Mountain State Grouse Update
September 29, 2010
Though ruffed grouse numbers aren't what they used to be, efforts are being made to reverse this process. Here's the latest update.
The December expedition with bird-hunting enthusiast John Linkus speaks volumes about what grouse hunters must do to enjoy their pastime these days. Linkus, a medical products salesman, and I started out our day on a 30-acre parcel in the Allegheny Mountains on the Virginia/West Virginia state line. Making a quick trip through a greenbrier thicket and then a tangle of downed pitch pines, we managed to put up one ruff.
Then it was off to land I own in Monroe County where we visited an old, overgrown orchard. And even though John's dog became "birdy" at times, the pooch failed to go on point. We then went to Potts Creek Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in the Jefferson National Forest where we made, in order, a pass through a creek hollow, then along an old logging road with grape copses surrounding it, and finally a run through a pine thicket -- all without putting up any birds. All in all, we spent a half-day chasing after ruffs with only one bird flushed and no shots fired.
This run-and-gun style of man and dog hitting a variety of places with a variety of habitats is what modern-day grouse hunting often takes the form of in today's West Virginia bird country. Were we discouraged? The answer would be that we had expected to work hard and travel far to put up a few birds. And we were not really surprised at the outcome. No one would label these as the good old days for fool hen fanciers, as grouse hunters have to labor mightily to put up a few birds and to shoot even fewer of those you catch a glimpse of.
GROUSE RESEARCH PROJECT
Currently, West Virginia is one of a number of states in the Mid-Atlantic involved with the Appalachian Cooperative Grouse Research Project. The focus is to investigate the population dynamics and habitat use of ruffed grouse in the central Appalachian Region. Fifteen study areas exist in eight states and two of those lie in the Mountain State -- in Randolph and Greenbrier counties.
The study features several objectives. A crucial one is to place radios and to monitor 40 ruffed grouse in each area, specifically checking on these birds twice weekly. Researchers collect data on mortality, when it occurs and the causes, the types of habitats birds select throughout the year, the nest and brood production and chick survival, and how we hunters affect birds. In the eight states, 1,200 grouse have been radioed and monitored.
The last update was in May when some interesting tidbits were released. One result was that grouse mortality was mainly pinned on avian predation with mammals holding down the second spot. As I, and many sportsmen had expected, hunting was listed as a "small part of the predation picture averaging about 15 percent of the total." It is simply hard for hunters to kill a grouse any time they wish.
Another result of the study shows that reproduction has been very low in the study area with only about one chick per hatch reaching adult age itself. With high predation and a short life span, grouse are understandably right now at low population levels. And this high mortality obviously affects populations.
Researchers will now examine chick survival with the goal being to answer the question of why reproduction is not as high as it should be and once was. This study should yield some fascinating results and will involve the dispersal of grouse come autumn. West Virginia University will conduct this study.
When the research project is finished, biologists should have a better idea of population trends and more knowledge on survival, mortality, productivity and home range. The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) will then be better able to manage our fool hens.
Chris Ryan, a wildlife biologist for the DNR, offers this perspective.
"Our biggest issue is lack of habitat," he said. "Grouse thrive in second-growth timber, 5- to 10-year-old clearcuts are good for grouse, while 10- to 15-year-old ones are much better. Generally, after a clearcut is 15 years old, you can just about forget it as a place to hunt for birds. For grouse, the stem density of trees is prime when those trees are 10 years old.
"Selective timber harvesting is OK for birds, but not as good as a clearcut. I want to emphasize that this second-growth timber is not only good for grouse, but also for a lot of songbirds such as towhees."
Stem density, continued the biologist, is also an important factor in terms of escape cover. Grouse need the right age of clearcut to hide, especially in the winter, from various predators.
Ryan added that a good rule of thumb for stem density is what the old-time bird hunters used to rely on. Their conventional wisdom was that for grouse hunting, trees "should be from the size of a pencil to anything you could get your hand around."
Ryan agrees with the grouse study in regard to the major problem recruitment has been. In recent years, grouse chicks have been hatching out in many areas of the state when late spring temperature drops and cold rains have occurred -- a double whammy for the birds. This is the same reason that turkey numbers have decreased in much of West Virginia, as the poults likewise have entered this world under inclement conditions. In the Mountain State generally, grouse eggs often hatch the last week of May, while turkeys typically hatch the first week of June.
Interestingly, in the study, the largest clutch was 14 and the average was just under 10. When only one bird on average out of these broods is reaching adulthood, no wonder we are experiencing grouse population problems. Everything, it seems, from weather to habitat has been conspiring against the birds. (Cont'd)
Biologist Chris Ryan offered these quick tips for today's West Virginia upland bird hunters.
'¢ Know your West Virginia grouse foods: acorns, beechnuts, autumn olive, grapes, multi-flora rose hips, black haw and many species of berries.
'¢ Buy a good pair of hunting boots and be prepared to walk for long distances. Flush rates have not been good in recent years, and we have to partially make up for that by walking more.
'¢ Search out private and public lands where timbering or some form of land disturbance has occurred in recent years. That might be cutting on private land or coal company property or clear-cutting in the national forest or on state wildlife management areas.
HABITAT IMPROVEMENT PROJECT
Dennis LaBare of Upper Tract is a retired environmental consultant an
d an activevolunteer with the Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS). In a number of states, LaBare hunts some 60 to 70 days a year for grouse and woodcocks over his three English setters; he currently has a project underway called the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge Woodcock Project, which should help out not only woodcock and grouse but also a number of other game and non-game species.
The working group for this project includes LaBare, retired biologists Walt Lesser and Joe Rieffenberger, Mark Banker, the Southern Appalachian regional biologist for the RGS, retired biologist Jim Rawson, now with the Canaan Valley Institute, refuge manager Stan Skutek, and biologist Ken Sturm, and Caleb Gould as a citizen member. So far, the group has raised about $25,000 from various sources, such as the DNR, RGS, National Wild Turkey Federation, West Virginia Trophy Hunters, individual donors, and matching funds from United States Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS).
Among the accomplishments and goals to improve upland wildlife habitat in the Canaan Valley are the following:
'¢ In 2004 and 2005, some 17 acres of aspen were cut on the valley floor, with an additional five acres being scheduled for cutting in 2006.
'¢ Important riparian corridors restored by the refuge staff. Staff planted 1,000 spruce seedlings in 2005 with another 3,000 planned for 2006. Both grouse and woodcock thrive along streams.
'¢ Tractor mowing to reduce Spiraea alba to increase roosting and singing grounds for woodcocks and additional grouse habitat as well. Ten acres were cut in 2004, 14.5 acres in 2005, and another 15 acres in 2006.
'¢ Working with the DNR to conduct deer hunts at Timberline and on Canaan Valley State Park, as hardwood regeneration is in a very bad way in both places, LaBare said. Deer numbers are simply too high and the habitat is suffering. Nesting and rearing of game birds should improve if deer numbers can be decreased. Important hardwood species, such as aspen, maple, cherry and dogwood, are alarmingly rare.
'¢ Addressing the alder/rare plant problem. Because of the issue of rare plants mixed in with the alder communities, project members have been creating some experimental alder plot cuts in the fall of 2005 to monitor throughout the 2006 growing season, and this has been done. This was implemented so as to avoid cutting alder with known rare plants mixed in with it. The outcome is of particular interest, as it will determine how much additional alder management can be accomplished. Cutting alder can increase bird habitat.
Finally, woodcock biologist Andy Weik visited the Canaan area during the first week of December to consult with other biologists. One of the focal points of Weik's report involves alder management and regeneration. Highpoints include the following:
'¢ Select the drier stands (that is, soil not saturated) for clear-cutting during the dormant period.
'¢ Manage alder on a 15- to 20-year cutting rotation.
'¢ Horizontal stems indicate a stand should be cut.
'¢ Maintain a diversity of age-classes in an area, which includes staggering cuts over a 15- to 20-year period.
'¢ Isolated patches will be used by non-breeding woodcocks for feeding and resting (during summer and during migration); habitat value for resident breeding woodcocks is enhanced by being adjacent or in close proximity to nesting and brood-rearing habitat.
'¢ In larger cuts, leave a few stems (particularly of other woody species such as ash or fir) to serve as perching sites for insect-hawking birds, such as some warblers and flycatchers.
Again, habitat improvement projects like this not only benefit game birds such as woodcocks and grouse, but also game animals such as deer. As the report notes, warblers and flycatchers will benefit, as will a host of game and non-game creatures. What is good for grouse and woodcocks is often good for a number of other species.
Contributions to the Canaan Woodcock project may be made with a check payable to the Ruffed Grouse Society. Mail to Dennis LaBare, HC 62 Box 34, Upper Tract, WV 26866.
Also, the Upper Tract resident is working on another project designed to increase the amount of timber cutting in the George Washington and Jefferson national forests.
"We need a wildlife habitat analysis that shows how the forest has aged, habitats lost, species impacted, and other negatives," he said. "I believe these three elements together will make a compelling case for more active management and access on the national forest."
WHERE ARE TODAY'S GROUSE?
As noted earlier, West Virginia grouse hunters need to look for birds within young forests. For example, I spring gobbler hunted on a Greenbrier County farm this past season, once in April and once in May. On the first trip, I flushed several grouse that were foraging in a stand of recently cut pines. On the second visit, I again flushed multiple birds -- one from along a new logging road, the other from where some hardwoods had been harvested.
Most years, I concentrate on turkey hunting and bowhunting in October and November and turn to small game, such as grouse and squirrels, in December and January. Of course, like many hunters, if I flush a grouse while turkey hunting, I will opportunistically pursue grouse. That's one of the reasons I always carry some No. 6 shot while turkey hunting.
The point is that I will return to that farm this December and head directly toward its logging roads and clearcuts in my search of ruffs. Grouse prefer to feed, often doing so almost entirely, on fruits, nuts and buds of various trees during the December through February period. Clearcuts, especially if a few hardwoods have been left within as part of a shelter cut, often have a cornucopia of this type of food.
Another reason to visit young forests at this time is that grouse tend to seek out this thick cover when the harsh weather winter sets in. And the birds will remain in this type of habitat often until sometime in April.
Yet another place to search for fool hens is in evergreen groves. For example, West Virginia hosts a number of pine species, such as white, Virginia and pitch. Spruces and hemlocks are two other conifers that will also entice birds. When the weather becomes inclement and snow starts to accumulate, these game birds will turn to this type of habitat.
Rhododendron and mountain laurel thickets are two other types of habitats that can draw birds. One particularly favorite place of mine to grouse hunt is along a creek tributary in the George Washington and Jefferson national forests. Some of the oldest and largest stands of great rhododendron (the most common species in West Virginia) that I have seen anywhere thrive along that mountain rill.
During periods of heavy snowfall and accumulation, ruffed grouse wil
l often gather in dense rhododendron and laurel copses. Of course, this can be a difficult time to hunt birds, for both human and canine, but some fetching wingshooting action can take place. Grouse have been known to even dive into heavy snowfall in order to survive low temperatures. The birds have also been known to remain there until weather conditions improve. Snow, of course, has insulating qualities.
Another way to gain information on where to find birds is to examine their crops. For example, every grouse and turkey that I am fortunate enough to kill, I always examine their crops after I have finished removing all meat from the carcass. The crops can supply a wealth of information on where a bird is spending its time and what it has been consuming. I have friends who call me when they down a bird, and I do the same for them. Between us we can share what we have found in various birds' crops.
One time while a friend and I were grouse hunting in the Jefferson National Forest back some years ago, we made one swing through a particular birdy thicket and put up several birds. We then turned around and made another pass, flushing what we thought were certainly two different birds. The two of us even briefly considered making a third pass before we eventually decided to move one ridge over and hit that locale.
Today, we would likely have only run through that particular place one time, and then embarked in a vehicle to some other place on public or private land for a quick pass. And next, we would have been off to another spot, maybe even in a different county. That's grouse hunting today for many people in many parts of the Mountain State.