American, European Woodcock Hunting Contrasted

By Robert Gwizdz, for the Lansing State Journal

James Maunder Taylor was taken with American woodcock the moment he saw his first.

“They’re quite colorful,” he said. “You can really see the cinnamon and the brown. Our woodcock are a lot paler.”

The woodcock to which Maunder Taylor refers are Eurasian (aka European) woodcock, a slightly larger but biologically similar (same genus) member of the shorebird family that has evolved to live in uplands. Maunder Taylor, who works in finance in London, was in Michigan recently as a guest of Al Stewart, the Department of Natural Resources upland game bird specialist.

James Maunder Taylor with first American woodcock

James Maunder Taylor shows off his first American woodcock./Robert Gwizda photo

Active in woodcock conservation in his native England, Maunder Taylor met Stewart when the Michigan guy – who probably knows as much about American woodcock as anyone – was invited to the motherland to speak about the birds. One thing led to another and Maunder Taylor wound up on a whirlwind two-day tour of some of America’s best woodcock hunting.

Stewart, who had planned to take Maunder Taylor to some of Michigan’s classic woodcock habitat (northern Michigan) for a day, connected with Chuck Riley first. A Lansing-area resident who has expounded on the quality of woodcock hunting in southern Michigan for years, Riley agreed to host the pair on a couple of southern Michigan state game areas where he hunts regularly. Having hunted with Riley a number of times over the years, I’ve found that he is right on; there is outstanding woodcock-hunting opportunity in southern Michigan, which is largely ignored by guys who generally don’t let the dogs out of the truck until they hit Houghton Lake.

So how’d it go? Within a couple of hours, both Maunder Taylor and Riley had collected their limits. (Stewart and I shot birds, too.)

We were hunting thick understory – more autumn olive, dogwood and tag alder than aspen – which is the key to woodcock habitat. It’s all about stem density and rich soil.

Woodcock hunting in the British Isles is different than in the U.S., Maunder Taylor said, as it’s as likely to be driven birds as it is walking them up.

Woodcock hunter and dog

A hunter accepts a retrieve from his Brittany spaniel. Michigan is one of the top states for woodcock hunting./Photo by Tim Flanigan

“In Ireland, where we walk them up, it’s like this, but not as thick,” he said. “If it’s this thick we get excited because we know we’re going to find birds.

“In England, it’s all driven birds.”

Woodcock season runs October through January in England, Maunder Taylor said, though the bulk of the hunting takes place after the full moon in November when the migrants from the continent arrive.

“Migratory birds come from Russia, Scandinavia and the Baltic states,” Maunder Taylor explained. “If it’s very cold, they’ll come from Greece, Spain and France. They come across from the north through Scotland and the top of Ireland and gradually come down as the weather gets colder.”

The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, the organization Maunder Taylor is affiliated with, estimates the native British population of woodcock at around 100,000 birds. In contrast, the annual “fall of woodcock” – the term ascribed to the migratory flight – is upward of a million birds in an average year, he said. So hunters wait until their arrival.

“Shooting woodcock in December and January, there’s a 90 percent chance it’s a foreigner and a great chance it’s a Russian,” Maunder Taylor said. “We now only shoot in December and January.”

The habitat they hunt is different, too.

“We don’t have the aspen,” he said, “but we’ve got silver birch. For walk-up hunting, we’ve got alders, like you do here, blackthorn and gorse.”

There is no public land for hunting in England, Maunder Taylor said. “You have to own the land or have friends that own the land. You can lease land, but it’s quite expensive.”

White-throated sparrow

White-throated sparrows breed and find food in cover that habitat managers create for American woodcock./Photo by Tom Berriman

Eurasian woodcock “are much bigger and much stronger on the wing,” he said. If you flush one and don’t connect, you’re not likely to flush it again. “When they get up, they’re gone.”

There are no limits on woodcock in Great Britain, Maunder Taylor said, so most guys self-regulate to make sure they’re not overshooting the birds.

“On a driven day’s hunt, shooting with six or seven guns, you can expect 40 to 50 woodcock – upwards of a half dozen birds a man. But it’s not like pheasant shooting; you’re right up against the trees so it’s snap shooting. It’s a small window.”

As for walk up hunting?

“I’ve had days in Ireland where my partner and I with two dogs put up more than 100 woodcock.”

Maunder Taylor said he has a hunt scheduled for the Scottish Isles when the migrants arrive that’s associated with a young fir plantation. Beaters with spaniels will push through the trees and drive the birds toward the shooters.

One other major difference: In England it is legal to sell game and woodcock are prized, he said. He’ll occasionally bring a bird or two down to the pub and trade it for libations.

Stewart said the pair’s northern Michigan hunt went well; they not only shot woodcock but Maunder Taylor killed his first ruffed grouse, too. He was back on a plane headed to England less than 72 hours after he arrived, having accomplished more than his original goal.

Stewart said his visitor had a good time and was impressed with the opportunity hunters have in Michigan. Which brings me to the question I pose regularly: Who has it better than us?


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