Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, Maine and New Hampshire

Helping an Iconic Young Forest Species

Foresters and biologists at Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge are using timber harvests to create an ongoing source of young forest for American woodcock and other wild animals that use the same habitat. Not only will the strategically located timber harvests provide cover where woodcock can breed, rear young, and feed, they’ll also perform another important function: teach human visitors to the popular refuge about the importance of young forest for dozens of kinds of North Woods wildlife.

Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge

Umbagog Refuge personnel inspect regrowing trees at Sturtevant Pond Woodcock Management Demonstration Area./C. Fergus

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers Umbagog Refuge, which straddles the border between northern New Hampshire and western Maine. The refuge takes in more than 32,000 acres surrounding 7,850-acre Lake Umbagog and includes extensive freshwater wetlands and forested uplands. Wildlife abounds: mammals including bobcat, moose, and black bear, songbirds such as warblers and thrushes, waterfowl, ravens, and bald eagles, and a range of reptiles and amphibians. American woodcock take up residence at Umbagog in spring, summer, and fall, finding habitat in regrowing hardwood forests – in many cases the result of forest stands growing back following logging activity that occurred in the refuge’s recent past.

Says Tom LaPointe, a forest ecologist at Umbagog, “Woodcock are an easily overlooked part of our northern forest ecosystem. For decades, they have been suffering a steady population decline due to loss of suitable habitat.”

To help keep woodcock on the landscape – with the important parallel benefit of providing food and cover for the broad range of other wild creatures that share their young forest habitat – LaPointe and other Umbagog natural resources professionals designed a system of young forest habitat demonstration areas. As of 2015, two of those areas have been created, with three more on the way as described in the refuge’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan, or CCP, a 15-year plan developed with public input and released in 2009.

Woodcock and chicks

Woodcock hen leads chicks (well camouflaged and hard to see) into thick cover to feed. Many woodcock breed on Umbagog NWR, which straddles the New Hampshire-Maine border./E. Dresser

The two existing demonstration sites are Sturtevant Pond Woodcock Management Demonstration Area, in the northern part of the refuge along the Magalloway River, and Potter Farm Woodcock Management Demonstration Area, about five miles to the south along the lake’s western shore. At both of those sites, timber harvests removed trees during the winter of 2012-2013. Since then, small trees have grown back thickly, in many cases sprouting from the root systems of the larger trees that were cut. Springing up along with the young trees are grasses, forbs, wildflowers, and shrubs that were not present or whose growth had been suppressed by the taller, shade-creating trees removed through logging.

An important objective of each harvest is to regenerate aspen. “Woodcock seem to have an affinity toward forests with a lot of aspen trees, and aspen is an important part of the tree diversity goals of the refuge,” says Umbagog biologist Sean Flint. Aspen is a fast-growing, relatively short-lived hardwood that regenerates best in the direct sunlight that follows even-aged timber harvests, also known as clearcuts. On Umbagog, the harvests were planned for winter, when the aspens store their nutrients in their root systems, leading to a lush regrowth of stems the following spring.

aspen growing back after timber harvest at Umbagog NWR

Harvested aspen displays terrific regrowth at Umbagog NWR./C. Fergus

Says Flint. “In our planning, we prioritize cutting stands of aspen before they get too old and lose their vigor. That vigor is important, because the roots of an aspen tree will sprout into many new trees after it’s been cut, and we want those sprouts to be plentiful and healthy. We’re very happy with the aspen that has come back following the harvests.”

That abundant regrowth has created thick cover where ground-dwelling woodcock can nest and raise their young while remaining hidden from predators. Part of the habitat planning also involved cutting alder, shrubs that typically grow in moist soils, so that they will grow back more densely. Woodcock often find earthworms in alder stands, probing with their bills in the damp ground.

scarlet tanager

Birds that nest in older forest, like this scarlet tanager, take their young to dense young forest because food supplies there are so rich./T. Berriman

Songbirds also take advantage of the dense, food-rich habitat of young forest offered by both aspen and alder stands. Birds that nest in more-mature woods may flit to areas of young forest to find insects, then carry the food back to their growing nestlings. When the nestlings get strong enough to fly, their parents often lead them to stands of young forest, where the youngsters can continue to feed and grow, feasting on the numerous insects that live in such settings, as well as high-energy seeds and fruits. This terrific food source lets adults and young put on critically important fat reserves, preparing them for the autumnal migration out of the North Woods to locations farther south.

Other sun-loving shrubs and trees, including red-osier dogwood, pin cherry, highbush cranberry, wild raisin, hawthorn, willow, and alder, have also responded favorably to the timber harvests. When they’re healthy and thick, these plants offer excellent cover and food sources for wildlife.

After the logging at Potter Farm and Sturtevant Pond, in just two growing seasons aspen shot up to 12- and 15-foot heights, forming stands so dense that it’s hard for a person to wade through them. The birds like those crowded conditions, as do reptiles such as smooth green snakes, small mammals including woodland jumping mice and voles, on up through black bears that feed on the berries produced in the recently cleared settings. Common game species that also favor young forest include ruffed grouse, white-tailed deer, and snowshoe hare. Wild turkey hens hide their nests in the thickets.

Umbagog is a destination for people seeking a North Woods adventure: canoeists, campers, hikers, hunters, snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, and snowshoers visit the refuge each year. Visitors can go to the demonstration areas to see young forest wildlife, and to learn from interpretive signs explaining the value of properly sited young forest habitat within the landscape, and the various management practices that can provide such habitat. The Service hopes the signs help people understand how forest management can be used to provide important habitat for wildlife, and how private landowners can also contribute to conserving important species such as woodcock by applying similar management techniques on their own land.

biologist checks on aspen regrowth at Umbagog NWR

Biologist Sean Flint checks out new habitat at Potter Farm Woodcock Management Demonstration Area, Umbagog NWR./C. Fergus

The woodcock demonstration areas on Umbagog are similar to ones at other national wildlife refuges, including Moosehorn NWR in eastern Maine (where much important research into woodcock habitat use and behavior has taken place over the years); Aroostook and Sunkhaze Refuges, also in Maine; and Nulhegan Basin Division of the Silvio O. Conte NFWR in northern Vermont, all within the Northern Forest ecoregion.

At Umbagog, the first timber harvests on the demonstration areas took place in 2012 and will continue at ten-year intervals, in 2022, 2032, and 2042. Each demo area has a unique design that maintains young forest in locations that are most beneficial for woodcock. Refuge staff planned for other, more-specialized habitat components that woodcock also need. One such component is singing grounds, openings that male woodcock use to conduct flight and singing displays to attract females in spring. The singing grounds at the demonstration areas are each about a quarter acre and sited within 150 yards of thick cover where, following breeding, the females can nest and rear their broods. Managers also provided another important habitat feature: roost fields, weedy openings about 5 acres in size, maintained through periodic brush-hogging to create patchy cover where woodcock can ground-roost at night during summer and early fall. Both demonstration areas offer at least one roosting field for every 100 acres of thicker habitat.

Sturtevant Pond Woodcock Management Demonstration Area contains 222 acres of various ages and habitat types for woodcock and associated wildlife, while Potter Farm provides another 100 acres. The Potter Farm project involves interagency cooperation, as some of the habitat blocks extend onto lands owned and managed by the New Hampshire Department of Recreation and Economic Development. A good road network and walking trail let visitors access both the state and federal lands to visit and learn from the habitat demonstration areas.

With timber harvests taking place on a 40-year cycle, the projects at Sturtevant Pond and Potter Farm – plus the three others still in the planning stages – will carry forward in perpetuity, providing local wildlife with a diversity of habitats for years to come.


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, New Hampshire Department of Recreation and Economic Development, New Hampshire Fish and Game, New Hampshire Parks and Recreation, and Wildlife Management Institute

How to Visit

A good first stop for visitors is the refuge headquarters and visitors center, on Route 16 about five miles north of Errol, NH. Coming from Maine, the headquarters is slightly more than 3 miles beyond the state line. Staff can provide directions to the woodcock management demonstration areas, plus maps showing the different harvest blocks and habitat components.