Outdoors with Rick Brockway: Some birds migrate carrying old lessons

My wife and I have been walking up our hill and making a loop through the woods for some exercise three or four mornings a week. It’s a little better than a three-mile hike. The other morning as we passed a section of the old pasture swamp, a small brown bird rose up out of the taller grass. It was a woodcock.

Boy, did that bring back memories of many years ago. When I moved to the Adirondacks to teach, I joined the fish and game club and soon became friends with an old mountain guide. John took me under his wing, so to speak. One day he asked me to go small game hunting with him. Of course, I agreed and met him at his restaurant and general store.

“What gauge shotgun are you shooting?” he asked.

“20,” I responded.

He handed me two boxes of shells. With 25 to the box, I wondered why I needed 50 shells. “Put a box in each pocket,” he told me.

I didn’t question his wisdom and emptied them into my hunting coat. We got into his Jeep and headed north a few miles, parked and headed down onto the river flat. It was quite brushy and thick with tall alders.

Suddenly, there was a whistling sound and a flutter of wings. John shot and put a small, long-beaked bird to the ground.

“The woodcocks are in,” he said. “They migrate down from Canada and always stop here for a few days.”

We spread out and started slowing walking parallel to the river. Another bird flushed in front of me, and I shot but missed.

That’s how it went. They flew up and I missed every time. Now, I never had that problem in the past. I’d shot plenty of partridges back on the farm, but they’d flush and fly away. Woodcocks don’t. They fly straight up, sometimes. Other times they’ll zigzag up through the branches before leveling out to fly away.

“When they flush, count to three and shoot them when they’re going away,” he explained with years of old North Country wisdom.

It worked. I put several birds in the back of my hunting coat before the morning ended, but only a few of those shotgun shells were left.

The American woodcock is a unique migratory bird. The river flat that we hunted was a stopping-off point every year for large flocks of these unusual birds. They have mottled plumage that makes perfect camouflage on the leaf-littered ground and fairly large eyes that almost sit on the back of their heads so they can see predators in the sky while still probing for earthworms in the soft swampy forest floor. In the spring when they fly back north, the males fly straight up several hundred feet into the sky and do acrobatics back to the ground to attract a mate.

I hunted those same river flats every year while I lived in Wells and had a Labrador that retrieved much of the game I shot. Skeeter would go crazy over the smell of those little birds, though quite often, they were there one day and gone the next. But another flight of those straight-up flyers would be there a few days later.

It was probably 20 years after moving back down to this area that we returned to the flats above Griffin Gorge. It was mid-September and a flight was in, right where I had found them many years before. John had passed away by then, but the memory of that first morning lingered in my mind.

“Count to three before you shoot,” I told Randy.

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