Brontosaurus Works for Woodcock

Release: June 6, 2012

SUGAR HILL – The extremely loud growling, grinding sound of a Brontosaurus is music to the ears of woodcock, the odd little birds that put on such an amazing mating display in the early spring – and is still going on in old fields and meadows around the North Country.

Brontosaurus at work - chomp, grind, spit.

The “brontosaurus” in this case is mechanical: a powerful rotating cutting head operated from an excavator, feller buncher, or similar heavy equipment. Its steel teeth chew up and spit out brush, saplings, and even small trees. It is used to clear land. In the case of the woodcock, it is used to create habitat.

Woodcock are a gamebird, and their numbers in New Hampshire and elsewhere have been falling. Biologists point toward habitat loss as the culprit. As forests mature, they become less attractive to woodcock. When open fields become house sites, woodcock move on. NH Fish & Game is assisting landowners to use a brontosaurus to reclaim and promote habitat for woodcock.

In Sugar Hill, Ammonoosuc Conservation Trust used NH Fish & Game cost sharing funds to put a brontosaurus to work reclaiming a section of ACT land that has been very good woodcock habitat but was becoming too overgrown for the ground-dwelling birds.

Woodcock (Scolopax minor), sometimes called timberdoodles, are short, stout shorebirds about the size of a plump robin. They’ve been on their singing grounds for nearly two months. Their mating performance is a rite of spring – one that North Country residents look forward to every year.

Wildlife biologist Will Staats marking apple trees for no cut.

It’s a rather dramatic performance. The male launches himself into the air, and then high above the ground swirls, twirls, and twitters with his wings, and finally plunges back toward the earth, chirping as he falls. Back on the ground, he walks about making a distinctive “peent” sound as he walks about. All this happens at dusk and dawn.

Woodcock have fairly particular habitat preferences for their amorous pursuits. Being short legged, they need open ground where they can walk about and then explode into the air. Fields, tending toward becoming overgrown, are where the males can strut along, and where the females can watch.

For nest building and raising their young, feeding, and roosting, woodcock like the adjacent uplands, young forest where they have cover from predators, but enough open ground to use their long bills to probe for worms and other invertebrates.

Steel grinding teeth on rotating head.

ACT hired brontosaurus operator John Dupuis, owner of JD Logging in Groveton. He thinned an area of thick alders and an old orchard that are part of its MacCornack-Evelyn Forest off Pearl Lake Road in Sugar Hill. Regenerating alder are an important cover for woodcock feeding.  As alder there aged, its stems grew parallel to the ground, allowing more sunlight into the understory and resulting in a thick layer of undergrowth. Thick grasses and brambles prevent woodcock from probing to find their favorite food, earthworms.

“We’ve seen fewer woodcock here the last few years, as the alders were falling over and the groundcover has gotten thicker and thicker,” observed ACT Executive Director Rebecca Brown. “By opening this land up with the brontosaurus, we’re hoping they’ll come back. We’re keeping track of their numbers this spring, and will continue to.”

Post-brontosaurus, late fall 2011.

“When you cut alder stems back close to their base, a lot of new shoots come up from the stump that will grow into thick cover,” said Jill KIlborn, a Fish & Game wildlife biologist who along with colleague Will Staats marked the area for the brontosaurus. “We also released the fruit bearing trees and shrubs like apple, hawthorn and shadbush. All sorts of wildlife love these trees.”

For more information on Fish & Game cost sharing, contact the Lancaster office at 788 3164.  If you’d like to visit ACT’s land where the brontosaurus was used, call us at 823-7777, or see video and photos on-line at www.aconservationtrust.org.

 

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