Woodcock banding activities are permitted through the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and Michigan Department of Natural Resources. 

By Nick Green

A lifetime of meandering through conservation is dotted with moments of pristine clarity and recollection — moments that make us remember why we embarked on this journey and devoted countless memories to it.

While conservation first manifested itself for me as a child with a bobber and worm, and it came to fruition in the form of a brown trout and dry fly, it became part of who I am when I met Sally Downer and discovered that my most meaningful conservation memories might not involve a harvest or catch at all.

A clear realization

Sally Downer writes down band and brood location information. Michigan’s banding program significantly contributes to the data set biologists working on American woodcock use.

I met Sally on a 2017 May morning to gather information and take photos for a story about woodcock banding for Cadillac News. Before long, I was lost in stories of dogs, families and tradition. I couldn’t have even told you which direction we drove.

Bumping down the two-track, the scenery was nothing new. Having grown up only miles south, this particular piece of state land was uncharted by me. Nothing would distinguish its difference from the popple, hardwood and evergreen forests I grew up in except coordinates, though.

Springtime always puts a smile on my face — it’s really the first time I get back out into the forests since my hunting seasons, and I am reminded that there is always a new season and new opportunity.

Sally was lively and chipper as the spring sun hit our face through the windshield. The ride felt familiar — like I was being driven by my mother — except for the tattered visor hanging from the mirror and the well-worn dog crate in the back seat. Muted whimpers from Tori, Sally’s English setter, let me know we were close. We rolled to a stop near the edge of a field where the DNR had planted food plots for wildlife.

Sally Downer’s Wicksall English setter, Tori, points a hen woodcock on a nest.

Jumping from the crate, Tori’s excitement turned to business as soon as her feet hit the ground. The ‘ding, ding, ding,’ of her bell abruptly stopped about 40 yards from the truck. We hadn’t had boots on the ground for more than a minute.

“Point,” Sally said. “That’s it.”

Tori was held as Sally moved in. The unmistakable flutter of a woodcock followed, and we watched as she landed 25 yards away feigning injury. The hen’s flight revealed four woodcock chicks hatched only days before.

As Sally went to work placing bands on the chicks, noting that she spends more time in the woods with a pen, paper and bands than a shotgun many years, I started to question the motives that drive me to pursue my passions. Sally, now 70, has banded woodcock for well longer than I have been alive.

The state of American woodcock

For timberdoodles, as they are affectionately known, things aren’t looking good. Declining almost one percent annually in the eastern and central flyways, according to singing ground surveys by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, woodcock populations have tumbled in the past half-century.

The reason populations have declined isn’t a secret, either — habitat is disappearing.

Forestry mismanagement, policy prioritization, anti-forestry measures and funding are all reasons why early-successional, in particular, habitat is fading in states like Ohio and Indiana.

In Michigan, small Upper Peninsula and Northern Lower Michigan communities depend on fall pilgrimages of woodcock hunters. Being migratory, the flight can be chased from the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula down to our Ohio and Indiana borders.

The author crouches behind his German shorthaired pointer, Summit, after leashing him on point to look for a hen or nest. Carefully scanning the ground and being mindful of feet placement are two things always done once a point is established. Photo: Abraham Downer

At the end of the day, the folks just to the south of us don’t share the same affinity for these worm-eating, tasty birds. Ohio has less than 5,000 hunters a year pursuing woodcock, paling in comparison to Michigan’s more than 30,000 woodcock hunters and 80,000-plus grouse hunters.

Is their lack of pursuit a response or a driver? Did mismanagement come before disinterest or vice-versa? I suspect, as it usually is, mismanagement was followed by a lack of interest once populations started to nosedive. If states like Indiana and Ohio aren’t managing for, at the minimum, migration habitat, why would states like Tennessee or Kentucky?

As they make their migration south, we can see how the issue compounds until the birds land on their wintering grounds in the Gulf of Mexico.

Michigan woodcock lovers are trying to do everything we can to help reinvigorate a species that, once it leaves our state and much of our control, contends with habitat deprioritization and forestry mismanagement spanning states and flyways. If a collective approach isn’t enacted soon, it may be too late.

Even in Michigan, ongoing habitat efforts from organizations like Ruffed Grouse Society and Michigan United Conservation Clubs may prove too little in our state’s southern reaches where stopover habitat is becoming more and more segmented and marginal.

Ed Moore bands a woodcock chick as a mentee in the banding program. Learning the proper technique for hand placement helps make the process safe for the chick.

Woodcock banding

As banders, we hope to provide a small glimpse into the movements and habits of the American woodcock. We know we can’t singly answer the questions of why populations are declining, who will care and what are we going to do, but we can collectively provide data to help guide scientific management and policy decisions.

In Michigan, woodcock, Canada geese, ducks, osprey, black terns and an array of other songbirds are banded by the Michigan DNR, volunteers and non-profit organizations. About 70 woodcock banders banded 1,110 chicks and spent 2,052 hours afield in 2019. The bulk of our banding efforts take place in May when most hens have hatched their chicks but the chicks aren’t able to fly yet. Be sure to report your band data to the USFWS.

For banders like myself, we must be mentored by a certified woodcock bander for at least two years and band birds while afield under direct supervision. More importantly, our dogs must have proven themselves effective on woodcock, their point staunch and that they can remain calm during banding to ensure the safety of woodcock chicks. Banders must also be proficient with data collection and handling to ensure biologists receive accurate brood and location information.

Michigan’s four-plus million acres of public land, proactive forestry management policies, rich outdoor heritage and world-class biologists help our state to be the world’s top producer of American woodcock, the top banding state and top harvest state.

Andy Ammann, arguably one of the most well-known ruffed grouse and woodcock biologists, can be credited with envisioning, implementing and perfecting Michigan’s woodcock banding program.

After trying to use mist nets to capture birds and band them, Ammann learned that using a pointing dog to locate the hen woodcock on or near her nest and point it from a distance would allow him to safely capture the hen or flush her and find the chicks without having to move much and risk injuring them. In the 1980s, the volunteer banding program led by DNR biologists flourished and became a model for other states interested in banding.

What’s a little less known about Ammann and a story for another day is that Sally’s dad and uncle, Bill and Jack Wicksall, respectively, provided Ammann his first banding dogs and helped to build what would become known as the Michigan DNR line of dogs.

Usually, a woodcock brood consists of four chicks. However, predation, re-nesting, inclement weather and other factors can contribute to lower clutch success.

A woodcock nest with four eggs situated on the edge of an aspen stand and creek transition. Looking at the left front egg, you can see pipping — the first break of an eggshell by a bird as it begins to hatch. The chicks hatched shortly after this photograph was taken.

Banders are expected to work methodically, carefully and deliberately. We don’t band when it’s too cold, too wet or too hot — the conditions need to be perfect.

Known as the woodcock shuffle, banders are trained to pick up their feet as little as possible once a prospective nest and/or chicks are located. They then scan the ground with their eyes and try to find the yellowish-brown puffballs so adept at blending into the forest floor.

Sometimes, the hen can be seen feigning injury after she flushes — a telltale sign to employ the shuffle and that chicks are nearby. Once the chicks are gathered and banded, they are placed back where they were found and within seconds, sometimes, the hen flies back to her chicks.

The collected data is then compiled by each bander at the end of the season and required to be reported by July 1. The data reported includes location, brood size and approximate age, which can be determined by measuring the woodcock chick’s bill — each millimeter coinciding with an approximate age in days.

Once they are a few weeks old, the woodcock chicks can start to hop and take short flights. It is at this time when we start calling the groups “flying broods” and our banding season starts to wind down. This usually happens at the end of May or the beginning of June.

No shotgun, no problem

Embarking on my first year as a certified bander in 2021, I went back to where my adult-onset upland career started — on the banks of the Manistee River. I put my small Munsterlander Calvin on the ground in the spot where we both had our first ruffed grouse shot over a point.

It didn’t take long for my Garmin Alpha to beep and let me know Calvin had located a bird.

Upon approach, the flighty hen took off well ahead of me — I could only hear the flutter of wings and subtle ‘peep, peep, peep’ as it lifted upwards. As my head swung to see if I could see her descent, I noticed Calvin’s stone-like silhouette hadn’t moved with the flush.

I couldn’t see the hen, so I started to shuffle my way towards Calvin. The shuffle was slow; foot after foot I covered the 10 yards between Calvin and me. His posture indicated a bird was close. With no head swing on the flush, I expected the nest or chicks could be within feet.

A woodcock hen sits on her nest. Her wings being propped out is an indicator that she likely is on eggs. The photographer and author backed out immediately after this photo was taken. Photo: Abraham Downer

Crouching down and leashing Calvin in one motion, my eyes started to scan the forest floor. After thirty seconds or so, my strained vision refocused on Calvin. He still had not moved. Moving behind him and using his point as a crosshair, I was able to focus my eyes on two woodcock chicks contrasted against the dark brown of a dead stump 15 feet in front of him.

It took me another couple of minutes before I found the other two chicks — sitting within feet to the left of the first two and hidden by nothing other than their natural camouflage. Bands were placed on all four, the chicks were placed back on the nest and we backed out.

As Calvin and I walked out on lead through the mature popple interspersed with jack pine and autumn olive, I could hear the flutter of wings behind me. I knew the hen was returning to her chicks.

To me, that moment was better than any harvest. I finally realized why Sally took the bulk of her days off from her job in the spring instead of fall, why her hunting fanny pack had more pens than shells and her “best covers” were more indicative of joyful spring days placing hard metal bands on little legs rather than areas she had excellent fall harvests. I finally realized what conservation meant to me and that our little, long-beaked, worm-eating friends need a little help.

This might be my conservation legacy.