With some of the snow starting to melt in the area, I was finally able to get the dogs out for some much-needed work this week. There was still too much snow in the mountains where I like to hunt so I found a couple places I wanted to explore and took the dogs hunting where I knew the snow had melted leaving good scenting conditions in the wet leaves.
Finding new locations to hunt can be tough, I look at maps and try to find areas that have the type of food and habitat necessary for grouse to survive, such as clear cuts and other young forest types.
With grouse populations so low, it is difficult to find quality places to hunt and to consistently find birds it pays big dividends to know as much as possible about grouse. A great resource for information on the birds as well as their food and habitat preferences is the Appalachian Cooperative Grouse Research Project report titled Ruffed Grouse Ecology and Management in the Appalachian Region available on the WVDNR website.
The project was designed to determine the causes of the population decline of ruffed grouse in the Appalachian region over the last several decades; this decline coincides with the decline of many other species that depend on young forest habitat for survival over the same period.
The project ran from 1996 to 2002, consisted of 12 study sites in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island, and was conducted by the natural resources agencies of each state with the cooperation of university wildlife programs, along with many other wildlife and conservation agencies.
Prior to this study, management of grouse in this region was based on research conducted in the northern US and Canada. The goal of this study was to research the ecology of ruffed grouse in the Appalachian region and to provide information necessary to increase grouse and other populations through successful forest management practices providing various age class tracts, which will support more diverse wildlife species.
Although the study was conducted to help forest and wildlife managers develop successful management practices, it contains a wealth of local information for hunters, as do the other publications available from the DNR. Some of the information in this study includes habitat selection, food preferences, daily habits, roosting sites, nest sites, brood survival, harvest and predation. The nice thing about the study is that since it took place year round it contains seasonal information such as what habitat grouse prefer in the winter, food preferences and diet in the winter, and roosting sites during cold winter nights, all useful information for the grouse hunter and helped me find birds this week. I looked for south facing slopes with 10-15 year old clear cuts, some evergreens for roosting, preferably mid-size firs or spruce, greenbrier and grape for forage, and the thickest cover available nearby for shelter during the day.
Unfortunately, good cover like this is getting harder and harder to find. The study concluded that the main reason for the decline in ruffed grouse in the region was loss of habitat. Many hunters remember back in the 1970's when grouse seemed to be everywhere but there was also a great deal of clear-cutting taking place.
When there are not enough quality habitats for the birds, they must spend more time foraging for food exposing themselves to predators. Predation can also factor into the decline, with 43 percent attributed to avian predators and another 26 percent to mammal predation totaling almost 70 percent of all grouse deaths from predators. Only 12 percent of grouse mortality was attributed to hunters, making it almost a non-factor in grouse survival, so I don't feel bad taking what few I do actually connect with.
Armed with the information from the report and maps of the new areas that I found on Google Earth, I headed into the woods with the dogs two afternoons this week. Since I only had a couple hours each evening to hunt the clear cuts, I concentrated my efforts on the thickest part of each cut that was near good roosting cover. I was fortunate to find a few birds at each spot, at the first, they were in grape and greenbrier tangles around some hawthorn trees. Two were in the trees and the other two, flushed wild without a shot. The other place we did much better, the birds were on the ground feeding on berries and twigs while making their way to a small clump of spruce trees. Brandy pointed all three we moved that day. The first bird our lab Ursa flushed before I was in position to shoot, the next bird dropped at the shot when he cleared the brush over a perfect point from Brandy, and the third I missed with both barrels.
It has been almost eight years since the completion of this ruffed grouse study in the Appalachian region and I like to think that maybe the grouse are on the rebound. The DNR reported good brood survival last spring and there have been recent habitat improvements in several areas around the state. Maybe I was just lucky, but moving seven grouse in about five hours of hunting is better than many days I have spent following the dogs through the thickets.