Wet weather may be a game changer for early bird hunters

For much of August and September, warm, dry weather dominated, and heading into upland bird hunting season, biologist Brad Allen was ready to pass along some age-old advice for those who’d be targeting woodcock.

Brittany King holds a ruffed grouse before it's measured, tagged and fitted with a radio collar in 2014 at the midcoast Maine survey site. Brian Feulner| BDN

Brittany King holds a ruffed grouse before it’s measured, tagged and fitted with a radio collar in 2014 at the midcoast Maine survey site. Brian Feulner| BDN


But the day before this year’s season began, much of the state absorbed torrential rain — and Allen’s tune changed.

“The old adage for woodcock hunting is, ‘When it’s dry, hunt them high,’” Allen, bird group leader for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said. “That would have applied until [Tuesday]. And that would have made woodcock hunting difficult.”

That adage, according to Allen, doesn’t make sense on first glance. Woodcock feed on earthworms, and one might think that during a dry spell the last place the birds would find worms would be high on a ridge. Water does, after all, run down hill.

“When it’s dry, you’d think the lowest valley would hold some water. But what woodcock do when it’s very dry is find some conifers, because the soil moisture under a spruce or fir tree is considerably higher than in a clear cut or a dried out area,” Allen said. “This rain will make soil moisture unilateral, and there should be earthworms galore within an inch of the surface.”

Allen said hunters who typically are able to find woodcock won’t have to change a thing from previous years.

“Just go to the haunts that you know typically, in an average year, hold woodcock,” he said.

Woodcock are just one of the birds that hunters will begin targeting in October. Another favorite is the ruffed grouse, often called a “partridge.”

Kelsey Sullivan, game bird biologist with DIF&W, said the recent rain won’t bother grouse, but it may change their behavior for the first couple of days of the season.

“It won’t affect the number [of birds in an area], because they’re going to weather the storm, hunker down and sit tight,” Sullivan said. “But [hunters should] look for that first sunny day, and that’s when [grouse] are going to be out in those openings. They’ll be sunning themselves and getting warm. That would be when you’d want to time your hunt.”

Allen, who’s always paying close attention to hard grouse data and anecdotal reports, said he expects grouse hunters to have good luck this year.

“I’ve had my ear to the ground all summer, looking at grouse numbers through our research project and through listening to bird hunting enthusiasts that live in various parts of the state,” Allen said. “I’m calling for an average grouse year. I’m hoping that might be a little under representation of the population. I don’t want people to think we’re going to have a bumper crop of grouse, but we think it will be good.”

Allen explained that some of the radio-collared female grouse in the research project experienced “nest failure” during the spring hatching season, but the majority of those birds ended up re-nesting and raising broods a little bit later in the spring.

A late winter likely contributed to those early struggles, he said. And while observers didn’t see many broods on the ground early in the summer, those late-arriving broods likely bolstered the overall population.

“People that were seeing grouse early, small numbers of broods, might have underestimated how the summer was for partridge,” Allen said. “We think it’s going to be pretty good [this season]. Slightly above average.”

Sullivan said he just returned from Aroostook County, where the early Canada goose season recently wrapped up. A long winter and dry spring likely affected the goose population, he said.

“I think the birds came into the breeding season not as fit, so I don’t know if they had the capacity to breed that they normally do,” Sullivan said. “I think some geese moved on and didn’t even attempt [to breed] because they had such a tough winter.”

The fall wild turkey season will run from Oct. 1 until Oct. 30, and Allen said recent activity near his house has left him encouraged.

“I wasn’t sure what kind of production we had for turkeys this year until 10 hens showed up at my house with about 48 young,” Allen said. “It was amazing. So for fall hunting, there are a lot of birds out there and a lot of young.”

There is one complicating factor, however: Food is everywhere.

“This is a beechnut year and acorns, so [turkeys] are not going to be concentrated [around scarce food sources],” Sullivan said. “You may not see birds in distinct locations because there’s so much food everywhere.”

Allen said that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The birds, after all, should be thriving.

“That’s kind of an exciting year when that happens,” Allen said. “There are a plethora of food items out there for game birds. … It excites me that there’s so much food on the landscape.”

John Holyoke can be reached at jholyoke@bangordailynews.com or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke.

John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.