Unlike the advice the soothsayer gave Caesar to Beware the Ides of March and stay home, in modern times, the bird dog owner in Northern states, from Minnesota to Maine, should welcome the month of March. Weather permitting, March means the return of the American woodcock from their wintering grounds in the Southern United States. And that means dog training time.
Before we discuss the benefits of the return of the woodcock in March, let’s take a closer look at this treasured game bird. This brown mottled bird is wonderfully camouflaged against the leaf littered forest floor. Short-legged, the bird enjoys young forests and shrubby fields. With its long bill, it probes the ground for earthworms so damp or wet ground is important. In the springtime, the males show-off to the girls by giving a call (a peent) and presenting a dazzling theatrical aerial performance.
For the pointing dog owner, the spring woodcock migration provides an excellent opportunity to work your dog on a wild bird that holds well for the point. There is usually a warm-up period of about one to two weeks when the birds begin showing in the North. There will then be a ten- day to two- week period when the migration is very heavy. And then it will taper off and often run well into April. That migration cycle is very weather dependent. If the winter has produced a heavy cover of snow, then the migration may be delayed two to three weeks. This was the case in the winter of 2014 and 2015. As your author writes this column, the 2016 winter has been fairly mild. If this weather pattern continues, we’ll have woodcock arriving by the middle of March…or maybe sooner.
There are a few differences in hunting for woodcock in the fall and training your dogs on the spring migration. The first, of course, is that woodcock are not legal game in the spring. And many states require a permit to train on wild game birds during off-season.
Another difference is that in the fall you’ll have woodcock covers in which you’ll regularly find birds. In the spring, not only will you find birds in those valued fall covers, but practically any place with just a smidgeon of cover. You may find spring woodcock in an industrial park with modest strips of trees and shrubs. There is a small strip of trees and brush between my house and my neighbor’s home. You’ll never find a woodcock in that strip in the fall; however, there will be at least one bird in that small strip every day for at least one week during the spring migration.
Since spring dog work on woodcock is strictly a training exercise, consider using a check-cord. If your dog has been inactive on birds for two or three months, it’s smart to start with a little reminder that being steady on your birds is important. A check-cord will deliver that reminder. If your dog is rock-solid to the “whoa” command, then you may not need a check-cord. Also, be sure to have a starter’s pistol or a .22 caliber pistol with you; loaded with blanks. When your dog performs well, reward the dog with a shot when the bird flushes. If you’ve not broke your dog to both the flush and the shot, that check-cord will really be helpful when shooting.
When the spring migration is at its peak, it’s very easy to have ten finds in 45 minutes. Although the action may be hectic, try to account for where the birds have flown. Try not to follow-up on a spring bird. They’re travel tired and want to get to their spring mating grounds. We want them to be healthy, have a large brood and provide great sport in the fall.
Ignore the Ides of March warning and have fun with your pointing dog and the spring woodcock migration.
Paul Fuller is host of the Bird Dogs Afield TV program. Paul’s website is www.birddogsafield.com.