Every year, just about the time evenings grow cool and TV meteorologists start warning us about the possibility of frost, the same question crops up.
And crops up. And crops up.
From all over Maine, the e-mails and phone calls come. On the street, in the supermarket, at a football game, I hear the same query.
“Have you heard anything about bird season?”
The curious aren’t really talking about bird season, of course. Bird season arrives every fall. They know that. Heck, even I know that.
They’re asking about birds.
Specifically, they want to know how many birds are going to take part in hunting season in a given year.
And each year, I strive to give them an answer … whether it’s the answer they want to hear or not.
This year is no exception. Evenings grew cool this week. A meteorologist said the magic word.
And I knew it was time to catch up with Brad Allen — the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife biologist who serves as the agency’s bird group leader — to hear his expert prediction.
“We had record rain in June and July, so things that hatched in May, like woodcock, I think did fairly well, and I’m really predicting a pretty good woodcock season this year,” Allen said.
“Now comes the bad news: Things that hatched in June, like turkeys and ruffed grouse, did not do very well. I think they did very poorly because of all the rain, record rain, 100-year rain,” Allen said.
Allen said that the grouse numbers wouldn’t necessarily be consistently low across the state. Instead, some regions fared better than others.
“It’s a little brighter up north. North of Millinocket I think people will find fair, or maybe in pockets, good numbers of birds, but I think in central Maine [and south] they’re going to be few and far between,” Allen said.
Allen explained that rainy weather works against chick survival in a variety of ways.
“If the birds have hatched and there are several of them — a partridge might have 10 young — if it rains cats and dogs the mother has trouble keeping them all dry,” Allen said. “She can keep some of them dry, but not all of them. And as those birds get bigger, her ability to brood young is compromised by their size and that con-stant rain. It’s hypothermia and wet conditions, primarily [that lead to bird mortality].”
In especially rainy years, the preferred foods of grouse might not be plentiful, either, Allen said.
Grasshoppers, crickets and other key invertebrates that make up a bird’s diet aren’t plentiful in those conditions, he said.
“You don’t have fly hatches, you don’t have grasshoppers in abundance. The only thing we had a lot of was slugs and earwigs, and I think wild turkeys did well with those, but typically, the real high-protein must-have food, I think, are in short supply,” he said.
Unfortunately for the birds, rainy weather also provides an advantage to predators.
“When it’s moist or damp or wet, predators do better finding them because scenting conditions are good,” he said. “If they find a hen on a nest, there’s complete brood loss. If the hen actually does hatch and is pulling them around, they’re leaving a scent trail that every predator, right from a fox to a raccoon to a bobcat to a coyote, can follow.”
Allen on migratory birds
During our conversation, I asked Allen about the recently released bulletin detailing the hunting of migratory birds including ducks and geese.
Allen pointed at a pair of items that might be of particular interest to hunters.
The first is a reduction in the daily bag limit on eiders, from five ducks a day to four.
“I’ve been studying eiders for 10 years. Our publicly derived goal for eiders is to improve eider numbers. We want more nesting eiders on the coast of Maine,” Allen said. “In fact, I think those numbers have been declining for the last few years.”
Allen said the change in daily limit comes as a result of a decade of research work.
“I’ve been monitoring eiders for 10 years, we’ve banded over 12,000, and we now have data to support our contention that the population is not increasing,” Allen said. “Survival rates are good, but not good enough to allow our population to increase. It’s probably declining slightly.”
As a result, hunters can now keep four eiders a day, as part of a seven-bird sea duck limit.
“I envision that as a pretty minor adjustment, but I’m hoping it saves a couple thousand birds,” Allen said.
In other migratory bird news, Allen said it’s important for hunters to pay particular attention to the precise season dates, especially in a situation where northern zone dates differ from those in the state’s southern zone.
“We have two zones that we can hunt in, north and south, and this year, for the first time in a long time, there’s nonconcurrent openings,” Allen said. “The north zone opens on Monday, Sept. 28, and the south zone opens on Oct. 1. You have two opening days that week.”
Another potentially confusing situation revolves around the Canada goose season, Allen said.
“Our resident goose season ends on Sept. 25, and then we cannot hunt geese again until Oct. 1, so those north zone hunters that are hunting ducks from Sept. 28 to the last day of September, there’s no goose hunting available, so they have to refrain from shooting Canada geese during that period,” Allen explained.
Marsh Island deer season update
I had a long chat with Maine Game Warden Jim Fahey on Friday during which we talked about all kinds of outdoor issues.
Fahey said it would make sense to offer a cautionary update on the limited Marsh Island deer season to help educate those who might improperly interpret what’s going on up in Old Town.
Fahey said he’d heard reports that some bowhunters mistakenly believe that Marsh Island is now open to all archery hunting.
Listen carefully: It’s not.
“Marsh island is still closed to expanded and regular-season archery hunters,” Fahey said. “You still have to be selected BLIP-certified hunter to participate in the Marsh Island controlled hunt.”
A limited number of bowhunters are allowed to take part in the controlled hunt on Marsh Island, which aims to decrease problems that exist due to higher-than-desired deer populations on the island, and to do so in as unobtrusive a manner as possible.
BLIP stands for Bowhunters/ Landowners Information Program, and BLIP-certified hunters have passed a course and met criteria designed to recognize ethical hunters who “understand the importance of relations with landowners, other hunting groups and the concerns of the non-hunting public,” according to the Maine Bowhunters Association Web site.
Fahey said that some hunters may not even know that they’re on Marsh Island, and that may add to the confusion. He said signs at bridge crossings inform travelers that they’re on Marsh Island.
Those signs are now more visible, thanks to Fahey, who has spent some time recently trimming brush so that motorists can see them much better.