column By: Upland Almanac Staff | January, 21
Following his traditions formed over his 60-plus woodcock seasons, Foster was hunting in the Berkshire Mountains area of Massachusetts in early October. He and his two friends had already bagged several woodcock the first two days of the season. He shot the bird, and once the dog retrieved it, says Foster, “I noticed something that appeared to be a very thin black stick attached to the back of the bird. I did not pay any attention to what I saw and quickly stored the bird in my game pocket, making ready for another shot opportunity.”
Back at his lodge, Foster collected the day’s harvest and stored it in the bird refrigerator. Caleb, a youngster whom Foster and his son Mike have been mentoring of late, arrived at the lodge that weekend for a hunt. He went to the bird refrigerator to check out the week’s harvest and returned to the lodge’s social area to inform Ernie that the “stick” on the bird’s back had actually been the GPS transmitter’s antenna.
Because they are migratory, woodcock present a challenge to biologists trying to figure out their life patterns. At least as early as 1936, biologists started placing leg bands on the birds to provide information. This was in the Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge in Maine. The study was conducted by unit leader Clarence Aldous and his assistant Howard Mendall. Their The Ecology and Management of the American Woodcock (1943) is a staple of many readers’ upland hunting libraries. That first year, they banded two juvenile woodcock; in 1940, that number rose to 170.
Of course, bands are limited in the data they can provide: usually it’s where the bird was when it was banded and where it died. If researchers are lucky, banded birds can be captured during their migrations, and that information can be part of the data. This is why the development of GPS transmitters has been so important. Information can be obtained without having the bird in hand.
For a while, the technology was available for gathering and transmitting the info — no problem with that. The holdup came from the size of the transmitters. They were too heavy initially, and once installed, they interfered with the birds’ ability to fly.
Now, however, along with their harness, the transmitter weighs less than 4% of a woodcock’s body mass, says the Eastern Woodcock Migration Research Cooperative (EWMRC). The cooperative started its pilot program in 2017 when it fitted six woodcock with transmitters. Foster’s bird was one of 300 fitted with transmitters so far by the EWMRC.
Foster reported his bird to his pal Bill Harvey IV. Harvey, Game Board Section Leader, Wildlife and Heritage Services, Department of Natural Resources for the state of Maryland, let Alexander Fish know. Fish is the EWMRC’s outgoing Ph.D. student from the University of Maine. He reported back to Foster.
“We are pretty excited by your harvest. So far of 300-plus woodcock marked, approximately six have been harvested only near the capture site. This is the first bird to have left the capture site and have been harvested somewhere else! So you have some pretty serious bragging rights, and Lady Luck may be on your side.
“Bill and his team were likely the folks that marked the bird, too!
“That particular woodcock was marked on 11 February 2019 in Maryland as an adult female . . . so she was at minimum hatched in summer 2017 or earlier (as woodcock typically molt into adult plumage prior to fall migration). Unfortunately, her transmitter was programmed to last only one migration (spring 2019), so we are not certain where she [began] her fall migration in 2020. In spring 2019, she migrated into Quebec, presumably to breed. We are uncertain how likely woodcock are to return to the same breeding site . . . so she may have spent the summer in Quebec again, but since the battery died . . . we really just do not know.”
Erik Blomberg, Associate Professor in the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Conservation Biology at the University of Maine, provided more information.
“Hi Ernie. This is very cool and thanks so much for reporting. In addition to the information Alex gave, knowing this bird carried its transmitter successfully for nearly two years is very important to our project because it provides us with invaluable information on the longevity of our harnesses.
“Also as another interesting coincidence, during its spring 2019 migration, that bird moved up the Hudson Valley in New York, spending some time on the east side of the Catskills. One of the places it stopped over, just along the Hudson near Saugerties, is only about 5 miles from my wife’s parents’ home. The bird actually used a local forest preserve where she and I went for a walk last Christmas.”
From Maryland in spring 2019, to the Hudson Valley, to Quebec, to points unknown for a year, to Massachusetts in October 2020: all of that revealed by a computer chip that went along for the ride.
Two Friends of Hunters Join Forces
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