By Frank Jezioro
– Director, West Virginia Division of Natural Resources
It was a typical grey day in Canaan Valley. As I dropped off of the mountain and turned onto the Cortland Road there was a mist in the air that hung heavy on the beech leaves. The clouds were sitting on top of Canaan and Cabin Mountains. As I slowed by the spot where I planned to hunt, I could hear little Snoopy shuffling around in her dog box. Like me, she could sense that we were about to embark on an exciting day in the uplands. This would be the little English Pointer’s first hunt for wild birds. She had performed perfectly the last couple of times on planted quail and now the real test was at hand.
The goldenrod was still standing but the leaves on the trees were 70-80 percent down and visibility should be good. The damp ground and shifting breeze would provide almost perfect scenting conditions. She was squirming and wiggling as I fastened the little bell around her neck. That task accomplished, I dropped two number 8s into the .28 gauge side by side and pointed her into the wind.
The first thing I noticed was three or four “splashes” of “whitewash.” These droppings of the bird are the tell-tale signs that woodcock are present. Immediately, Snoopy began to get birdy and excited. We dropped down over a little rise and Snoopy’s bell fell silent. As I looked over the hill, the sight that excites all hunters greeted me.
There stood little Snoopy, as rigid as a stone statue, staring into a small clump of goldenrod next to a hawthorn tree. I cautioned her with a soft “whoa” and moved a little to the side.
One more step and the ground erupted about 15 feet in front of her with a tiny brown rocket shooting skyward. The bird twisted through the trees and then topped out with a flight heading toward the river. When the barrels covered the bird, I pulled the trigger and the bird folded and plummeted down through a hawthorn. Snoopy raced to the bird, scooped it up and ran back to deliver it to my side. She had passed her test with her first wild bird and I knew that all the hours of training had been well spent.
October Means “The Bird Season”
October ushers in the full hunting season in West Virginia. Some hunters will be after turkeys, some deer and bear with their bows, and some will still be searching the trees for squirrels. But for the hunters with bird dogs October means “the bird season.” When we West Virginians talk about bird hunting, it is about grouse and woodcock.
Until the leaves come down, most of our hunters with bird dogs will be out for woodcock. While woodcock hunters are fewer than grouse hunters, they are a very dedicated group of bird hunters. They hold their little russet colored bird in high esteem.
Woodcock are normally the bird we start our grouse dogs on. They hold well and the dogs seem to enjoy searching the upland and wetland covers for the little bird. Called by many names such as “timber doodle,” many non-hunters simply refer to it as the little brown bird with the long bill. However, to the bird dog people it is an important part of the hunting scene. While we have several areas where there are resident populations of woodcock, our main hunting activity is geared to the migration. Nothing excites the bird hunters more than to hear that “the flights are in.”
When the birds are migrating they will “fall” into select coverts where they normally can find moist soil as 90 percent of their diet is composed of earthworms. When talking about hunting woodcock, the conversation will generally center on hunting in Canaan Valley. Now that the Canaan Valley Refuge has been established, there has been some work done that will benefit woodcock through habitat improvement. While they are a migratory bird, a migratory bird stamp is not required to hunt them. However, the regulation of a plugged gun is in effect if you are using a pump or autoloader. The point is that the gun can’t be capable of holding more than three shells. The birds may be hard to hit, but they are not hard to bring down or kill.
Because of their perfect camouflage coloring, they can be difficult to find once down. Here is where a good retriever is worth its weight in dog food. You may find that the dog likes to hunt for, point and find the down birds, but a few dogs simply refuse to retrieve them.
The West Virginia coverts would be bleak indeed if the little woodcock disappeared. With this in mind, several states have joined into a Woodcock Initiative to promote better habitat for the birds in their nesting grounds, wintering grounds and along their migration route. A day in the October uplands, when the vegetation is on fire with fall colors, when you are following a good dog and listening to the tinkle of the sleigh bell around its neck, is about as good as it gets for our hunters with bird dogs.