Sky Dance

Photo from USFWS

Spring is just around the corner and it brings on a lot of change in nature. Flowers bloom. Fields and grasses turn green. And for those of us connected to the outdoors it also means breeding season for most wildlife. That’s why the turkey season is in Spring. The gobblers are out there strutting and fanning try to attract hens to breed. So they are more suceptible to our flawed yelps and clucks from our box calls.

A video I saw recently on the internet brought back memories of a natural observation from over twelve years ago.  I got to go out one evening with members of the Ruffed Grouse Society staff near Pittsburgh, PA to observe the mating ritual of the American woodcock. First, a little background about this diminutive game bird.

Biology

The woodcock is biologically classified as a shorebird, but it inhabits wood and aspen thickets in lowlands around streams where it can use its long beak to probe for its favorite food, earthworms. It is a migratory bird, in the Spring and Summer inhabiting northern climes for breeding and nesting and then being pushed south by the cold weather of winter. North Carolina does have a woodcock season and occasionally hunters will flush a “flight bird” while out grouse or quail hunting. The eastern flyway takes them through the piedmont and coastal region of NC. Like many of our game birds, the woodcock is declining in numbers primarily due to loss of habitat through development and poor land management.

While visiting RGS headquarters, one of the staff members said he knew a place about one mile from the headquarters building that was a woodcock mating and breeding area, commonly referred to as “singing grounds” (which you will understand after the description of the ritual). So after pizza and a video about the woodcock, several staff members with their spouses and children headed out right before dusk hoping to catch them in the mating mood. It can be a hit or miss proposition. Our expectations were exceeded.

Mating Ritual

As we stood silently on the gravel trail, we could hear the repeated bleating sound made by the male woodcock to attract the attention of female listeners sitting quietly in the area. We counted at least four different birds. After listening to these for a few minutes the interesting part of the mating ritual started.

The Woodcock Sky Dance

At some point the male decides it is time to show off. So he takes off making a “peeping” sound, flying straight up in a corkscrew pattern, gyrating back and forth, to a height of about 200 – 400 feet before descending in that same corkscrewing gyration pattern while cupping his wings. The cupped wings cause the air to make a “singing” sound as he descends back to the same spot from which he took off. I mean the exact same spot within feet. The little male resumes his bleating and sky dance until he attracts a willing female. On a moonlit night, this ritual and sky dance will continue all night if needed to attract a mate. So for about thirty minutes we stood silently listening to their calling and watching these birds do their love dance. We left a little after eight when it got too dark to watch the little birds corkscrew up into the sky, and they were still going strong.

So what’s my point? There are several. First, the staff member said when he first started this there were at least four of these mating grounds within a mile of the headquarters building. This is the only one remaining. All the others have been consumed by development. As human development destroys wildlife habitat, we have a responsibility to provide habitat where we can though proper land management techniques.

Why This is Important

My son and I on a North Carolina woodcock hunt

Secondly, as we travel outside of our home range, we should always look for opportunities to hunt, fish, or even observe wildlife behavior that we may never see at home. That’s one of the neat things about enjoying the outdoors; it is always a learning experience. Sure, I’ve hunted woodcock here in North Carolina, but they typically don’t mate as far south as North Carolina. A friend and avid woodcock hunter at Stoneybrook Outfitters sees a few near his home in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Had I not been “where I was, when I was” the unique and intriguing sky dance of the timberdoodle is something I might never have experienced.

And lastly, watching this ritual reminded me that no matter where it occurs in this animal kingdom of ours, winged, furred or human, the male will always go through wild gyrations and make a fool of himself to attract a mate. Sorry. Just couldn’t pass that up.

Ruffed Grouse – The Figures Don’t Lie

Went on my first grouse hunt last week in my home state of North Carolina. Or as we call it: Walking through the woods behind a dog with a gun on your shoulder. Yep, on a short hunt of just under two hours I flushed zero grouse. After experiencing a flush rate of over two birds an hour in New Hampshire earlier in the month it got me thinking about what the status of grouse is in our home state. So I contacted the upland biologist for the WRC and asked for charts from the Avid Grouse Hunter survey in which I participate. Besides the fact that chasing grouse is my chosen pursuit, we need to know why grouse are important.

Ruffed grouse are what wildlife biologist call an indicator species. What is that? Many wildlife species can adapt to changes in the ecosystem. A couple of local examples are bear and turkey. If food and protective habitat are not available in one location they simply move to another. Populations of both species continue to flourish in the mountains. Not so with grouse. Their habitat needs for breeding, protection and food are very specific. Thus if their habitat decreases so will the population. In our region the the variable that can most likely affect them other than habitat is weather during the hatching season. Therefore ruffed grouse populations are an indicator of the health of an ecosystem. Another reason they are an indicator species is because meeting their habitat needs also has a positive impact on other wildlife needing similar habitat.

The WRC has been conducting an Avid Grouse Hunter Survey since 1984. Participating hunters record data for each trip to the forests including date, location by county and private/public land, hours hunted, and birds flushed and harvested. At the end of each season the records are mailed to the WRC. The purpose of this study is to establish long term trends for the health of the grouse population. I’m no scientist, but I did have to take a statistics class in college (that was no fun). Individual data are important, but trend is more so. The trend doesn’t bode well for grouse in North Carolina. Let’s start out by looking at some of these data related to individual hunter success.

Chart from NC WRC

It’s best to start with a simple number, average number of grouse flushed per hunting trip. That’s what it’s all about anyway, right? As the first chart shows, in its inaugural year study participants averaged just under 4.5 grouse flushed per trip to the field. That number peaked between 1988 – 1990 to around 6.2 grouse per trip. Either one of those figures is great compared to today. In the last reported survey year that number had dropped to about 1.8 flushes per trip. But it’s not just the numbers that are important. Scientists like to look at trends. If you look at the line chart since the peak in 1990 the trend is downward. You can infer that with all other factors being equal hunters are seeing fewer grouse.

Chart from NC WRC

Now let’s look at some data to correlate to hunter success, percentage of hunts with no grouse flushed. In the first year of the study only about 10% of trips resulted in no grouse flushes per trip. That number has climbed dramatically over the past thirty years to about 48% of the trips resulting in no grouse flushed. It doesn’t show in either of these charts, but the average length of a hunting trip has not changed much, from 4.2 hours in 1984 to 3.7 hours in 2017.  So while hunters are spending about as much time in the field, their grouse contact success rate has significantly decreased. Basically, on every other four hour trip to the woods for grouse, you will have no bird contacts.

Now let’s look at a comparison of private and public land success rates, and further how that relates to timber harvests on public land.

Chart from NC WRC

First, let’s break down the flush rate by land type. The first chart here from the WRC graphically portrays that difference. Neither of them is positive. Private land is the top line and public the bottom. Despite a significant upward spike in 2011, both are trending downward since data collection started in 1989. In the most resent season, 2017, the rate hit its lowest point with about .25 (1/4) grouse flushed per hour on public land. Private land was slightly better but still below the trend at about .75 birds flushed per hour. Compare that to the better than two per hour we experienced in New Hampshire, and the better than one bird per hour when the data were first collected. This is not good news for either hunters or as an indicator of forest health.

Now let’s further look at the public land issue. And when you talk about public land in Western NC it’s pretty much the Pisgah/Nantahala National Forests. State managed Game Lands in the mountains account for only about 10% of the total public lands here. Mac McConnell lays it out in a May 2016 ForestPolicypub.com article comparing data from both the USFS and WRC.

Chart by Mac McConnell

As this chart shows, in 1992 the USFS was creating nearly five thousand acres of wildlife habitat through forest management, primarily timber harvests. At that time the average grouse flush rate recorded by the WRC survey was about 1.5 birds per hour. Moving to 2016, the USFS was only creating about 500 acres of habitat and the flush rate dropped to under .5 per hour. Again, the trend is important here versus individual points. Tying these two separate data together shows a direct correlation between timber harvests on public land and grouse populations. There is no denying the science.

So why is the grouse important? As the data show, as an indicator species it points to an overall unhealthy forest; at least for most wildlife. Another non-game species in decline that needs young forest growth is the Golden-Winged Warbler. Young forest growth also provides low browse for other animal like deer.

So OK, the forest is unhealthy for wildlife. Why is this important to hunting? Hunter numbers are declining. Two key factors in hunter recruitment and retention are access and opportunity. I’d say we’ve got the access part pretty well covered with over 1 million acres of public land in the mountains. But if game populations are low you don’t have opportunity. Imagine trying to introduce a new hunter to the sport of grouse hunting. They get all fired up, practice shooting, enjoy watching dogs work. But then they get to the field and every other trip to the woods there are no bird contacts. Just how long will they stick with the sport? Grouse hunting is tough and requires commitment. They won’t stay with it long.

So whether you are a hunter who wants to see more game on our National Forests or someone who enjoys nature and likes seeing a lot of wildlife when you visit public land, this science supports the need for more active management in the upcoming Pisgah/Nantahala long range plan. Let’s remember, we are visitors to our public lands; wildlife live there. And right now living there is tough.