Eastern woodcock project takes advantage of federal dollars

When Erik Blomberg went to a regional meeting on upland bird management in 2016, he learned that satellite telemetry was providing some novel insights about American woodcock migration in the western part of their range. Wouldn’t it be great, Blomberg and others at the meeting thought, to replicate that work in the east? Data gaps there that have kept scientists from understanding why the bird has been declining over the last 50 years.

Now an associate professor and chair of the department of wildlife, fisheries and conservation at the University of Maine, Blomberg partnered with the Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society to place GPS transmitters on woodcock (Scolopax minor) at Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge in Maine in 2017. From there, he and Amber Roth, the co-principal investigator in the project, began contacting other agencies they could involve. Blomberg and Roth would provide the research coordination and logistics through the University of Maine. The agencies could purchase transmitters to be deployed within their state or province.

“We generated a model where everyone could come and contribute a little bit of funding,” Blomberg said.

The project, called the Eastern Woodcock Migration Research Cooperative, grew quickly, from seven transmitters in the pilot year to 150 transmitters one year later, covering 14 states and three provinces. They now have marked close to 500 woodcock over the last five years.

The work they have been able to accomplish earned them the TWS Wildlife Restoration Award, which recognizes outstanding projects supported by federal wildlife restoration funds—also known as Pittman-Robertson funds—granted for states to restore, conserve, manage and enhance wildlife and habitats.

Researchers placed GPS transmitters on American woodcock to learn more about their migration. Credit: Eastern Woodcock Migration Research Cooperative

The project would not exist without state and federal agencies’ work and contributions, Blomberg said, but it’s the Wildlife Restoration dollars that make it all possible.

Researchers hope the partnership can help them pin down woodcock migration timing and identify key stopover areas. They also hope the GPS transmitters can help them identify mortalities, places where mortality risk is high and whether woodcock in the eastern and central regions comprise a single population or two distinct populations.

“Woodcock have been studied for close to a century now, but prior to these advances in GPS and satellite transmitters,” Blomberg said. “There was this limited ability to follow them throughout all stages of their annual cycle. GPS transmitters facilitated us rapidly gaining a lot of insight into how woodcock migration functions.”

A number of papers from the project are already in the publication process. One will look at how weather and the moon influences woodcock migration departure and timing. Others will focus on habitat use, population connectivity and patterns in mortality during migration. Another paper, led by collaborating PhD student Colby Slezak at the University of Rhode Island, will help identify nesting events.

“That ends up being an important piece of the picture because we are finding they sometimes make long distance migratory movements between nesting events, which hadn’t been previously documented,” he said.

Click here for a complete list of 2021 TWS award winners. For more about this year’s virtual conference, click here.

Header Image: Researchers placed GPS transmitters on American woodcock to learn more about their migration. Credit: Eastern Woodcock Migration Research Cooperative