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Ruffed grouse drumming counts increase

Wet weather in May and June likely will put a damper on ruffed grouse production across parts of the bird’s range in Minnesota, but the hatch appears to be pretty good at one of the largest wildlife management areas in the state.

Gretchen Mehmel, manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area south of Roosevelt, Minn., said crews have seen a half-dozen broods around the WMA and Beltrami Island State Forest the past couple of weeks.

“They’re flying — little guys up in the trees,” Mehmel said. “They can fly amazingly early out of the eggs.”

Located about two hours northeast of Grand Forks, Red Lake WMA and Beltrami forest are among the top ruffed grouse hunting destinations in northwest Minnesota.

While parts of Minnesota have been swamped by rain in excess of 2 inches, at times, Mehmel said the rains in the forest have been smaller. Conditions definitely are wet, she said, but not wet enough to flood nests or newly hatched chicks, and the broods that have been spotted now are old enough to survive the weather.

The peak of the ruffed grouse hatch generally occurs about June 10.

“Even if we do have a lot of heavy rain, I think they’re going to be OK, but time will tell,” Mehmel said. “Early June is kind of that crucial stage. Sometimes, there’s been really cold weather or late frosts, and that’s not good so those first few weeks of June we’re always kind of holding our breath.

“It looks like they’ve had some good nesting weather,” she said.

Most of the broods have had five to nine birds, which is average to good, Mehmel said.

Drumming counts

Because ruffed grouse are birds of the forest, where they’re difficult to count, wildlife managers track population trends through spring drumming count surveys, following designated routes to listen for male birds that produce the sound by rapidly beating their wings to signal territory and attract a mate.

And on that front, there’s definitely cause for optimism.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources this week reported drumming counts were up significantly across ruffed grouse range. According to Charlotte Roy, grouse project leader for the DNR, drumming counts statewide were up 34 percent from last year, and the increase was seen across the northern part of the state, which comprises the majority of the bird’s range.

In the northeast survey region, drumming counts increased from 0.9 drums per stop in 2013 to 1.3 this year, while northwest drumming counts rose from 0.7 drums per stop last year to 1.2 this year. Counts did not increase in the central hardwoods or southeast survey areas, where crews tallied 0.8 and 0.3 drums per stop, respectively.

Grouse populations follow a well-documented 10-year cycle of boom and bust, and this year’s drumming counts “may signal the start of an upswing in the grouse cycle that since 2009 has been in the declining phase,” Roy said.

The statewide average was 1.1 drums per stop, up from 1.0 in 2012 and 0.9 in 2013. Counts vary from about 0.6 drums per stop during years of low abundance to about 2.0 during years of high abundance.

Mehmel said spring counts in her work area increased from 1 drum per stop in 2013 to 2.9 this year. Last winter’s abundant snowfall provided excellent cover for the birds, which roost under the snow, and likely boosted survival.

“That shows in the drumming counts, and it went up almost three times,” Mehmel said. “Drumming counts are important, but not as important as the weather in June. Time will tell.

 “Early signs on production look pretty good.”

Red Lake WMA covers more than 213,000 acres and is located within the 703,366-acre Beltrami Island State Forest.

The DNR’s 2014 grouse survey report, which contains information on ruffed grouse and sharp-tailed grouse, is available online at mndnr.gov/hunting/grouse. Minnesota’s ruffed and sharp-tailed grouse season opens Sept. 13.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is editor of the Herald's Northland Outdoors section and also works as a copy editor and page designer. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

(701) 780-1148
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