The gathering: When woodcock arrive

by Steve Galea | August 30, 2023
Art by Tom Goldsmith

If you are an upland hunter, you probably do not measure autumn’s progress by the date on the calendar, for you have learned over the years that the season is too unpredictable to move at any speed but its own. 

Instead, you assess autumn’s passing by the signs that nature reveals. You gauge it by the vivid carpet of leaves accumulating at your feet, by the chill in the early morning air, by the fury or frailty of the winds, the fullness of foliage, by the ripeness of wild apples, the passage of geese, and the arrival of the woodcock flights.

Ah, yes, the woodcock flights.

To some upland gunners, the flight is the most treasured of all the great gifts autumn gives. It is that singular time when the woodcock residing north of you take to the night skies, fluttering and silhouetted against moonlight, in an effort to keep one step ahead of the first frosts, snows, or ground freezing temperatures that herd them slowly but surely to their southern wintering grounds — those essential places where winter dares not linger, where the timberdoodle’s bill can probe unobstructed for earthworms and other nourishment.

We the north

During this great nocturnal pilgrimage, if unkind weather does not drive flights of woodcock right past you, they will descend upon the covers you frequent to feed and rest awhile. And, if you are living right, you will have paid attention to the weather a little further north, consulted with your hunting buddies, recalled autumns past, and perhaps ventured a guess and freed up a few days to meet them at your best covers.

And, if the sum of those things equals good fortune, you will have memories to gnaw upon and savour when winter storms shake and grip those lonely places.

Catching the flight is the high point of a woodcock hunter’s year. It is when covers previously devoid of woodcock hold the promise of multiple flushes, fine dog work, and shots that will be long remembered, one way or another. It is a gathering of dogs, hunters, and birds ― a convergence of the sporting life as it should be.

Catching the flight is a badge of honour, worn but never seen. It is proof positive that this year, by God, you paid attention to all the things that matter most. To good guns, fine dogs, and secret covers where few hunters ever walk ― and, mostly, to a majestic game bird, small and under appreciated by most, yet worthy of all the effort it demands.

For the woodcock hunter, the season prior to the flight is the pre-game warmup. Yes, it often includes encounters with resident woodcock and grouse, but those meetings possess the dull familiarity of the local. They are not imbued with the mystery and heft of far-off places.

Taking centre stage

The flight is the main event.

It is when the missteps of the early season have been dealt with. By the time the flight arrives, reflexes are sharper and hunting dogs are wiser in their ways, having been given a refresher course by those early season birds and the impossible covers they reside in. By the time those tired northern travellers set wings and descend upon our hunting grounds, shot opportunities at grouse, doves and waterfowl have polished our wing shooting and taught us to be a little more deliberate before pressing the trigger. Or at the very least, left us open to accepting humility, which is a skill that is often in high demand when woodcock corkscrew towards the sky.

Woodcock hunters are perhaps as strange and secretive as the bird themselves. They choose to pursue diminutive, oddly constructed birds in places where shooting is difficult at best, and during times when other more lucrative hunting opportunities abound. They speak in hushed tones to trusted friends about the covers they hunt in and plead ignorance or lie outright when asked by others for locations where these birds can be found. They lament the discovery of a fresh 20-gauge hull in a favourite haunt. They smile at the rhythmic music of an old dog bell.

I have come to believe this is because a woodcock hunt is not about the meat, the flush, the shot, or even the dog work, so much as it is about the joys of being there.

It is about finding fresh woodcock splat and bore holes beneath the alders or under the ferns or hawthorns ― and recalling that there is more here now than there was last visit. It is about realizing that you are on the right track when the tread of your boot steps down on weepy ground and moist leaf duff. It is about recognizing the sound of the sudden, twittering rise of a woodcock or the look of a birdy dog hot on the scent.

When I think of the flight being in, I think of walks through high, sun-kissed meadows and fading ferns into thick, shady jumbles of cover interlaced with scrawny trunks and thorny branches that spread and grasp like the fingers of a Hallowe’en witch, where the leaves screen the soil from the crisp, cotton-candy sky. Places where water seeps and mud blooms slick, and grasses, sumac and alder leaves adorn the hummocks, the final resting places of rotten, laid-low fence posts and rusty page wire. Where hawthorns create barriers that channel your steps, where crouching and moving branches aside are the basic steps in an upland dance in which your partner, the woodcock, is the most exciting and skilled performer.

Faith, hope, and birdshot

I think of my hunting buddies, now and in their youth, and their rituals of donning their gloves and well-worn orange vests and cradling folded double-guns in the crooks of their arms after they suit up. I think of the dogs, and the dogs of past hunts. And I think of how we all, in our own way, dress for the occasion and put on a game face, as we excitedly prepare by our vehicle’s tailgate. I think of how I utter a silent wish asking to be graced by the flight’s arrival and how sometimes it comes true with a flushed bird, and then another and another as you mark it or reload. I recall the feeling that I am walking through a minefield where each step might ignite an explosion of feathers and long bills and big round eyes that reflect the glory of the day.

It’s like that every season, these walks filled with faith, hope and birdshot. And if there is anticipation for the arrival of the flight, there is also a frenzied effort that comes with knowing it will be short-lived. For when the trees grow barer, and winter’s frigid tendrils slip further south to your covers, the flights will move on.

But when it is here, we gather and push in a line, and meander in our own thoughts, led by kind and keen dogs who repay all those vet bills and early morning walks in full, with a staunch point or a hard flush. And it doesn’t even matter if you see a bird first, for when it rises and is tugged towards the sky from the leaf litter and cold damp soil, the woodcock always seems to surprise and mesmerize us, with what can only be described as an act of bravery, by holding as tight as they do.

And once in the sky, if we shoot before they level out in flight, we often learn why one old outdoors scribe declared “they have eyes perfectly positioned to find a hole in the pattern.”

And that is just fine too.

A bird to cheer for

No game bird inspires more sentimentality. We hunt the birds, and I think, simultaneously root for them. We grin at the flush and laugh off a miss. We pause after the shot, ostensibly to reload or to wait for another flush. But also, I think, to take in the moment. Because times like these, when the smoke rises from the barrels, are too few and far between. And, on those occasions when a bird falls, we cradle it gently in hand, as we realign ruffled feathers, admire it, and pay our respects.

For on this more than any other bird hunt, it is not about the puff of feathers descending solemnly from the sky.

The most serious woodcock hunter I know confesses that he sometimes just marvels at a flush without ever placing gun to shoulder. He says he takes great pleasure in knowing how they think and correctly guessing where they will be. Another equally smitten fellow, just loves the places they inhabit, the time of year he encounters them, and the chaotic way in which they ascend. Even if both fellows encountered a good flight, I’m certain neither would want to leave with anything approaching a limit. A good number of flushes and a dog that did its job is reward enough.

This, I suppose, is what happens when a woodcock bores its way into your heart.

As for myself, woodcock hunting intrigues me.

I love how they spring up and almost startle you in the same way a cock pheasant does, with wingbeats and noise and raw nerve. I respect how they can make a fool out of the most experienced gunner. I take comfort at how at home they look when they hang momentarily above the tangled places and beneath the sky.

And, if the places they choose to inhabit are not classically beautiful, they are certainly secretive and intimate, and by their very nature cause you to move slowly, examine everything, breathe deeper and listen more fully – and embrace you steadily in the here and now. And, as dank and inhospitable as these covers sometimes appear, you eventually come to realize that if a woodcock lives here, however briefly, the place must have some great and solemn worth.

Originally published in the August 2022 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS

Galea wins Outdoor Writers of Canada award for “The gathering”

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