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DNR official a real bird brain

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's top natural resources official is in a unique position to talk about the state's grouse and woodcock hunting.

Division of Natural Resources director Frank Jezioro has been a bird hunter for 50 years, has raised and trained bird dogs during most of that time, and has written books and magazine articles about bird hunting. He's experienced the state's heyday as a bird-hunting hotspot, and he's witnessed its decline.

What has changed in five decades?

"Land use, mostly," Jezioro said. "Back in the early '60s, when grouse hunting in particular was really good, the way West Virginians used the land was going through a change. A lot of people had abandoned small rural farms, especially in Doddridge, Gilmer and Ritchie counties and on into Wood County.

"Those farms had grown into brush land, and were in the process of growing into what biologists call 'early-succession' forest. Well, early-succession forest is exactly the kind of habitat grouse prefer, because it provides both food and cover."

Grouse hunters rode that wave for nearly two decades, until gradually the habitat began to change again.

"It grew into the pole-timber stage, and then to mature forest. The trees, particularly maple saplings, created a canopy over the forest floor, and the plants the grouse had been living on began to die out. The habitat became better suited for turkeys than grouse," Jezioro explained.

Today, grouse hunting in the state's west-central counties is not nearly as good as it once was.

"The grouse have hung on, but not in numbers," Jezioro said. "Now it's hard to find even five to seven grouse in a full day of hunting."

For a while, good grouse hunting could be found on abandoned and reclaimed strip mines throughout southern and south-central West Virginia. Companies in the 1960s often attempted to reclaim old strips by planting locust trees and autumn bushes.

"Grouse loved that sort of habitat, and for several years a lot of good grouse hunting took place on those old strips," Jezioro said.

Reclamation techniques changed, however, and today's grass-planted mountaintop-removal reclamation sites aren't nearly as good for grouse as the old strip-mine sites were.

So where is a hunter to go today?

Jezioro said good grouse hunting still can be found, but access to it diminishes with each passing year.

"The best grouse habitat is now found in the mountain counties - Randolph, Greenbrier, Pocahontas, Webster, Nicholas and parts of Mineral and Grant. That's where the big timber companies have been cutting trees," he explained. "Grouse can still be found in good numbers on tracts that have been clear-cut and are in the early stages of growing back.

"The main problem with timber-company lands is that the average individual can't get on them. The companies have found that it's better for them, economically and for liability reasons, to lease those lands to private hunting clubs rather than allow the public on them."

DNR officials have tried to offset the lack of public land by cutting limited amounts of timber on state-owned wildlife management areas.

"We've done some on the Stonewall Jackson WMA, and we're looking at doing some on most of our other WMAs," Jezioro said. "Not for timber sales, but to create habitat. Where we've done these cuts, we've created some nice grouse-hunting spots."

Even in places that have good habitat, Jezioro said hunters should identify where grouse are likely to be feeding.

"Early in the season, when the weather is nice and the grouse are scattered, look for red haws," he said, using the common term for red-berried hawthorn trees. "Later, in November when the grapes start to fall, grouse will concentrate there."

In January and February, long after the red haws and grapes are gone, Jezioro said greenbrier plants that still have berries would likely have grouse nearby. He also suggested that hunters look for patches of green on the forest floor.

"More than people realize, grouse eat a tremendous amount of broad-leafed green cover, particularly clover. Hunters should never discount that grouse eat a lot of greens," he said.

Woodcock numbers declined for many years, too, but now appear to be stabilizing.

"For a long time, they were declining 2 percent a year, but we've seen their numbers level off the last two years," Jezioro said. "Their numbers may even be increasing a bit."

West Virginia has resident woodcock, but most of the birds that hunters see are migrants headed south for the winter.

"The heaviest concentration of migrant birds seems to occur between Nov. 1 and Nov. 10. If we get a sudden snowstorm during that time, they'll move on south. But if the weather stays good, they tend to stay around a while," Jezioro said.

Woodcock feed primarily on earthworms, so they prefer marshy areas with soft soil. Jezioro said the state's top woodcock hotspots include the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, the Meadow River WMA, and to a lesser extent the Green Bottom and McClintic WMAs.

"We've been working with the feds at the Canaan Valley NWR on a woodcock enhancement project," he said. "We've cut a lot of the old alder and aspen they had there, and it's allowing new alder and aspen trees to regenerate and come up. We've had good flights of woodcock in the area, and the birds have been staying around longer."

He added that this year's woodcock brood count was good, and biologists say the number of birds passing through the state should also be good.

"While woodcock hunting is limited in the state, it is quite good," Jezioro said.

This year's grouse and woodcock seasons both began Saturday. The woodcock season will end Nov. 26, and the grouse season will end Feb. 28.

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.


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