Under The Hunter’s Moon

Dan Donarski, outdoor blogger and enthusiast, details his evening amidst the glow of the Hunter’s Moon, in search of the elusive Woodcock. Read more with Pure Michigan Connect!

Last week, on Thursday night, we were treated to what the Farmer’s Almanac calls the Hunter’s Moon. This moon is the first full moon after the Harvest Moon.

A few strange and touched souls weren’t so much concerned about the name of the moon as they were with what the bright night skies would carry along with the stars under the moon glow. Yes, they knew it was rather late. They knew that it could have happened already and the things just executed a fly-by rather than fly-in. But, they hoped.

What they were hoping for was what gunners long ago called “a fall of woodcock.”

A fall of woodcock can occur in the very late afternoon, at absolute last light, but it occurs more often under the darkness of full night. Woodcock migrating south find an opening in the forest, an opening that is moist and offers cover from avian predators. Think of a classic alder patch edging a nice field, or even a big alder patch in the middle of a huge forest. The fall could take place in either.

The difference during the fall can be dramatic. You might as well have been searching a dry, barren desert one day– no woodcock to be found anywhere. Then, the very next day, in the very same spot, there are woodcock hunkering down next to every alder trunk.

The birds will hang around in this rest area for a time. If the weather stays mild, no freezing allowed, and if it stays moist so they can work their bills into the soil for worms, they may stay for a week or more. If it gets cold, if the worms can’t be worked, or if they just feel like it, the birds move on quickly. Sometimes the very next day.

You know it when they have flown in. Just look down. If you see a good amount of white splatters on the fallen leaves, if you see neat little circular holes bored into the soft soil, then you know they have come calling. That white stuff is called “splash” by some. Others call it paint or whitewash. The bore holes, or drills, are where the bird tried to get at a worm for its meal.

You’ll also be able to discover if the birds have come in for a visit by walking the same cover for days on end. If all of a sudden you are scaring birds up regularly, in the same place as a few days previous when you couldn’t even prove their existence, they are in. The twittering of their wings, as they launch into and then above the alder limbs provide a bit of comic truth.

I’ve been thinking about the woodcock migration a lot lately. Two weeks ago, on a trip to the western U.P., I was in contact with a few hunters below the bridge. I was hoping the woodcock weren’t in a full migration yet, that “the fall” was still in the future.

The local birds had, by and large, already departed for more southern haunts. Darby hadn’t sniffed one out in the week before I left. Prince Eric and Lady Karen like woodcock on the table. With a total of six in the freezer, I had marching orders to double that number.

My contacts told me they hadn’t seen any birds. Two told me that the birds by-passed us this year. Another told me that the next full moon would tell the tale.

This fellow was on the money.

On Wednesday, hunting a favored covert south and west of Grayling, Darby hunted hard and put up a single bird. It still flies.

Thursday, back in the same covert, the point total was three. Not many more but splash was definitely heavier. A few bore holes showed up during our hunt, too.

Then comes Friday. In three short hours 12 birds were launched out of the alders. Splash was everywhere. Darby was in bird dog Heaven. If only my shooting was.

The twelve flushes offered three near perfect shots. All were misses. Darby came back after the third one and lay down next to my feet. I swear he looked up at me and shook his head in disgust. Karen and Eric did perfect imitations when told of my lack of weight in the game bag.

It seems awful late for the woodcock to be moving through. Mid-October seems to be the time period that the birds are expected. Some say the birds are migrating later than they were just a decade ago. Others say that the migration all depends on the weather and this year’s mild fall has kept them north.

Then there is another folk tale that says the woodcock move in synch with the Hunter’s Moon. I like that explanation. And with the continued warm weather the birds are still in the Grayling area, if you know where to find them. Then there’s a place not too far from Reed City, where I’ve found good numbers right up until the very last day of the season.

Dan Donarski is an award-winning journalist/photographer and author. He specializes in the outdoors and adventure travel. When he’s not out and about he lays his head in Sault Ste. Marie.