The leaves are still on the trees, and there have been relatively few frosty mornings thus far, but the state’s upland bird hunters will still celebrate their own opening day on Saturday, taking to the woods in their annual October search of ruffed grouse and woodcock.
What will they find?
Kelsey Sullivan, the game bird biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said he expects a mediocre year of hunting, especially for those seeking grouse — known to many Mainers as “partridge.”
“I would expect it’s going to be spotty, patchy,” Sullivan said. “You might find some good places, but overall, I think [a] middle-of-the-road [season] is what we could hope for. I don’t want to get anybody geared up that it’s going to be a bumper year, because I don’t think it is.”
In mid-summer, Sullivan’s colleague, Brad Allen, hinted at a similar prediction based on the relatively few broods of grouse he had been seeing.
“Grouse had very good nesting conditions, but this past winter was mild,” Sullivan said. “So [grouse] took it on the chin in terms of predators. I think the number [of birds] coming into spring wasn’t as high [as they could have been].”
Sullivan said that when a winter is extremely harsh, birds suffer, but predators also struggle to find food. When a winter is mild, the predators can find food sources (such as grouse) more readily. An average snowfall and average winter temperatures tend to favor the birds.
The DIF&W is conducting research and has put radio transmitters on hen grouse to track their mortality through the year.
“This past spring, [we learned during the study that] there was higher hen mortality during the nesting season, and even after the eggs hatched and [the hens] were on the ground with chicks, there was higher mortality for those breeding hens,” Sullivan said.
During 2014 and 2015, hen mortality during breeding season — largely attributed to predators — was about 30 percent, he said. This year, it was 40 percent.
Sullivan said that during those first two years of the study, 45 percent of the grouse died of natural causes each year, and another 15 percent were shot during hunting season.
Grouse tend to lay 10 to 12 eggs each, so there are typically plenty of young birds taking the place of those that die. Still, if an additional 10 percent of hens died statewide — as they did in two study areas — that would likely result in hunters having a bit less success.
Another resource that helps inform biologists as to the presence of grouse: A survey that moose hunters are asked to fill out when their session of moose season has ended. By compiling the totals from that survey, biologists can track how many grouse are seen or shot, per 100 hours in the woods, by those hunters.
Statewide, that number has fluctuated over the years. The 2015 total shows that across the state’s moose hunting territory, hunters saw an average of 43 grouse per 100 hours afield. After the predation that took place last winter, it’s reasonable to expect that this year’s moose hunters will see even fewer grouse. In 2014, moose hunters saw 52 grouse per 100 hours.
The number of American woodcock — which hunters also will target during the season — is expected to be healthier, Sullivan said.
Woodcock typically nest a couple weeks earlier than grouse, beginning in late April. Sullivan said that each year, biologists count woodcock at “singing grounds” where mating activity begins. That helps them predict how many of the migratory birds might be in Maine at that time.
“I think conditions were favorable for woodcock, and the singing ground survey … numbers were up quite a bit this year,” Sullivan said. “And they have different predator pressures in the winter [than grouse do]. The predator pressures [they face] are wherever they are in the wintertime, not in Maine, because they’re migratory.”
Earlier this year, Allen said that while many hunt grouse while riding roads, woodcock hunting is more attractive to another set of hunters.
“[Woodcock hunting] is all about dogs. Probably 93 percent of the harvest is taken over decent bird dogs. And it’s as good as it gets,” Allen said. “The woodcock is the consummate game bird for even amateur dog handlers, because they hold so well and their habitat is fairly easy to recognize and they’re predictable.”
No matter the abundance of birds this year, Sullivan knows bird hunters will head afield to enjoy the season. And he understands why.
“From personal experience, you’re out on the ground or walking a lot, you’re seeing all sorts of other things, you’re enjoying the crisp morning air,” Sullivan said. “You’re definitely in the thick of it. I think that is pretty appealing. And the excitement of flushing birds and working with dogs, too, is a big appeal.”