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Hateful Things About Birdwatching (Continued)

You forget your binoculars.

You never seem to go hawkwatching at the right time.

You sprain your foot just when spring migration fully kicks in.

The bird turns out to be a decoy.

Bothersome insects. Especially: Gnats haunt your face and ears in spite of bug spray.

Walking on a path, you do not notice a bird foraging near the path until you reach within a foot of it, and so it silently flies into the vegetation to hide away from you forever.

Every American Redstart sounds like nothing.

You excitedly observe a lifer raptor. It takes off to stoop a prey, a hateful invasive songbird, but when it returns to its perch, you realize it has in its talons one of your favorite native songbird.

A worthlessly argumentative someone who clearly knows less about birding than you attempts to assert that their ID is correct in spite of your overwhelming evidence that your ID is, in truth, correct.

You are the only birder at your work.

A birder who does not take into consideration the birds’ welfare. Example: A birder who overtaxes playback.

A birder overtaxes playback so you explain why such action is detrimental, yet the birder contentiously defends themselves.

You repeatedly miss warbler fallouts.

You repeatedly miss general migration fallouts.

Crumbs from your snack or drops from your drink fall into the crevices of your binoculars.

After certain novices recognize you for your expertise and obtain your email, they persistently send you absurd ID requests with photos or videos of questionable quality.

An obvious non-birder approaches: “See anything good?”

Alexandra: A novice birder comes up to you and asks what you’re looking at. You take your eyes off the bird to offer directions, and you lose the bird in the meantime.

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Mothing: An Interlude

Ever since I started working for State Parks,  I haven’t had as much opportunity to go birding. My “weekend” is on weekdays. I’m missing every one of my Audubon chapter’s Saturday-Sunday trips and I feel deprived of my yearly shorebirds. (I still need to acquire that GPS.) When breeding season was still active in June and July, I turned to birding by ear and was temporarily appeased. But songbird action truly seems to shrink to non-existence in August.

As a way to fill in this sorry hole, I’ve turned my attention to moths. They’re all over Fahnestock SP. I see different species every time I go to campground bathrooms. I felt an itch to know their names – just like my previous itch to know the name of the little dark gray sparrows I first saw foraging in my backyard garden.

These critters are entirely new to me and so very much more difficult to get into: There are 11,000 species in Eastern North America alone. Think of Empidomax flycatchers, then times that by a couple thousand. So many subtle moths exist in the first place, then they and even the more distinctive species become worn as the season progresses. Even with photos, I want to tear my hair out because:

  1. I can’t decide between four different species; or
  2. I think I have the ID – but my moth looks so different from the one in the field guide even though it looks so similar, yet it looks not quite the same as other species on that page.

If you want to explore the depths of your self-doubt capabilities, turn to moths.

  • “How many worn Porcelain Grays have I been seeing? Are they really all Porcelain Grays? What about worn Small Engraileds??”
  • “So sure I’ve got a Yellow-slant Line, but those median lines aren’t quite as thick…”
  • “This looks so much like a very worn Sub-gothic Dart/Dingy Cutworm/Bristly Cutworm. But the posture/wingspread in the photo is different the moth’s in the guide…”
  • “I feel like I’m seeing two different moths when they’re in different lighting.”
  • “Why can’t I find this moth? What’s in my photo then?? Does it really even exist?!”

Mothing isn’t as a common a hobby birding. Thankfully, a birding friend directed me to a Facebook group wherein experienced mothers are glad to come to one’s aid.

Like with birds, however, there are also highly distinctive and colorful moths. I can believe it. It’s just like subtle butterflies. Among my flashy lifers are Blinded Sphinx Moth (the moth pushed me into getting my Peterson’s), Showy Emerald, False Crocus Geometer, Painted Lichen Moth, and Ailanthus Webworm. I have quite a few target lifers: Giant Leopard, Virginia Creeper Sphinx, Polyphemus, Rosy Maple, Graceful Ghost (for that name alone), and Early Buttom Slug Moth (again, for the name).

Unlike with birds, I can actually use my tactile sense to interact with them. This way, their existence seems more concrete. Certain species don’t mind perching on your finger. Although they may be somewhat reluctant to get on, they seem even more reluctant to get off. Some moths like the Nais Tiger are so fuzzy I feel tempted to pet them (I did pet the Nais Tiger but I barely felt the mane on my fingertip).

A huge difference between birders and mothers is that the latter IDs their subjects by Latin name rather than by common. The authors of my Peterson’s undertook the task to supply common name-less moths with common names – more of a feat, a bizarre feat, for certain moths, especially a group called the Daggers have such curious appellations (Interrupted, Funerary, and Retarded Daggers, anyone?). I’m trying not concern myself with Latin names yet. I feel that it doubles the difficulty of mothing. Even moths within the same so-called group have different genus names, such as Emeralds and Slug moths.

My life list is currently shy of 30, my last certain lifer a Pale Beauty in my own backyard. Summer is the height of moth season, but some species are active throughout autumn. By the end of that season, I do hope to return to my home-base, the birds. But come next spring, I’ll be at it with the moths again for sure!

image1

A friend (Forest Tent Caterpillar Moth).

Times of Trouble

On Sunday a couple weekends ago, I was trail stewarding at the Bull Hill Loop trail head, in Putnam County. I had to manage the table by myself early in the afternoon. I usually listen and look out for birds when I trail steward all day long in order to help the time pass, especially during visitor lulls. The number of species to add on my list dwindled to zero. I heard the same birds sing over and over – Red-eyed Vireo, American Redstart, Brown Cowbird, etc.

Not far into the woods, a few American Crows started cawing raucously. Sometimes they caw when simply talking with one another, but their tone hinted that they were mobbing something instead. I looked up in their direction. I couldn’t see them. The cawing continued. A small moment passed. Then a Red-tailed Hawk appeared into view overhead, followed by more than a half dozen crows.

To watch a mobbing is of the most exciting events in birdwatching. It happens all year round whenever passerines (perching birds a part of the Passeriformes order, which includes songbirds, woodpeckers, corvids, etc.) gang up and attempt to kick raptors out of the area. They boisterously call and even dive at the raptor. During breeding season, eggs, nestlings, and fledglings are easy pickings for carnivorous birds. It’s fun to watch a robin chase a jay; an oriole or a kingbird closely glide above a hawk or crow; and flocks of crows, jays, and grackles harass a hawk or owl. Sometimes even vultures – carrion eaters, of all things – get mobbed. I feel bad for them.

I’ve seen so many Red-tails during my 3.75-something years as a birder. They are the most commonly observed raptor in the lower Hudson. But I picked up my bins because why not? It’s always nice to view a raptor so up close.

A couple of the crows started to sound strangled with desperation. The group frantically chased after the Red-tail, which continued to glide, delicately evading every one of its pursuers. When I put my bins on the hawk, I could see that it tightly held a young crow in its talons.

I didn’t have more than two seconds. Mobbing scenes happen rapidly. Though the young crow looked like an adolescent, a couple weeks passed its fledgling stage. Small, with fully grown plumage. And it looked alive. Calm. Knowing struggling to be futile. Waiting for its family to rescue it.

The Red-tail and the crows headed towards the river, out of sight. I could still hear the frantic cawing. Seconds later, the Red-tail appeared overhead again. Four crows trailing behind, it swiftly glided to the north. I didn’t have time to even grab my bins, but its talons appeared empty – no black blob against a light undercarriage.

The desperation stopped right after the Red-tail disappeared. The cawing lingered, sparsely piercing the air. Some of the crows stayed close to the river. Others flew away, towards the woods. One crow, clearly a sentinel, perched high in a tree a hundred feet away from the trail head, across the the road. The sentinel craned its head to and fro. A long moment passed. Two crows flew over to the sentinel. They chatted a little. And then the three headed into the woods.

The crows remained quiet for much of the afternoon.

To the Rescue…Actually, Don’t

My last post describes a somewhat appropriate situation in which one can actively attempt to help an injured bird. A couple days ago, I ran into a not-so-appropriate situation.

I work as a trail steward for the Hudson Highlands and Fahnestock State Parks, located Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess Counties. On weekends, I float between two popular trail heads, where I help hikers choose which trails to take if they are unfamiliar with the area. I had just switched when my fellow stewards told me that someone had found a hurt bird around a mile up a trail. They kept it safe until I returned, knowing I was a birder. One of them held it in his cupped hands: a Tufted Titmouse fledgling, fully feathered.

I sighed. Considering that many people assume fledglings are lost and/or helpless, I immediately thought that this misguided hiker made the common decision to remove a perfectly healthy fledgling. I then noticed the titmouse’s right leg. So badly injured at the joint, it was barely held together by a few wiry ligaments.

Two out of three of my coworkers had to switch out upon my arrival. I took the fledgling in my own hands. It rowdily buzzed and ruffled its wings. It managed to hop out. It propelled itself toward the bushes with wings alone. I recaptured it with little effort.

You might be thinking, Just put it back anyway. It’s nature. I haven’t yet had much experience to observe nature’s not-so-nice aspects, though I am immune to dead birds, especially dead fledglings (no pity for the dead). I’m still quite sensitive and sympathetic to wildlife, especially if the wildlife is a little soft ball of feathers with a torn leg and willful beady eyes. I reasoned that since the fledgling had already been down here for hours, I may as well ring up a local animal rehabilitation center. Still, in the back of my mind, I wondered if the center would really care for it. An fatally injured bird, yes, but a widespread songbird, and a young one. Do these places really help to raise young birds such as titmice?

I called the local police for a number. This number wasn’t any help at all. Not only did the person on the other end said she couldn’t do anything, but she tried finding me numbers for other places in Putnam, Dutchess, and Westchester. She managed only one in Westchester, rather far from me. When I dialed that number, an answering machine prattled. I heard the word “acupuncture.” I called again to double check I heard correctly. During those five minutes, the titmouse struggled in my balled hand, buzzing with irritation. I wished I had a small box.

My coworker who had stayed behind with me gave me her tall ceramic coffee cup. I dropped the fledgling inside. It immediately stopped fussing. It looked a little cramped, but had enough room to preen. I delayed the inevitable action by contacting several friends in my Saw Mill River Audubon circle for advice. I learned that late Saturday afternoon is a terrible time to reach anybody. I did get through to my final contact. But at this point, I knew what I had to do. I just wanted an understanding ear and found one. She heard the fledgling’s incessant buzzing for attention and food throughout the call.

“Good luck,” she said. “Let me know what happens.”

“I don’t think I can,” I said. “Since it’s almost summer there’s a lot of snake activity. Some hikers have been telling us they spotted a good number of snakes along the trail.”

After I hung up, I informed my supervisor that I had to put the fledgling back. I expressed it would have been more helpful if the hiker were more specific about where she found it. A mile up the trail was frustratingly vague. Agreeing, he recommended a particular location, and off I went.

The fledgling buzzed intermittently as I hiked. The buzzing reminded me of the call notes that titmice make when they’re communicating while trying to find food, except it was rougher sounding. Hikers passing us minded their own business even as the fledgling made noise. Perhaps no one thought my coffee cup would contain a bird, not coffee.

When I reached the spot – a flat open area laden with honey locusts and grasses – I placed the coffee cup on the ground. The fledgling wouldn’t venture out. Once I tiled to the cup, it slid onto the ground.

The young bird stayed where it was. I didn’t want any more hikers discovering and bringing it back down, so I nudged it towards the grass off the trail. It protested again by buzzing and flapping, but it did move to the edge of the grass.

I couldn’t bring myself leave right away. I felt I had to watch over it for a couple minutes. I heard two hikers come up. It turned out I had to direct them to where the trail continued. They didn’t notice the fledgling.

The little titmouse stayed put, cocking its head to and fro, occasionally buzzing. Its entire body pulsed as it breathed. From all that calling, I hoped that its parents might hear it soon. I looked at the grass and thought about the snakes lurking around. The fledgling’s leg might have been damaged beyond hope, but its wings were still quite functional and strong. I thought of the fledgling successfully escaping snakes, even for a bit. Maybe in time for the parents to find it.

Another hiker, who seemed to have been roaming around the locust grove, was walking towards me, back to the trail. We greeted each other. The fledgling buzzed. He gazed down at it with curiosity. I explained to the hiker what was happening and took the opportunity to make a PSA about leaving fledglings alone, even when they’re hurt. He listened understandingly. The fledgling hopped onto my left shoe, and then onto my right, and then onto one of hiker’s shoes.

“Oh no, please don’t do that…” I said to it. I turned to the hiker. “This is making it harder for me to leave it be,” I said with a strained chuckle.

After he left, I felt my time pressing. I nudged the fledgling towards the grass. Instead of hopping away, it perched on my fingers. It wouldn’t get off when I shook my hand. “Really?” I asked. “You’re do this now?” I shook my hand again. It jumped off. When I got it close to the grass again, I took my final looks at it and hiked down the trail.

To the Rescue

One day in April, during my first spring as a birder, as I read on my front steps enjoying the sun’s light and warmth, I heard a muted thud.

I perked up. It sounded like a bird hit a window. Weeks before, I’d read how the frequency of birds flying into windows increases during migration, and what you can do for the bird – if still alive – when you are faced with the situation at your own home. So, I imagined what I would do to care for the bird when the moment arrived. This wouldn’t be like the time I tried to “save” a Black-capped Chickadee fledgling the summer before. Granted, I was not yet a birder and didn’t even know what a chickadee was, let alone understand that I should have left it.

I designed and replayed a scenario with the least amount of incidence. Create a safe space: grab a cardboard box, small towels, and, if applicable, some feeder seeds. Approach the possibly stunned and exhausted creature gingerly. Make it so your presence suggests, I’m not a predator. Ensure its comfort as it rests. Watch it with reassurance as it flies away from your hand with ease.

Ready but nervous to get at it, I slowly walked down the steps. On the driveway sat a motionless male American Redstart. (My first redstart! It’s smaller in real life…) I crept towards him with lowered arms and outstretched hands. It looked like he was staring into space. His head was cocked to the right, his eyes unblinking. When I was less a foot away, he turned to look up at me, squeaked in surprise, clumsily fluttered into my left armpit, and soared away out of sight.

After blankly gaping after him a bit, I went back to reading.

On Studying Warbler Songs

In January, I created a list of New Year’s resolutions, with learning and memorizing warbler songs as one resolution. Days later I signed up for an upcoming trip to Magee Marsh – located in Oak Harbor, Ohio, on the shore of Lake Eerie – during the first week of May with Saw Mill River Audubon. This would be my first trip to Magee Marsh. I couldn’t have hoped for a better reinforcement and place to fulfill another resolution to see more warblers.

I started studying in early April.  To begin, I looked up the eBird hotspot for the boardwalk and made my way to the bar charts to check which warblers are most likely to be observed there. I added a few more species because they are also common in Westchester. I ended up with thirty-six songs to study and review. Throughout these past few weeks, I’ve been taking two or three days of each week to concentrate on small batches of 3-5 warblers. I’m not quite finished. Just a couple days to go. Here is my progress:

warblerlist

As you can see, the Kirtland’s Warbler is listed…just in case.

 

I color-coded the days and numbered the warblers to help myself remember which species I studied when and at what point. (The colors are brought to you by my grapheme-color synesthesia.) Italics symbolize priority. These are the species I think I should attune my ears most to at Magee Marsh. About half of each batch includes species’ songs I don’t know – Blackburnian, Prothonotary – and the other half includes species with which I’m already familiar (Yellow, Prairie). This helps my brain avoid the feeling of being stuffed with cotton and have an easier time taking in new information.

I randomly select the species (“I’ll study this one today” – is pretty much how it goes). I have several resources on hand: Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle’s The Warbler Guide, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds, National Audubon’s online guide, and various YouTube channels. I mostly skip plumage since I’m already familiar with ID’ing a lot of warblers based on sight. An optional first step. I did make a few exceptions for the more subtle species, such as Nashville, Tennessee, and Connecticut. I also find the captions under the Additional Photos sections helpful in regards to diagnostic marks and behavior. We are getting at the point in which foliage helps warblers hide from the world.

IMG_1620

Nashville Warbler page in Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle’s The Warbler Guide. © Stephenson and Whittle

Next, I turn to the sonograms page. I keep the book beside my laptop.

IMG_1619

American Redstart sonograms in The Warbler Guide. Not all of the warblers have seven different types of songs, thank goodness. © Stephenson and Whittle

I bring up the Lab of Ornithology’s warbler page via Browse Bird Profiles, play the audio clip, and read the sonogram as I listen. (You will find that there are vireos mixed in. They can be confused with warblers. Stephenson and Whittle handily acknowledge this in their guide.)

allaboutbirds

A screenshot of the warbler group main page on allaboutbirds.org. © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Then I do the same with the Audubon guide. Unlike Cornell, Audubon provides multiple songs per species, thus also providing the various song types. Audubon’s guide sounds like a better companion to The Warbler Guide‘s sonograms, but I like referring to Cornell because it can have song types that Audubon doesn’t provide. Even if the clip were of the same song type, an individual bird usually sounds faintly different than another individual.

I try utilizing the rote memory method.I would listen to each clip several times, either looking at or not looking at the sonograms. Sometimes, if the variations are so different, I play two clips simultaneously so that it sounds like two birds dueling over territory boundaries.

(I stated in my resolutions post that I “must take advantage of…the Macaulay Library.” I simply forgot about that at the time I started studying. But I think using All About Bird’s and the Audubon online guide are enough for now, having just a few audio clips of the most basic types – and little variation – at hand.)

After that, I head over to YouTube to watch videos of the warblers singing (largely Lang Elliot, Wild Bird Video Productions, and Larry Bond in that order). By combining sight and hearing, the videos further help me associate the song with that particular species.

redstartvideo

Lastly, I add on to the Review list I created. Asterisks replace italics to indicate priority birds.

warblerlist2

I don’t review the songs in-between study days. I tried it. It mostly overwhelmed me and I still couldn’t play many of the songs in my head from memory afterward. The ones that did stick easily were Chestnut-sided and Mourning. I’m getting there with Hooded, Tennessee, and the waterthrushes. But, for most of them, if I do play an audio clip, the best I get to is “Yes, this is familiar.” (I know what the best method of learning bird songs is for me: to venture out in the field with an experienced listener, processing one or two songs at a time.)

Once I complete all thirty-six species, I have in mind to review any two songs at the most per day. Rote memory, rote memory, rote memory. Yes, I’m aware I’m running of out time. The Magee Marsh trip is less than a week away. But there are warblers elsewhere and farther in the future (as bleak the future seems).

The Timberdoodle’s Dusk Dance

The American Woodcock – nicknamed the timberdoodle, bog sucker, and Labrador twister – is a shorebird with a stocky body, a mottled black and brown back, and a long, thin beak to probe soft ground for food (earthworms, insects, snails, etc). Woodcocks spend their winters or live as year-round residents in southeast United States. They migrate to the Northeast to breed in young forests. Their movement peaks in March in Westchester County, using the Hudson River as a guide. Woodcocks prefer to forage on moist ground, rhythmically rocking back and forth as it steps forward, attempting to disturb the ground to find food. Their dance-like movements have caused some amusement on the Internet. Their large, beady eyes are near the back of their heads so they can watch out for predators as they forage.

Woodcocks charm birders with their extravagant and unique courtship. From March to June, their displays and courtships occur at dawn and dusk, held at open fields and forest clearings. Males peent repeatedly to attract females’ attention. They then shoot up to the sky, spiraling and spiraling. After reaching up to 300 feet, they descend in a zig-zag, chirping, wings whistling and twittering. Their landing is silent. (You might see the woodcock ascend and descend, but not where it lands.) And thus repeats until success.

When I learned about the woodcock’s existence, it was through this Lang Elliot video. During the one minute and ten seconds, the woodcock turns 360° as it occasionally puffs out a nerdy peent, its entire body bobbing up each time. I fell in love with the shorebird so suddenly I teared up. It’s both cute and hilarious.

Not long after I learned that Saw Mill River Audubon hosts a woodcock walk at Croton Point Park every mid-March. I was never so excited to observe a potential life bird. I had to hear the peents for myself. I couldn’t contain my anticipation. The day before, I made my coworkers watch the video at any free moment they had. I wanted to spread awareness of this unbelievably endearing shorebird.

Just before dusk, we walked the road at the base of the landfill, carefully treading on the side of the path. It was a bit too breezy than we wanted. (Woodcocks dislike wind, preferring calmer air when they want to forage or display. They also like warmer temperatures and will not be active when the temperature is below 40°.) Regardless, we were caught off guard: a woodcock in plain sight right at the corner of the woods. It stood completely still for us for about thirty seconds before it finally fled to the phragmites half, disturbed by our large group. When the dusk nearly passed, we heard a second woodock briefly peent-ing. That was all we had for the evening. But I had both seen and heard woodcocks. I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I struggled to suppress squeals of elation when I heard my first real life peent.

The walk I attended the following year had an excellent turn-up. We heard at least six different woodcocks calling, their tinny peents sounding from multiple directions. I almost teared up again. When there was very little light, and the sky and landfill were tinted dark blue, the woodcocks engaged in their courtship flights. We watched their silhouettes as they catapulted themselves upward and – after a pause – zig-zagged downward. We could hear their wings twitter.

This year, an ill-timed Nor-easter occurred on March 14th, during the woodcock’s peak migration period. SMRA’s walk was scheduled for the 19th, and Muscoot Farm’s for the 18th. Both, of course, were canceled. 16 inches fell in my area. People recorded as much as two to three feet around the surrounding counties. No way would woodcocks be able to forage and perform their ritual with all this snow.

Before dusk on the day after the storm, I was driving home and stopped at the three-way intersection across from the Blue Mountain Middle School – one of the busier intersections in my fragmented-forest-suburbia. In a span of two seconds, the following happened: Just as I made the sharp right turn, I saw a woodcock on the right side of the road; and when I was about to run it over, it took off. I couldn’t pull over, so I stared after it wide-eyed and open-mouthed as I continued to drive. That was not how I imagined I would get my First of Year. And I got my first real good look.

It’s understandable why the woodcock liked this risky spot. The intersection is by a lake, from which flows a stream, which passes under the intersection. The snow plow cleaned the road a little too much on one side and exposed a lot of fresh soil. The woodcock had found a little haven to have a breather.

Apparently, the March 14 snowstorm really threw off the woodcocks. When I returned home and read my email, I learned that my incident wasn’t isolated. Via the New York State Birds Listserv, birdwatchers in the New York City area reported a woodcock fallout (“oodles of doodles,” as someone put it on the New York Birders Facebook page). Through the 15th to 19th, birders sighted dozens of woodcocks in Central Park – as many as 40 on the 15th. They were easy to spot because of the omnipresent snow. They huddled wherever they could find open water and exposed ground. Local Red-tailed Hawks made effortless prey of them. News of the fallout made it to the New York Times, which reported that the Wild Bird Fund treated 55 woodcocks overall. People were finding them all over Manhattan, starved or injured from having flown into high-story buildings. Anders Peltomaa, who occasionally contributes to the NYS Birds Listserv, wrote up a report for the Linnaean Society of New York. (You’ve also got to take a look at the close-up photographs he uploaded.)

*      *       *

SMRA rescheduled their woodcock walk to this past Sunday, April 9, three weeks after the initial date. The weather seemed ideal: no more snow on the ground, no precipitation of any kind, no wind, and the temperature dropping no lower than 45°. As we waited for people to gather in the parking lot, starlings buzzed and gurgled, waiting for nighttime in their roosting trees. Attendance didn’t exceed 15 people. Daylight sluggishly faded away between 7:30 and 8:30. A near full moon out-shined many stars and alighted the ground. A female Sharp-shinned Hawk hunted at the base of the landfill, shortly disappearing after she realized we would be sticking around. Long after sunset, dozens of robins sang and whinnied and yeeped. They darted one by one from the landfill to the trees until darkness completely fell. Uncountable Spring Peepers called. As we walked along the edge of the path, we listened and watched all around us for any sound and for any movement from a woodcock: the edge of the woods, the field in front of the phragmites, the side of the landfill, the plateau of the landfill. Our guide tried three times to coax responses with playback, sounding off peents, then the twittering wings, then the male’s confrontational string of clicks. Only a few of us, including the guide, heard the virtually inaudible wing twitterings, perhaps from two woodcocks. After that, silence once again. We extended the walk a bit by double-backing and strolling around another part of the landfill. Only the spring peepers announced their presence.

*      *       *

Muscoot Farm also rescheduled their walk, to this weekend. I will be attending that one as well. Anything goes – I’m not expecting much activity, but with birdwatching, you learn to not expect, thus avoiding disappointment. Given the harsh impact March’s Nor’easter had on the woodcocks, it’s hard to say how badly they were affected until next year. If another Nor’easter doesn’t disrupt them again.