Hunting for answers on forest bird decline

WARBA, Minn. — In a dense forest of young alder, aspen and maple trees north of town, Debbie Petersen hollered for her dog, Riley, to slow down.

Debbie Petersen holds a woodcock chick out for her dog Riley to sniff after finding a nest in Warba, Minnesota, Saturday, June 1.

Debbie Petersen holds a woodcock chick out for her dog Riley to sniff after finding a nest in Warba, Minnesota, Saturday, June 1.

A woodcock hen sits still on her nest Saturday, June 1.

A woodcock hen sits still on her nest Saturday, June 1.

Debbie Petersen holds a woodcock egg in her hand, a sign the birds are near, in Warba, Minnesota, Saturday, June 1.

Debbie Petersen holds a woodcock egg in her hand, a sign the birds are near, in Warba, Minnesota, Saturday, June 1.

Debbie Petersen holds a three-week-old woodcock chick after fitting the bird with a tiny radio transmitter in Warba, Minnesota, Saturday, June 1.

Debbie Petersen holds a three-week-old woodcock chick after fitting the bird with a tiny radio transmitter in Warba, Minnesota, Saturday, June 1.

She didn’t want him to stomp on any baby woodcock chicks, the “little puffballs’’ as she calls them, the reasons we were here.

“Easy!” Petersen bellowed in a voice used only by hunters trying to get through to their dogs. “Whoa! Slow down!”

Riley, a smart-nosed Gordon setter pointing dog, complied. And soon he was off again, at a slower pace, sniffing the air for any sign of woodcock. It didn't take long until he was locked-up on point.

One woodcock flushed left, another right, and Riley held tight as he was trained. As I looked down at my left foot, trying not to squish any puffballs, there was a third woodcock just inches away, under a fern, perfectly still and perfectly camouflaged among last year’s brown leaves on the ground.

Most of the chicks Petersen and Riley were finding were too small to fly even a little. But these birds were a few days older and managing to get away.

“Stay still; don’t move,’’ Petersen ordered as she crept toward the little bird from behind. “I’m going to try for a hand-grab.”

Spring hunting

It’s not often that you get to hunt woodcock, or anything else for that matter, in June. Yet here Petersen was handling her handsome bird dog in the spring woods, lush with new green foliage and loaded with ticks and mosquitoes.

But the goal wasn’t to bag woodcock for a casserole dinner. Instead, it was to find mother woodcock hens (that was Riley’s job) and find their nests of eggs, or their newly hatched chicks, usually within a few feet of where the mom flew off. Then Petersen would grab the chicks, pinch tiny identification bands on their legs and then weigh and measure the puffballs and log the data.

But it was the next step that may be the most important to the future of woodcock, which have been declining in numbers across North America for decades. Petersen fitted each chick with a tiny radio transmitter that would send signals to nearby antennas showing exactly where the little birds were every 5 seconds for the next month or so before the tiny batteries wear out. The transmitter, with an antenna the size of a human hair, is designed to deteriorate and fall off the chick after a few weeks. 

For full article, go to: Wadena PJ

Source, image(s), credits & more: Wadena PJ | John Myers / Forum News Service | AllAboutBirds