In his recent forays afield, Brad Allen has seen signs of good times for the state’s game bird population … and perhaps not so good for unimaginative hunters.
“I have never seen so much natural food in the woods,” said the biologist who serves as the game bird leader for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife.
“There is so much food. But that can be a two-edged sword,” he said.
The state’s upland bird hunters are enjoying the first full week of their season, and Allen admitted that while the natural buffet is good for birds, it may challenge those who are looking for a good shot at a ruffed grouse.
“If partridge can be anywhere on the landscape, they’re going to be hard to encounter,” Allen explained. “Usually we look for food to be patchy, apple orchards and things, where we concentrate our efforts in those areas because all the birds happen to be in that patch.”
That’s not the case this year, Allen reported. And because of that, those birds may have spread out a bit more than most hunters expect.
Allen said he recently examined a road-kill ruffed grouse — “partridge,” to many Mainers — and found it was full of beechnuts.
“That’s kind of my bailout when people ask me, ‘Where are all the grouse you predicted on the side of the road?’” Allen joked. “Now I can say, ‘It’s a good beechnut year, so they must be out on the ridges eating beechnuts.’ That’s a copout on my part, but it’s true. There’s so much food in the woods this year.”
Allen said hunters would do well to change some of their tactics this year and to consider hunting some areas in addition to their proven coverts.
“I would hunt them where Mother Nature has provided bountiful opportunities of food,” Allen said.
And while it might be tougher to pinpoint the location of grouse, Allen said that’s nothing to worry about.
“That’s a good thing, I think, in the long run,” Allen said. “There will be a lot of birds going into the fall, hopefully [during] the hunting season the weather will be great, and with all that food there should be good fall survival, winter survival. I think from a game bird standpoint, we’re in good shape.”
The other upland game bird that takes lead billing in most of Maine is the woodcock, and Allen said anecdotal reports about the timberdoodle haven’t been glowing.
“A friend of mine who is a woodcock fancier from Orrington said he’s finding them fairly thin,” Allen said. “In covers where he’d like to have six or seven, he’s having two or three. But he’s finding some grouse.”
Allen also pointed out that at this time of year, birds have a distinct advantage they won’t enjoy as autumn progresses.
“Bird numbers seem to be there, but with the leaves and all, I’m sure killing is not a big factor right now,” he said. “Hunting is good, but killing is slower.”
According to Allen, woodcock hunters are still a couple of weeks from the peak of their season. The number of woodcocks will steadily increase as those birds in more northerly climes migrate south.
Maine hunters look forward to the arrival of those “flight birds,” but some may misinterpret the arrival of those flights.
“A lot of people think in early October they see some birds moving around [and assume they’re flight birds],” Allen said. “A lot of young-of-the-year woodcock that are resident to this area do bounce around a little bit in October, getting their wings underneath them before they go south.”
Cold weather and a lack of food fuel the migratory instinct, Allen said, and birds from Quebec and New Brunswick will typically arrive here before resident woodcock depart.
That’s when things get interesting. Some folks may assume that when flight birds arrive, and eventually head south, our resident birds leave with them. That’s not always the case, Allen said.
“[The migrating birds] might even keep going through because they’re in migration mode,” Allen said. “The resident birds are actually some of the last to leave. They pick up afterward and go south.”
So what’s that mean to you, as a hunter? And when can you expect to have your best woodcock hunting opportunities?
Allen’s got the answer.
“What we often see in the third week of October or so is good numbers of woodcock because we get the resident birds still here and we get the birds from Canada arriving,” Allen said. “Things are definitely going to happen the third and fourth week of October for woodcock.”
And if you can’t wait that long, Allen said this week’s weather might favor those who are looking to do a bit of grouse hunting.
“A lot of the time they’re on the sides of the road for that clover and grit that they pick up,” Allen said. “But a clear frosty morning is always best for dragging a partridge out of the woods to sit in the sun on the side of the road, plus they get that real lush green vegetation that they’re looking for.”
And after favorable weather during the spring nesting season, it may turn out that grouse hunters enjoy a banner fall.
If not, it seems likely that the well-fed birds will, at the very least.