Tracking “Timberdoodles”

By Casey Rucker and Cindy Ellis

Our vote was For the Birds!  On Saturday, July 20, the WVHC Board of Directors voted to sponsor several tracking transmitters for migration research use with American Woodcock in Canaan Valley.  We join the Friends of the 500th—the citizen support group for the wildlife refuge in Tucker County—in this venture.  We are especially pleased to make this donation in view of the work of one of our founders, Joe Rieffenberger, on behalf of these interesting birds.

One source recognized Joe:

“The publication American Woodcock and Common Snipe Research and Management (1969) grew out of the research, as did American Woodcock in West Virginia by Robert C. Kletzly (1976). Early work was done by Kletzly, William Goudy, and Joseph Rieffenberger. Rieffenberger developed a night-lighting technique for capturing woodcock, based on using battery-powered, handheld spotlights and a 3-foot-diameter hand net; this technique is now widely used to catch woodcock for banding and for fitting with radio-transmitters.  To read more about it, go to

Why Canaan?

One reason for the establishment of Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge was its importance as breeding habitat for the American Woodcock. This bird’s population has been decreasing throughout its range, and it has become the focus of joint efforts among many organizations to stem or reverse the declines. Much remains to be learned about woodcock, however, before informed judgments can be made on the best practices to help conserve this bird.

Who is studying?

One avenue of research has been undertaken by the Eastern Woodcock Migration Research Cooperative, an international collaboration among governmental agencies and non-governmental organizations. Partners include the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Geological Survey, Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Ruffed Grouse Society, and others including a number of state agencies. Research coordinated by the University of Maine began in fall 2017 when six American Woodcock were fitted with satellite transmitters in Maine in advance of fall migration.

How does tracking happen?

In order to track American Woodcock movements in migration, birds are fitted with GPS transmitters that are also equipped with Platform Transmitter Terminals, or PTTs. The GPS component of the transmitter collects location data, while the PTTs sends the location data to satellites so that individuals’ movements can be tracked in near real time.

What is learned?

The information gained from the transmitters affords greater understanding of the timing of movements, duration and location of stopovers, and the habitats used by American Woodcock in migration. Because the transmitters also let researchers know whether a bird continues to live, they yield important data about individual survival during a season’s migration. Marking birds in both northern and southern breeding areas will also assist in understanding different migration strategies for birds who breed at different latitudes. These data, combined with information from many other sources, are ultimately intended to enable conservationists to employ a full-annual-cycle population model for the species. More information about the project can be found at

Why now? 

Our organization’s support helps the Friends of the 500th group to provide the first opportunity for the Eastern Woodcock Migration Research Cooperative to mark American Woodcocks in West Virginia. This October, an expert will visit Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge to capture individuals in mist nets. Instead of only receiving a leg band, PinPoint Argos 75 transmitters will be attached by harnesses to at least five individuals. The transmitters include batteries to power the transmission, yet the units only weigh between four and seven grams. After that the transmissions will be monitored to measure the movements of the birds as well as whether they survive their fall journey.

This project could not have been undertaken without the partnership of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the refuge in providing additional funding as well as support for the on-site work in October.  In the 21stcentury, conservation is understood more and more clearly to require collaborative efforts among many partners.

Stay tuned this fall as information beams skyward from our Canaan Valley woodcocks, and together we unravel a few more mysteries of the ancient ritual of migration.