Earlier this week, while tagging along with a moose hunting party in the North Maine Woods near American Realty Road, we headed out early and stayed in the woods late in search of a hefty bull.
While that bull didn’t show up through two days of hunting, that doesn’t mean that we weren’t busy. And after what my hunting buddy and I saw, we made a note to return to the area sometime in the future to sample some top-notch bird hunting.
Over the course of two days (plus a couple extra hours while scouting moose on Sunday), we spotted a total of 41 ruffed grouse.
For the record, that’s about double the number of “partridge,” as many of us call ’em, that our hunting party saw over our last hunt together. Or maybe it tripled that total.
On Wednesday, I checked in with Brad Allen, the bird group leader for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, to get an official prediction for bird season, which begins Monday.
After I recounted our observation, he began to chuckle.
“You’ve just confirmed our suspicion that The North Maine Woods has good bird numbers this year,” the veteran wildlife biologist said. “And I’ve talked to people who run bird dogs down here [in the Bangor area], and they’re definitely seeing more than last year. One friend of mine is very understated, and he’s very impressed with the number of grouse that he’s seeing during his training.”
Allen said he has spoken with friends in eastern Maine who have also said they’ve seen plenty of grouse, and said he thinks those reports indicate solid grouse-hunting prospects in areas far removed from the traditional hotspots in the North Maine Woods.
That’s the good news. But there’s some not-so-good news to share as well.
The other bird sought by upland bird hunters — especially those who hunt behind skilled bird dogs, is not as plentiful this year, Allen said.
“Woodcock, like we had anticipated, are few and far between, but [they’re available] occasionally,” Allen said. “So it should be good grouse, fair to poor woodcock, perhaps.”
Allen explained that woodcock struggled in March due to some late snowstorms and cold weather that made probing the ground for earthworms difficult. In this case, the age-old saying didn’t come true: The early birds got no worms at all.
“The early birds, the ones that are coming through early to set up a territory and do their little woodcock mating ritual dance to attract females, [are racing the other birds],” Allen said. “They want to be the first ones here. And those early birds got hit by some really bad weather in March for ground-nesting birds.”
March, when mating was going on, was harsh. And April, the nesting season, also was cold. Allen said he hopes the warm month of May helped woodcock succeed during the brood-rearing period.
When it comes to woodcock hunting, of course, the number of birds you find early in the season can change drastically as the month of October progresses.
That’s because woodcock are migratory, and those living well to our north are apt to begin their trips south anytime after the first week of the month. Those “flight birds” are likely to stop in Maine to rest on the grueling journey.
“The first week of October you’re hunting resident birds, and you’ve got to rely on your resident bird hatch and production and nest success to dictate how well your opening week’s going to go,” Allen said. “But any time after that — during the second or third week of October — if you get the right weather conditions we could certainly expect flights from the maritimes and Quebec to occur.”
Those optimal weather conditions are pretty easy to track if you know what you’re looking for, Allen said. And when he owned bird dogs, he’d keep a good eye on approaching fronts to help him decide when a flight of woodcock might be heading south.
“Woodcock, as diminutive as they are, cannot fly into a headwind. So if you’ve got rainy weather and wind blowing out of the south, they’re not going to migrate on that,” Allen said. “You look for cold, clear, crisp nights where the wind is perhaps out of the northwest, kind of pushing birds down.”
And when that happens, bird hunters are likely to have a few more woodcock — along with plentiful grouse — to target.
That’s some good news worth to which hunters can look forward.
John Holyoke can be reached at email@example.com or 207-990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke
Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.