For the past few years, bird hunters in northern Maine have enjoyed the best of times: Ruffed grouse have been most plentiful in the big commercial forests of Aroostook County.
When this year’s upland bird hunting season kicks off on Tuesday, the state’s top bird biologist expects that trend to continue. Unfortunately, he also expects hunters in other parts of the state to find far fewer birds.
“I’m expecting fair bird numbers — only fair — statewide,” said Brad Allen, bird group leader for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “Except in northern Maine. I’m going to go out on a limb and presume the high numbers [of birds] we’ve been seeing up there the last two or three falls will continue.”
The problem, statewide, is that the spring nesting season for ruffed grouse and woodcock was not optimal. But he said the sheer number of grouse that were already established in northern Maine, and which likely survived the winter, will provide good hunting in that region.
“I’m kind of counting on good numbers of adults overwintering, good winter survival, and [even with] less than average production, [conditions] still leading to pretty good hunting in the big woods,” Allen said. “And fair [hunting] will prevail in the rest of the state, just because of the rain.”
Ah, the rain.
Not last week. Not last month. But back in May and June, wet conditions contributed to a tough nesting year for birds, according to Allen.
“I watch the weather very, very closely from the first of May until about the third week of June, [peak nesting times for upland game birds], and it was not good this year,” Allen said. “It was 200 percent of the normal rainfall in May in lots of the state, and not quite twice as much as normal in June. Extra rain just makes for smaller brood sizes and bigger mortality all around.”
Wet conditions during nesting season can be problematic in a couple of ways, Allen said.
First, young birds may struggle to survive because they’re cold. Second, wet weather provides better scenting conditions for potential predators, including skunks and raccoons.
“Probably the worst catastrophe that could happen for birds is good scenting conditions while the bird is nesting and the hen is taken [by a predator] and the eggs are lost,” Allen said.
Allen said that superior habitat in northern Maine, particularly in the North Maine Woods, has led to high grouse numbers in that region.
“There’s 10, 12, 15 million acres of aggressively cut forest. That’s what grouse and woodcock like: young forests,” Allen said.
Allen said that certain parts of the North Maine Woods receive plenty of hunting pressure, but said that only roadside birds are really affected.
“We’re under the impression that those roadside numbers get shot up and decimated, but if you get 300 yards off that road there might be another grouse brood,” Allen said. “And if you get 320 yards off the road there might be another one.”
Label your grouse
Allen cautioned bird hunters who like to take advantage of the opportunities of the big woods — and elsewhere in remote sections of the state — that there’s a new law on the books that could affect them.
The law applies to those hunting in unorganized territories on multi-day excursions.
“If you’re staying in the woods and you’re hunting for multiple days, if you clean your first day’s grouse, you have to label them,” Allen said.
Included in “An Act to Strengthen Maine’s Wildlife Laws,” the law requires “While in or traveling through unorganized territories, ruffed grouse shall be labeled with the name of the person who harvested it and the date taken before the next calendar day begins.”
More simply, if you shot four grouse on Monday and haven’t labeled them by Tuesday, that’s a problem.