Avid bird hunters will be afield before you know it — Oct. 1 is the opener for both woodcock and ruffed grouse seasons in Maine — and many are undoubtedly curious about what they’ll find in their favorite spots this year.
Kelsey Sullivan, a migratory and upland game bird biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, says that depends on what those hunters are looking for and where they’re heading. Sullivan sat down to talk about woodcock, grouse (and wild turkeys which will also be fair game during a fall season), and outlined his projections for the fall.
Let’s start with woodcock. The earliest breeder of the three, the tiny “timberdoodle” may not have fared as well as some other birds during a wet nesting season, Sullivan said.
Sullivan explained that U.S. Geological Survey biologist Dan McAuley conducts surveys during breeding season, taking his bird dog out to find nests and check brood sizes. McAuley’s reports were less than optimistic.
“His dog points during the breeding season, when broods are out, and this year he reported really poor production,” Sullivan said. “He wasn’t encountering many broods and when he did the broods weren’t very big. So I think they were affected [by cold, rainy weather].”
Sullivan said that cold and rain can affect hatch rates and make survival tougher when the birds hatch.
“They have a couple of weeks where they come out and they can pretty much run around on their own, but they are still brooded and hunker down with their mother for a couple weeks, so there’s that vulnerability,” Sullivan said.
Woodcock hunters do have reason to be optimistic, however. This year, after several years of research and discussion, state biologists have successfully lobbied to increase the northeastern woodcock season by 15 days to a total of 45 days.
“It’s been found that [the woodcock] survival rate is affected by so many different things that the effects of hunting are so negligible,” Sullivan said. “Habitat is the key. Hunting isn’t really having a real impact on overall populations.”
This year’s woodcock season will run until Nov. 15, and that later closing may give Maine hunters a better shot at migrating birds that are passing through the state on their way south.
“We have a greater chance of timing with the fall flight,” Sullivan said. “Some years, even though you had 30 days [of hunting season], the real strong flight might be Nov. 2 [after the season closed].”
Sullivan said the extension of woodcock season is experimental and will be analyzed after five years.
“If we look back and it’s determined that the population trajectory … has changed significantly since adding the extra two weeks, it would probably end and go back to 30 days,” Sullivan said.
Moving on to ruffed grouse — “partridge” to many Mainers — Sullivan said the news is much better than he expected.
“I was surprised to hear good reports from people because I expected them to not fare so well,” Sullivan said. “Their spring timing was toward the end of May [when the weather was wet]. I thought that was going to affect grouse negatively, but I’ve heard a lot of positive reports out there, and young grouse [have been seen] Down East and also up in the Greenville area.”
Sullivan said another area that has enjoyed a solid reputation as a grouse hot spot also is likely to produce well.
“Northern Maine just seems to be an area unto itself that just does so much better because there’s so much more habitat,” he said.
Overall, Sullivan said, he’s expecting a solid, though not spectacular, year statewide.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a bumper year, but it’s going to be so-so, mediocre,” he said.
When hunters take part in a series of fall turkey hunting opportunities that run from Sept. 29 through Oct. 28 (seasons and accepted methods vary by region and date; be sure to check your rulebook), they may see an interesting thing, Sullivan said.
Big turkeys. Small turkeys. And even smaller turkeys.
Sullivan explained that some breeding turkeys also were affected by the wet spring weather, and hens that lost their entire broods ended up re-nesting. As a result, the poults that are out wandering around in the woods come in two sizes.
“What we’re seeing is that there’s two different age classes [among birds that hatched this year],” Sullivan said. “There’s some that survived that wet weather in the spring, so they’re older. But [it’s like comparing] a three-quarter-grown poult to a quarter-grown poult. We’re seeing that with our brood surveys.”
The older group of poults has a two- to three-week head start on the younger group, but Sullivan said that shouldn’t hamper the smaller birds as winter approaches.
“They have enough time and they have enough resources,” Sullivan said. “If they have a good September and October, they should be fine.”