Explore the intricacies of the woodcock migration each fall. Dive deep into patterns, triggers, and behaviors that have fascinated hunters and scientists for generations.
We sat on the tailgate of my pickup overlooking a cover we had just hunted on a late October day as the sunset. The whistling sound of woodcock wings began while the sky still held mute signs of the sun hidden behind the mountains. We counted the birds with excitement. One after another, a tangle of “there is another” and “here comes two” was complemented by big smiles. It did not take long to debate whether they were moving to eat or to migrate. I relish this end-of-hunt tailgate tradition each autumn when the woodcock migration begins.
I love woodcock. Relying on unfrozen ground to eat, woodcock are a fascinating species that migrates from parts of Canada to the southern United States each fall. They are a low barrier of entry for young pointing dogs and new hunters. They provide the best opportunities to train superior grouse dogs in the off-season. When one speaks of the dark arts of the woodcock migration, it is with great debate as they have alluded, defied, and fascinated both hunters and scientists alike for generations. Alternatively, as George Bird Evans said, “You know where to expect them and almost when, but when they show up is something else.”
The fall woodcock migration coincides with their hunting season. We try to predict the moment of their arrival, and more often than not, we are surprised by the vanishing and reappearance of these wonderful upland game birds. From early classics like The Book of the American Woodcock by William Sheldon, published in 1967, over 38 studies according to the U.S Fish and Wildlife between 1927 and 1978, and more recently, the ongoing Eastern Woodcock Migration Research Cooperative (EWMRC), we have taken leaps and bounds to understand how, why, and when woodcock migrate.
Migrating Woodcock Terminology
Each fall, American Woodcock leave their northern breeding and feeding grounds and fly south towards their wintering grounds. These wintering grounds provide unfrozen, moist soils that allow American Woodcock to feed and survive through the winter. Hunters use the following terms to refer to the annual fall woodcock migration:
- Flights: the presence of migrating woodcock in the fall
- Flight Birds: birds not native to the local area or actively migrating woodcock
- Resident Birds: native birds that live most of their life in a specific area.
- A Fall of Woodcock: when a group of migrating woodcock moves into a cover overnight (woodcock only migrate at night)
The opportunity to hunt high-density flight opportunities is coveted among many upland bird hunters. It is a fleeting moment that ebbs and flows in often frustrating inconsistency.
What is the Fall Woodcock Migration?
For many unusual reasons, woodcock are outliers among other migratory birds. Among them is that woodcock do not migrate as a flock but as individual birds. While a flight of woodcock indicates many birds in a single area, each bird found its way there by its own independence.
We now know a lot about the science of the fall woodcock migration. The mean average fall migration distance is roughly 900 miles, according to the “Year 3 Report” from the Eastern Woodcock Migration Research Cooperative. The longest recorded fall migration they recorded was over 2,000 miles.
While a single woodcock has been recorded flying almost 500 miles in a single night, the American Woodcock journey requires “stopover” habitat. The average number of times a bird stops during the fall migration is 3.9 to 4.4 days (2018-2019), with as many as 13 stops for a single bird. “The average number of days each bird spent at a stopover location throughout migration ranged from 1.5 to 15 for fall migrants (mean = 5.4 days) in fall 2018” (EWMRC, 2020).
William G. Sheldon, the author of The Book of the American Woodcock, commented on the leisurely nature of a woodcock migration as indicated by low weight loss compared to other migrating species. “Woodcock lose only ten percent more or less of their peak fall weight by the time they reach their wintering grounds in contrast to the non-stop flights of some shorebirds,” he wrote.
All you need is a surface-level glimpse into woodcock migration data to see how individual woodcock migration paths vary, regardless of external factors. Age and gender seem to give more clues to migration than anything else. The mysteries of the fall American Woodcock migration is a delightful anomaly that makes hunting them that much more exciting.
Woodcock Migration Routes – The Eastern and Central Flyways
From a management perspective, the American Woodcock has two primary migration routes. They are called the Eastern and Central Flyways, and upland culture refers to them frequently. For research purposes, early woodcock science often split them into three flyways: the Atlantic, Central, and Western (Sheldon, 1967). For our purposes, we will stick to the more modern two flyways. However, it is important to understand that woodcock have been tracked crossing over these artificial research boundary lines many times, and these boundaries primarily exist to help organize wildlife management strategies and research purposes for migratory birds.
- The Eastern Woodcock Flyway starts in Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, Canada. It extends through 17 eastern states and the District of Columbia. These states include Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.
- The Western Woodcock Flyway starts in Manitoba and Ontario, Canada, and includes 20 states. These states include North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.
How Weather Affects American Woodcock Migration
As hunters, we certainly want to glimpse how weather can trigger woodcock flights. “Flight birds” is the common term used to describe migratory, non-resident woodcock that appear in one’s hunting covers. One need only experience the intensity and excitement of pointing dogs overwhelmed by the density of flight birds once, and they will chase that scenario forever. Single points may contain multiple birds, and points may even occur as a dog retrieves downed birds.
The weather conditions associated with the fall migration were never more apparent than in the Year 4 Annual Report from the EWMRC. The most significant migration trigger for juvenile birds was temperature, followed by barometric pressure. For continued migration, temperature was the biggest indicator for continued juvenile bird migration.
The most significant trigger for adult woodcock migration was barometric pressure, temperature, and wind assistance. Temperature and wind assistance were the greatest triggers for continued migration for adult birds.
Wind assistance is when the wind direction favors the direction of the woodcock migration. These light, agile birds catch wind currents, making their migration far easier. A real-world example of this is the pile-up of woodcock in Cape May, New Jersey. A shift in the north wind is necessary for woodcock to jump over the sea in that portion of their migration path. According to the EWMRC, wind assistance frequently initiates young and adult birds’ migrations. For adult birds, it is also a strong indicator of continued migration.
As hunters, these weather events often have more to do with the weather north of us rather than our local weather. Weather events on our home turf can push woodcock out of our covers, not into them. If one is serious about looking for migration indicators, tracking weather reports outside one’s hunting area is necessary.
Katherine Trebilcock’s study on how weather influences woodcock migration came from research on how climate change impacts American woodcock mortality rates. The study was published in 2022 and is titled “Riders on the Storm: Using Satellite Transmitters to Quantify American Woodcock Movement Behavior Following Extreme Weather Events.” A few distinct pieces of migration information were unveiled in this study.
Up until the 1970s, many woodcock enthusiasts held the idea that resident woodcock migrated before their northern cousins would fly through. Today, however, many woodcock hunters would tell you quite the opposite. According to Trebilcock’s study, woodcock that had already started migrating were more likely to continue migrating through during an extreme weather event than birds that had not initiated their migration yet. Another study finding was that woodcock migrating in the fall complete their migration in fewer flights compared to their more casual return north in the spring.
Trebilcock’s report found that reverse migration occurred at a rate of between 15 and 20 percent. As the term would imply, reverse migration occurs when a weather event pushes a bird back north rather than further south. In this case, snow and wind events were correlated with reverse migration flights. This is not an uncommon behavior for other birds who migrate at night. (Trebilcock 2022).
According to Trebilcock, low-visibility weather events also pushed woodcock farther along their migration path. This is a potentially significant behavior in the study because low-visibility conditions could increase collisions with buildings and other artificial structures. This could increase the mortality rate of migrating woodcock.
Simply said, if the barometer pressure is moving, temperatures are dropping, and wind assistance is present, you can bet that woodcock will migrate.
Male and Female Woodcock Migrate Differently
If you hunt woodcock long enough, you can recognize the difference between a female and male woodcock on the flush. While not a perfect science, the larger females seem like giants after seeing male birds rise. Many experienced woodcock hunters will tell you of days when only female birds seem to get up on points. On those days, I tend to move more towards ruffed grouse hunting or tuning up the dog rather than shooting in hopes of helping the breeding population. As it turns out, we are not crazy to have noticed this pattern.
In the Year 4 Annual Report of the EWMRC, the researchers indicated that “Adult woodcock initiated fall migration four days before young woodcock, and during migration, adult females progressed through migration prior to young birds (5 days), and adult males (9 days).”
Furthermore, the Tribilcock study showed strong indications that female birds were more likely to “shelter in place” during a severe weather event than males, who were more likely to fly to a “local refuge.”
Fall Woodcock Migration Beginning and End Dates
Some people firmly believe that the woodcock migration’s beginning and end are set in the stone of some ancient calendar. However, science supports the idea that their migration has become more inconsistent with time. What felt like an event that could be set to a clock 35 years ago when I was a kid is now as unpredictable as the weather. Perhaps increased volatility in weather patterns due to climate change is to blame. Habitat fragmentation is also known to shift generational flight patterns.
From 2018 to 2021, Alexander Fish tracked the beginning and end of individual GPS-tagged woodcock fall migration dates in his 2021 PhD dissertation titled “American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) Migration Ecology in Eastern North America.” When I first looked at his data, I had hopes that my brain and personal records were making things more complicated than they seemed. Although this report examines a mere four years’ worth of data, it is a wild ride.
The average migration initiation date over those four years varied by two weeks. The earliest initiation occurred in 2020 on October 28th; the latest was in 2019 on November 11th. The mean migration termination, or the average time when birds stopped their southern migration, was spread over 17 days over those four years. The earliest migration ended on October 20, 2019, and the latest was on January 29, 2020.
First migration movements were recorded as early as August 3, 2020, and as late as December 15, 2020. Note the variation of where the birds being tracked call home; these birds were tagged in 15 states and three Canadian provinces.
Fish scoured his data for trends in what initiated and terminated the fall woodcock migration. “The best-supported spatial model for the date of fall migration initiation included an additive effect of longitude and latitude,” wrote Fish. In other words, birds that called Ontario and western Quebec home initiated their migration before birds in Rhode Island. For every degree decrease in latitude, birds started migrating four days earlier. For every single degree decrease in longitude, birds moved .9 days earlier. “Additionally, given a constant latitude and longitude, adults initiated migration an average of 4.1 days earlier than young birds,” wrote Fish.
He compared migration termination dates to woodcock body condition, age, and other demographic and condition-based data. However, the starting latitude and longitude were the best indicators of when woodcock would end their migration. “Woodcock that initiated migration farther north and west in our sample (e.g., Ontario and western Quebec) terminated earlier than woodcock marked farther south and east (e.g., Rhode Island). On average, for every 1° decrease in starting latitude and starting longitude, woodcock terminated migration 1.3 days (latitude) and 0.8 days (longitude) earlier,” wrote Fish.
While we can surmise some general concepts of what time of year the migrations will occur in our home areas, a bird’s home longitude and latitude seem to be the most significant indicator of when their migration will begin.
The Moon Phase and Woodcock Migration
Someone in a grouse camp will always be convinced that the moon phase plays a significant role in woodcock migration. Admittedly, I have rolled my eyes at this more than once, but I am here to come clean by saying they were not crazy; well, not completely crazy.
The Year Four Report from the EWMRC indicated that for young birds, moon illumination was, in fact, a trigger for migration initiation. It was bested by temperature and barometric pressure changes. As far as mature birds go, moon illumination has a slight significance for adult males initiating their migration in the spring.
What is important to this theory is the word “illumination.” Cloud cover can impact on moon illumination. However, hunters can expect migration movements around the harvest moon, which occurs at the end of September.
Other Birds as Woodcock Migration Indicators
There are more tangible indicators of the fall woodcock migration. Many of them are traditions passed on through generations. I grew up knowing that as blue jays began to pass through our covers, it was a sure sign that woodcock were also migrating. However, blue jay migration is even less understood than woodcock migration; some years, they do not migrate.
Robins are more consistent as an indicator. “Much of the earlier fall migration may resemble the migration of robins, where large groups are often seen at different dates in different areas through fall” (Sheldon, 1971). While not a fine science, these birds’ noticeable migration contrasts with the woodcock’s reclusive daylight behavior, which can be helpful. While less visible (because of their size) but easy to identify by their singing, George Bird Evans believed dark-eyed junco migration could also indicate a woodcock migration.
Woodcock Chalk and Evidence of Flight Birds
Woodcock chalk, whitewash, or splash all refer to woodcock dropping. Chalk is the most physical sign of the woodcock migration. While always present with resident woodcock, the density of its occurrence will peak when a flight occurs. While this white paint splash-looking piece of evidence may peak excitement, it often indicates a recent migration event that’s already over. The splash can indicate when this flight occurred depending on how wet the splash is and the weather’s effects on the droppings. In many cases, those birds will be nearby.
One should not be disappointed if an area is now void of flight birds. Places with high densities of splash mean that spot is a great stopover location for migrating woodcock. As the weeks of the woodcock season go on, one should visit such locations that season and the next, knowing it is a prime location for flight birds to put down during migration.
Defining a Flight Bird
“There is no more controversial subject than what actually constitutes a flight.” Sheldon wrote those words in 1971. They still hold today. When hunting woodcock, there is no definitive science on what a flight bird is or is not. While the EWMRC can tell because they study GPS-tagged birds, we, as hunters, debate over behavioral indicators. Most of us lean on experience and generational knowledge.
How a bird flies when flushing from a point (or when a bird is bumped) is usually the topic of debate. I have come to believe that a strong flier indicates a resident bird. A weak flier, tired and unfamiliar with nearby cover to evade predators, will stay much closer. Some believe the opposite to be true. Whether it matters in the moment is a whole other question. I remember it is merely a nuance of obsessive upland hunters.
The only hard evidence one will ever have is to shoot a banded woodcock in a situation. One can then look up the band number to see where the bird was originally banded and indicate a general “resident” location. While I have been lucky to have such an event occur for me, the statistics are not in our favor. Furthermore, woodcock may be banded at different frequencies depending on the region you hunt. For example, the northeastern woodcock banding events tend to have very few woodcock.
Woodcock Cover Changes as Flights Happen
Some of my best flight covers for woodcock hunting have very few resident birds. Like many migratory animals, they rely on large, easy-to-identify markers for migration routes past their internal navigation. This often means large rivers. In my home state of New Hampshire, our most robust migration route is along the Connecticut River Valley. While not all birds will follow these large waterways, a majority will.
In the early season, woodcock are often found in very traditional habitat. This means moist soil with low acidity, alders, edges of fields with early succession growth, and thick shrubs. Water is vital to a resident bird. Damp grounds (not too wet, which would drown worms) with a lot of decay on the forest floor are a great place to find these residents.
Flight birds are far less picky in their stopover cover. The biggest piece of advice on this is that they need an open area to land in the first place; this means fields, log landings, open trails, and logging roads. They will not wander far from these locations if the weather continues to push them south. Some birds may stay in an area and branch out, searching for food.
Some of my best flight covers often are mature pines next to open fields. This is not a textbook-style cover, but woodcock are very adaptable. Young cuts, as in three years old and less, often get many flight birds because of the accessible landing opportunities. The best advice is to burn boot leather when the woodcock flights are in. While some may be more inclined to get that three-bird limit, there is a lot of rewarding dog work (and tuning up) to be had and ample opportunities to find unknown hunting spots.
While this may help one look for what they have yet experienced, real-world experience cannot be replaced by text. Going and hunting the woodcock migration is the greatest teacher of all. No different than how wild birds make bird dogs, these birds have everything to teach us if we just pay attention.
A.J. DeRosa founded Project Upland in 2014 as an excuse to go hunting more often (and it worked). A New England native, he grew up hunting and has spent over 35 years in pursuit of big and small game species across three continents. He has a passion for side-by-side shotguns, inspiring him to travel the world to meet the people and places from which they come. Looking to turn his passion into inspiration for others, AJ was first published in 2004 and went on to write his first book The Urban Deer Complex in 2014. He soon discovered a love for filmmaking, particularly the challenge of capturing ruffed grouse with a camera, which led to the award-winning Project Upland film series. AJ's love for all things wild has caused him to advocate on the federal and state levels to promote and expand conservation policy, habitat funding, and upland game bird awareness. He currently serves as the Strafford County New Hampshire Fish & Game Commissioner in order to give back to his community and to further the mission of the agency. When those hunting excuses are in play, you can find him wandering behind his Wirehaired Pointing Griffon in the mountains of New England and anywhere else the birds take them.