Sept/Oct 2015Odd Birdsby Joey Frazier
American woodcock and Wilson's snipe provide uniquely challenging targets for the offbeat wing shooters who faithfully pursue them.
During their winter migration, two species of quirky migratory shorebirds arrive in Palmetto State wetlands under the cover of darkness and, like will-o'-the-wisps, fleetingly appear in the twilight to suck earthworms or other invertebrates from their boggy dens. Crepuscular creatures, they appear to be pinned to the wet earth by their long prehensile bills, which they use in their subterranean forage for morning or evening meals. Scientists call them Scolopax minor and Gallinago delicata, but after exhausting all the expletives in their vocabulary, surprised and often disheveled bird hunters just call them woodcock and snipe. All agree that these are really odd birds.
Officially designated as shorebirds, American woodcock and Wilson's snipe are similar in appearance. Both are plump, long-billed birds with large eyes set far back on their heads to help them watch out for predators, even when they are probing the soil for a snack. And they both find winter homes farther from the ocean than one might expect. As a matter of fact, hunters pursue these birds successfully all the way from coastal wetlands into the upper piedmont of South Carolina.
However, as much as they are similar, you probably won't find them together. Snipe, the smaller of the two and about the size of a mourning dove, are happy on mudflats and marshy environs where they disappear in the winter remnants of low, early successional vegetation. Woodcock, about the size of a bobwhite quail, are denizens of hardwood bottoms and brier-tangled floodplains, where they blend in so well that their natural camouflage is also their best defense from predators.
S.C. Department of Natural Resources Chief of Wildlife Billy Dukes is a dedicated woodcock hunter. Dukes says that one study, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Singing-ground Survey, indicates that during the last three decades there have been some declines in woodcock populations nationwide. However, Dukes questions whether or not that single study accurately accounts for local breeding populations in the southern part of the birds' range.
"We do have a breeding population here in South Carolina," Dukes said. "It is evidenced by both nests and chicks reported to us [the DNR] on an almost annual basis, and this southern breeding population is not included in the Singing-ground Survey."
Woodcock are not only migratory, but are also very secretive birds, says Dukes, and that makes research even more difficult. However, new technology, such as radio transmitters small enough to attach even to quail chicks, may allow better studies in the future.
"We don't have a strategy in South Carolina that is directed specifically at woodcock," said Dukes, "but I would say that at places like the Webb Center where we manage for an open forest condition, although the objective may not be specifically for woodcock, that type of management does benefit them."
Richard Cullerton of Pawley's Island, a bird hunter who focuses exclusively on woodcock, also has a keen interest in any new research or information on this curious game bird. He confirms they are challenging targets for most hunters.
"You gotta be on those birds quick," Cullerton said. "Woodcock are an easy bird to hunt, but the downside is that you usually find them in thick cover. You may hear them flush and not be able to see them."
Cullerton also enjoys field trials and hunts woodcock to train Dot and Lacy, his German shorthaired pointers. He is interested in woodcock conservation and tracks his points, flushes and kills. While Cullerton is a card-carrying member of the American Woodcock Society, he now rarely shoots the birds, preferring to only fire his cap pistol at the flush as a training aid for his dogs. Although Cullerton prefers to hunt woodcock with pointing dogs, Dukes enjoys hunting with labs.
"I've used flushing dogs, but I think the important thing is to find a dog that suits your hunting style," Dukes said. "Although I haven't tried it, I think a Springer spaniel would be an amazing woodcock dog. It's all about covering ground and getting into cover. There's no two ways about it, dogs are better at that than humans."
Heyward Horton of Charleston also hunts woodcock with his lab, Dixie, and his 1901 Parker side-by-side.
"Woodcock tend to go straight up," Horton said. "Sometimes they do this spiral thing, sort of an acrobatic flight, before leveling off. My advice would be get on them quick and shoot before they level off — if you can still see them in the cover."
It's interesting to note that Cullerton, Dukes and Horton all hunt woodcock on public land. Horton explains that he first looks for good woodcock habitat, which is very specific, and that the birds are generally there during the winter migration. He describes damp, even wet, hardwood bottoms and pockets of switch cane. None of these hunters complain of heavy shooting pressure where they like to hunt. Dukes confirms that and emphasizes that many woodcock migrating through South Carolina never encounter a hunter, because the Palmetto State has much more potential woodcock habitat than there are woodcock to fill it. He concludes that not many hunters want to put much effort into hunting a game bird with such a small bag limit — the limit on woodcock is three per day.
But woodcock aren't the only odd birds on Horton's hunting itinerary. Wilson's snipe are fast, erratic fliers that come off the ground quick and, just as suddenly, skyrocket to speeds of up to sixty miles per hour.
"You have to get them quick. Once they hit the gas, it's too late," said Horton. "I shot my first snipe up near Belton when I was growing up, but I didn't hunt them again until I discovered that Bear Island has public snipe fields."
DNR Regional Wildlife Coordinator Dean Harrigal works with Ross Catterton, Bear Island's area manager, to manipulate a few of the old rice field-style impoundments on this Category I Waterfowl Management Area to create habitat attractive to snipe each year.
"We pull the water down in selected wetlands in mid-winter to allow the birds access to the mudflats," Harrigal said. "While the ponds are flooded, they develop a food base, such as invertebrates, that snipe can utilize."
The muddy conditions left after the drawdown are perfect foraging ground for snipe after a controlled burn to thin the vegetation and expose the mudflats, according to Harrigal.
Woodcock season: December 18 through January 31
Snipe season: November 14 through February 28
Bear Island snipe fields open for public shooting in February, after scheduled lottery drawn duck hunts have ended
Exact hunting season dates are set by the DNR, based on a USFWS framework. For specific information about all migratory game bird hunting, refer to the DNR's annual South Carolina Migratory Bird Hunting Guide.
"There is a small core of enthusiastic people who hunt them," said Harrigal. "Although there are not very many of them, they do hunt regularly."
Horton estimates he sees about a dozen names routinely at the Bear Island check-in shed. He also says that sniping is not an easy hunt.
"It's hard walking and you'll burn your legs out doing it," Horton said. "It's like walking on a sponge. You have to step wide from tuft to tuft in the marsh."
It's a game that calls for rugged clothing and rubber boots. Horton says that if hunters happen to step between tufts of grass, it is likely they will bog up in the saturated marsh mud. Although he loves hunting woodcock with his lab, he rarely, if ever, brings Dixie to the Bear Island snipe fields. The stubble from the burn is hard to walk on and he says it is even harder on a dog's foot pads. But there is plenty of action just walking the field and flushing them unannounced. Lexington resident Brad Sease went along with Horton on a brisk early February morning snipe hunt last season. Arriving at Bear Island WMA in the pre-dawn darkness, the pair waited at the locked gate until Area Manager Ross Catterton opened the check-in shed. Once hunters sign in to hunt a certain area, they must wait until one-half hour before official sunrise before walking onto the snipe fields. Sease, a seasoned waterfowl hunter, did not know what he was getting into. Horton took the first shot and downed the first bird of the morning — and the second, and even the third.
"It's not like shooting ducks, that's for sure," Sease said. "It took a few shots to learn just how quick you have to be."
Horton, who is executive director of Colleton County Economic Alliance, is more of a generalist than Dukes or Cullerton, who specialize in woodcock.
"I hunt whatever is in season," he said, "but no matter what else is in season, I always make time for woodcock and snipe."
Dukes sums it up by noting that the common thread among most bird hunters, including woodcock and snipe hunters, is that they are really just dog people.
"They all seem to love hunting with bird dogs. They may start out hunting one species and bump into another along the way," Dukes said. "Although they may not have the same romanticism attached to them as quail, woodcock and snipe are excellent game birds, very challenging targets for the wing shooter, and, if you love hunting with dogs, you will love hunting these odd little birds, too."