Getting to the point with woodcock research

A baby woodcock, grayish with dark mottling, sits in a hand after being tagged.

Superbly camouflaged against the forest leaf litter, the brown, speckled woodcock stubbornly sits on her ground nest.

“They’re very dedicated brooders,” explains Debbie Peterson. “They won’t flush until you’re right on them.”

The young chicks also blend into the forest floor, so finding American woodcocks for research is next to impossible. For a human—but not for a dog.

That’s where Riley, Peterson’s Gordon setter, comes in. Nose to the ground, Riley covers seven miles of forest for one mile of Peterson’s in search of brooding woodcocks. While hidden from view, the woodcock can’t hide its scent from Riley, who flushes the mother so Peterson can outfit the chicks with temporary tags.

An avid bird hunter and part-time field technician, Peterson—who holds a degree in environmental education from the University of Minnesota Duluth—plays a key role in research led by wildlife ecologist Alexis Grinde of the UMD’s Natural Resources Research Institute. Along with woodcocks, NRRI researchers are studying the golden-winged warbler and the veery (aka hermit thrush) to understand how they use the resources of a young vs. mature forest, from hatchling to young adult.

Numbers of all three species are declining throughout their breeding ranges, but they are attracted to a large young forest plot near mature forests north of Warba, Minnesota. What’s not known is how the woodcock use the forests as they grow and how different forest characteristics affect survival.

“What makes this research unique is we are following three species of juvenile birds that depend on young forests for breeding in a distinct study plot,” Grinde says. “We are tracking the movements of juveniles as they grow so we can identify forest characteristics that increase survival and ultimately help promote the conservation of these important species.” The work will also inform forest harvesting practices.
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities