Gun-dog enthusiasts and road-hunters alike will be out in force today on the first weekend of the state’s traditional upland bird season. According to the state’s top bird biologist, those hunters are likely to have a banner year.
Maine upland game hunters typically target ruffed grouse — “partridge” to many Mainers — and woodcock.
Brad Allen, the bird group leader for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, thinks both species will be plentiful this fall.
“Once again everybody is talking about abundant partridge in northern Maine, the North Maine Woods,” Allen said. “So I think in any of the commercial timberland areas, grouse numbers will be very, very good.”
Not that you won’t find grouse elsewhere, Allen said.
“They’ll be good around here, but they’ll be great up north,” he said.
Woodcock hunters will likely also enjoy success, he said.
“Woodcock conditions are better than average, I think, this year,” Allen said. “The breeding population was similar to previous years, but I think we had a phenomenal nesting period and brood-rearing period for woodcock.”
Maine’s grouse season runs from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31 (excluding Sundays). Hunters can kill four birds in a single day and can have eight in their possession. Woodcock enthusiasts can hunt Oct. 1-30 (excluding Sundays), with a three-bird daily bag limit and a six-bird possession limit.
Allen said the mild winter and dry conditions during the spring led to favorable conditions for both grouse and woodcock survival.
“[Woodcock] nest and hatch in May. Grouse, like turkeys, usually hatch in late May, early June,” Allen said. “So conditions in May are important to woodcock, conditions in June are very important to grouse. And both months were excellent.”
Cold, wet conditions put added stress on nesting birds, can kill newly hatched chicks, and often make for better scenting conditions for predators that are trying to sniff out their next meals.
While woodcock are migratory and head south during the winter, grouse are more susceptible to the state’s harsh winters. Their winter survival rate also helps determine how many birds will be on the ground come October.
“Grouse suffer a lot of mortality in the winter,” Allen said. “Really bad winters and certain snow conditions and predator numbers, it all adds up to a perfect storm. Well, the last winter was perfectly mild, and we presume that grouse numbers did very well last winter and the state was set for a good nesting period. And we probably had a textbook, as-good-as-it-gets nesting period for grouse.”
Allen said that after predicting a good hunting season for woodcock, he began to wonder if hunters would be able to find the birds after a very dry summer.
“I was a little concerned earlier about it being so dry,” Allen said. “Sometimes it’s hard to find woodcock when it’s really, really dry. I think we’ve had enough rain to put them back into normal cover, so I think you’ll be able to find them where you have in past years, and they should be in pretty good numbers.”
With Friday’s storm approaching, Allen said another dousing of rain would be the perfect tonic to provide for good woodcock hunting.
Woodcock are long-billed birds that dig in the soil to find food.
“There’s an old adage, ‘When it’s dry, you hunt woodcock high,’” Allen explained. “When it’s really dry they do different things. They’re not finding earthworms available to them. The earthworms are there, but they’re just out of their reach, they’re down deep in the soil. So when it’s dry they will go into other places where they can find moister soil conditions.”
Allen said when dry weather prevails, he likes to look for woodcock in coverts that have a mix of softwoods, where the soil is often more moist.
With the anticipated arrival of a substantial storm, however, Allen said that shouldn’t be a concern for hunters.
“That’s perfect,” he said of the approaching storm.