Canaan Valley Wildlife Refuge Woodcock Project

By LeJay Graffious

“There goes one!” Zach calls out.   The nightly crepuscular flight of the American Woodcock had begun.  The team had high expectations of trapping seven timberdoodles to band and install GPS transmitters.   The core team was Zachary McCraken, Jackie Burns and LeJay Graffious.   The team was assembled by Canaan Valley Wildlife Refuge (CVWR) Biologist, Dawn Washington.    Zach, an AmeriCorps member assigned to the refuge via American Conservation Experience (ACE) program, was point-man for the project.    Jackie is a retired education specialist for the refuge and experienced in extracting birds from nets.   LeJay Graffious is a director of the Old Hemlock Foundation and the licensed bird bander for the project.     

The team and two volunteers met on Freeland Road around 3 o’clock to set up twelve 12 meter mist nets.    Anticipation was high as we waited for the hour after sunset to pass to check the nets, but the net check only produced one Hermit Thrush.    

Thus began the CVWR involvement in The Eastern Woodcock Migration Research Cooperative.  This international collaborative is interested in understanding migratory ecology for the American Woodcock.  The project’s coordination is provided by the University of Maine, and involves partners from eleven eastern states and three eastern providences of Canada.    The cooperative’s objectives are determining:

  • when woodcock initiate migration 
  • how long it takes individuals to complete migration
  • survival during migration
  • stopover sites where woodcock rest and refuel during migration. 

A recent study in the journal Science reports North America has lost one in four birds during the past 50 years and 14% in the last decade alone.   Woodcock are not immune to this disappointing downward trend. Studies show they are decreasing by 1.1% per year.    Woodcock are iconic to Canaan Valley and the logo for Friends of the 500th.  We are fortunate for the CVWR to protect land from development and to have a refuge staff interested in protecting the young succession forests which are the habitat of these upland shorebirds.  Hunters in the valley seek this gamebird in the open areas under hawthorns and aspen coppice.   According to Cornell’s,  

Woodcocks nest in young, shrubby, deciduous forests, old fields, and mixed forest-agricultural-urban areas across the eastern United States and southern Canada. They display in forest openings and old fields in the springtime, and they often use clearings for roosting in the summer. On the western edge of their range, they may depend on moist, wooded riverside areas and wet meadows in young woodlands. Woodcocks spend the winter in similar habitats in the southern part of breeding range, also moving into additional wintering habitat in Texas and on the southern edges of the Gulf States.

Because of their economic valve as a game bird, they become an umbrella species for many other forest birds that depend on young forests.   Every time an acre of mature forest is removed the resulting succession is critical habitat for many species such as whip-poor-wills, chestnut-sided warblers and wood thrushes.   The value of these shrubby forests deserves more attention than can be given in this newsletter article.    

Dawn Washington recognized the need to research the woodcock in Canaan Valley and initiated this project.    Working with Casey Ruckers they began fund raising to purchase the $1800 GPS transmitter for each captured bird.   Funds came from gifts of the WV Highlands Conservancy, the Old Hemlock Foundation, Walt Lesser and others.    With the funds for five transmitters, she joined the cooperative.   Dawn had arranged for a licensed bander to come to WV, trap, band and install the transmitters.    When the bander could not come, she contacted Jackie Burns who has contacts with the Allegheny Front Migration Observatory on Dolly Sods and the Old Hemlock Bird Observatory in Bruceton Mills, WV.   

As a director of the Old Hemlock Foundation (OHF), little did I know that I would become so fully involved in the project!   When I saw Casey’s plea for funds, I worked with the other directors to donate.  When a need for a bander became apparent, Jackie asked me if I were interested.    I jumped at the opportunity.    The OHF’s mission is to promote and preserve the legacy of George Bird Evans and his wife, Kay.    George wrote a well-known hunting book entitled Grouse & Woodcock of the Blackwater/Canaan.   So this project ties directly to our mission.   As a hunter over Old Hemlock setters and a licensed bird bander, the project was of high interest to me.  

In order to move the project forward several activities needed to be completed first and the timeline was short since this was early September and the project requires native birds, not migrants.   The first step was for the core team to travel to the Niagara Falls area to meet Alex Fish, representative to the University of Maine, to be taught the capturing techniques and proper installation of the GPS transmitters.   After one night there working with the New York State biologists and Alex, we moved to Hemlock, NY to meet other biologists from New York and Pennsylvania.    

There we had experience setting the nets, extracting birds, using dip nets to trap roosting birds and all the banding collection techniques including putting on the electronic backpack.    Nets were set in the open fields where strips were mowed in the goldenrod fields.   These were in place prior to sunset and then checked an hour after sunset.   Woodcock roost in the open areas of these fields.   The flight from the young forest is crepuscular flight, sometimes called “dusking.”   

After the nets were checked, any caught birds were processed.    The bird was assigned a nine digit band number from the US Geological Survey Banding Lab.    Now this bird had an identity to which we recorded the data of the GPS Tag ID number, the bander, the bird’s sex, age, weight, bill length, tarsus length, leg length and the wing chord.    In addition one secondary wing feather was collect for dna studies.    

After the initial flight, the biologists would scan the fields with spot lights and landing nets looking for roosting ‘cock.    During our training both Zach and Jackie were successful in trapping a spotlighted bird.  

Even though I am a licensed bird bander for birds larger than a hummingbird to an eagle, gamebirds were excluded.   I had to apply to both federal and state agencies to receive my permits.   With such a short time line, I was worried, but the director the banding lab, Bruce Peterjohn, and Barb Sargent of the WV DNR were very helpful in moving though the bureaucratic paperwork.    Everything moving along I needed a different size mesh for the misting net with these larger birds than my usual passerines.    The other directors of the OHF help fund the $1500 needed.    The CVWR purchased the landing nets.   The national Ruffed Grouse Society added to our GPS purchase to bring us to a total of seven GPS tags to install.     All we needed now were seven healthy American Woodcock. 

Dawn arranged for some strips to be mowed in areas were woodcock were seen or heard on spring surveys.    Zach and some other volunteers did some reconnaissance looking for dusking birds. 

We decided our first attempt would be off Freeland Road on October 14.    We saw five of our target birds but had no success in capturing.    The next day we set up off A-Frame.   We saw a few birds but had no captures.    October 16 we had hopes of our first bird off Cortland Road but rain damped our efforts.   So what I had anticipated was a few days to capture seven woodcock was being questioned.   

Our next attempt was on October 21 and we decided to return to Cortland.   That evening we caught our first and second bird.    The first was during the crepuscular flight.   The second was spot-lighted and netted by Daryl Johnson.    Both birds brought smiles to the crew.    

Our next effort was October 21 – 24 when we were able to install a third transmitter.  A  fourth bird was netted on the 23rd but was in so poor a condition that I decided not to put it through the rigors of  data collection and it was released with only a band.    The last banding effort was on October 29 again on Cortland.   We mist netted our fifth bird and installed our fourth transmitter.     

The conventional method of capturing in the fall is mist nets and landing nets.   In the spring, bird dogs are used to locate and net birds.    I was interested if this could be done in the fall.   Andy Ammann, PhD of Michigan DNR published a book, A Guide to Capturing and Banding American Woodcock Using Pointing Dogs.   After studying his methods, I thought after we exhausted the conventional ways and using Dawn’s permission we would try landing net over my English setter, Mountain Laurel.   She could find the birds, but our inexperience with landing nets were ineffective both at night and during the day the attempts.    

Our project seeks to better understand American Woodcock in Canaan and where our woodcock migrate.   The aggregation of our data with others in eastern US will help with pieces of the puzzle of woodcock migration and areas that need to be protected and managed.    We were able to mark five of Canaan’s birds with satellite transmitters.   The markers weigh between 4 and 7 grams and will transmit data at pre-set intervals with status and location.    You can follow the annual progress from the Eastern Woodcock migration research cooperative on their website,  

As with any worthy project it takes a community of individuals.   The support of Ron Holis, CVWR superintendent, was critical.   Dawn Washington’s leadership and organizational skills got the project moving and a reality.    The following volunteers provided various levels of support: Brandon Iddings
Julia Portmann, Zachary McCracken, Mike Anderson, Scott Wilson, Walt Lesser, Herb Myers, Jackie Burns, Dawn Washington, Daryl Johnson, Matthew Boarman, Cindy Joseph, Jeanne Odom and Thomas Woods.   Kudos to Zachary McCracken who was the project’s point-man and coordinated the equipment and volunteers.    Of course, with the support of the members of the Friends of the 500th much valuable citizen science data is added to the natural history on the valley and how it is part of the total fabric of the western hemisphere’s natural world.     Our plan is to continue this project in the spring when the timberdoodles return to the Land of Canaan.