Grouse sightings south and east of Jackman have been limited this week.
Moose hunters have been scouring the roads, scanning clearcuts and venturing into some promising-looking spots in the woods this week. Along the way, there often are grouse to be found.
This year, most hunters in Wildlife Management District 8 said there aren’t a lot of birds as we move through the third full week of upland bird season.
While the grouse may be less prominent in some areas of northern and central Maine, there is still hope for discriminating bird hunters. It’s also woodcock season.
Under the right conditions, those plump, short-legged birds with long, straight bills, can provide some action.
While grouse can often be seen in and along roads, hunters likely will have to venture into the woods or fields to encounter woodcock.
They live in young to middle-aged hardwoods, often along fields or forest openings and favor areas containing alder or birch trees. Woodcock eat earthworms, thus preferring habitat with moist soils.
Biologist Brad Allen, the bird group leader for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said overall woodcock numbers have been on a slow decline along the East Coast in recent years.
That means there are fewer woodcock that live year-round in Maine, a group that makes up a smaller percentage of the bird’s population.
Even when home-grown woodcock aren’t present in large numbers, there is always an influx from the north.
“The resident population is kind of ho-hum, but we have the beauty of receiving birds from New Brunswick and Quebec, so we generally have some pretty good migrations through here,” Allen said.
And like many hunting and fishing pursuits, timing is definitely of the essence when it comes to hitting the fall flight of woodcock.
For hunters who are able to successfully make their hunting forays in productive covers when woodcock are arriving from up north, it can make for some memorable hunting.
“All of a sudden the cover that you hunted that had only five, four, three and now only two birds, might have 10,” Allen said.
“If you get into a couple of flights of migrating woodcock, it just makes your whole season. One glorious day.”
Scientists, including some at the University of Maine, are trying to get a better handle on woodcock populations and migrations with a study of the birds. It includes putting small satellite transmitters on the woodcock and monitoring their travel patterns.
That’s a departure from, and an improvement on, the practice of placing bands on the birds.
“Before, if you put a band on a woodcock, the chance of seeing that bird again is 1 or 2 percent,” Allen said. “Now, with the advent of satellite telemetry, we’re getting daily reports on where a bird is. It’s just amazing.”
As far as trying to be out in the woods and fields at the right time, it’s a bit less predictable for Maine hunters.
Allen said the fall flight generally comes at least two or three weeks into the upland bird season, which means they could be passing through any time now.
“With a little luck and depending on the weather, you start getting some birds flying in from Canada,” he said.
Woodcock are trying to take advantage of favorable weather and winds out of the north or northwest. Those conditions enable the diminutive birds to stay airborne longer and conserve energy on their long journey south.
Woodcock average approximately 870 miles between their breeding and wintering areas, according to the Ruffed Grouse Society. They cover about 160 miles on an average night of migration and take approximately 25-30 days to complete the trip.
Hunters who don’t hit the fall flight coming through Maine just right can be equally as frustrated with the timing of the woodcock’s arrival. They can fly in one day, then be gone the next evening.
“These guys, they are only around for a real limited time when they do come through,” Allen said. “Once they’re in migration mode, they’re on the road and they’re ready to go.”