We interviewed USGS Station Leader & Research Wildlife Biologist Dan McAuley to discuss the American Woodcock.  This iconic bird has captured the hearts and minds of nearly every human with access to Youtube, but we wanted to dig a bit deeper and hear what a Biologist has to say about the timberdoodle.

video: youtube.com

When you’re looking to gain knowledge about wild game, turning to a wildlife biologist is an excellent way to get some granular details.  We reached out to Dan McAuley at the recommendation of honored Northland Chronicles Podcast guest Mr. Kelsey Sullivan.  After communicating with Dan, it was obvious we needed to get his story and hear what he had to share on the topic of the American Woodcock.  Working as a USGS Research Biologist based in Orono, Maine, Dan has been involved with a number of studies on migratory birds–this includes a recent project to study migration corridor survival for the Woodcock. To gain a better understanding of the work Dan is doing, please check out “Fall Survival of American Woodcock on Cape May, NJ”.

Q&A with Dan mcauley, usgs research biologist

  • Northland Chronicles: To begin, we’d love to know what about the American Woodcock appealed to you enough to study them for over forty years?  Did you begin as a hunter, and if yes, do you still hunt?  Do you hunt with a dog (and which breed/s)?
  • Mr. Dan McAuley:  I graduated from College and saw that a graduate student was hiring someone to work on woodcock at Moosehorn NWR.  I applied and eventually got the job.  I was also working with a federal biologist.  I didn’t know a lot about it’s biology but I quickly found that I really enjoyed working with them.  I use to hunt a little bit of everything but didn’t have a dog at the time.  While working at Moosehorn I met Andy Amman a retried biologist from Michigan.  He came up to Moosehorn to help us band woodcock and used his 2 English Setters to locate Females and their broods.  I really enjoyed that and the following year asked Andy  if he could get me a puppy.  He got me one the following spring.  In the meantime I had gotten a job with the federal biologist working at Moosehorn in the spring and summer and another biologist banding Canvasback ducks on Chesapeake Bay.  I trained that puppy and she turned out to be one of the best dogs I have ever owned.  I have had English Setters ever since and am an avid woodcock hunter.  Over the years i have worked as a technician and then progressed to a biologist and then to a research biologist.  Although I have worked on black ducks and acid rain I have always worked on woodcock as well and have had research programs associated with them ever since.
  • Northland Chronicles: We would be remiss if we didn’t cover the topic of Woodcock nicknames.  Do you have a personal favorite, or one that you and your coworkers use more than others?
  • Mr. Dan McAuley:  I do like Timberdoodles.
  • Northland Chronicles: From what we know, Maine sees migrating birds from New Brunswick, Quebec, as well as a mix of resident birds that nest in state. Are there defined (or consistent) micro-flyway corridors within the state that eventually converge into the larger Atlantic Flyway?
  • Mr. Dan McAuley:  We are actually looking at that right now.  I have been putting nanotags and transmitters on birds to try and see where they go and how long it takes them to get to where they are going.  A graduate student from the University is attaching GPS satellite transmitters to birds and finding that some birds fly along a coastal route, others cross over to New York and Pennsylvania and head down [South] from there.  Cape May NJ is a notorious stopping place for woodcock during the fall migration.
  • Northland Chronicles: We have noticed (over the last two years especially) more flight birds on the spring trip, than in the fall migration. It seems this is related to late spring snow storms.  What is your stance on the movement and trends?
  • Mr. Dan McAuley: The spring migration is always a time that I worry about especially with the snowless Marches that get the birds to come up and then the late snowstorms that really take a toll on them.  The birds tend to follow the snowline up in the spring and with the last two or three years especially they have been hit hard by snowstorms.  The fall is a little different in that the cold weather tends to send them south and our radio-marked birds up here don’t tend to migrate until the second week of November, but flight birds trickle through when there isn’t any serious cold weather to the North.  If you get some very cold snaps North of us we do still get flights but they haven’t been too many during the last year or two.
  • Northland Chronicles: Have you observed a difference between preferred habitat for resident birds nesting as compared to what’s needed when flight birds hold-over and recoup during their migration?
  • Mr. Dan McAuley: No, because all woodcock have the same food requirements they tend to use the same habitat type.  Because 90% of the their diet is earthworms they tend to use moist to wet upland sites and alders.  It’s just that when flight bird come through they tend to be grouped up in the covers.  Nesting birds tend to use a variety of habitats but they are usually a little more upland but they are still in young aspen, mixed with conifers as well as alders and other hardwoods.  Mostly 15 -20 years or less.
  • Northland Chronicles:  In the Midwest states there’s a quiet season–typically 2nd week of April through 2nd week of July–where running dogs off-lead is not allowed, to avoid the chance that a dog will destroy a nest or kill chicks. Are you aware of Maine discussing anything like this?  Do you have any recommendations for dog handlers when training dogs in Maine?
  • Mr. Dan McAuley: Yes I am aware of the regulations.  They do allow people to band birds but they need to be trained and evaluated before they can run their dogs.  Maine is not considering any such regulations.  I have used my dogs to find broods and nests for years but my dogs are well-trained.  I would not recommend that people run their dogs during the nesting and brood rearing season (mid-April to the about mid-June would probably be good)

photo: allaboutbirds.org
photo: allaboutbirds.org

Interestingly enough, the exact weather pattern Dan mentioned (mild March followed by snow in April) is what we’re experiencing so far this Spring.  Hopefully the wormburglars aren’t impacted greatly by the inconsistent weather this year.

We’d like to thank Dan McAuley for his time, and for the work he does with USGS in tracking migratory birds.  The research collected is valuable in so many ways to the outdoor community, and we look forward to getting a chance to sit down and record a podcast episode with Dan McAuley.