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Grouse, woodcock numbers could be down compared to 2012

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- At first glance, this year wouldn't appear to be a good one for West Virginia's grouse and woodcock hunters.

Field surveys earlier this year seemed to indicate population declines for both species. But Keith Krantz, a biologist with the state Division of Natural Resources, said the surveys' statistics are a little misleading.

"Our drumming-count survey showed a decline of 42.6 percent on the 'treatment' area of the Spruce Knob Grouse Management Unit, and a 25.8 percent decline on the 'non-treatment' area," Krantz explained.

"Those percentages look really bad, but the treatment area numbers were still 12.6 percent above the 10-year average, and the non-treatment area numbers were 64 percent above average."

The unit's treatment area is a tract that had been timbered by clear-cutting, which created just the sort of fast-growing young forest that grouse prefer. The non-treatment area was left uncut.

Krantz called 2012 "a really good grouse year." While this year doesn't promise to be as good as last year, Krantz urged hunters to look at the bright side.

"We're still above the 10-year average, so that's a little bit of good news," he said.

News from the recently released 2013 DNR Mast Survey also bodes well for grouse and grouse hunters.

"This has been a wonderful soft-mast year," Krantz said. "Grouse shouldn't have much trouble finding food this fall."

Hawthorn and autumn olive, two of the species' most preferred foods, are quite abundant. Krantz said high-country hunters should focus their efforts on hawthorn savannas, while hunters in the state's southwestern counties should focus on abandoned strip mines and other areas where autumn olive has been planted.

"It's also a good year for grapes, Virginia creeper and viburnums," he added. "Grouse will be in the grape tangles, and will hang around any Virginia creeper vines that bore fruit."

Krantz doesn't expect this year's acorn shortage to affect grouse nearly as much as hunters might expect, mainly because beech is so abundant.

"Grouse will be gobbling the beech up, and that will help to offset the oak mast shortage," he explained.

The grouse season is West Virginia's longest. This year's 21-week hunt will begin on Oct. 12, while leaves are still on the trees, and will end in the dead of winter on Feb. 28. The bag limit for grouse is four birds a day.

While biologists use drumming-count surveys to determine male-grouse population estimates, woodcock estimates are based on yearly "singing-ground surveys."

In the surveys, observers follow prescribed routes and listen for male woodcocks' courtship songs. The 2012-13 surveys in West Virginia, conducted along 22 routes, indicated a 7.3 percent decline in singing activity.

Krantz said the singing-ground surveys are useful, but not a true indicator of the number of woodcock available to hunters.

"The birds surveyed on singing grounds are resident birds," he said. "Hunters focus on fall migrants. The Eastern Management Unit of the U.S. indicated a slight increase in the number of singing males. So there should be more birds passing through the state this fall than there were last year."

For woodcock hunters, timing is crucial.

"If hunters are out there before the woodcock flights start coming through, which is usually around the end of October, they'll see fewer birds. After the flights start passing through, they should see more," Krantz said.

Last year's woodcock season was a disaster.

"Superstorm Sandy had just gone through, and we had 30-plus inches of snow in the parts of the state where woodcock hunters usually go," Krantz said. "Last year was the worst year many of our hunters ever had."

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report, based on data compiled from hunters' Harvest Information Program reports, estimated 2012's statewide harvest at just 2,000 birds.

Krantz said woodcock hunters would feel Sandy's lingering effects this fall.

"The snow broke down a bunch of trees. This year's bird hunters will have a harder time hunting because of all the treetops down in their favorite woodcock coverts," he explained.

Because woodcock are migratory birds, their seasons are federally set. This year's West Virginia season is scheduled to begin on Oct. 12, the same day as the grouse season, but will end at sunset on Nov. 25. The bag limit for woodcock is three a day.

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


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