Grouse Cycle Typically Peaks In Years Ending In 7,8,9 And 0…

Sometimes the longer you have to wait for something the sweeter it is when it finally arrives. That’s exactly what many Michigan grouse hunters are thinking. For several years now grouse fans have been waiting for the rebound in grouse numbers that typically occurs during their cycle. And waiting. And waiting. Finally, the past years hunters saw some indication that grouse numbers might be on the rebound and the prospects of better hunting in the coming years.

“Last year was good,” claimed Michigan’s upland game bird specialist Al Stewart. “The U.P. was good. The Northern Lower Peninsula was good. I think we’re probably three years up from the bottom of the cycle and the population is starting to expand. If you found birds last year, there should be a few more there this season.” Stewart said that the grouse cycle typically peaks in years ending in 7, 8, 9, and 0. If that holds true, we should see increasingly more grouse in the next few years heading towards a crescendo in 2010.

Ruffed Grouse Society senior biologist Dan Dessecker concurred. “What we’ve seen the last two years is a slight upturn. It’s universally recognized that the grouse cycle should peak in 2009-2010. So I would expect that we’ll see more birds this fall than in years past, assuming that we have reasonable weather. The cold snap that we had in February might have had some effect, but grouse are tough critters and the winter was not severe as far as grouse go. We needed to avoid two or three weeks of cold, wet weather during that critical late May early June period. But we’re kind of at Mother Nature’s mercy then. Overall, though I think everyone reported seeing more birds.”

Statistics provided by hunter cooperators would seem to substantiate the perceived upturn in grouse numbers. Hunter cooperators returned 110 early season reports last year. They logged 574.8 hours of hunting in 46 counties. Most of the hunting effort was in Zone 2 followed by Zone 1. Zone 2 also reported the highest grouse flush rates. Overall, 47% of the respondents reported grouse populations were up or up slightly from the previous year (2005). Another 37% claimed that the grouse populations were about the same.

Flush rates indicated a similar trend. In 2005 hunters logged 731.5 hours statewide during the early season period and averaged 1.8 grouse flushes per hour. In 2006 that number rose to 2.3 flushes per hour in 574.8 hours of hunting. By zone the number of hours hunted and flush rates were Zone 1- 125.2 hours, 1.6 flushes per hour (2005- 184.3, 1.2), Zone 2- 375.1 hours, 2.8 flushes per hour (2005- 461.9, 2.2) and Zone 3- 74.5, 1.3 flushes per hour (2005- 85.3, 0.6). Although the data is from a short time period (September 15 – 18) the information provides a consistent, early season indicator of grouse abundance. Some counties with the highest flush rates during period included Gladwin (18.0 hours hunted, 3.3 flushes per hour), Grand Traverse (15.0, 3.4), Kalkaska (42.5, 3.2), Lake (53.5, 4.7), Mackinaw (18.1, 3.2), Missaukee (24.1, 3.2) Newaygo, (17.0, 3.1), Roscommon (24.5, 3.1) and Wexford (7.6, 3.0).

Flush rates in 2005, the last year for which they were available at this writing, increased by 28.8% statewide versus 2004. A similar increase will probably be seen this year once the data is compiled. “I think it’s common knowledge that we’ll see an increase in flush rates over the previous year once the data is in,” stated Al Stewart.

Drumming surveys are another reliable indicator of grouse abundance. The male grouse claims territories and attempts to attract females in the spring. During this courtship display the male creates a “drumming sound” by rapidly beating their wings while standing on a log or rock. They begin by beating their wings slowly, creating a low thumping sound. As the wings build up speed, the drumming increases and sounds similar to an old tractor rolling over. The sound is designed to let nearby females know of their whereabouts. Biologists travel prescribed routes in the spring though prime grouse country and count the number of drumming males heard. The survey provides the Wildlife Division with a method of monitoring grouse abundance.

In 2006, 96 grouse drumming routes were monitored. A similar number were traveled in 2005. A paired T-test was used comparing 86 routes from both surveys. The comparison showed a significant change statewide in the number of drumming grouse heard. (8.8 drums per route in 2005 versus 11.4 drums per route in 2006). In Zone 1, 35 routes produced 7.5 drums in 2005 versus 10.8 drums in 2006. Zone 2 produced 10.0 drums for the 43 routes that were traveled compared to 12.2 drums in 2006. Drumming counts in Zone 3 produced no significant changes from the previous year.

Unfortunately, due to budget restraints and travel restrictions placed on DNR personnel this year it’s not clear whether the drumming surveys will be conducted. The DNR may have to call on willing volunteers to complete the survey. Early indications from field biologists and hunters indicate that there are more birds around then in previous years and drumming incidences are up across the state. Most anglers and turkey hunters have reporting hearing more grouse this spring and many of them are hearing grouse in marginal habitat, which would seem to indicate that the population is expanding. Young male grouse spread out to claim territories in less than ideal habitats when grouse numbers increase.

Much of the success or failure of this year’s grouse season depends on weather. “The first two weeks of life are critical to grouse chicks,” explained Stewart. The chicks need warm, dry weather and abundant insect life to survive the critical first few days of life. “It’s been a good spring so far,” said Stewart. “We had some early snow and cold, but the next month or so will tell.” Given a decent spring Stewart said Michigan hunters could expect to harvest between 280,000 and 300,000 grouse this season.

Even with ideal nesting conditions and increasing numbers of birds it doesn’t do any good if the habitat isn’t there for them. “We still have aspen,” stated Al Stewart,” but management today is critical for the future.” Stewart said that there’s a lot of aspen in on private lands and landowners need to realize the need to manage it i.e. clear-cut. “Clear cutting has proven effects on increasing grouse numbers,” said Stewart, “but we’re seeing some changing attitudes with regards to clear cutting.” Stewart cited Michigan’s Thumb as an example. “There’s good habitat there, but we need to cut on private lands and we’re not doing that,” said Stewart.

“Habitat is always an issue, especially on federal lands,” said RGS biologist Dan Dessecker. “You reduce the amount of aspen and you reduce the amount of grouse habitat. The problem you have on private land cuts is that in many cases they go in a take out the aspen, but leave everything else. That’s exactly what you don’t want.” Dessecker said that maples, oaks and other hardwoods come in and replace the aspen, which makes it totally worthless for grouse habitat.

Dessecker said that not only is less land being clear-cut, but also the land that is being cut is being cut in smaller and smaller blocks or tracts. “The size of the average clear cut is decreasing in size,” suggested Dessecker. “Everyone wants their little piece of heaven.” Having your chunk of nirvana look like a bomb hit it for a few years is not very appealing to most people. “There’s lots of clear cutting going on in the U.P., but attitudes are changing,” stated Stewart. The MDNR does a fairly good job of maintaining aspen habitat across the state.

A lot of the grouse hunting effort in Michigan takes place in northern Michigan. According to wildlife biologist Brian Mastenbrook, who works out of the Northeastern Management Unit in Gaylord, grouse numbers definitely improved last season. “We definitely saw an upswing grouse numbers last season,” said Mastenbrook, “and early indications are that were hearing more grouse drumming. Some of that drumming is taking place in marginal habitats, which is a good indication that grouse numbers are expanding.” Mastenbrook said that his limited contact with hunters last season seemed to suggest that there were more grouse around.

There is plenty of public ground in northern Michigan and if you do your homework and scout you can find some excellent grouse habitat. “We’ve done quite a bit of cutting,” suggested Mastenbrook, “but as everyone knows aspen cuttings kind of come and go.” Mastenbrook said some of the best grouse habitat in his unit is located central Cheboygan and central Emmet counties. “There’s a lot of aspen in the Pigeon River Forest, but it’s getting past its prime,” said Mastenbrook.

One place hunters can count on finding grouse is along northern Michigan rivers. “Waterways are always good places to find grouse,” offered Mastenbrook. “Beavers get in there along rivers and do a lot of cutting and you’ve got tag alders and other brushy cover that makes for good grouse habitat along rivers.” Rivers also have most soils that promote the growth of soft mast crops. “We had a very good beechnut crop last season, but fewer acorns,” observed Mastenbrook.

For more information on grouse hunting opportunities in northeast Michigan contact the MDNR’s Northeastern Management Unit at 989-732-3541.

Northern Michigan’s central counties have some of the best grouse habitat in the state. They are also some of the most heavily hunted. “What I heard from most hunters was that they had more flushes last year,” said Saginaw Bay Manage-ment Unit wildlife biologist Adam Bump. “This fall should be even better. The weather wasn’t the greatest this past winter though. First, we had no snow and then we had crusted snow for a few weeks so that could have had some effect on grouse survival, but overall it wasn’t that far out of the ordinary. Hunting should be at least as good as last season, if not better.”

That probably won’t be the case in Michigan’s Thumb. “The Thumb has aspen habitat, but bird numbers are not responding.” Bump theorized that even though there is aspen habitat in the Thumb it’s very isolated and once bird numbers are depressed on a particular tract of land it might take a while before new birds again fill that niche, if ever.

Bump reiterated the necessity for good weather this spring to see the full affect of a rebounding grouse population. If we luck out, Bump said that habitat is there. “Most places have a habitat,” claimed Bump. “We’re still creating habitat. When grouse numbers are high, even the marginal habitat will have birds in it.” Bump said that prime aspen habitat is scattered throughout his unit. “There are patches of decent habitat in Midland County,” suggested Bump, “but the largest tracts of good habitat are in Clare, Gladwin and Arenac counties.” Bump said that those same habitats also are the first good grouse coverts you come to when headed north and they receive heavy hunting pressure. “Be prepared to be disappointed if you get to your favorite spot and there’s already a truck there,” advised Bump.

For more information on grouse hunting opportunities in Clare, Gladwin, Arenac, Isabella, Midland, Bay, Saginaw, Tuscola, Huron and Sanilac counties contact the Saginaw Bay Management Unit at 989-684-9141.

Jeff Green, wildlife biologist at the MDNR Paris Field Office, echoed what most other biologists indicated. “Flush rates were up a bit,” claimed Greene. He based his opinion on personal observations and those of other hunters. “There’s one guy that comes here from Oklahoma to hunt and he hunts eight different counties,” said Greene. “He said that his flush rates were up.”

Greene said that some of the best grouse habitat in his neck of the woods is in Mecosta, Newaygo and Oceana counties. “There are some good coverts up along M-37 in Newaygo County,” offered Greene. “The USFS has done a lot of aspen work in that area.” Greene said that you can also find some very good grousing along certain areas near the White River in Oceana County.

Overall, Greene said the fruit crop in 2006 was below average, which caused birds to be more scattered. As bird numbers rebound, they should find adequate habitat. “Timber sales have been fairly active in the area,” said Greene. “State forester’s budgets are based on sales so it’s advantageous for them to cut.” That’s good news for grouse.

For information on grouse hunting opportunities in central contact the MDNR Paris Field Office at 231-832-5520.

Grouse numbers seemed to have come back nicely in the Eastern U.P. “Grouse were definitely up last season,” said Wildlife Management Unit Supervisor Rex Ainslie. But Ainslie confessed that there isn’t as much good grouse habitat in the eastern U.P. as people think. “A lot of what we have is swampy habitat,” he said. “Only 14% of the cover is aspen in the eastern U.P.” There are exceptions, like Drummond Island, which is managed for aspen. “There’s lots of public land where you’ll find suitable habitat for grouse,” advised Ainslie. “When you find it you’ll usually find decent grouse numbers.” The trouble is finding it. Ainslie said that the USFS has been doing very little aspen cutting and habitat that has been cut in previous years is maturing.

Ainslie reported hearing more grouse drumming than normal when he was in the woods this spring. “Winter wasn’t too terrible,” observed Ainslie, “and the snow left fairly early. If the weather is such that there’s good chick survival and lots of bugs we should see an upswing in the population.”

For details on grouse hunting opportunities in the eastern U.P. contact the Eastern U.P. Management Unit at 906-293-5131.

“I think we’re working our way through the cycle,” claimed Crystal Falls wildlife biologist Doug Wagner. “We saw more birds across the board last year.”

Wagner said that habitat is not a concern in the western U.P. “We have lots of aspen,” stated Wagner. “It’s almost contiguous habitat up here.” Wagner added that although they had a lack of snow early in the winter, the snow arrived in spades later in the winter and grouse should have fared pretty well. Another bonus, according to Wagner, is that raptor numbers appeared to be down.

Aspen cuttings can be found almost everywhere in the western U.P., but some of the best habitat can be found in eastern Iron County where there is an abundance of 10- to 30-year old aspen. Dickinson County is almost 90% public lands and you’ll find plenty of prime aspen coverts in the northern half of the county. “Dickinson County has a really good supply of aspen,” suggested Wagner. “You can just pull off the road and you’ll find good grouse habitat.”

For more information on grouse hunting in the western U.P. contact the Crystal Fall Field Office at 906-875-6622.

Keep your fingers crossed. With any luck we should see a lot more grouse this season.