- Outdoors Dave Sartwell
Upland bird hunters will be getting some good news — and bad news — about the fall 2017 bird populations throughout New England.
This past winter the ruffed grouse fared well, while the migrating woodcock flew straight into the blizzards of March.
Let’s start with the woodcock. It’s important to understand the biology of these long-beaked birds.
Woodcock are the first ground-nesting bird to migrate north from their wintering grounds in the southern United States. They often arrive in late February or early March, looking for earthworms, grubs and other little crawlers that exist just below the ground surface.
Usually, the ground is just warming at that time of year. They find their food sources on those sunny side-hill slopes or spring seeps that lose the first snows of winter. In one of the many miracles of nature, if there isn’t enough food to provide the energy necessary to produce eggs, they’ll maintain their body weight and delay reproduction.
Earlier this year, however, they flew into New England just as we were experiencing a hard cold, followed by a large dump of snow. These new arrivals could not find enough food to eat to stay alive, and many perished in the cold. We haven’t had those conditions since the spring of 2007, when several snow storms in late March and April covered the Northeast.
The only good news is that woodcock do not fly north in flocks; they are individual birds that move at their own calling. Because of that, some would have arrived later in the spring and taken a different route to get here.
It’s still to early to tell the full extent of the decline this year, but everyone agrees there were less singing males in the spring woods — and there will be less young birds available this fall.
Ruffed grouse populations have fared much better. Biologists are reporting that we should see normal to above-normal amounts of birds in the woods, depending on location.
This grouse is one of the most widely distributed birds in North America, with the ruffed grouse being one of the smaller of the 10 different species. It’s almost impossible to tell an adult male from an adult female without examining the internal organs. The male tail feathers are often longer than those of the female, but aren’t a reliable indicator.
There are two predominant color phases: red and grey. The birds in our region are mostly grey.
Ruffed grouse populations have been tied to the amount of farmland under production. They love the logged-over areas, where the berry bushes and other food sources pop up when the forest canopy has been removed.
Grouse numbers this fall will be steady or a little higher than usual. Grouse have pretty good mechanisms for surviving our winters: they just bury in, create their own cave under the snow, and wait for the storms to blow over. They also eat a wide variety of foods, which makes them more adaptable to weather problems.
For example, in the winter they eat dead flower buds or the dried catkins of birch and cherry trees. After they hatch, the chicks feed mainly off a variety of bugs that are high in protein, which allows them to grow rapidly.
The woodcock season will open in Massachusetts Oct. 4, with ruffed grouse season opening Oct. 14. Both will open simultaneously in New Hampshire (Oct. 1) and Maine (Oct. 2).