American woodcock

An American woodcock photographed in Worcester County. (Mark Hoffman photo)

Aelred Geis tried to make the world better for birds and people, in that order.

He studied ways to coax birds back into urban areas, helped persuade Jim Rouse to set aside 1,000 acres of prime Howard County real estate for a nature preserve, turned his Clarksville farm into a wildlife sanctuary and not only built a better bird feeder, but also filled it with superior seed that he developed.

Geis could be loud and confrontational with a touch of arrogance when the circumstances warranted it, his friends fondly remember.

Before his death in 2007 at age 78, he put all those traits to work pestering state officials into helping restore the woodcock, a shy woodland bird that once filled Maryland's fields and skies and delighted springtime birders with its bubbling call and dizzying courtship flight.

On Oct. 14, the state will dedicate a 400-acre woodcock habitat project in Garrett County in Geis' honor to continue his work.

Woodcock, also known as timberdoodle, are particular about the land where they carry out their elaborate mating dance. They prefer young stands of trees, no more than about 15 years old. They like the underbrush scrubby and the soil moist, the better to dig earthworms with their long, flexible beaks.

"It's ugly habitat. It really is," says Bill Harvey, the lead game bird biologist for the Department of Natural Resources.

And in Maryland and other urban states, it's hard to keep it that way.

A half-century ago, abandoned farm fields and old logging parcels created homes for woodcock and ruffed grouse, alder flycatchers and golden-winged warblers. But land like that has given way to subdivisions and communities like Columbia, Harvey says.

Geis was instrumental in getting Rouse and Columbia's founding fathers and county leaders to save some of that habitat for the Middle Patuxent Environment Area.

With the woodcock population falling about 2 percent a year, he realized that more habitat was needed.

So the man who spent his professional career at the Patuxent Research Center in Laurel before launching a second career as a consultant for the Wild Bird Centers of America began leaning on state officials.

At meetings of the state's Wildlife Advisory Commission, he would wait his turn, shifting in his seat, before unleashing his critique of DNR policy with specificity and some scorn.

"He was very dedicated to wildlife conservation," says Tom Matthews, who worked at DNR for 27 years before taking a job with the Wildlife Management Initiative. "But there were times he'd stomp by my office in Cumberland to chastise the department and I'd cringe."

In an obituary about Geis, Byron Hall, chairman of the Blandair Foundation in Howard County, recalled a man "of great contrasts," who could care for a friend in his dying days while also having "a history of taking no prisoners in public meetings."

To ensure his wishes were honored, Geis left some of his estate for developing woodcock projects.

"Woodcock were his passion. He was obsessed," says Dean Geis, his son. "What better way to honor Dad's life than by putting money into his life's work?"

The Aelred Geis Memorial Woodcock Habitat Demonstration Area will consist of 400 acres divided into six plots within the 1,863-acre Mount Nebo Wildlife Management Area north of Oakland.

Students from Garrett County are felling older aspen to make room for younger trees and will maintain grassy openings to encourage woodcock courtship and roosting. DNR staff have planted apple trees in the plots, which are surrounded by forest containing wetlands, open glades and old fields.

In addition to the Geis tract, the DNR has established a 500-acre woodcock area on the site of a former commercial orchard within Green Ridge State Forest in Allegany County.

"We want to establish demonstration areas in each county," explains Tom Matthews of the Wildlife Management Institute. "We want to bring in landowners, business leaders and government officials to educate them about the value of this habitat."

Because young forests don't stay young, habitat grooming doesn't stop, Harvey says. Geis' estate also included money to continue research by the DNR, the Ruffed Grouse Society and the Wildlife Management Institute.

"People enjoy the birds," says Dean Geis. "They're music; they're art. We need them as much as they need us."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com