One of the most interesting woodcock hunts I've ever been on was during the month of May in New Brunswick several years ago. In the hunting party were four men and a dog—a slick and capable brown-eyed Llewellin setter—and we accounted for about a hundred birds in four days. This all sounds thoroughly illegal, but the other fellows on the hunt were the late Dr. Logan Bennett and Ala-stair MacBain of the Fish and Wildlife Service, and Dr. Bruce Wright of Canada's New Brunswick provincial government, which made it all right—especially since we were only banding woodcock, not shooting them.
Aside from the lack of guns, however, this trip had all the aspects of a normal hunt. It required just as thorough a knowledge of covers and woodcock habits as autumn hunting and, above all, it demanded steady dog work. The dog was what made it fun, of course. There are few game birds better suited to dog work than the woodcock anyway, and in the breeding season they lie even tighter and react even more ideally for a staunch pointer or setter than they do in the fall. Without a dog, such a spring banding hunt would be a waste of time. Men alone, no matter how sharp-eyed, could cover the same ground we did and be lucky to locate one brood. It's difficult enough to spot them even after the dog has pointed.
The woodcock's nest is practically no nest at all. It is merely a slight depression in the hardwood leaves, appearing as though it were made by the weight of the mother bird's body and little else. The little ones get up and walk away with the old lady almost as soon as they step out of the shell and shake off the dew. We saw a story written in the damp earth near such an old nest which told of Lesson One in life. The parent bird had been drilling, and around each of her drill marks were little pinpricks made by the young ones imitating her maneuver.
A woodcock lays a clutch of four eggs, no more and no less. Knowing this, we made it a point to locate all four young whenever the setter made a find. Sometimes we had to stand and look for several minutes before we accounted for the old bird and all four of her homely kids. A missing one might eventually turn up sitting within a foot of someone's boot.
The woodcock depends almost entirely on his protective coloring for self-preservation, and this coloring is just about perfect. He fits ideally with the curled, brown hardwood leaves on the forest floor where he makes his home. It's the shiny-black, shoe-button eye that most often gives him away.
A woodcock hunter must be a thorough hunter for this reason. He also must be a careful observer. An upland hunter necessarily keeps his head up and is continually alert. At the same time, however, a good woodcock hunter observes the ground as he walks over it. He sees any chalk marks, or splashing, and he doesn't pass any drill marks unnoticed. He knows whether or not birds are using the cover, and without half looking he can tell whether the sign is fresh that day or old. The fresher the sign, of course, the more thoroughly he hunts the cover.
Because of the timberdoodle's inclination to let a man walk by him, a dog is an enormous help in woodcock hunting. In fact, he is essential for anyone who is going to take it seriously. The dog must be thorough and have a satisfactory nose.
Other than that it doesn't make much difference what color, size or shape he is. Personally I prefer a pointing dog. Some hunters do well with cockers and springers, but it seems a shame to waste a tight sitter like a woodcock on anything but a pointing dog. The Brittany, a pointing spaniel, is said to have been developed specifically for hunting the European woodcock, a bird similar to ours except larger.
A night flyer
Being solitary individuals and night flyers by preference, there are few times when woodcock can be seen in actual migration the way you see flocks of geese or crows winging overhead. Occasionally I have felt that I have prompted a bird to be on his way. In the evening I sometimes shoot and miss one, not an unusual occurrence, and I watch him go and go until he dwindles to a tiny speck on the southern horizon. At other times, after the hunt is over and we have returned to the car, I have heard the woodcock wing overhead or have actually seen them silhouetted against the sunset as they come in from the north and drop into the cover we have just left. There are a few places, such as Cape May, New Jersey, where the physical nature of the land and sea attracts concentrations of the birds, but places of this kind are about the only ones where woodcock migration can be witnessed in force.