Predicting the size and strength of West Virginia’s yearly woodcock migration is an educated guess under the best of conditions.
When a global pandemic prevents biologists from surveying the timberdoodle population in their home areas, making accurate forecasts becomes even more difficult. Of course, that’s exactly what has happened in 2020.
“Like many surveys that have been canceled due to COVID-19, a lot of states didn’t participate in [the annual woodcock] singing-ground surveys,” said Mike Peters, the Mountain State’s migratory bird specialist.
Singing-ground surveys usually take place in the spring. Biologists go out and listen for the distinctive “peent” call male woodcocks make while seeking mates.
The number of birds they hear helps federal regulators set bag limits and season lengths. Without data from this year, they based their recommendations for the 2021 season on the three-year average based on the 2017, 2018 and 2019 surveys.
This year’s dates and bag limits were set last year. The first segment of West Virginia’s two-part season will open on Oct. 17 and will end on Nov. 21. The second segment will open on Nov. 30 and will end on Dec. 6. The bag limit will be three woodcock per day.
Even in the absence of singing-ground data, Peters made the same qualified prediction he usually makes for woodcock hunters:
“As always, it will depend on the migration,” he said.
West Virginia’s woodcock season begins about a week before the main part of the migration passes through the state. “I would be looking for a normal push [of birds] coming down in late October,” Peters said.
For those who might not be familiar with the species, woodcock subsist primarily on earthworms. They migrate south, seeking soft, moist soil in areas where the ground doesn’t freeze.
“The best places to look for woodcock are areas that have poor drainage,” Peters said. “They’ll definitely look for moist-soil areas first, but I’ve seen them show up at the craziest places. A lot of the woodcock that get flushed are put up by grouse hunters and their dogs.”
The wetlands of Canaan Valley are always popular with woodcock hunters, as are the river-bottom brushlands found at the Green Bottom, McClintic and Meadow River wildlife management areas.
Still, as Peters pointed out, hunters’ success will depend mainly on where and when the plump little birds choose to migrate through the Mountain State.
Because woodcock are considered migratory game birds, hunters who seek them need to be aware of a couple of regulations that apply specifically to migratory species.
First, the magazines of pump-action or semi-automatic shotguns must be plugged so they can hold no more than three shells. Most upland bird hunters use double guns anyway, but those who don’t will run afoul of the law if their gun’s capacity exceeds the three-shot limit.
Second, hunters must also obtain and carry federal Harvest Information Program (HIP) cards. The cards are free, but federal regulations require woodcock hunters to have them. They are available online at West Virginia’s licensing website, www.wvhunt.com.