WARBA — In a dense forest of young alder, aspen and maple trees north of town, Debbie Petersen hollered for her dog, Riley, to slow down.

She didn’t want him to stomp on any baby woodcock chicks, the “little puffballs’’ as she calls them, the reasons we were here.

“Easy!” Petersen bellowed in a voice used only by hunters trying to get through to their dogs. “Whoa! Slow down!”

Riley, a smart-nosed Gordon setter pointing dog, complied. And soon he was off again, at a slower pace, sniffing the air for any sign of woodcock. It didn't take long until he was locked-up on point.

One woodcock flushed left, another right, and Riley held tight as he was trained. As I looked down at my left foot, trying not to squish any puffballs, there was a third woodcock just inches away, under a fern, perfectly still and perfectly camouflaged among last year’s brown leaves on the ground.

Most of the chicks Petersen and Riley were finding were too small to fly even a little. But these birds were a few days older and managing to get away.

“Stay still; don’t move,’’ Petersen ordered as she crept toward the little bird from behind. “I’m going to try for a hand-grab.”

Spring hunting

It’s not often that you get to hunt woodcock, or anything else for that matter, in June. Yet here Petersen was handling her handsome bird dog in the spring woods, lush with new green foliage and loaded with ticks and mosquitoes.

But the goal wasn’t to bag woodcock for a casserole dinner. Instead, it was to find mother woodcock hens (that was Riley’s job) and find their nests of eggs, or their newly hatched chicks, usually within a few feet of where the mom flew off. Then Petersen would grab the chicks, pinch tiny identification bands on their legs and then weigh and measure the puffballs and log the data.

But it was the next step that may be the most important to the future of woodcock, which have been declining in numbers across North America for decades. Petersen fitted each chick with a tiny radio transmitter that would send signals to nearby antennas showing exactly where the little birds were every 5 seconds for the next month or so before the tiny batteries wear out. The transmitter, with an antenna the size of a human hair, is designed to deteriorate and fall off the chick after a few weeks.

Debbie Petersen holds a three-week-old woodcock chick after fitting the bird with a tiny radio transmitter in Warba, Minnesota, Saturday, June 1, 2019. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com
Debbie Petersen holds a three-week-old woodcock chick after fitting the bird with a tiny radio transmitter in Warba, Minnesota, Saturday, June 1, 2019. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.comTyler Schank / Forum News Service

The goal is to find out not just what type of forest woodcock use to build nests and hatch their young, but also what type of forest those little birds need to successfully grow up and get big enough to fly south this autumn.

The woodcock effort is part of a three-pronged study here on UPM Blandin Paper Co. land in Itasca County, a patchwork of young and old forest managed both to supply wood for the company’s paper mill but also for wildlife. With ample openings and considerable areas of young trees, the Blandin property is a good nursery not just for woodcock but also golden-winged warblers and veery, two small forest songbirds also declining dramatically nationally but which are doing well here.

“For all three of these birds, places like this, where they seem to be doing pretty well, are more and more important,’’ said Alexis Grinde, an avian ecologist with UMD’s Natural Resources Research Institute who is heading the bird study. “We know they nest here. We know they seem to thrive here. But we don’t have much information on where they go for most of the summer. What cover types are they using? What’s the best habitat for them? This (study) is going to shed some light on why this area works for them.”

The tiny transmitters fitted on woodcock, warbler and veery chicks could also be picked up by a receiver attached to a drone so scientists can follow the birds even if they stray out of their home area. Once relegated to big animals like moose, bear or deer, radio transmitters that weigh fractions of an ounce can now keep track of the tiniest birds in the forest. The transmitter on the baby woodcock weighs just 0.0236 of an ounce. The ones placed on baby warblers are even smaller.

“We finally have the technology to answer some of these questions,’’ Grinde added.

Declining populations

Nationally, the numbers don’t look good for these birds. Woodcock are down 30 percent across the continent. Golden-winged Warblers are among the most critically threatened birds in North America, down 70 percent over the last 50 years. Over the last 40 years veery populations have declined 40 percent.

Northern Minnesota is critical because 10 percent of all woodcock and veery nest here. It’s even more important for golden-winged warblers, half of which nest in the Northland. While some species thrive in old, mature forests, all three species in this study need young forest for at least part of their life cycle. In the past, young forest sprouted after fires, storms or invasions by beaver. Now, it’s mostly logging that take out older trees so younger trees can grow.

Debbie Petersen holds a woodcock egg in her hand, a sign the birds are near, in Warba, Minnesota, Saturday, June 1, 2019. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com
Debbie Petersen holds a woodcock egg in her hand, a sign the birds are near, in Warba, Minnesota, Saturday, June 1, 2019. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.comTyler Schank / Forum News Service

The research project will identify the places where the birds spend the most time, and researchers will go back to check what’s there — what tree and plant types, how big the trees are, how many worms are in the soil (woodcock primarily eat worms) and what else was nearby, like streams or ponds. All of that information will shed new light on fledgling woodcock’s little-known summertime habitat needs between hatching and migration.

“The goal is to find out what forest management practices work specifically for these species... And maybe be able to share that information with other land managers,” Grinde said.

Riley at work

For Petersen, a high school science teacher in Walker, Minn., who often spends part of her summers doing field work for NRRI scientists, the woodcock project lets her combine two passions — forest bird research and her hunting dog.

While dogs have been used to find woodcock for banding for years, and Riley is certified for that, this may be the first time a dog has been used in an ongoing habitat and behavior research project.

“He is loving every minute of it. And we’re both learning something new every day,’’ Petersen noted. “Riley is improving his bird work and I am learning how to read him better and to better assess each situation.”

In this case, Petersen is walking several miles each day to find the woodcock nests in the roughly one square kilometer study area. But that’s nothing compared to Riley’s effort.

“In two-and-a half days last weekend he put on 37 miles,’’ Petersen noted as the 6-year-old dog wallowed in a mud puddle to cool down.

Debbie Petersen holds a GPS tracking system that shows the entire route her dog Riley traveled in a three-hour time span in Warba, Minnesota, Saturday, June 1, 2019. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com
Debbie Petersen holds a GPS tracking system that shows the entire route her dog Riley traveled in a three-hour time span in Warba, Minnesota, Saturday, June 1, 2019. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.comTyler Schank / Forum News Service

She knows that because the dog is fitted with a GPS transmitting collar sending information to a GPS unit that hung on Petersen’s neck. It showed exactly where Riley had been and were he was, and whether he was standing still, possibly on point, or running. In a dense forest where it can be hard to see even 100 feet away, it’s a handy high-tech, high-dollar tool upland bird hunters use to keep track of their dog without the noise of a beeper or bell.

“When the tail goes up on the icon, he’s on point,’’ Petersen said with a smile.

“We couldn’t do this part of the research without a dog,’’ Grinde noted.

When we tagged along in the woods on a sunny early June day, Petersen was following up on four batches of woodcock chicks she had previously found. But she and Riley also were still finding new coveys, including this group of three slightly older chicks that were able to fly short distances.

Woodcock chick No. 007

As I watched the slow-speed snatch play out near my left foot, Petersen carefully moved toward the little bird from behind and slowly extended her arm.

“Gotcha!’’ Petersen exclaimed. Then she went to work.

This would be woodcock chick No. 007, soon fitted with four leg-bands and a radio transmitter, weighed, measured and otherwise inspected. Petersen also measured it’s long bill — used to snatch worms from the forest floor — which was 53 millimeters long, signaling the bird was probably about three weeks old, the result of an early hatch in an otherwise late spring. (Other broods had hatched only a week before and could not fly.)

 Debbie Petersen holds a three-week-old woodcock chick on her lap to attach bands to its feet in Warba, Minnesota, Saturday, June 1, 2019. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com
Debbie Petersen holds a three-week-old woodcock chick on her lap to attach bands to its feet in Warba, Minnesota, Saturday, June 1, 2019. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.comTyler Schank / Forum News Service

Eventually, 007 was set down and quickly flew a few feet away to hide again, its mother and siblings likely not far away.

Within seconds 007’s tiny transmitter would be sending signals that scientists will later study. And maybe 007’s data might someday help manage other forests where woodcock will grow up.

“These are just the best birds,’’ Petersen said of woodcock. “They are so cool.”

Then Petersen and Riley went back to work, hunting for the next covey.

The forest bird project is funded by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources out of the state’s Environmental Trust Fund stocked by lottery proceeds.