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Earthworms boon for local woodcock.

Eleven years ago this week, my Brittany pup Sosa pointed his first woodcock. The soft, rich soils of the Blackstone Valley where we hunted together are seething with earthworms, which the woodcock love. Seething, that is, when all the snow has melted and the soil has thawed.

Deep snows and frozen ground this year have postponed our annual early spring rendezvous with the "timberdoodle.'' They're mostly still far to our south, probing soft, basic soils which their long bills can readily penetrate.

Like most woodcock hunters, I can clearly remember my pup's first point as if it were yesterday. Moving along at a moderate, methodical clip, uninterrupted by anything of great interest for nearly half-hour through an overgrown pasture, Sosa suddenly came to an abrupt halt in a patch of young aspens. He was suddenly transfixed, frozen in time with his head turned 90 degrees to the right and his left front paw still in the air. If he didn't have fur, you'd have thought he was a statue.

I excitedly walked right up to him. At first I couldn't see the perfectly camouflaged woodcock on the old, fallen leaves, even though it was only about 6 feet from Sosa's nose. Despite seeing both Sosa and me right next to him, the bird instinctively -- like all of his kind has done for centuries -- remained motionless, confident in his invisibility. Often woodcock won't flush until one almost steps on them. They're the perfect bird for training a pointing pup.

Every second on point was now a critical learning opportunity for my pup. I spent several minutes marveling at Sosa's innate intensity and wondering how long he could resist the urge to find the source of his olfactory delight. The only movement in his body was from his jowls expanding and contracting as he savored a mesmerizing perfume that he would seek for the rest of his life. He was in obvious euphoria, discovering for the first time what his extraordinary nose was ultimately meant for.

Motionless, frozen in time, he ingested the woodcock's fragrance. Walking up to him, I observed his excited shivering, calming him with a soft voice. Good bird dogs point. Great bird dogs never break point until they're commanded to do so. I reveled in Sosa's staunchness.

As I passed in front of his nose, the woodcock explosively flushed, thrilling both of us. Sosa ran after it as if possessed, stopping only when the sprightly bird flew across a stream. From that moment on, he was hooked on woodcock, and I had a partner even more eager than I to walk the alder swamps and aspen groves.

I remember once in the Ware River lowlands exasperatingly looking over 20 minutes for Sosa. His collar bell had stopped ringing the moment he went on point, and I lost sight of him in a dense patch of alders. I finally found him staunchly on point, hidden from me by thick brush just a short distance away. All the while, he had been frozen on a woodcock, only a few feet in front of his nose. I surmised he might have stayed an hour had I not found him and flushed the bird.

Our mutual passion for woodcock leads the two of us to hunt them with joyous enthusiasm each fall, especially when the first heavy northern frosts drive earthworms deep and push great numbers of migratory birds south. But it has become a rite of early spring for us to walk the still-leafless forests to greet and marvel at them.

Most of our woodcock are returning from a winter in the bottomlands of Louisiana and Mississippi where earthworms are always available. This species has migrated north for thousands of years, but their migration must have been very different back in 1620.

Before the Pilgrims, there were no earthworms from about New Jersey north. That area had been under two miles of ice for thousands of years until our last ice age ended. The ancient glaciers had plowed away the topsoil and left gouged bedrock. It took thousands of subsequent years to replace the soil. Any native earthworms that had previously existed here were all extirpated. They continued existing in the South, of course, where glaciers had not advanced. Earthworms returned here with the colonists, who either imported them intentionally or brought them inadvertently in plant pots or even on the hooves of livestock. What would worm-loving woodcock have eaten here back then?

Members of the sandpiper family, woodcock long ago gave up their feeding on coastal mud flats with other sandpipers to live and feed in the uplands. It's conceivable that for a substantial period, they may have been able to find other species of worms on our mud flats. It's doubtful, though, that there was much for them to eat in our forests when the Pilgrims arrived. The massive migration of woodcock as we know it is apparently a rather modern phenomenon coinciding with the expansion of the invasive alien earthworm population.

Surely, local Native Americans saw few if any woodcock, unless the birds probed mud flats along with their shorebird cousins. The introduction of earthworms may have been a boon to them in the north, but it has not been good for our forests. Although earthworms are beneficial for gardens, making soils more porous and incorporating valuable plant material, recent studies show that they are a destructive force to the forest duff.

The invasive alien earthworm from Europe and Asia disturb our natural forest nutrient cycles and mix soil layers, making them more porous. They can carry rich nutrients from the surface far below where they're inaccessible to small, young plants which have trouble absorbing them. Decomposing organic matter on the surface is the norm in our northern forests. Here lies the essential buffet of carbon, phosphorous, and nitrogen that our baby plants need to grow.

Earthworms that break up the decomposing top layer cause leaching and make the critical growing elements less available. Those soils decompose unnaturally fast and lose depth in their organic top layer. While forest botanists may rue their destructive presence in our forests, woodcock, woodcock hunters and passionate bird dogs like Sosa have good reason to celebrate the lowly earthworm. Without them, there would be no migration here.

Contact Mark Blazis

at markblazis@charter.net
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Apr 21, 2015
Words:1052
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