By Bruce Ingram
West Virginia’s grouse hunters know full well that pursuing their favorite game bird has often been difficult in recent years. The outstanding hunting that existed in decades past, when heavy game bags and multiple flushes from coverts were the norm, has been replaced by hardscrabble outings where human and canine labor hard to put up a fool hen or two in a day’s time.
This article will take a look at some of the reasons why hunting has declined, along with the workings of the Appalachian Cooperative Grouse Research Project (ACGRP), and strategies for being successful in the Mountain State these days. Chris Ryan, a wildlife biologist for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR), will enlighten us on the current status of Old Ruff.
“Right now, West Virginia has experienced two very poor brood years in a row; in fact, the 2002 and 2003 hatches were some of the worst on record,” he said. “The birds endured two wet, cold springs those years, and on top of that, the state had really late frosts when most of the oaks were flowering. The spring of 2003, which should have produced many of the adult birds in the population today and many of the breeders for the spring of 2004, was particularly bad, as we had both heavy rains and high winds.
“The result was that in the spring of 2003 when the grouse, as well as turkey, broods were coming off, they were hit hard with cold, damp weather. Predictably, there were few grouse and turkeys produced.”
Ryan relates that grouse spend typically 21 days incubating their eggs, and that in West Virginia in a normal year, the eggs hatch during the last week of May. Comparatively, turkeys incubate their eggs for some 26 to 28 days, and poults hatch the first week of June in the Mountain State.
Another factor, according to the biologist, affecting grouse numbers is the status of the state’s forest. Timber companies cut most of the state in the 1930s during the last great logging boom of the 20th century. The result is that most of the state now features mature saw timber, that is, trees with diameters over 12 to 14 inches. Hardwoods such as white oaks, for example, are now at prime bearing ages, which is, of course, a good thing for many species of game and nongame animals. Grouse relish the acorns of white oaks – although because the white oaks have failed to engender their bounty the past two falls, the birds have not been able to indulge in their fondness for these nuts.
However, such even age timber is also not a positive for grouse. This bird does best when dense undergrowth exists and when a forest is regenerating. In mature forests, grouse are also much more exposed to aerial predators, as well as such ground-based predators as bobcats and gray and red foxes.
Ryan emphasizes grouse populations depend on good spring weather and hard mast production; they’re also dependent upon proper forest management – that is, proper in relationship to their numbers increasing. Study after study has shown that ruffs prosper in clearcuts and in the early successional stages of forests. A clearcut that is anywhere from three to 20 years in age often contains ideal upland bird habitat.
Of course, such factors as terrain, topography, and how fast the forest is regenerating also contribute to when and how long a clearcut will provide beneficial habitat to birds. Some West Virginia cuts may become less hospitable in as little as five to six years, while others may take eight to nine years. At some point, a clearcut will become so thick that humans will not be able to make their ways through it.
Given all the negatives that ruffed grouse face today, where would the best places be these days for hunters to go afield? Here’s what biologist Ryan has to say.
“The best way to answer that question is to look at the 2003 Spring Gobbler Survey, which came out in the spring of 2004. The gobbler survey does not point out local hotspots, but it does give an indicator as to which regions and counties currently can offer some relatively good hunting. By county, the drumming rates don’t vary much from year to year.”
I did peruse the gobbler survey, and, unfortunately, the results printed there were fairly grim in terms of potential grouse hunting for the current season. Statewide, the drumming rate of four birds per 100 hours during the spring 2003 season was 56 percent below the 2002 rate of nine. For further comparison, the 2001 rate was 12.
What’s more, the 2003 rate was the lowest since the gobbler survey began monitoring grouse in 1993. The flushing count of two per 100 hours was below the 2002 rate of three per 100 hours and also below the 11-year average of three per 100 hours. Also of note is that grouse brood counts for 2003 were down 54 percent from 2002 and 68 percent lower than the five-year average.
By region, the Mountain (with seven drumming birds per 100 hours) and Central (with six per 100 hours) led the state, followed by the Southern and Western regions, each with a figure of four. The Eastern Panhandle and Southwestern regions lagged well behind with figures of three and two, respectively. Drumming rates decreased significantly in all regions from 2002 to 2003. As one would expect, the best flushing rates were in the Mountain and Central regions, both with three flushes per 100 hours.
Mingo led the state in terms of drumming birds heard with a rate of 27 drums per 100 hours. Other highly rated counties (with the drums per 100 hours in parentheses) were Preston (20), Pocahontas (20), Ohio (16), and Pleasants (15). Counties with the best flushing rates per 100 hours were Preston (nine), Wood (seven), Summers (five), Marion (four), and Wetzel (four). Again, according to Ryan, hunters who live in or near these regions and counties would do well to look for private and public land opportunities for hunting grouse.
In terms of all factors that can influence a sportsman’s decision on where to go upland birding, Ryan offers this suggestion.
“The best place to go grouse hunting in West Virginia is the southern coalfields and that has been true for quite a while,” he said. “That region still has strip mines of the proper age, and the stem density of the trees there is still good for grouse. The topography is so steep and rugged in the coalfields that much of the territory is hard to access.
“Another factor in the southern coalfields continuing to be the best bet is that the trees don’t grow very fast, thus keeping the stem densi
ty down. Why this is true is because the companies mined the coal down to the rocks. The trees that do grow back can’t grow big because of the lack of soil.”
To understand this phenomenon, drive down any road in the state where a passageway has been cut between two mountains. Look at the top of the mountain and notice how small the trees are. Just as the undergrowth on strip benches cannot grow because of lack of soil, the lack of soil results in poor regeneration at the tops of these cliffs where roads have been cut below. This same factor also causes many shrubs and small trees that produce fruits to flourish that grouse relish. These include grapes, dogwoods, sumac and greenbrier.
Ryan defines the southern coalfields as those domains south of state Route 60 and west of Interstate 77. The counties of the southern coalfields include Boone, McDowell, Mingo, Logan and Wyoming, as well as the southern reaches of Fayette and Kanawha.
Another option for grouse enthusiasts is to contact the district forest ranger for any of the wildlife management areas (WMAs) in the Monongahela and Jefferson and George Washington national forests. A simple question to ask is where has forest management taken place in the form of timber cutting over the past five to 10 years.
Another question that sportsmen can ask district forest rangers is where habitat manipulation has taken place. Shawn Head, an assistant District III wildlife biologist, has done quite a bit of work in creating wildlife openings.
In the Rimel WMA of the Monongahela National Forest, manager Cully McCurdy had created a number of meadows, grassy openings in the forest that are excellent places for turkey and grouse broods to search for insects and vegetation. The creation of these fields has been a cooperative project with much input from the National Wild Turkey Federation and the U.S. Forestry Service. As Ryan notes: “Everything from bears to bluebirds will visit a savannah.”
Upland birders may also find fair hunting where gypsy moths have caused defoliation. These pests prey upon stands with a high percentage of white or chestnut oaks. Many times, although not always, defoliation leads to the death of mature trees, especially trees that grow in hollows and on north- and east-facing slopes.
At present, the leading edge of the gypsy moth’s onward march is in Pocahontas, Randolph, Barbour, Taylor and Pendleton counties. Male moths have been found in most of the Mountain State. Gypsy moths move southward at a rate of 10 to 12 miles per year, but this pace is not consistent, and the pests don’t always cause havoc wherever they go. The gypsy moth may reach the southern West Virginia border by 2010.
Besides the gypsy moth, other pests have caused defoliation problems in West Virginia. The dogwood anthracnose is a fungus that has killed dogwoods, especially those trees that grow in cool, wet and high altitudes of over 3,000 feet. The Hemlock woody adelgid has negatively impacted hemlocks in 18 counties.
Additionally, some 3.5 million acres in the state have been infested by beech bark disease, which eventually kills beech trees. Oak wilt disease is found in all West Virginia counties except Brooke, Ohio, Tucker and Webster. The good news is that all these afflictions serve to open the forest canopy for species such as grouse. The bad news is that they also destroy trees valuable for wildlife food and cover.
A way that hunters may be able to determine both grouse-hunting possibilities and the presence or absence of food for these birds is by studying the mast survey and hunting outlook results that the DNR publishes around Sept. 15 every year. The information is also available on the DNR’s Web site at www.wvdnr.gov. The agency publishes results on a statewide, regionwide and a county basis.
In 1995, the Mountain State began a pilot study on the Westvaco Ecosystem Research Forest in Randolph County. One of the early goals was to determine grouse population dynamics and ecology in order to understand why numbers of this game bird have been decreasing. At the start of the project, 36 birds were outfitted with tiny radio transmitters.
After the yearlong pilot study ended, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio joined the project, which was designed to last for six years from 1996 through 2002. At the end of the first three years, in which over 1,200 grouse had been outfitted with radios, researchers learned that the annual survival rate of adult grouse was 41 percent, which was good news. The distressing news, however, is that successful nesting rates in our region were found to be much lower.
For the second three-year phase, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, North Carolina and Tennessee joined the study. Twelve study areas have been created in the eight states that ultimately participated. West Virginia, for example, had two study sites, while Virginia had three.
The ACGRP has three objectives that are quite relative to West Virginia grouse hunters. First, the group has been studying the population dynamics of Appalachian grouse. Specifically, that means the life history of the bird, such as its survival rates, and what kinds of predators consume grouse and at what times of the year. Also, what kind of reproduction is taking place and how that reproduction compares with populations elsewhere.
Second, what kinds of habitat do grouse select and whether different age-classes of birds prefer different habitats in different seasons. And third, what is the impact of hunting on grouse mortality and ultimately on the population? Ryan informs that the final reports are in the process of being written and that doctoral candidates are even writing their PhDs on the study. The reports should be out late in 2004, and a book on the study is in the works and may be published by 2006.
The grouse-hunting public in the entire Appalachian region should anticipate with great interest the release of the data. Much useful information about bird home ranges, seasonal ranges, habitat use, chick survival, nesting ecology, reproduction and mortality causes will be available.
“West Virginia biologists and wildlife managers have supplied nearly half of the data for the study,” Ryan said. “These individuals have spent incredibly long hours working, and their knowledge and field work exemplifies the dedication they have for their jobs and their overall professions.”
Indeed, Ryan and fellow biologist Bill Igo, who also worked on the grouse project, said that the project was a success because of the hard work of so many wildlife managers, biologists and technicians – there are too many to name. The project was truly a staff one.
Ryan participated in the study for nearly a year as a wildlife technician in the late 1990s. One of his most fascinating findings was the saga of an individual female grouse that traveled from the White Sulfur Springs area 17 miles northward toward the Marlinton/Durbin area. Biologists well know that grouse dispersal takes place every year, as the young move away from where they were born and establish their own niches. Th
is process prevents inbreeding from taking place. However, as Ryan notes: “There were no worries about that wandering female ever inbreeding with any of her relatives.”
Ryan told me that his efforts as a technician were typical of the research conducted. He would take a minimum of three readings concerning a bird’s daily location. This data would later be used to help determine home range and movement. During the spring, Ryan would locate nests; amazingly, he found that grouse often nest in very open areas – depending on their coloration to fool predators. He also learned that a nesting grouse sits very tight and when she finally does flush, does not go far. After Ryan would count the eggs and begin to leave, the female would immediately return to her nest.
Fool hen hunting in West Virginia is definitely not experiencing its glory days. But hope does exist for the future, and the current study on grouse should bring to light what sportsmen and game departments can do to better help this marvelous game bird.
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