Beautiful fall perfect for grouse hunting

Sights like this greet hunters during a perfect Minnesota fall.

So far, this has been a great fall for grouse hunting and just plain old walking in the woods and checking out the awesome colors.

It’s absolutely beautiful outside right now (still) and autumn 2020 is night and day different from last fall when it seemed to rain non-stop from Sept. 1 until the snow hit the ground at the end of October.

And while it got it cold in a hurry early on, the temps since have fluctuated in a pleasant way, leading to what feels like one of the more satisfying third seasons I can remember in a long time.

And the grouse? They are everywhere, at least where I have been hunting.

I’ve flushed about 30 since the season began a few weeks ago. It seems every time I’ve stepped into the woods, I’ve seen multiple birds. Some have been hard to get at, offering poor shots or not shots at all, but any grouse action is better than none at all.

It’s also been a great fall for seeing woodcocks. To this point I’ve come across nearly a dozen of the small, robin-sized migratory birds. While that might not seem like a lot, from my experience it is.

They are an interesting bird that presents much like a grouse in the woods, reacting to danger in similar ways by flushing wildly with fluttering wings and startling many hunters who stumbles upon them. While they are obviously smaller and have a long beak, they also look similar in coloring.

I don’t doubt many a woodcock has been shot by accident over the years by hunters who mistook them for a ruffed grouse. When they are in the thick stuff and take flight it usually happens quick and close by. Just about every woodcock I’ve ever flushed has been nearly under my feet before it has taken flight.

One way to identify them in that scenario is to pause just long enough to watch them flying – they are slow and often go straight up like a helicopter – whereas a grouse usually takes horizontal approach through the woods. That makes woodcock particularly easy to hit and thus the reason many are downed by accident every year.

I’ve never intentional chased woodcock in the woods, but many hunters do and some who have eaten them say they are the king of all gamebirds. One such person on the internet described it like this: “The flavor of woodcock is said to be strong, gamey-in-a-good-way, and like nothing else. They say the earth moves when you bite into one that has been perfectly cooked: pink, and just a little bloody.”

I don’t know about all that, but I do know this: If you’ve never seen a woodcock in the woods it wouldn’t surprise me.

For years the population has been declining and wildlife officials have been working on ways to manage them for an increase in numbers. That’s one of the reasons why the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service require woodcock hunters to be HIP Certified when they buy a small game license.

According to the Wildlife Service, the Migratory Bird Harvest Information Program (HIP) is a method your state wildlife agency and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) use to generate reliable estimates of hunting activity and the number of all migratory game birds harvested throughout the country.

Those estimates give biologists the information they need to make sound decisions concerning hunting seasons, bag limits, and population management.

HIP went nationwide in 1999, replacing the previous program that only surveyed hunters who bought a Federal Duck Stamp. However, many migratory bird hunters were excluded from that previous program because they didn’t hunt waterfowl. HIP allows us to survey samples of all migratory bird hunters.

According to Service information, if you hunt ducks, coots, geese, brant, swans, doves, woodcock, rails, snipe, sandhill cranes, band-tailed pigeons, or gallinules, you are required to participate in HIP.

The following are some interesting facts about the bird from the Ruffed Grouse Society.

There are two major woodcock populations in North America, with each inhabiting a separate region: The Eastern Region is from the Appalachian Mountains east; and the Central Region is from west of the Appalachians to the Great Plains.

Woodcock are about the size of robins, and their plumage is an overall mottled russet or brown. Males and females are similar in appearance, although females generally average a bit heavier than males — 7.6 ounces vs. 6.2 ounces -with the

As a migratory bird, the American woodcock lives in the North during spring and summer but spends the cold months in the South. Although a few from the farthest regions may wait out an exceptionally mild winter in some states along the way, most woodcock will continue the journey south to traditional wintering grounds.

Woodcock primarily feed in early evening and just before dawn. Because they have a quick digestive system, an adult woodcock may eat its weight in worms every day.

The brain of an American woodcock is unique among birds. The cerebellum, which controls muscle coordination and body balance, is below the rest of the brain and above the spinal column. In most birds, the cerebellum occupies the rear of the skull. One theory holds that as the woodcock evolved: the eyes moved back in the skull, the bill lengthened and the nostrils approached the base of the bill, allowing for enhanced ground-probing abilities. As a result, the brain was rearranged, and the modern bird, in essence, has an upside-down one.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the 10-year trend (2009–2019) showed a significant decline for the Eastern Management Region but not the Central Management Region. Many states and provinces in both management regions have experienced significant long-term (1968– 2019). The long-term trend estimate was −1.08%/year for the Eastern Management Region, while it was -0.89%/year for the Central Management Region (Table 1).

While the trend has been less woodcocks in Wisconsin, the population has been rising in Minnesota.

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