Why anyone would want to leave Maine in October is beyond me. After all you can fish, hunt, hike, ride, boat, all in vivid color, and enjoy much of it in relative solitude.
However, some do insist on leaving, and count the American woodcock among them.
The American woodcock is a migratory bird that summers in northern climes such as Maine and Canada, then goes south to Virginia and even Florida.
The migration, from northern climes to the more temperate mid-Atlantic states, is known as flight and the birds that stop here on their way through are known as flight birds. Birds fly through the night, and feed and rest during the day in thick cover. In Maine, the peak of the flight is in late October and into November.
Maine is an essential state for woodcock, both as a breeding ground and as stopover.
“Maine is a really, really important breeding spot for woodcock because we have commercial harvesting of timber,” said Brad Allen, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s lead bird biologist. “We have a state where people aren’t afraid to cut trees down, and when you do that, you are creating woodcock habitat, and woodcock populations continue to do well here.”
Recently Maine instituted an extended season for hunting woodcock, expanding it from 30 to 45 days. This came after the state proved to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that an extra 15 days of hunting season would not impact the population.
“The population turns over at a high rate, and it is due mostly to predators,” said Allen, “Hunters only take 5 to 10 percent of the fall flight. There are challenges from a migratory standpoint, but all the work done with banding and radio telemetry has shown that the hunter harvest is fairly inconsequential to the population.”
For those who hunt woodcock, flight birds can offer fantastic hunting. They seem to come in bunches, and they seem to hold in coverts longer than resident birds. Finding those flight birds, however, depends on timing.
“The thing that drives birds on migration is their ability to feed,” said Allen. “If it gets cold and the ground starts freezing up, woodcock can’t get at earthworms so they have to move on, just as far as the next meal.”
And as we know, just when that freeze comes can vary year to year, and can impact different areas of the state.
“They may get down to Vanceboro, Maine, and if it’s warm and sunny, they may stay there two or three weeks,” said Allen. “They normally only fly when the weather conditions are good, so they aren’t going to fly into a head wind, and they also won’t fly until their food runs out.”
Woodcock tend to migrate only as far as they need to, and that can vary on the year.
“That may only be as far as southern New Jersey, and sometimes if they don’t go far enough, they can be hit with a really hard storm like Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey,” said Allen. “That probably caused a lot of mortality. Birds that had flown to North Carolina would have escaped that.”
As Allen said, “Migration is a perilous event, sometimes you gamble and you lose.” However, he feels that the longer season for woodcock is not taking a chance on a perilous population since ground surveys have shown a stable population for 10 years, and, “We can continue to have this 45-day season as long as the spring population counts remain good.”
“By giving hunters 15 days in November,” said Allen, “we are hoping that maybe one of those extra days will make your whole season.”
Mark Latti is a Registered Maine Guide, and the Landowner Relations/ Recreational Access Coordinator for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.