Environment, Featured, Latest News

State and regional efforts to conserve woodcock populations

Across the country, woodcock populations have suffered a steady decline in the past five decades. In order to execute best management practices, eastern United States and West Virginia research projects seek to track the distribution and migration of woodcock.

American woodcock, also affectionately nicknamed the timberdoodle, bog sucker and mud snipe, are robin-sized game birds with comically long bills used to probe the earth for worms, and cartoonishly large eyes to detect predators. Following widespread habitat loss, primarily due to urban development and maturation of the young forests they live in, woodcock abundance and distribution are becoming a critical concern for many conservation groups.

The Eastern Woodcock Migration Research Cooperative, coordinated by the University of Maine, is the product of one such call for action. With the goal of tracking migration, mating and overwintering times and locations, the cooperative’s partners equip woodcock throughout the eastern United States with advanced GPS transmitters. The project began in 2017 by outfitting six woodcock with satellite transmitters. By fall 2022, nearly 600 woodcock had been marked.

With this project wrapping up soon, data collected will be used to determine the best locations for management efforts across the eastern United States. In order to gain information specific to West Virginia, the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources (WVDNR) has started its own three-year project to gain more precise data on woodcock distribution throughout the state. Although this is an independent project by the WVDNR, it will also add to the data already collected by the Eastern Woodcock Migration Research Cooperative.

“The West Virginia study will hone in on West Virginia birds and where they’re spending their time locally on the landscape,” said WVDNR Wild Turkey and Migratory Game Bird Project Leader Michael Peters. “It will help us develop a tool to identify critical areas in West Virginia and identify areas that we should be focusing management efforts.”

The WVDNR’s project comes after West Virginia’s State Wildlife Action Plan designated woodcock as a priority, and is part of Gov. Jim Justice’s Upland Game Bird Initiative, which also focuses on the preservation of quail, pheasants and grouse. The WVDNR will equip 80 total woodcock with leg bands and satellite transmitters, 20 in each of West Virginia’s four ecological regions. 

Old Hemlock Foundation administrator LeJay Graffious has assisted the Eastern Woodcock Migration Research Cooperative in banding birds and attaching GPS transmitters. When the WVDNR began its research, Graffious was the only bird bander in the state with the certification to install transmitters on woodcock and therefore trained local biologists in receiving their transmitter certifications.

With information gained from these projects, “Hopefully biologists and environmental educators can help increase the various habitat structures needed to sustain this amazing bird,” said Graffious

Graffious said he’s witnessed the decline of this species firsthand, and, alongside his own personal contributions to conservation projects such as these, the Old Hemlock Foundation also takes steps to conserve and rejuvenate woodcock populations.

“The directors of the Old Hemlock Foundation are scientifically managing our property with the help of an Avian Partner Biologist from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR) to create young forests,” said Graffious. “Hopefully, our efforts will provide woodcock habitat, which we do not have now.”

Woodcock aren’t the only at-risk species to benefit from conservation efforts. Managing habitats used by woodcock will also aid species like the blue-winged and golden-winged warbler, field sparrows, whip-poor-will, and indigo bunting. 

“Fortunately, I believe, properly managing forests to stem the loss of woodcock will benefit many other species,” said Graffious.

Other local supporters of both research projects include the Canaan Wildlife Refuge, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Friends of the 500th and retired WVDNR biologist Walt Lesser.

TWEET @DominionPostWV