There doesn’t seem to be much glamour in the life of a timberdoodle.
The peculiar-looking migratory birds are actually shorebirds that have adapted to life in the woods. They are gifted with stiletto bills that appear way too large for their body, buggy eyes and ears positioned at odd angles on their head and brains that essentially sit upside down in their skull.
But don’t be fooled by the oddball appearance. The timberdoodle — better known as the American woodcock — is an early-fall staple for wing-shooting junkies across the upper Midwest and a feathered treasure that appears to be widely undiscovered by Texas’ close-knit gun dog clan.
Picture a small party balloon pumped to the max, then set free to zip around on a knuckleball path through a mangled maze of limbs, branches and briars. That’s a pretty fair description of what throwing down on a wild-flying woodcock with a trusty scattergun is all about.
Though it may not be the fastest bird in the woods, it is certainly among the toughest to hit with any consistency. The inclination to stick like glue for a pointing dog makes the woodcock all the more attractive.
Like waterfowl, woodcock live and breed up North before winging it south for the winter. Many of the migrants wind up in Texas, with concentrations gathering across forested areas in the southeastern part of the state, where suitable habitat is abundant.
Wildlife experts say Texas does have a small resident population of woodcock, but the majority of the birds with the big beaks and bulbous bodies found here during winter are drifters from up North, some coming from as far away as southern Canada.
“Depending on the year, woodcock can be found from Texarkana all the way down to the Gulf Coast,” said Owen Fitzsimmons, webless migratory bird program leader with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “There is usually a pretty reliable population that shows up in southeast Texas. It’s tough to say just how many birds Texas sees each year because it varies with how cold and wet it gets in other states. But the more we learn about them, we are finding that there are probably more here than anybody realizes.”
One thing the wildlife biologist is certain about, however, is that the number of hunters who take advantage of the short, 45-day woodcock season each winter is relatively small. This year’s season got underway on Dec. 18 and runs through Jan. 31. Daily limits are three per day.
“It’s a very underutilized resource,” Fitzsimmons said. “For some reason it has never developed the tradition in Texas that it has in other places. It’s kind of strange, because Louisiana has a very strong woodcock hunting tradition. It just hasn’t caught on here.”
One can only speculate as to why. But it certainly isn’t for a lack of affordable places to hunt the tasty game birds well known for sitting tight for gun dogs and flushing like a single quail separated from its covey.
The timberdoodle might be coined as the poor man’s bobwhite. That’s not to say quail hunting is a sport reserved strictly for the rich guys. There just aren’t many places in Texas where you can take a rangy pointer and hunt them for free.
Woodcocks are different. There are plenty of venues where hunters can enjoy a low-cost, quality hunting experience. Some of the very best woodcock hunting is found on public lands in the eastern half of the state, where hundreds of thousands of acres of national forests and wildlife management areas can be accessed for free or with a $48 Annual Public Hunting Permit.
Plentiful as the hunting opportunities are, enjoying some success in the woodcock’s wintertime lair isn’t always easy. Chasing the birds can lead dogs and hunters through some pretty inhospitable territory: swamps, bogs, green briars and prickly blackberry thickets that can shred clothes, rip skin and stop a tough guy dead in his tracks.
Andrew Boatman knows a thing or two about hunting timberdoodles. Boatman is a hardcore quail hunter from Nacogdoches who went on his first woodcock hunt 10 years ago in the Angelina National Forest. He’s been hooked ever since.
“To me, hunting woodcock is just like quail hunting, except I don’t have to drive 10 hours to South or West Texas do it,” he said. “Woodcock are a very gentlemanly bird. They hold really well for a pointing dog. They aren’t as fast as quail, but they do a lot more jukin’ and jivin’. You’ve got to be quick.”
Like Fitzsimmons, Boatman believes winter woodcock hunting is a sport that goes overlooked by most Texas gun dog enthusiasts for one reason or another.
“Probably 90 percent of the people in Texas couldn’t draw a picture of one if you asked them to,” he said. “Mention the bird to most people and they will just look at you and laugh at the funny name.”
Location is key
One of the keys to enjoying some success with any migrant game bird is hunting where the birds want to be. Much of that hinges on finding a preferred food source that is both reliable and abundant.
The woodcock feeds predominantly on earthworms using its king-size bill. The bill is equipped with sensitive nerves that help the woodcock locate worms and snatch them from their underground burrows. Interestingly, the unique positioning of the woodcock’s big eyes allow it to watch for predators while its nose is probing the dirt.
“They are kind of a weird bird,” Fitzsimmons said. “They like to feed at night, dawn and dusk, typically in areas that are fairly open such as open understory pine plantations with loamy soils where they can probe for worms and other invertebrates with their bills.”
The birds roost during the day, usually thick areas like 2- to 3-year-old clear-cuts with plenty of briars, shrubs and small trees to provide cover from hawks and predators.
“They like it to be fairly open on bottom with a canopy 2-3 feet above them,” Fitzsimmons said. “They need room to move and run.”
Finding a spot
Boatman said trial and error has taught him a lot about woodcocks, particularly when it comes to locating the most productive hunting spots.
“A lot people say you need to be in lowland swampy areas, but I kill them in upland pine forests all the time,” he said. “It’s not near as hard to hunt them there as it is in lowland areas.”
Boatman said he has found some of his best hunting spots by simply driving around isolated national forest roads until he sees something that catches his eye. At that point he’ll cut his pointers loose and let them determine whether the spot is a good one.
“I like to find something I can walk through fairly easy,” he said. “I had much rather find fewer birds in open country and be able to shoot them when they get up than get all scratched up moving 12 birds and only have a shot at two. If there are birds around, the dogs will let me know pretty quick.”
Matt Williams is a freelance writer based in Nacogdoches. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.