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Woodcocks abundant in young forests of Wisconsin

Gary Zimmer of Laona, a regional biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society, holds two woodcock taken on a hunt with his dog Scout, a 4-year-old Brittany, on the Marinette County Forest near Dunbar, Wisconsin, October 18, 2012.
Gary Zimmer of Laona, a regional biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society, holds two woodcock taken on a hunt with his dog Scout, a 4-year-old Brittany, on the Marinette County Forest near Dunbar, Wisconsin, October 18, 2012.

(MCT) — DUNBAR, Wis. — The Pike River curled through the Marinette County Forest, its flow freshened by overnight rain and its surface brightened by swirls of yellow.

It’s the time of year when the aspen trees have finished trembling and bequeathed their coins to Earth.

Gary Zimmer and I followed Scout, his 4-year-old Brittany, through a maze of gray, vertical trunks.

The leaves that aren’t getting a voyage down the Pike have carpeted the forest and trails.

Though bare, the young popple stand is anything but barren.

“Here’s some splash, there’s some more,” said Zimmer, nodding at the white droppings of woodcock underfoot.

Seconds later, Scout locked on point 30 yards ahead of us.

Some say woodcock are “God’s gift to pointing dogs” due to their propensity to sit tight.

As Scout froze, Zimmer and I converged from left and right.

When we had shimmied and weaved to within 5 yards of Scout, the woodcock took flight — directly back and between us and behind the cover of a balsam.

Zimmer and I watched the bird flutter off without firing a shot. Just because timberdoodles often hold in front of pointers doesn’t mean they end up in the oven.

“It’s all about creating opportunities,” Zimmer said, clicking his flush counter and praising Scout.

A unique partnership and project in the Marinette County woods is helping to do just that.

Several of the principals gathered one Thursday for a sign dedication in the Pike River Hunter Walking Trail — West Unit.

The project involved the Ruffed Grouse Society, Dunbar Sportsmen’s Club, Marinette County Forestry and Parks and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Zimmer is regional biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society, an organization dedicated to young forest habitat and the wildlife that calls it home.

Also on hand were Mark Grandaw of Dunbar, a board member of the Dunbar Sportsmen’s Club; Pete Villas, assistant administrator of Marinette County Forestry and Parks; and Aaron McCullough, DNR wildlife technician.

“The key is to provide diversity in the forest,” Zimmer said. “Many species require young growth, and the only way to get it is through fire or timber harvests.”

The trail loops through about 500 acres of oak, maple, aspen, alder and balsam. An eastern unit of the hunter’s walking trail, established a few years ago, cuts through 1,675 acres.

The units are gated to keep vehicles out.

The sections are actively managed to keep wildlife — like grouse, deer, woodcock and golden-winged warblers — in.

The county schedules blocks of aspen cuts on a regular basis. Other trees, like maple and occasionally oak, are cut selectively.

Villas said the project is a classic “win-win.”

“From the county’s standpoint, it allows us to manage the forest the way it should be managed,” Villas said. “It allows carefully controlled timber harvests, which benefits wildlife and produces revenue for the county and helps reduce taxes for residents.”

The Pike River Hunter Walking Trail — East Unit was chosen as a demonstration site for the federal Young Forest Initiative because Marinette County has successfully maintained diversity in its forests, Villas said.

The group took a tour of the west trail. As we walked, we passed a forest opening created with funds from a state chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society. Alder trees poked up through goldenrod and fern.

The site is perfect for broods in spring; the birds can forage for insects on the ground and have protection from predators above.

“It’s OK to cut trees and here’s why,” Villas said as a grouse flushed from beside the trail.

Marinette County also has a beech management area, in which no trees are cut, and a jack pine forest that is frequently cut to provide habitat for the endangered Kirtland’s warbler.

Aspen stands grow fast and from a unique root system. If cut, they regenerate from the roots, not from seed.

But if aspen grows too old — from 70 to 90 years old — the roots deteriorate and it’s very difficult to regenerate the stand, Zimmer said.

Young aspen trees provide food as well as cover to wildlife. And not just grouse and woodcock: More than 40 species of wildlife, mostly songbirds and including the rare golden-winged warbler, are dependent on young forests, Zimmer said.

So for the sake of the aspen and all the wildlife that relies on young forest, it’s critical to harvest the stands on a regular basis.

Marinette County typically schedules aspen cuts when the trees reach about 45 years of age, Villas said.

Whereas federal forests have met only 28 percent of their aspen harvest goal over the last decade, county forests often feature much more active timber management.

After the noon sign dedication, Zimmer and I hunted through the afternoon on the walking trail and an adjacent parcel of Marinette County Forest.

The sky was low and gray, the temperature was 50 degrees and there was just a hint of breeze.

The ground was damp, affording very good scenting conditions for Scout.

It was the kind of day you feel like you could walk forever. We hiked the edges of tamarack swamps, the trees dressed in gold.

And through higher ground with a mix of oak, thornapple, aspen and balsam. The wetter the ground, the more birds we found. We focused our efforts on aspen stands about 7 years old. The trunks were about as thick as the barrel on a bat.

Woodcock use their long bills to forage for earthworms in the wet earth beneath the trees.

Scout jetted back and forth in a frenzy of bird scent. In addition to a good population of local grouse and woodcock, a recent flight of migrating timberdoodles had landed.

After four points and flushes, we had our first shot and bird in hand. The afternoon progressed with a flush every 10 minutes.

“If I were a politician, I’d make autumn a national holiday,” Zimmer said.

In four hours, we had 21 woodcock and six grouse flushes. Five woodcock would soon be a savory dinner.

We hiked back to the vehicles at 5 p.m., thankful for the gift of twittering woodcock, an appreciation for the habitat that supports the birds and the health to pursue them.

“The future for grouse and woodcock in this forest is even better than the present,” Zimmer said.

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