American woodcock migration maps resemble an airline’s route map for the eastern United States; these birds love to move. Like an airplane, woodcock need proper places to land in every state they visit. The Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society (RGS & AWS) provides its local chapters with the resources and professional expertise needed to foster habitat for these migratory birds. Regional chapters, like the newly assembled Jersey Shore chapter of the AWS, provide local knowledge and connections needed on the ground.
American woodcock are special birds. Aldo Leopold, a founder of conservation and game management, wrote, “The woodcock is a living refutation of the theory that the utility of a game bird is to serve as a target, or to pose gracefully on a slice of toast.” All conservationists “must be sure that, come April, there be no dearth of dancers in the sunset sky.” The sky dances and mysteries of migration attract hunters, birders, and casual nature watchers alike.
Since 2018, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife has participated in the Eastern Woodcock Migratory Research Cooperative Project, of which the RGS & AWS is a key partner. The woodcock population has declined throughout North America, and the study seeks to understand what woodcock experience as they migrate between their northern breeding areas and wintering grounds. In 2018, New Jersey Fish and Wildlife placed small radio-tags on fifteen woodcock (eight males and seven females) that were captured and released on the Cape May peninsula.
American Woodcock on the Coastal Flyway
By April 2019, the project’s researchers discovered that those fifteen woodcock wintered in Cape May and the eastern regions of North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland. During the spring migration northward, the woodcock originally tagged in Cape May were located in Nova Scotia, Cape Cod, Maine, New York, Vermont, and Ontario. The study also reported, “On average it took woodcock 25 days to complete fall migration, using an average of 4.4 stopover sites each and remaining at each site for an average of 5.4 days before continuing migration. On average, it took 29.3 days to complete spring migration, with woodcock using 4.8 stopover sites and remaining at each site for an average of 7.4 days before continuing migration.”
Cape May is particularly attractive to woodcock. In his classic book, “Woodcock”, John Alden Knight wrote, “Perhaps the best-known concentration spot in the coastal lane is Cape May, New Jersey. Located on a peninsula that juts out southward into Delaware Bay, and flanked by marshlands and cultivated fields which are bordered by thick hedgerows, this locality is a natural stopping-off station for birds to gather for food and rest before continuing their journey across the wide expanse of water.”
The Only Game in Town
A fear of losing this crucial habitat motivated Mark Dreyfus to organize the Jersey Shore AWS chapter. Dreyfus, the chairman of the chapter, said “When you look at the numbers of woodcock, you see they’re going down every year. If we don’t take hold of the situation, they could be gone.” Dreyfus rallied the chapter’s core members, including Rick Taglang, Bob Gelder, Ron Granai, and Tracey & Will Johnson, to the cause. Together they will focus on fundraising and working with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife to develop projects designed to build and protect habitat for woodcock from Monmouth County down to Cape May.
On July 17, 2019, the New Jersey Fish and Game Council voted to close the ruffed grouse hunting season. New Jersey Fish and Wildlife determined that the declining population of ruffed grouse was too small to support legal hunting. Unless the trend of decline is reversed, American woodcock will be the only wild, upland game in New Jersey for the foreseeable future.
Dreyfus has been chasing woodcock in New Jersey for twenty years. During that time, he made connections with other hunters by training his Brittanys with NAVHDA and by volunteering for projects to clear singing grounds for woodcock. He has built relationships at New Jersey Fish and Wildlife, but, according to Dreyfus, “Once you have the support of RGS & AWS, you’re legit at a higher level.” Having the strength of the RGS & AWS allows volunteers to be more effective. Dreyfus said, “You can really get things done when you have three components working together: Fish and Wildlife, volunteers, and the RGS & AWS.”
The RGS & AWS has a fundraising framework that many local conservation groups lack. Joe Levesque, the RGS & AWS regional director for the Northeast, hopes to assist the chapter in fundraising and unite local conservationists through coordinated efforts with state and federal agencies to build habitat for not just woodcock, but many other species, too. Going forward, Levesque will be organizing events like woodcock walks and participating in the many birding festivals in Cape May County. According to Levesque, local chapters like the Jersey Shore chapter are important not just for local habitat, but for all east coast woodcock enthusiasts. He said, “My birds are New Jersey’s birds as well. Birds that were in New Jersey last week are now in Rhode Island and will be in my state of New Hampshire the week after that.”
When woodcock are in Cape May, they have a dedicated host in Tracey Johnson, the Jersey Shore chapter’s co-chairperson for habitat. Johnson lives near the Cape May Bird Observatory, a research and education center sponsored by the New Jersey Audubon Society. She got into hunting woodcock after getting her first pointing dog, a Vizsla, twelve years ago. Training her dog led to Johnson becoming “obsessed with woodcock” and eager to be a steward for them.
Johnson’s proximity to the observatory is in some ways a metaphor for the RGS & AWS goal to unite all bird lovers, not just hunters, in a long term strategic plan to keep the New Jersey coastal flyway an inhabitable place for migratory birds.