The bird rose from the crisp leaves between the dog and me almost in slow motion. Its wing-beats made a metallic twittering sound. It was so close I could feel the breeze from its wings. Five feet off the ground, it turned and seemed to look me in the eye before pitching horizontally through a tangle of grapevines. My shot interrupted the spell, but not the bird’s flight.
Another day, hunkered at the edge of a plowed cornfield that held an inch or two of standing rainwater, I spied a dozen sleek forms 100 yards out, slicing down the north wind toward me with breathtaking agility. I stood up and fired twice. The skein of birds parted like a curtain, sweeping around and past me, without apparent injury.
Yet another day, in a cattail marsh with small watery clearings, my quarry stubbornly declined to fly, preferring to skulk among knee-high grass hummocks. Whenever one of the birds did leave the ground, however, it rewarded my patience with an easy shot. My game vest grew heavy.
If these scenarios seem unfamiliar, it is probably because you have never pursued woodcock, snipe or rails. Of all Missouri’s game birds, these are perhaps the least hunted. That’s a shame because each species provides a challenge.
As a bonus, pursuing them takes you to places you otherwise might never visit and fills otherwise empty spaces in autumn’s hunting calendar. Hunting woodcock, snipe and rail also offers a chance to sharpen rusty wing-shooting skills and an excuse to scout new hunting areas.
If you get the urge to take your favorite scattergun afield before big flights of ducks and geese arrive, this trio of what I call “utility birds” may be just what you need.
Also known as “timberdoodles” or “bogsuckers,” these stout but oddly handsome birds are mottled buff and black. They make their living by poking long, sensitive beaks deep into the soil in search of their primary food, earthworms. For this specialized lifestyle, they have eyes set far back on their heads, allowing them to watch for trouble while probing for food.
The quality of woodcock cover can be gauged by how much grief it causes you and your dog. Timberdoodles favor low-lying areas where the soil is moist and loamy, but you may also find them amid blackberries, wild roses, gooseberries and cat briers in uplands. Clearcuts between 10 and 25 years old are excellent woodcock habitat, as are abandoned bottomland fields that grew up in cottonwood thickets after the Great Flood of 1993.
The common thread in woodcock habitat is a closed canopy of vegetation that shades out turf grasses, leaving the ground beneath nearly bare and ready for “bogsucking.” A blanket of leaves doesn’t deter woodcock. In fact, their markings mimic fallen leaves so perfectly that a dog is almost essential for locating downed birds.
Woodcock are most likely to be found near the edges of suitable cover near open ground rather than in the middle of thickets. Evidence that woodcock are present includes white, quarter-sized droppings with brown streaks. You might also find holes in the soil where the birds have been poking around for worms.
Woodcock migrate at night, settling into thickets to rest and eat during the day. They are birds of passage, here one day and gone the next, even in the best habitat. Their wings make a distinctive metallic sound when they take flight, almost like tiny wind chimes. That, coupled with squat bodies and outrageously long beaks, makes them unlike anything else you encounter in similar habitat.
Woodcock seldom fly far when flushed. That is fortunate, because you have only about a fifty-fifty chance of getting off a shot when one flushes in thick cover. Typically, they rise just above the shrubby undergrowth, then dodge among tree branches for 20 or 30 yards before settling back down. If you can mark the spot where it lands, your chances of flushing a bird again are excellent.
The best gunning strategy is to shoot at the moment when the bird reaches the peak of its rise. This is simpler in theory than in practice, because you usually have a blackberry thorn tugging at your earlobe or a screen of saplings between you and the bird.
Shots at woodcock are fleeting, so you need a gun that is quick in hand. A light double-barrel is ideal, but any short, maneuverable shotgun will do. A flushed bird often is obscured by tree limbs by the time it is 15 yards away, so it is almost impossible for a woodcock gun to have too open a choke. Spreader loads—shotgun shells with wads designed to disperse the shot as soon as it leaves the barrel—can convert a tight-choked gun into an excellent woodcock gun.
My golden retriever loves hunting timberdoodles. However, a few dogs apparently find woodcock either uninteresting or distasteful and refuse to retrieve them. Spaniels are ideal woodcock dogs, wiggling into terrifyingly thorny places to root out tight-sitting birds. Getting your dog to work close is the key, because it is easy to miss a flush that occurs more than 30 yards away.
Practical jokes aside, snipe are real game birds. They can be devilishly hard to hit when flying from place to place and are only slightly less challenging when flushed.
Snipe resemble woodcock because of their long bills. However, their plumage has bold stripes, their necks are longer than woodcocks’, and they inhabit open, marshy areas, never forest thickets.
Look for snipe around the margins of shallow ponds, in mud flats of lakes and along muddy stream banks. You also might find them in adjoining disked or plowed crop fields. Late-migrating snipe sometimes take shelter in moist, grassy draws after wetlands freeze over.
When flushed, snipe utter a sharp cry that mimics their name. This is important, as other wading birds often are found in close association with snipe. Hold your fire if you don’t hear the snipe cry and see a long bill.
A stealthy hunter might be able to get quite close to snipe before they take flight. They often return to a location after having been flushed, so you might get a second shot by hunkering down in any available cover and waiting a few minutes.
Although nontoxic shot is not required for snipe, some of the best places to hunt them are public wetland areas where the use of nontoxic shot is mandatory. No. 7 steel shot with a modified or improved cylinder choke is a good choice.
Almost all the rails taken by Missouri hunters are soras, but the two rail species most commonly seen in Missouri are similar enough in appearance that an aggregate bag limit makes sense. Be aware that other rails, including the rare king rail, can be found here during the hunting season.
Soras are small, drab gray birds with yellow beaks much shorter than those of snipe and woodcock. They are secretive, but they betray their presence with frequent ker-wee calls from their hiding places.
You might find several soras around a piece of open water when you first appear, but they quickly disappear into surrounding cattails and sedges. A dog is very helpful for rousting them out of these haunts and for finding them once they are down.
Soras are not fast or erratic fliers, and often they concentrate in large numbers around small marshy areas on state-owned wetlands. These habits make them great confidence-builders for young hunters with limited patience and shooting skill. The fact that these little shorebirds pass through Missouri in September and early October, when temperatures are still pleasant, also favors young hunters. Getting a little wet at this time of year is only an inconvenience, not a reason to stop hunting.
No. 7 steel shot with an improved cylinder choke is a practical combination. Bring along insect repellent and a bottle of drinking water.
Scientific name: Scolopax minor
Length: 10-13 inches
Wingspan: 17-19 inches
Season: Oct. 15-Nov. 28
Daily/possession limit: 3/6
Scientific name: Gallinago delicata
Length: 11-13 inches
Wingspan: 16-17 inches
Season: Sept. 1-Dec. 16
Daily/possession limit: 8/16
Scientific name: Porzana carolina
Length: 6-7 inches
Wingspan: 12.5 inches
Season: Sept. 1-Nov. 9
Daily/possession limit: 25/25 (in the aggregate with Virginia rails)
Scientific name: Rallus limicola
Length: 8-11 inches
Wingspan: 13-15 inches
Season: Sept. 1-Nov. 9
Daily/possession limit: 25/25 (in the aggregate with soras)
Make a meal out of it
You won’t feed a large group with utility birds unless you bag a limit of all three. Some people say these birds are not fit to eat. Others—who either are better cooks or have broader tastes—think they provide excellent table fare.
The easiest way to prepare snipe, rail and woodcock is to pull back the skin covering the breast and carefully fillet the meat from the bone. Snipe and rails yield about an ounce of meat per bird. Woodcock breasts are a little larger.
Soak breast fillets for an hour or so in milk or buttermilk, then rinse them with cool water. Saute the breast halves in butter or olive oil with minced garlic, salt and pepper to taste. Cook only until the meat is still slightly pink at the center. Overcooking makes wild fowl tough and contributes a strong taste.
To make a sauce, remove the meat from the pan and add a tablespoon of red wine for each breast. Cook on low heat until slightly thickened. Garnish with parsley and serve on a bed of wild rice.