August 23, 2022
Before we could get out of the mountains, my dogs were asleep in the backseat of the truck. The potholes in the logging road didn't seem to bother them, but when I stepped on the brakes they quickly awoke.
A covey of valley quail flew across the road in front of me, and I grabbed the binocular to mark their landing. Thirty minutes later, following a hike, my dogs were on point in the middle of a logged unit overgrown with prime quail habitat.
As the covey busted loose, I missed the first shot but connected on the next two. Echo and Kona each delivered birds to hand, marking the end to a perfect day in which we'd taken four species of upland birds in Oregon's breathtaking Cascade Range.
Blue and ruffed grouse numbers are solid in western Oregon, and valley quail are thriving. Elusive mountain quail are spread out, but they are around. If you're looking for a fun, do-it-yourself upland-bird adventure, plenty of public-land options await.
While blue and ruffed grouse and mountain and valley quail live in all three Pacific Coast states, Oregon offers a good combination of bird numbers and public-land access. Search for valley quail at lower elevations in the Cascades, ruffed grouse from creek bottoms to the high peaks and mountain quail and blue grouse from mid to high elevations. Don’t be surprised to find valley quail above 2,500 feet, however, especially if newly logged units provide food and cover.
Ruffed grouse are homebody birds in much of the Cascades, especially in lowland river and creek habitats, but also in 10- to 15-year-old stands of Douglas fir. Prime habitat consists of thick cover bordering semi-open terrain with a nearby creek. Such riparian zones also hold good numbers of valley quail. Blue grouse occupying lands in and to the west of the Cascades are the sooty variety, while parts of eastern Oregon hold dusky grouse. Many sooty hunters begin the search above 2,000 feet. However, in recent years I’ve seen more blues at lower elevations than ever and have taken a number of birds between 500 and 1,000 feet.
"In western Oregon, we're finding that sooty grouse prefer older stands of Douglas fir timber situated near clearcuts," says Kelly Walton, assistant game bird biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "We're also finding a surprising number of sooty grouse occupying rugged terrain that's been disturbed by landslides, logging, even wildfires. Where a disturbance creates an opening in steep country, and is near habitat that holds food, water and cover, we're seeing a good number of blues, but the big timber is key."
Western Oregon's grouse-and-quail season opens Sept. 1, and early planning is important, as the first 6 weeks are best if looking for the slam. Early in the season, insects, clover, grass, grass seeds and a mix of berries are food sources to target.
If looking for well-plumed birds to mount—especially mountain quail and sooty grouse—the middle of October marks the start of primetime. However, this is when the hunting gets hard as deer and elk hunters hit the woods and these birds spread out in thicker cover and timber.
"Mountain quail love shrubs that come up right after a wildfire," Walton says. "So do valley quail."
In conducting your research, pull up satellite images to see where the latest forest fires have burned. Calls to regional ODFW and Forest Service offices will also help. Most hunters drive roads in search of birds, then turn the dogs loose or set out on foot. All four species can be found along the edges of logging roads in the morning and evening, gathering food as well as grit.
Gated roads that allow non-motorized access are my favorite places to hunt. I let my dogs work ahead and follow them on a mountain bike. Electric bikes are another option, and they’re quiet. This is big country, so don’t expect to go out and shoot all four birds in a day. It’s not uncommon to go a week without seeing a mountain quail or blue grouse; ruffs and valley quail are encountered more frequently. It’s all about covering ground and putting in time with these forest dwellers.
Don’t waste time hiking up and down mountains, as you could spend months looking for birds. Focus on hiking along the edges of ridgelines that have open habitat, be it meadows, landslides, burns or logging. Mornings, evenings and rainy days are best. Ruffed grouse, valley quail and blue grouse hold well for a dog. Catch mountain quail in a logged unit with brush and slash piles they can hide in and they’ll hold. Find them on dense forest fringes and you’ll be lucky to get a shot.
THE HONEY HOLES
Up the Umpqua River drainage, in Oregon's Douglas County, is a prime place to achieve the forest slam. Know that at the time of this writing, however, there are thousands of acres of quality forest land closed to public access due to the 2020 wildfires. But don’t let that discourage you, as there are plenty of excellent places to hunt for all four bird species, and more lands are opening each month as cleanup efforts progress.
In addition to the Cascades, Oregon’s Southwest Coast, from Coos Bay to the California border, has seen good upland hunting for years, and there are good public lands to hunt near Central Point and Blue River, as well as around Mount Hood to the north. Another option is purchasing a private timber company access permit. Most of these, like those offered by Weyerhaeuser, offer year-round access. If serious about tagging all four upland species–especially blue grouse and mountain quail–it might be worth the investment to get one of these permits and hunt every day for a couple weeks. Camping is allowed in many of these areas.
Whether you’re an upland bird hunter looking to tackle a bucket list item or simply yearn for a unique experience, consider heading to the Northwest. After more than 45 years of pursuing these forest gems, it’s still one my most eagerly anticipated bird seasons of the year. Once you set foot there, you’ll understand why.
WHERE TO STAY
Whether you hunt the Cascades or Coast Range, there are hub cities that offer a good home base with a selection of places to stay, bars to hit and restaurants to visit. Roseburg will put you in the heart of upland bird paradise in the Umpqua River drainage. Take time to visit the Umpqua Hot Springs—geothermal hot pools sitting on cliffs overlooking one of the West’s most famed rivers.
To the north, Eugene and Springfield will connect you with the McKenzie River drainage. Wildfires from two years ago are still being cleaned up, but some prime habitat now exists on the fringes. If you’re into hiking, check out the Blue Pool and Clear Lake trails, an hour’s drive east of Springfield.
Salem and Albany aren’t far from the Santiam River drainage near the spectacular Silver Creek Falls. This watershed connects to the McKenzie River drainage, and the
McKenzie headwaters join to the Umpqua River drainage via the Cascade Range, each of which offers good hunting. If you’re a camper, there are plenty of options throughout the western slopes of the Cascades.