We were working our way back toward the truck after a short trek around a southern Michigan state game area when Sissy, one of Chuck Riley’s German shorthairs, bounded across a creek and locked up on point. Riley hollered at her to leave it. No dice.
“She always pulls that,” he said.
Neither of us was dressed to ford the creek, but I worked my way downstream until I found a spot that was shallow enough that the soakers shouldn’t be too bad. I ran across. When I came up on Sissy, she was pointing straight at Riley across the creek.
A couple of steps later, a woodcock burst from the thick stuff, flew right at Riley, then made a hard 90 down the creek. Riley wheeled and shot but failed to connect.
It was the second bird we’d missed; 15 minutes earlier I’d missed a bird that Ray Charles should have been able to kill.
That’s the way it goes sometimes; we’d gone four-for-four shooting up to that point, killing four of the five birds that we’d moved. The first flush was wild, well ahead of the dogs, in a place where neither of us could squeeze off a round.
We’d put up seven woodcock (and one wild-as-a-joker grouse) in a couple hours of tromping around a place where most Michigan upland bird hunters wouldn’t have bothered.
Most Michigan hunters consider woodcock a bird of the northern aspen forests. Riley chuckles at that.
“That’s where people have the wrong impression,” says Riley, a retired Department of Environmental Quality employee who lives in Lansing. “We shoot a lot of woodcock within 50 miles of home. A lot.”
Riley, an avid bird hunter who cooperates with the feds on the annual Woodcock Wing Bee, says he sent in 47 wings last year, at least 35 of which were killed well south of Clare.
You might not think it, as aspen is in pretty short supply in southern Michigan. But you don’t have to have aspen forests to have woodcock.
“We find them in alders, dogwood, willow–even some along the edges of oaks where swamps meet the hardwoods,” he said. “Sometimes they’re in the wild raspberries.
“It’s all public land, but I run into very few woodcock hunters and a lot of it, I think, is because people think they have to go north to hunt woodcock.”
We were on a fairly typical southern Michigan state game area–and no, I’m not going to tell you which one–that Riley visits several times a season.
“The time I was here before, I moved 20 birds,” he said (and, just for the record, he said he went back a few days later and moved 12).
Our hunt was in late September, before the flight birds arrived. When the flight birds move through, usually in late October, “there are a lot birds here at times,” he said.
Riley bands woodcock in the spring and spends most of his time in southern Michigan.
“I go to the Houghton Lake area for about 10 days or so, but it’s almost not worth the traveling,” he said. “Last spring I banded 51 but I only banded 14 around Houghton Lake. Most of the birds I banded were down here.”
Riley is fired up about the federal Woodcock Initiative because he thinks southern Michigan woodcock habitat will start getting some of the attention it deserves.
Riley is involved in a habitat project at Rose Lake in Clinton and Shiawassee counties that’s rehabilitated a spot into better woodcock breeding habitat. It’s a cooperative project involving the Andy Amman Chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society, the Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division, the Lansing Chapter of Safari Club International and the Michigan Woodcock Banders. It’s a 98-acre tract of warm-season grasses and brush that woodcock enthusiasts think can be much more productive than it is.
“It’s got a creek that flows along one side of it so it’s always got that black moist soil and a lot of edge cover,” Riley said. “What we’re doing in brush hogging the edges and then we’ll do a prescribed burn in the grass field to open up more display area. We want to essentially rejuvenate the area to what it looked like 20 years ago and do it in late fall so by spring it isn’t grown up to where the woodcock won’t use it.
“The feeding areas are there naturally–that’s one of the reasons we selected the area for this work.”
The volunteer groups raised $1,800 to hire a contractor to do the brush hog work, Riley said. The DNR will supervise the burn.
“In the past we’ve cut openings to entice birds into areas,” Riley said. “In this case we already know there are birds nesting here. The idea is to keep it as attractive as possible to birds and possibly get more birds to use it.
“And it’s something of a demonstration area, just to show how this can be productive. You’d be surprised how many wildlife majors come out of Michigan State that have never seen a woodcock in the wild, never seen one displaying.”
Riley says he does his part to change that, sometimes taking students with him on his spring banding expeditions. He’s optimistic that after the work gets done at Rose Lake, he’ll be able to show more of them more birds next spring.
Images by Bob Gwizdz