Woodcock are currently returning north from their wintering grounds in the southeast, presenting an ideal opportunity for those of us interested in training or exercising our setters. Working our dogs on returning woodcocks without a gun, practicing a “catch and release” form of hunting, is a great way to get exercise and extend training time of a young dog on wild birds. Woodcocks are usually found in West Virginia lowlands after February 20(weather dependent) while hunters are still pursuing grouse during the last of the season. These are males heading north from their wintering grounds and stop only briefly until reaching their desired breeding grounds. They preform a courtship display each morning and evening from the time they leave their wintering area. This is a display you must witness.
We have the responsibility to make certain we are within legal limits of the law before working our dogs after hunting season. Most states have dog training regulations and some Federal lands prohibit dog training outside the limits of hunting season. A further responsibility of ours is to limit the time we work our setters to avoid woodcock nest disturbance or abandonment. Typically, March is a safe month to work the dogs without interfering with nesting in the primary breeding range – with its southern limit being central West Virginia. I recommend that nesting peak times be avoided. Peak hatching dates for Massachusetts and Maine have been recorded as May 1-7 and May 8-15 respectively. Using an average incubation time of 21 days will give some guide as to when most nesting typically occurs at such latitudes. Note also, nest abandonment is less likely to occur in late periods of incubation.
Another benefit of working our setters on spring woodcocks – it gives us an opportunity to photograph our setters working a wild bird without distraction, and therefore perhaps better photos.
Walt Lesser is a retired Biologist with 42 years in wild-life management for the state of West Virginia. He has written many wildlife and dog related articles, papers and reports. He is also the co-author of the book “The Real Ryman Setter”.