Spring Woodcock Nest

The American Woodcock breeds early in spring, with males beginning their courtship displays—sky dancing at dawn and dusk—as early as December in the southern part of the range and as early as March in the north. Males mate with multiple females and give no parental care. The nesting female is quick to abandon a nest if it is disturbed in the early stages of incubation. Later on, she may respond to an intruder by first lying low and motionless, then flushing from the nest and feigning injury to distract the intruder. The female broods the nestlings only until they dry off; they all leave the nest together a few hours after hatching. She feeds the young for a week but they begin to probe for food on their own at 3-4 days. About a month later they become independent, moving around as individuals rather than with their siblings. Outside of the nesting season, woodcocks are generally solitary, though they may group into small clusters of 2–4 individuals. 

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You Can Take The Dog Out Of The Field...

He doesn’t have any interest in birds.”

So said the foster owner of our soon-to-be English Setter rescue, when asked if the dog had hunted.

I didn’t mind the response. We were looking for a dog to replace our beloved Labrador mix, which was my wife’s devoted “barn dog” for many years. With the passing of our old friend, my wife wanted another companion when she was tending to the horses. Neither our GSP or Weimaraner could fill that role. The havoc they unleashed in the barn was more than their companionship was worth. Personally, I was amused how my GSP turned into a mountain goat when confronted with a large stack of hay bales. But then I wasn’t the one who had to clean up their mess.

Nonetheless, my wife’s intentions were clear…this new member of household was not required to point and retrieve things with feathers. I could accept that, as I had my hands full with (what my wife referred to as) “the crazy short-tailed Germans”. And within a few weeks of entering our home, a six-year-old, beautifully tri-colored Setter named “Monty” was already settling nicely into his new surroundings.

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We learned the hard way this docile, couch-potato-of-a-Setter can cover a hell of a lot of ground when he got away from us while hiking in the nature preserve behind our house. Never ones to take chances with a new dog, we had a 30-foot check cord and Astro 220 on him, which made quick work of locating him. But now we had a new priority, off-leash training was mandatory.

In a passing conversation with friend and professional dog trainer Justin McGrail of Black Creek Dog Training Center, I mentioned our new addition. Justin suggested bringing Monty in for a visit so he could provide some, er, pointers on his obedience in an effort to help control his inclination to bolt. The unusually mild Michigan winter and lack of snow made for almost fall-like conditions, so I took Justin up on his offer.

Equipped with a lengthy check cord and Garmin unit, Justin added a dead pheasant and two live pigeons to his vest. Just in case.

Keeping a grip on the check cord, we guided Monty around a portion of the 95-acre training grounds. Then came time to show him the pheasant. Monty displayed a mild interest, as one would expect from any bird dog. He even placed the bird in his mouth for a moment, but let go of it and turned his attention back to exploring. When Justin presented a live pigeon, Monty held his gaze on the bird as Justin let it go.

It was time to take it up a notch.

I took Monty in one direction and Justin went in the other to plant the remaining pigeon. Not speaking, we made a wide loop with Monty and moved downwind of the bird. It was obvious when Monty eventually caught the scent. His head dropped and followed an invisible trail. Then it happened. For a fleeting moment I assumed Monty simply stopped walking. I was wrong. He was locked-up. Several moments passed without a word being said. Still no movement. This damn dog turned to stone.

Justin and I traded glances, I shrugged, and we laughed. “I suppose I should take a photo with my phone to show Kay,” I said as I approached Monty, looking for a good angle. The only motion I noticed was his eyes darting back and forth between me and a grassy patch where a bird hunkered down, hidden, a dozen feet away. And my wife’s barn dog, the dog who “wasn’t birdy” stood as if in a trance.

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On the way back to the training facility, thoughts raced through my mind;
Was this behavior only instinctive?
Perhaps he’d hunted before?
Can he be taught to quarter and retrieve?
Can I fit a third crate in the Suburban?
What in the hell do I tell my wife?

Ultimately Justin and I agreed to not read too much into this display. We planned to start working on off-lead obedience. A dog needs to be more connected with his owners no matter what its innate ability.

Upon returning home, I left Monty in the Suburban and entered the house alone. I jokingly told my wife I left her dog at Black Creek for more training as a result of the day’s events. I even showed proof of his hunting potential via my cell phone photo. After a quick run through a range of emotions, then retrieving her “barn dog/potential bird dog” from the car, she just laughed and said, “Maybe I’ll get a Lab.” Hmmm…..

Autumn In April

The unrelenting heat of summer leaves me nostalgic for the autumn-like days of Spring, when the woods of northern Michigan promise the return of migrating woodcock. I joined dog trainer Justin McGrail on just such an April day, when the chill of winter was just giving way and the warmth of the sun on our faces was still a novelty.

Justin brought along his English Setters, German Shorthaired Pointer, English Pointer and Labrador Retriever. My own Weimaraner Stuka rounded out the string. Watching the instincts of each breed in action is a fascinating study of hunting skill diversity. No two dogs hunt the same.

Rex, Justin’s GSP is a wise, methodical hunter. The connection between Justin and Rex was almost visible; they are a team in every sense of the word. A hand gesture, whistle and sometimes even just a glance, and Rex would maneuver through the brush as if guided by some internal compass. Once Rex was on point, even a blank shot from a starter pistol brought nothing more then a shift of an eye, and nothing short of a command from his trainer would budge him. If not for that command, Rex might still be on point.

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Dutch, a muscular English pointer is, with the exception of his skill at finding birds, Rex’s alter ego. Dutch is almost frantic in his hunting style, as if his very life depended on putting a woodcock in his trainer’s vest.

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Young Dolly (as in Dolly Madison; her owner runs with a “First Lady” naming scheme) is as energetic as she is beautiful. This girl is a focused hunter who covers an amazing amount of ground, impervious to the terrain conditions. By the end of her run her white feathers were caked with mud. She wore it well.

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Ben. Ah, Ben. Watching this dog work made me want to run out and buy a camo shotgun and rowboat, and head to the nearest lake. This dog was in phenomenal condition; lean, fit, trim and muscular. Watching him take flight over open water to retrieve a training dummy was akin to watching a professional athlete. The look on his face as he retrieved his prize was nothing short of pure joy. He was completely in his element.

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When Stuka’s turn came I left the camera behind to focus on training. When I have the opportunity to put him on wild birds, it’s gratifying to see him start to make the connections between finding birds and the ground cover in which they hide. He found a few woodcock and, much to our surprise even bumped a ruffed grouse. But steadiness is still an area on which Stuka and I need to focus in the coming months.

Any day in the woods is a good day…we’ll get through the hot days of summer, perhaps with more fly fishing than dog training. But come fall we’ll be rewarded with cooler, dryer conditions and the opportunity to put all this training into practice. Even Stuka thought it was time to call it a day.

The New Fox Sterlingworth

Good things really do come to those who wait.  A very long six months ago back in April, I wrote a post about purchasing a new gun.  It’s finally here…a refurbished 1936 Fox Sterlingworth DeLuxe 16 gauge SxS. Thanks to Jay Shachter at Vintage Firearms, Inc., the craftsmanship on this gun is impressive and the fit is perfect.

With the barrels choked modified and full, I ran it through the sporting clays course at the Kent County Conservation League in Ada, Michigan this past weekend. I shot one of the best rounds I’ve had in months. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

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