Every year at about this time — right after the first frost, and just before most of the leaves here in Bangor begin to change color — I call or visit Brad Allen so we can talk about a mutual interest: Bird hunting.
Allen is a biologist who is the bird group leader for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Over the 18 years I’ve been writing about hunting and fishing, he has become one of my most trusted resources.
Allen is friendly, funny, and knows a ton about the state’s birds. Best of all, he’s always willing to share that knowledge to help Bangor Daily News readers enjoy their time afield during upland bird season.
Allen’s assessment for this year’s season, which kicks off on Sept. 26 for ruffed grouse and on Oct. 1 for woodcock, comes as a welcome and needed bit of relief from the year we’ve had thus far.
“I’m kind of a glass half-full guy anyway, but I’m expecting a pretty good year,” he said.
Or, as I’d say it: You might want to buy a few more shotgun shells before you head into the woods this year.
And come this time of year, the woods are a great place to be. Some of us take trusty bird dogs along, while others choose to slow-roll their way through the vast network of woods roads that lead us to the spots we’re likely to see a ruffed grouse standing in the sunlight, trying to get warm in the morning sun.
And at the end of those days, we might gather around a wood stove in a weathered hunting camp, swap lies about the shots we made and laugh about the shots someone else missed.
Allen said that bird-hunting enthusiasts have a few reasons to be excited about this year’s season.
When predicting how many birds might be on the landscape, he often focuses on a few factors: How many birds survived the winter? How was the spring nesting season? And how much of a role did predators play in reducing the number of those young birds over the summer?
This year’s answers: There was good winter survival. The nesting season was solid. And the summer was simply spectacular.
“We had good numbers of adults, average nest success, but probably phenomenal brood survival because of the [drought] conditions,” Allen said. “[Drought] is usually positive [for game birds] because in a northern state like Maine, a lot of rain can be cold and cause hypothermia and result in a lot of chick loss. Dry conditions are just the opposite. [Birds] survive pretty well.”
Allen said he conducts informal counts of the wild turkeys he sees around his house, identifying individual hens and counting how many poults they are traveling with during the early summer. Over the course of the summer, he continues to keep track of those hens and their offspring, taking note of any reduction that would indicate that predators are picking off the young.
This year, there were remarkably few birds lost to predators, and everywhere Allen looks, he’s seeing large flocks of turkeys. That bodes well for both turkeys and grouse, he said.
The news isn’t all good, though.
“Baby woodcock may have had a hard time to find earthworms,” Allen said.
And earthworms are the preferred food for the long-billed shorebirds.
“A drought can be a little tough on a woodcock, but they find the wet areas, those moist soils where the earthworms are close to the surface,” he said.
Woodcocks do have one advantage, though. Mother woodcock have great parenting skills, and are much less apt to have chicks die before they’re grown. One reason for that success is that woodcock lay very few eggs per nesting cycle. It’s much easier for them to keep track of their chicks and keep them warm when there’s foul weather, according to Allen.
“Woodcock lay four eggs and have four chicks and are just very, very good at raising broods,” Allen said. “The grouse and the turkeys just play the numbers game, and flood the environment with a large number of young and kind of hope that when the dust settles in late summer, they still have some left.”
And according to Allen, they’ll have plenty left.
That’s certainly great news, and is reason for bird hunters to be optimistic.
So have fun. Respect your fellow hunters, whether they’re after moose, birds or bears. Be safe.
Maybe I’ll see you out there.
John Holyoke can be reached at email@example.com or 207-990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke. His first book, “Evergreens,” a collection of his favorite BDN columns and features, is published by Islandport Press and is available wherever books are sold.