On a cool, sunny May morning, Earl Johnson straps a bell around the neck of his English Setter, Rocky, before turning him lose with the admonition, "Go find a bird."
The birds he's looking for are hard to find. The woodcock is a small, well-camouflaged ground nesting bird. It's possible to look directly at their nest without seeing the birds.
Earl Johnson hopes to find Woodcock chicks that he can catch and outfit with leg bands. Johnson works for the Minnesota DNR, but volunteers time each spring to band woodcocks. If those leg bands are recovered when a hunter kills a woodcock in the fall, the information can help understand the birds movements.
"The woodcock population has been declining since 1968 when census work started," says Earl Johnson as he strides through knee-high prairie grass headed toward a small aspen grove.
Woodcocks like to nest under the thumb sized saplings. Minnesota has a lot of good woodcock habitat, thanks to the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to take marginal land out of production, turning it into thousands of acres of grassland where trees are just starting to grow.
But still the woodcock population declines. Earl Johnson says no one is completely sure why. It may be loss of habitat in Louisiana or Mississippi where the birds winter, or somewhere along their migration route.
Johnson thinks reversing the woodcock population decline is important, because about 50 other species of birds share the same habitat. "If the woodcock is in trouble, how many of those other 50 species are in trouble too," asks Johnson.