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Woodcock are on average only 11" long, even if one counts their very long bills, and are propelled by wings that are improbably stubby for an annual migration that takes them from Maine to Louisiana.  They are both a legendary New England upland game bird and, surprisingly, a shorebird albeit one that frequents woodlands habitats.  The male woodcock’s spectacular evening mating flights are a delightful early sign of spring in the rural northeastern US, the Canadian Maritime Provinces and the upper Midwest.  However, over the past forty years, the woodcock population has declined more than 50% in the eastern part of its range.  The male’s distinctive nasal “peent” song and spiraling courtship displays have disappeared from many areas due to the degradation and loss of essential habitat.

Woodcock depend on the Downeast coast’s young hardwood forests and shrublands, old farms reverting to forest, poorly drained alder thickets and forested openings both as migration stopovers and for nesting and brood rearing habitat.  Males need openings for breeding displays and singing, and larger clearings of several acres are important evening roosting sites.  Woodcock probe in moist soils under young trees and shrubs for earthworms which typically make up 80% of their diet.  Seeds, small insects and other invertebrates account for the rest.  Each fall, these unusual-looking birds migrate to their wintering grounds in the southeastern and Gulf Coast states.

Because its climate is moderated by the waters of the Gulf of Maine, coastal Washington County offers some of New England’s most productive woodcock habitat.  Late spring snows are less likely to frustrate nesting near the coast.  And, during the fall migration hard freezes come later allowing the woodcock more time to feed and fatten to be in prime condition to head south.

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One of the facts of woodcock life is that the overstory of alders and brushy shrubs thins over time and once-ideal coverts “age out” making feeding woodcock more vulnerable to avian predators and letting in sunlight that promotes a tangled growth of ground cover.  It is difficult for woodcock to move about and find food when the ground is overgrown. Eventually ideal habitat reverts to mature forest.  Accordingly, woodcock cover constantly needs renewal.

Balancing the needs of species like woodcock for early successional growth with the needs of species that require mature forest is an intriguing conservation challenge for organizations that undertake active habitat management.  Making good decisions about the size, configuration and location of areas to maintain for woodcock habitat and whether or not fires or other natural disturbance regimes are adequate to meet the needs of woodcock requires a local as well as landscape-scale perspective.

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The "Brontosaurus" at work and views of the roosting field during and after cutting.

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With these factors in mind Pleasant River Wildlife Foundation is working on our first woodcock habitat management project in concert with The Northern Forest Woodcock Initiative.  With leadership from the Wildlife Management Institute and the US Fish and Wildlife Service the Initiative is committed to reversing the downward trend of the woodcock population through habitat restoration projects in New England.

During March of 2009 David Look of Jonesport used his excavator fitted out with a “Brontosaurus” head to enhance woodcock habitat on PRWF property on Crowley Island in Addison.  He cleared a roosting field of about 8 acres on the point just south of Bryant’s Island that will be mowed annually and cut a feeding strip of about 1.5 acres nearby.  Additional strips will be cut at five year intervals in suitable feeding cover to establish a rotation of varied age growth.  In addition to the roosting field and feeding strip three small singing grounds with a total area of 2 acres were cleared along the access road.

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As we consider new candidate parcels for protection along the region’s estuaries we will continue to search out high quality woodcock habitats and include their active management and maintenance in our long range plans.

PO Box 154 • Addison • Maine • 04606 • [email protected]