Back in the late 1970s, a young graduate student from the local state college called. It was spring and he was studying woodcock north of campus amongst the alder and popple growing wild on the edge of town. “I was told you’re affiliated with the Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS).” His name was Dan and he asked, “I’m in need of $75 for supplies for my woodcock research project and wondered if your chapter could help me out?”
At the time, I was chairman of the local RGS chapter and a call the next day to the CEO at RGS headquarters in Pennsylvania was greeted with a chuckle and a definite, “The check is in the mail.” The CEO was Sam Pursglove. Young Dan’s last name was Dessecker. And as you now know, he continued on to a long, distinguished career at RGS.
I tagged along with Dan in those days while he banded male woodcock on singing grounds north of campus. He showed me how to use ground funnel traps and mist nets to capture the birds. We banded and released several and I was hooked. That was 40 years ago and to this day, I still band woodcock every spring.
“To band a bird is to hold a ticket in a great lottery.”* So said Aldo Leopold, who introduced the world to banding chickadees in his classic book A Sand County Almanac. In another essay he penned the most eloquent words ever written about the spring courtship display of male woodcock.
“The drama of the sky dance is enacted nightly on hundreds of farms, the owners of which sigh for entertainment, but harbor the illusion that it is to be sought in theaters. They live on the land, but not by the land.”
Dan and Aldo and a man named Greg Sepik fueled my own desire to band woodcock. Early on my firstborn son, Erik, followed me into that wonderful world inhabited by woodcock. Using mist nets to capture adult birds and our German pointers to locate and band young chicks of the year, we spent many hours each spring in the alder and aspen woods near our rural home in central Wisconsin. Years ago I wrote an essay, A Sky Dance Inspiration, about Erik’s first woodcock banding experience. A portion of that piece reads:
We never saw him enter the singing ground. Arriving undetected, a nasal “peent” is what gave him away. It was my 7-year-old son Erik, who heard the male woodcock first.
“Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter. Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy.”
The woodcock danced for us twice before it flew into a mist net set strategically in its flight path. Together, we ran to the net from our hiding place in the brush and while I slowly untangled the bird from the nylon netting, my young son watched intently. Once freed, a small aluminum band was placed on his leg, followed by measurements of its beak and outer primary feathers. As I finished the necessary banding duties, Erik patiently waited by my side, knowing the best was yet to come. Cradled in his hands, he gently kissed the bird’s forehead, pointed it away from the net and released it into the twilight.
Erik went on to earn his undergraduate degree in wildlife management at the local university, a masters at the University of Rhode Island, and finally his PhD at the University of Nevada. Today, he teaches Wildlife Ecology at the University of Maine in Orono. That is where the road to Moosehorn came to pass. You see, Erik’s current research is in the news, online and the subject of this link to woodcockmigration.org.
On a visit to Maine last year, Erik took me to the Moosehorn National Wildlife Area where Greg Sepik implemented a woodcock management program that attracted national attention in the 1980s and 90s. Because of Sepik’s studies of the bird’s natural habitat, the woodcock program still flourishes at the refuge. These days, Erik continues woodcock research there by bringing his students and graduate studies to the refuge.
But his woodcock banding and research has expanded to include multiple states and Canadian provinces, and a long list of partnering agencies by way of the Eastern Woodcock Migration Research Cooperative.
To hear the rest of the story and learn more about Erik’s research that the American Woodcock Society helps to fund: Tune in to episode 51 of the Project Upland Podcast