by Tom Keer
Everyone knows about the five seasons in the Northwoods. There’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Mud. Regular folks grumble about that last one, but not a woodcock hunter. That wet slop is everywhere when one of our favorite migratory birds returns home. When it dries, it’ll be time for courtship and raising a family. That’s when the scientific and hunting communities come together to band birds.
Woodcock banding is hardly a new activity. Pioneering efforts were initiated by Dr. George “Andy” Ammann, Sr., in the 1960s. Ammann was born in Philadelphia and raised in rural New Jersey. His love of birds and nature prompted him to pursue B.A. and M.S. degrees in zoology from the University of Iowa and a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. His two-year career with Michigan’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) was interrupted by his World War II service with the U.S. Army, but after discharge, Ammann returned to the Wolverine State. The upland bird hunter rejoined the FWS to study an often-neglected species, the American woodcock.
Ammann was fascinated by the enigmatic patterns of the woodcock. To learn more about them, he studied their nesting behavior. Ammann attached small, metal bands to the woodcock’s long, spindly legs. The location and likely journey could be identified when a bird was shot and recovered. His progress was slow, mostly because it was hard to find a female bird on a nest. But from his frustration came an idea; what about using bird dogs to find the nesting females?
The scientist began to locate birds with his personal string of English pointers, English setters and Brittany spaniels. The idea worked so well that Ammann wrote a book on the subject. “A Guide to Capturing and Banding American Woodcock Using Pointing Dogs,” first published in 1981 by The Ruffed Grouse Society, describes Ammann’s methods that have been successfully used to band over 40,000 birds in his adopted state of Michigan alone.
Ammann wasn’t the only uplander interested in woodcock research, and other states joined in both official and unofficial research capacities. Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan had the geographical size, concentration of birds and funding available to become states with official woodcock banding programs. Unofficial states, like Maine and most recently Rhode Island, were reliant on funding and work conducted through college and university programs. Colby Slezak, a Master of Science Candidate in the migratory bird lab at the University of Rhode Island, says, “The American woodcock is considered an umbrella species. They inhabit primary- and secondary-growth forests, which, over the years, have declined. That’s been the result of forest maturation and the conversion of open land to sub-developments or business centers. Young forests are vanishing, and with their disappearance goes a critical part of a healthy ecosystem. These areas are home to hundreds of species like woodcock and Ruffed grouse, but also to cottontail rabbits, snowshoe hares, Eastern Towhees, Golden-winged warblers, pollinators and many other animals. Young forests are a critical part of a healthy ecosystem.”
One of the more popular woodcock banding programs is the Minnesota Woodcock Banding Program held at Pineridge Grouse Camp in Remer. Owner Jerry Havel has been hosting the program since 2015. “Our Woodcock Minnesota charter is as a 501(c)(3),” he said. “Our friend Earl Johnson worked as a wildlife biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for nearly 40 years. Earl began a woodcock banding program for the DNR, and over the years, he expanded it with the help of a fellow fisheries biologist, Donna Dustin. Earl retired in 2015, and when he did, he brought his banding program to Pineridge Grouse Camp.”
Havel might have started banding woodcock, but that single event has morphed into lots of other activities. “To band woodcock, you need a broke dog,” Havel said. “Several of us work with new banders to certify their dogs for the program. Sometimes dogs need more work, and to help new banders get there, we offer free, weekly training seminars in the offseason. When we’re not training, we’re working on habitat projects as well as other scientific research. Right now, some of our banding group is working with the University of Kansas to collect woodcock fecal matter. The reason for that study is to determine what local birds eat when they’re not focused on earthworms. The lead professor came to our woodcock banding clinic a few years ago, and that study came out of that. Needless to say, the woodcock in Minnesota have a lot of friends, not just in our state, but from around the country, too.”
Bailey Petersen is one of those friends, and she has been banding at Pineridge Grouse Camp since 2016. “My day job is as the Assistant Area Wildlife Manager for the Two Harbors Area with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).” she said. “While I mostly work with foresters on designing timber sales from a wildlife perspective, my first post college job was as a woodcock research technician for the University of Minnesota. I worked a number of singing-ground surveys and mist-netting adult woodcock, and that’s where I became fascinated with the bird. Earl Johnson was running a woodcock banding program for Minnesota, one he modeled off of the original Michigan banding program. It was a DNR-sponsored activity for a long time, but since Earl retired, we’re now working with Jerry at Pineridge.”
To get involved in banding, Petersen needed more dogs. “At the time, my husband A.J. and I were doing a lot of waterfowling,” she said. “We had a golden retriever, and while he was excellent for hunting, he wasn’t going to be a fit for banding.” Bailey was introduced to small Munsterlanders by a coworker and fellow woodcock bander. “When she was broke, I brought her to be certified as a banding dog and started working with the project. You can never have enough bird dogs, and I’m bringing along my third one, another English setter from the U.P.’s Paint River Llewellin’s. Banding with dogs is a lot of fun. In a way it’s sort of like catch-and-release bird hunting.”
Every year, waterfowlers band upwards of 100,000 ducks and geese. In Michigan, the home of woodcock banding, 100 participants will band over 2,000 birds. The Pineridge program has grown to 30 permitted participants and is looking to expand. “We’re always looking for new banders,” Petersen said. “The more birds we band the more research we gather. Our three-day workshop is based on historical hatch data and is held at the camp in mid-May. We watch for the snow to melt, for the birds to return and then to find initial nests. We’ll then wait for the 21-day incubation period and then head into the woods. All new banders are accompanied by a mentor. There’s an entire process of determining correct weather conditions and time of day, finding broods with hens and chicks, taking GPS coordinates and flagging and photographing the area and the nest, to the actual banding and beak measuring process. None of the work is difficult to do, but it’s important to learn from a mentor who’s skilled in the techniques. There’s a lot of camaraderie among the banders, it’s a lot of fun for the dogs, and it’s a great way to give back to a bird we all love. There’s a sign-up section on the Pineridge Grouse Camp website, so I hope more folks will come join us next year.”
Information from banded birds recovered by hunters is reported to the National Bird Banding Laboratory in Maryland. There, scientists seek to understand breeding patterns, wintering distribution, migratory routes, behavior and survival. That data helps set habitat conservation goals as well as hunting regulations. And while that information is helpful for any species, it’s critical for enigmatic birds like the transient woodcock.
In for a penny, in for a pound, and that’s what makes Stephen Faust, a full-time grouse and woodcock guide and trainer load up his string of Gordon setters, drive 20 hours north and band woodcock through the Pine Ridge Grouse Camp program. “I read an article by Dr. Ammann in the mid-1990s, and that piece inspired me to participate,” he said. “My home state doesn’t band birds, so I had to find one that did. “What I like about banding birds is the excitement of seeing the woodcock chicks. Finding the nest with the dogs is fun, but banding isn’t always easy. Nesting birds don’t put off a lot of scent, so it can be somewhat difficult. Banders need to be quick to remove a hen, band them and return them to the nest. To reduce impact on birds and chicks, dogs need to be broke. Spring banding programs are a great way to run dogs all in the name of science. I feel good about helping to provide research to increase bird populations for future generations as well.”