Timberdoodle Quest – Georgia Woodcock Hunting
In a state where quail and grouse garner attention, the woodcock is Georgia’s often-overlooked other upland game bird.
In the Southeast, when a person mentions upland hunting, the bobwhite quail is usually the first, and sometimes only game bird that people think about. The late Charlie Elliott named the bobwhite the “prince of game birds.”
When you go into the Appalachians, the ruffed grouse enters into the conversation, but the lack of timber harvest in the Southern Appalachians has resulted in grouse becoming harder and harder to locate.
The timberdoodle, or American woodcock, is an often abundant upland game bird in parts of Georgia, and it’s often overlooked. Woodcock provide great table fare, and they are a challenging game bird to hunt.
With a little knowledge about this often overlooked upland game bird, you can enjoy this upland hunting experience in areas that do not present many upland hunting opportunities.
When learning about where woodcock might be found, I first focused on the woodcock’s needs.
What do woodcock eat? How do they get water? What type of shelter do they need? In a nutshell, what type of habitat is woodcock woods.
You can tell a lot about what a bird eats by the shape of its bill. A woodcock has a long rounded bill that clues you into their eating style, which is to probe into the ground. A woodcock’s diet is composed mainly of insects with the main source of nutrition being earthworms. Woodcock are found in areas that often have an abundant supply of worms—and soil that allows woodcock to find them. Once the soil freezes, woodcock are forced to migrate since they are not able to probe into the soil for earthworms, or they will face starvation unless the temperatures warm enough for the soil to soften.
The same areas that hold their main food source also are areas with water close by for drinking. Their diet itself also provides them with plenty of water. An earthworm is around 70% water. Water is not really an issue for woodcock and should not be a focus for hunters.
Shelter is very important to woodcock, and I feel it is one of the best ways to narrow down the areas to scout for birds. As you often hear people say when talking about fish, fish live in about 10% of the water, so eliminate the 90% they do not live in. The same can be said for woodcock.
Shelter is a key part of a woodcock’s life because it helps to keep them alive. Some of the main predators of woodcock are hawks and other birds of prey. Woodcock are often found along creek, river and swamp bottoms, or in thick abandoned fields and cutovers that have been timbered and have started to regenerate. Within those areas, woodcock concentrate in areas that have cover that is 2 to 5 feet tall early and late in the day when they are doing their display flights. They spend most of the midday in areas where the canopy is about head high up to 10 feet pushing 20 feet tall. The thicker the cover the better. This provides them with protection from birds of prey and helps to hide them from ground predators. Also, areas that have invasive privet are ideal, but privet makes hunting a challenge.
Woodcock also need protection from the cold and—even down here in the Southeast—from snow. Our soil will usually only freeze for a few days with rare exceptions. Cedars, young pines and privet can keep areas underneath free from snow. This will not only help the woodcock to stay warm but will also keep the ground exposed to make feeding easier. Once the cold weather has passed, the birds will begin to move back into more open areas that might not have as dense cover, or they will make a move farther south.
A great website to track the woodcock migration patterns is www.woodcockmigration.org. They use satellite trackers to follow birds as they move south from their summer areas to their wintering grounds, and then back north. Even though telemetry only covers a small number of birds, it is a very effective way to learn their migration patterns.
It provides much more detail than banding, which a good friend John Seginak did in the 90s with woodcock. You might have seen telemetry technology used to track elk, whitetails, turkey and waterfowl. By studying this woodcock website you will notice areas they like to use as stop-overs, and how long they will stay in these locations. You can also see where wintering areas are located and search for similar areas where you can hunt. I found it interesting to see how small their range is at these stop-overs and wintering areas unless pressured. Just like with other animals tracked with satellites, you can tell woodcock that have been bumped and moved to another nearby area for a period of time, sometimes returning to their wintering grounds, and other times establishing new wintering grounds.
Now that you have eliminated a lot of the areas that typically do not hold woodcock, we need to focus in finding the X. Like scouting for most animals, we need to look for the sign they leave behind.
One of the signs I feel is the easiest to find is their droppings, or what you will hear often referred to as splash. Imagine you are painting something white and have a tarp down to prevent the paint from getting everywhere. When you finish painting, look down at the tarp, and the splash of white paint will be similar to what you see in the woods left behind by a woodcock—with a little gray mixed in.
Woodcock tend to have more watery droppings than say a turkey, and their droppings tend to make more of a splatter pattern that once you see it will be easy to identify and find in the woods. So, much like turkey hunters use droppings to locate gobblers, you can use it to help find the X for woodcock.
Another sign is the probe holes that woodcock leave behind from feeding. I personally have found these harder to find than droppings. They are holes that are about the diameter of a pencil. I usually find these in the more open areas on the edge of the thick habitat. Woodcock stay in thick areas until late in the evening through sunrise to feed and display.
The final sign of a woodcock in the area is not something to look for, but to listen for. Here in the Southeast, some years woodcock will start displaying while it is still hunting season. When woodcock display, they will make a call on the ground that to me sounds like they are saying “ink” every four to five seconds. When they do their display flight, they fly in decreasing diameter circles as they descend back to the ground, all the time making what I would call a twitter call. You can look up these calls on the internet so that you can become more familiar with them. They do not always make these calls in the hunting season, but when they do, you have definitely found the X.
Woodcock will return to the same area every evening and morning. According to John Seginak, who studied woodcock in various areas, they move very little in daylight hours to avoid predators.
People usually hunt woodcock one of two ways. A very popular way to hunt them is with a dog. The same dogs that are used to hunt quail, grouse, pheasants and other upland birds can also be used to hunt woodcock. German shorthair and longhair pointers, English setters and pointers, spaniels and other breeds are often used to hunt woodcock. Often on hunts in the right habitat the dog will point or flush more than one species of upland game birds. The companionship that a dog brings—watching their hunting patterns and seeing them when they catch that scent—can add so much to the hunt for me.
A dog is not always an option for everyone. Some people do not have the space for a dog, the time to train and work with a dog, or the finances to get one. The good thing is that when you have narrowed down the area you intend to hunt, using the above-mentioned strategies you will likely get you some flushes. You might not get as many as with a dog because they will cover much more ground than you will be able to alone, but you still can have opportunities.
The habitat woodcock inhabit makes killing them difficult. The thick cover and quick flushes make locating and shouldering your shotgun quickly a must. The thick and low canopy found in the privet-chocked bottoms results in a lot of flushes where the bird is into or through the privet canopy before the shotgun can be shouldered. Woodcock, no matter the hunting style you choose, can make for a difficult but rewarding hunting experience.
Another good thing about woodcock is some of the habitat management you do for species that are more often targeted, such as deer and turkey, will attract and hold woodcock. We select-cut our land four years ago and that has now paid off with me seeing multiple woodcock this past deer season.
Opening the canopy increases ground cover and that in turn provides shelter for woodcock. Creating new or expanding existing food plots has provided woodcock with more areas to display, especially since the males are territorial with their display areas not often overlapping. We also allowed areas around the food plots to stay thick for deer bedding and security. This provided more of the habitat woodcock desire. So with a little extra work than would already be done for more targeted species, you can also attract woodcock to your hunting areas on private land.
Woodcock also make great table fare. I prepare them much the same as ducks and doves. When dressed, they are smaller than a wood duck but larger than a dove. My favorite recipe is to soak them in a Vidalia onion vinaigrette dressing or a balsamic dressing for 24 hours. I then cook them on a hot grill for two to four minutes, depending on size, to a medium rare. Like other game birds, woodcock take on a very livery taste if overcooked. You can also breast them out and do the traditional jalapeno, cream cheese, bacon-wrapped grilling method. You can also find recipes in your favorite wild game cookbook or on an internet site.
While woodcock might not be as glamorous as bobwhite quail or ruffed grouse, they have their own unique qualities. They might not live in beautiful pine plantations with their native grasses, or be found among mountain vistas. But the bottoms, cutovers and abandoned fields that woodcock call home offer their own unique charm.
If you are up to the challenge, give woodcock hunting a try.
Just be prepared for the frustration of misses and how quick they can get up and gone. But to me those challenges make the reward of a harvest even greater.
Other Articles You Might Enjoy