteran woodcock bander paired with an Upland Experience staffer and began to search the surrounding covers for birds. The spring sunshine made for warm walking and good photography.

I walked along with Dennis and his GSP, Huk, and the conversation seemed to take as many turns as our wanderings through the puddle-filled covers. Old shotguns and new ones, trips taken, habitat preferences, duck hunting, quail shooting, snakes, frogs and upcoming hunting plans all made appearances in our exchanges.

Hours of walking and flushes of single birds without broods led us to conclude that we were still early for this area. Success was playing hard to get, but slowly, persistence paid off.

Randy and Adam were on the board first with a three-chick brood, and Bob and Chris were next with a lone hen. It wasn’t until the walk out to the truck in the last cover that Dennis and I found a broody hen, and with the help of Bob and Chris, we found all four chicks.

When a hen woodcock has chicks with her she is considered “broody.” She will hold tight until the danger is close, then lift off dangling her legs and hovering slowly away from the brood on the ground. Any predator looking for an easy meal will follow this tempting target. When a broody hen flushes near a woodcock bander, everything slows down.

The dog is leashed and the search for these small, golf-ball-sized fuzzy chicks begins. Small tiptoeing steps to the place of the flush and a painstaking search of every inch of wrinkled leaves and sprouting stems begins. The yellow and brown hues of downy feathers blend perfectly into the shadowy contrasts of sunlight and fallen branches. The chicks are placed in a mesh bag for safety as each is banded and has their bill measured to determine their age — 14 mm long at hatching and 2 mm a day growth. These four chicks’ bills measured 23 mm long and were aged at 4.5 days old.

At day’s end, Dennis, Randy and Bob had accounted for no shots. No birds were retrieved. And there was no game to clean. No birds were bagged unless you count the little mesh bags that hold woodcock chicks awaiting their little silver ring. To these men, placing a band on a recently-hatched chick is every bit as thrilling as the twitter of wings and the barking report of a shotgun. Seven chicks and one hen now sported new jewelry, and each little band was a chance to learn more about these birds as they migrate through our state.

This lunch had been sold at auction by The Michigan Upland Experience to benefit the SW Michigan chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society’s Drummer Fund. Somewhere in our state on a future project, those funds will become either food or shelter for grouse, woodcock and so many other creatures. Dennis Gulau had placed the winning bid and invited Randy and Bob to celebrate their friendship and fraternity as woodcock banders.