Sunday, April 30, 2023

Big wind, Rain, and Drumming Grouse

 Spring in the Northwoods sort of sneaks in an inch at a time. There's a hint of warm weather, then snow swirling in the air. Rain will soak everything, then wind will dry it up. Gravel roads will turn to mud a foot deep and streams are swollen. It is best to have firewood ready for the stove.

This morning we ran the dogs on an old grassed-over logging road. It felt good to have firm dry ground under the feet, even though it had rained during the night. Home now, wind is rocking the trees now. It will be a good afternoon to sort out flyfishing gear and tie flies. Rain will come again with the night. 

But as we walked earlier, grouse drummed on the hillsides. There is no finer springtime sound in the Northwoods. 

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Grouse in the Northern Hardwoods

    The northern hardwood forest runs from Ontario and Quebec down into northern New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and west to Minnesota. It stands between the southern oak and hickory forests and the boreal forest to the north. It is primarily made up of sugar maple, yellow birch, ash, and beech. White pine and hemlock mix in, but as you go further north spruce and fir become the dominate softwood trees. Almost none of this vast forest is virgin, nearly all of it having been logged for timber or paper making or cut to open the land up for farming.
    Much of the country cleared for farming was abandoned when farmers heard about land easier to farm in the Midwest. That mostly meant less rocky, as the stonewalls left behind attest to the rockiness of New England soils. The deserted pastures and fields started to return to their natural state. This early successional forest provided near perfect habitat for ruffed grouse, woodcock, and white tailed deer. Often the deserted farms left behind apple trees that spread wild apple trees. Blue berries and raspberries came up in what were once pastures, along with a smorgasbord of weed varieties. Alders popped up. Poplars soon followed. Insect life abounded and provided important protein for young newly hatched grouse.
    Perhaps the best ruffed grouse hunting that ever was and ever will be came along shortly after the farmers abandoned those New England farms and headed west. Today those early successional forest have matured and much of the prime land has been sold into house lots or other uses. The grouse cover that William Harnden Foster and Burton Spiller wrote about has almost disappeared.
    Ask any deer hunter if he finds deer in a stand of mature northern hardwood and they probably will tell you that if he does it is headed somewhere else. There isn’t much for a deer to eat among all those hardwood trunks. The same is true for ruffed grouse.
    Today, if you are going to hunt ruffed grouse in the northern hardwood forest, you start by looking for openings, either natural or manmade. Beaver ponds and beaver meadows are one example of natural openings. Natural disasters, like forest fires, ice storms, or even a big windstorms can create openings in the forest. Manmade openings can be logging roads, snowmobile trails, power lines, logged areas, and agricultural areas.
    Today, logging creates some of the best grouse habitat, providing dense stands of young trees where the grouse and woodcock can safely nest. Small tree trunks spaced only a few feet apart make it very difficult for avian predators to strike. Weeds pop up where sunlight hits the forest floor, providing seeds, berries, and insects. Those insignificant little bugs crawling about are an important source of protein for the newly hatched grouse.
    A huge clear cut that is coming back pure hardwoods will not offer the opportunity that a smaller cut with softwoods nearby. Ruffed grouse seek shelter when the winds are cold or the rain is falling. It doesn’t take many softwoods to provide shelter, a few will do.
    A little grit is necessary for ruffed grouse digestion. Logging roads, or the sides of almost any road, will provide grit. Have you ever noticed how often you encounter grouse where there is a stream nearby? The edges of streams are also a source of grit.
    Follow a stream and you are likely to find changes in forest type. Down in the bottom of the valleys softwood trees are likely to predominate. Beaver ponds will create openings. Add food sources, like weeds or alders, and you are likely to find grouse. Woodcock may be attracted to the same area for the moist soil. 
    Satellite images, like Google Earth, will show logged areas and beaver dams. Sometimes a cutting is hidden behind a stand of roadside softwood trees. A favorite covert was discovered that way, and, even better, across from where we parked was an alder flat beside a stream that always has grouse and woodcock in it.
    When you find ruffed grouse, look around and try to figure out why they are there. Food? Shelter?  Grouse eat such a wide variety of plant material that narrowing down a food source might be impossible. But there have been years when the mountain ash were heavy with fruit and consistently there were birds nearby. High bush cranberry, which is actually a member of the viburnum family, is another food source that may draw in number of grouse, particularly late in the season when other fruit has disappeared.
    On a really cold day, a sunny open hillside in a cut over area can provide some spectacular shooting. Grouse will walk a long way from where they roosted for the night to find warmth in the sun.
    You will enjoy the sunshine too.