"I never saw so many birds in one place," veteran woodcock hunter Arnie Jonathan said after a team of timberdoodles flushed from a patch of thick brush.
These birds, clustered more like bobwhite quail than woodcock, flew into this patch and stymied three hunters and three dogs with their erratic and multidirected flights that sunny October morning during the first week of woodcock season.
Jonathan, recuperating from work-related injuries, and I had not connected for an upland bird run for about three seasons. Then another, more recent injury left him hearty enough for a Safari Club panel discussion and hail enough for walking the dogs, but he took a pass on shooting.
Good thing. The birds were there and the shots came quickly, but the draw of this hunt for Arnie, Rick Couell, purchasing manager at Quaker Boy Game Calls, and I came from a quick view of some bunched-up birds and the always spectacular show of good bird dogs in the field.
Couell brought along his tried and truly reliable Heidi, a 12-year-old German shorthaired pointer who covers brush and open fields like a seasoned champ, yet she moves with the zeal of a mature pup.
Arnie tended to both Finnegan, his own Jack Russell terrier, and Abby, a German shorthaired pointer owned by Dave Stephens of Newfane. Stephens had to tend to business that morning, so Abby went along for a woodcock walk with the other two dogs.
Most pet fanciers might think it odd to run a Jack Russell as a hunting dog, but the "terrier" part of its name became obvious 50 feet into the field. Bred for fox hunting some 200-plus years ago, this Jack Russell worked well running with the big dogs.
When the pointers settled into a scent, Finnegan was right behind Heidi or Abby to check out things. Heidi retrieved the only kill of the morning, and Finnegan was right there to see that Couell had the bird in hand and game pouch before getting back to new scents and searches.
We worked two major patches, but that cluster of six provided most of the action and all of the harvest. In all, the dogs found and flushed 13 birds, which most devoted regulars would consider a good hunt.
For some, overall woodcock numbers might be down, but certain flyways have provided diehard hunters some enjoyable timberdoodle times. A small strip west of the Hudson offers better-than-average 'doodle doings.
Look for open patches -- power and gas line clearings and other brushy fields with small puddle areas -- as likely woodcock migration sites around Western New York. In recent years, Grand Island, Clarence and Boston have been good open-season 'doodle digs.
Woodcock numbers down
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS) surveys indicate woodcock numbers have declined greatly since the 1960s mainly because of habitat loss, said Emilio Rende, Department of Environmental Conservation regional upland game bird biologist, at the Region 9 Allegany office.
"We've seen about a 2.6 percent decline in birds yearly in New York for the period 1968-2006," Rende noted. "But this spring's surveys indicated populations on par with last year." He cooperates with the USF&WS each spring on Singing Ground Surveys, which calculate woodcock presence.
"We travel to known woodcock habitat areas in the spring, during evening hours, stop every quarter mile or so, and listen for peenting, the sound male birds make," he explained.
The male woodcocks fly up, make a high-pitched whistle with their wings, land, and then begin a chirping sound repeatedly to attract females. Jonathan recalls hearing -- and sometimes seeing -- this male behavior before and just at sunrise while out on spring turkey hunts.
The key for hunters was to find good cover and openings where migrating birds move through during the early October to early November season. Good flights may continue across Western New York fields up to the season's end Nov. 4.
Woodcock, classified as a migratory game bird, have a possession limit of three birds daily. Hunters are allowed to use lead shot as well as non-toxic loads.
As always, light loads (Nos. 7 or 8) work fine in a 20- or 28-gauge shotgun with a fairly open choke. Bird flushes occur quickly, and the flights usually are short. Unlike pheasants that range or grouse that dart sideways for cover, a woodcock will dive out of sight -- usually before a hunter can raise the gun and get off a good shot.
Woodcock hunters do not need a federal migratory bird stamp. However, hunters must first register in the Harvest Information Program (HIP) before pursuing this bird species. Register for free at (888) 427-5447 or online by visiting dec.ny.gov/permits/6405.html.