TAMARAC NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Minn. — Donna Dustin knew the woodcock was there — somewhere — hunkered down in the brush, most likely with eggs or a brood of chicks.
Knowing and finding, though, are two different things when it comes to woodcock.
Dustin, of Detroit Lakes, Minn., and her 2-year-old small Munsterlander, Kira, a German versatile breed, had flushed the bird earlier in the morning, and Dustin had marked the spot with an orange ribbon.
Judging by the way the woodcock looked and acted on the ground, with its wings spread out like it was offering shelter, Dustin assumed the bird was a hen on a nest.
Now she was back, scouring the brush hoping to find the bird and band it.
“When we find a hen that looks like she’s on a nest, if she hasn’t flushed already, the best thing to do is leave for a little while and come back like this,” Dustin said. “If it’s a new nest and you flush her, she will often abandon that nest. The longer she’s been sitting there, the less likely she’ll leave, but it’s always a risk.”
A fisheries biologist by trade, Dustin oversees Minnesota’s woodcock banding program, a volunteer-driven effort launched in 1993 to learn more about the odd-looking migratory birds with long bills and a knack for blending into their woodland surroundings.
Dustin estimates she spends about 100 hours every spring as a volunteer bander, busting through brush and putting up with ticks in her hunt for the difficult-to-see birds.
“It depends on the season, but I probably average 15 to 20 days,” Dustin said. “I burn up a lot of my vacation time.”
Dogs are crucial
Because woodcock — or “timberdoodles,” as they’re often called–are masters of camouflage and concealment, licensed volunteer banders such as Dustin and Kyle Kessler rely on hunting dogs to find the birds.
Kessler, who lives near the refuge north of Detroit Lakes, had joined Dustin on this late April woodcock quest along with his 4-year-old wirehaired pointing griffon, Ammo.
The opportunity to work their dogs in the name of research is a big part of the attraction, Dustin and Kessler say.
“Catch and release hunting is what it’s like,” Dustin said. “It’s a rush. If I had to pick hunting in the fall or this in the spring, I would pick this in a heartbeat. Unless something goes wrong, you don’t have that moment of mixed feelings where you killed this beautiful bird.”
Dustin and Kessler are among about 20 volunteers across Minnesota with federal permits to band woodcock, which as migratory birds are regulated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A New Hampshire native, Dustin says she got her start banding woodcock under the tutelage of Earl Johnson, a former wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Detroit Lakes who worked in the same building.
“When I moved to town in 1998, I wanted to get more into training dogs, and I wanted my dog to have a job to do,” Dustin said.
Johnson helped Dustin find an English setter, and that was her start with pointing dogs. When Johnson retired, Dustin eventually took over the state’s banding program.
“Earl was kind of my mentor from the beginning,” she said. “The first spring I was there, he told me about woodcock banding and, of course, I thought that sounded pretty cool, and so he took me out a few times.”
Dustin says the English setter didn’t work out as a woodcock dog, but small Munsterlanders have proven to be very adept at finding the birds. Her first small Munsterlander, Annie, died last October at age 12½, and Kira now is learning the ropes.
“She’s showing the potential to be even better, but I think the breed is just suited for this,” Dustin said. “They’re really strong trackers and so they’ll sort of switch back and forth between sniffing the air and then following a track on the ground.”
Flushing the hen
Trying to find the woodcock Dustin had spotted earlier didn’t go quite according to plan when Kira flushed the bird and took off in pursuit across a clearing. Still, Dustin and Kessler managed to find four tiny chicks concealed in the grass.
Woodcock never lay more than four eggs, so they knew they had found the entire brood.
Kessler, who works at BTD Industries in Detroit Lakes, says he got started banding woodcock through a relative and has been licensed for two years; this is his third season.
Volunteers must complete a weekend training session and spend at least one season with an experienced bander before the federal Bird Banding Laboratory will issue a permit.
“Once I got hooked, it’s pretty addicting to do this time of year,” Kessler said. “Being out in the woods and working with dogs is the main thing. (Woodcock) are tough to see. You can stare at a hen all day and not see it or be able to make out the shape.”
Ideally, Kessler says, they’ll catch and band adult birds, but it’s more common to band chicks because they’re easier to catch once located.
“I can have a dog pointing right at the hen and sometimes you just can’t make them out, and all of a sudden they’ll just bust out right in front of you,” Kessler said.
The chicks are born with legs and feet big enough to accommodate the bands even as adult birds, Dustin said.
“If your dog gets a good point on a hen, some hens are so reluctant to leave those chicks that you can actually lower a net over her and catch her and band her, too,” Dustin said. “With me anyway, that’s the exception rather than the rule. Even when everything else works out right, there’ll be sticks and twigs in the way, and you can’t maneuver the net or she just skitters out from underneath as soon as you kind of make your move, and so catching a hen is a big deal.”
Dustin says she once caught a hen she’d banded the previous year as a chick. In the miraculous way of nature, the hen had migrated south, perhaps to Louisiana or the Texas Gulf Coast, and found her way back to northwest Minnesota.
“I had put the band on her when she was 1 day old — 50 yards away from where I found her with four chicks the next year,” Dustin said.
After rounding up the four chicks and putting them in a mesh sack, Dustin opened the bands and jotted down the numbers in a notebook for reference.
Woodcock chicks are born with 14 millimeter beaks that grow 2 millimeters a day for the first two weeks. Dustin measured the beaks at 15 millimeters, which told her the chicks probably had been born the previous night.
Woodcock hens lay one egg a day, but they don’t begin the 21-day incubation period until all four eggs are hatched.
“They build a little bit of a nest, but it’s basically just a little bowl in the ground,” Dustin said.
The hen that flushed likely was watching the banding process, Dustin said, and so she and Kessler wasted no time returning the chicks to the forest floor, where they instantly blended in with their surroundings.
The chicks can fly after about 25 days.
“This fuzzy stage they’re in now is when they’re most vulnerable, but the mother does a pretty darn good job of keeping them covered,” Dustin said.
Most years, woodcock eggs don’t hatch until early May, but this year Dustin already had banded 12 chicks, including the four she and Kessler found on this day. Her best spring, she says, she banded 93 birds.
“You really have to be out here looking — both to find birds and to get any good at it,” Dustin said. “And then the other thing is, the more time you spend looking, the more broods you find. You get your spots that have been productive and you keep going back to those and that makes it a lot more productive than when you’re first learning.”
Two population segments
The woodcock that nest in Minnesota are part of a population that winters in Louisiana and the Texas Gulf Coast, Dustin said. Birds in the eastern U.S. migrate to Mississippi, Florida and Georgia.
Minnesota is on the western fringe of woodcock range, Dustin says, although a few birds migrate through North Dakota. Mike Szymanski, migratory game bird supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, said most of the state’s woodcock nesting occurs along rivers in the far eastern part of the state, the Sheyenne grasslands and the Turtle Mountains.
Dustin says Minnesota woodcock are doing better than birds in other parts of the country because of timber cutting that in turn creates the brushy, new-growth forest habitat the birds need to thrive.
“Minnesota is a bit of an anomaly because on the East Coast, the populations have been steadily declining, and the old farm fields have grown up to mature forest,” Dustin said. “The habitat’s just not there the way it was.”
She says there’s room for more volunteers in Minnesota’s banding program, which recorded its 2,000th woodcock last year.
“There’s more dog people and hunters out there that would love this and particularly women,” Dustin said. “I do think there’s probably a lot of women who love the dog training end of it but don’t care so much about the killing, and this is perfect for that.
“It’s important research, and the more people we can get doing it, then the more important research we can do.”
Dustin and Kessler concede woodcock banding is a volunteer labor of love–even if it means getting snapped in the face by twigs and picking ticks, sometimes by the dozens, after a day in the field.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that I just love it,” Dustin said. “It’s that combination of the dog work and the chance to be out and the teamwork to get what you’re looking for.
“Bottom line is that rush when the dog slams on point.”