Scouting for Grouse

Here it is July and it won’t be long before we’ll be bear hunting, and trapping, then it won’t be long before we’re bowhunting for deer and hunting for some grouse.

Bird hunting, which is what I call grouse hunting, is one of those things that never seems to be consistent from year to year. There have been many years that we literally rode for hours to see two or three birds only to have them fly off or have me miss under pressure.

Some say get out and walk….well we don’t get out and walk the woods just because there are so many other people riding around and they’re never particularly happy if you’re walking the road. There’s a compelling reason to not  be a jerk and go around you, but then it prevents others from traveling  and hunting the road. 

Thinking back of over the season, I thought, there has to be a better way to find birds. After all, we scout for everything else we hunt, so why not grouse?

Since I don’t own a bird dog, the only thing I do have is a lot of time in the woods, riding roads to and from great fishing spots, and when searching for mushrooms. In doing so, I’ve also found myself finding lots of sign from grouse, and that’s when my mind began to really focus on scouting for them now so that when the season arrives, we’ll have a better idea where to begin.

Spotting grouse begins in the spring, just when the poplar trees and birch trees begin to bud. At the end of the day, just before dusk, we’re usually riding home, and all we have to do is look up to the top of the trees. We’ll sometimes spot as many as five birds in one tree. We’ll watch them eat the buds and just enjoy seeing that there’s a good healthy population of birds.

The last two years have been pretty darned dry, if not drought like, according the weather people, and with dry weather comes the successful brooding and rearing of grouse and turkey chicks.

Even before chick season, I start to keep track of the dusting spots I see on each road we travel. Dusting spots are great indicators of the number of grouse in that area. What’s even more fun is is finding several dusting spots in one area.  And not to my surprise, we’ve driven on roads that we’ve hunted and found literally no dusting spots.

We actually find a lot of partridge scat in our travels. Partridge will roost on the same tree limb nightly, and well, there you have it. The dead give away to where they roost at night.

Dusting spots are used for birds to rid bugs, mites, any type of critter they don’t like from their wings and body. I usually spot them on berms on each side of the road. The dry dirt is bowled out from their digging and dusting. The size of the dusting spot for a grouse is usually the size of a small cereal bowl. Upon inspection, you can sometimes even see their tracks in the dirt. Turkey dusting spots are much bigger and although they do dust, I don’t find nearly as many as I do for grouse.

A good dry spot is ideal for dusting grouse.

Sometimes we’re lucky and we’ll stumble upon a nest. This nest and its eggs ended in a horrible robbery from predator.

Seven grouse eggs

Then comes chick season. This is the fun time when you start seeing grouse in the road, walking slowly, and then either on the opposite side of the road or right behind the grouse as it darts for cover, there will be a clutch of chicks. In one day, we saw 9 clutches.

Chicks will often appear before the hen, but other times, you just see the movement in grass and then a very irritated hen appears.

At one point, I saw chicks, but no hen. I got out of the truck and headed for the edge of the of grass hoping I could get a photo of at least one of the many chicks we had seen. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flash of brown before I realized it was coming for me. As I reacted with a loud yell and gasp, I was able to compose myself enough to take some photos. There was one very pissed off momma.

Often, we’ll see grouse strutting in the road. In this case, she was trying to distract us from the chicks.
If grouse could growl, this bird would have been roaring. She was hissing and came right at me when I started for the edge of the grass.

So I hope this will give you a little inspiration when you’re out in the woods to look around and maybe just maybe see the signs of grouse. It definitely has helped our success rates in the fall. Happy hunting!

A good limit for two people on a day’s hunt.

My Bear Hunt 2020


I still can’t believe that I was able to bear hunt this year. A lot has happened since the pandemic hit, and my life as I knew it, almost came to a screeching hault.

Sow and two cubs usually showed up first-before the big bruins.

I have dealt with chronic arthritis in my knees for years. Having finally taken the giant leap to see an orthopedic surgeon, I scheduled my bi-lateral knee replacements right when bear hunting would begin. I had accepted the fact that I would have to give up something in order to have it done, and this seemed like the time to do it.

A week latetr I was blindsided when my alma mater and employer of ten years, laid me off on March 20th. My whole world came crashing down. Not only was I going to lose my job and insurance, but also any chance at having my knees replaced. My only consolation was that I received six months severance and with that, my insurance would continue until the end of September. However, the pandemic had other plans, and any elective surgeries came to an end. So even though I had insurance, I was still facing the fact that I’d may have to deal with arthritic knees for at least another year, if I was lucky enough to find another job.

I felt pretty defeated, but decided to make the best of it. The bear hunt was back on regardless of what happened. I needed something positive to focus on, and hunting always soothes my soul.

In late May, just when I had accepted the fact that I’d have to hobble a little longer, I unexpectedly got a call from my surgeon. They were starting up surgeries again, but only taking the worst cases, and I was on the list. Would I be available? Hell yes!

My right knee just after surgery on June 5th.

On June 5th, I had my first surgery, and after being cleared of Covid-19 a second time, I had my other knee replaced on July 21st. Baiting began the following week, and with a little, no, a lot of help, I was at least able to be there to help, even it was minimal. I used my crutches to get around and although I couldn’t lift bait buckets, I took charge of the cameras and helped spray scent and grease.

Hobbling around with crutches in tow.

Bear came into the bait sites in a flurry. Food has been extremely limited due to dry conditions. Berries were almost non-existent, and other natural foods that were available weren’t abundant nor of any size worthy of a feast. Two days before the hunt, and for the first time ever, I had daytime bear hitting the bait consistently. I had nighttime bear~we had a whole lot of bear on our sites.

In the midst of two surgeries, I also became re-employed, so my time to hunt was greatly diminished, but I would hunt!

The first time out, I had John drive me to my stand. I wasn’t sure if I could make the hike up the mountainside, and I was a little uncertain of my stamina to get there. What if I encountered a bear? I tried to think positive. I would be able to hunt. I had hoped that John driving me to my stand, and then leaving with the four-wheeler would make the bear think no one was there. No such luck!

The night was pretty uneventful. I didn’t see a bear, but I did see one of the biggest rabbits ever to come eat at the bait. Rabbits apparently love bait as much as raccooon, fisher, song birds, squirrels, chipmunks, vultures…and yes, even moose!

This was my target bear. He visited everyday right up until opening day…then he went AWOL.

John retrieved me after hunting hours were over and drove me out of the woods. I have to say this was odd. I hadn’t had to have him do this for me since my first years of hunting. As grateful as I was, I felt like such a whimp!

Trying to fit hunting in between weather and a new job kept me extremely busy, but I was determined to hunt. With the weather forecast actually looking pretty decent and me actually scheduling a vacation afternoon, I decided I was going to hunt. I was bummed when John told me he couldn’t get the afternoon off, but I pulled up my big girl pants and decided I’d go alone. John would arrive later after he dropped the camper off in our usual spot, and then he’d meet me on the mountain.

I prepared myself mentally for the climb and the thought of being alone with so many bear nearby. I took my vehicle to the mountain. I changed into my bear clothes, packed my backpack with warmer accessories, and headed in. I carried my son’s 45-70, what I like to call a mini cannon, into the stand. I found that as I climbed the mountain, it actually got easier. It actually felt really, really good on my knees. I climbed into my stand with ease and settled in the afternoon wait. It was calm and quiet. You could hear a pin drop.

Video of what it’s like to sit while bear hunting.

It’s sometimes hard to sit still given the bugs, the birds, and the wind, but the pandemic helped me prepare for sitting with a mask on, so it just seemed easier this time.

As I sat there, I really didn’t expect anything to come out. I have only once seen a bear come to my bait in all the years I’ve tried hunting. So when this bear stepped out, it looked like a big bear. The night before a larger bear had been in, and I would have bet money, it was him.

This is the bear I thought was at my bait.
He came in the afternoon I couldn’t hunt…typical way it goes!

I was quite startled when the bear stepped out. I sized it up to the barrel laying on its side. It looked as big as the barrel! The bear came in on the right and stepped in front. I drew my gun and took aim, and pulled the trigger. Nothing. This gun has some wonky way about the lever action. It wasn’t in place where it should be. The gun wouldn’t fire. I played with it some more. I knew the lever needed to come up to set into place. I tried again. Still no shot. The bear continued to move quickly around all of the barrel and buckets not really settling in to eat. I went through all the motions trying to get this gun to fire, while not losing my cool. It wasn’t easy. Then miraculously, the handle clicked into place. The bear did a quick dart, but then turned right around and came back around the front of the barrel again. I took aim and shot. The bear dropped and my hunt was over.

Where my bear fell. One shot. Dead at the barrel.

Just after I shot, I got a text from John. I thought he had heard me shoot. He had just arrived on the mountain and was telling me he was there. I texted him, “Got it.” He replied, “what?” I texted back, “I shot a bear.” Him: “Really?! I’ll be right up.” He couldn’t believe it. Eventually, I heard the four-wheeler and he was there to celebrate, load up, gut out, and bring home my black bear. It was a long night by the time we got home and processed the bear, but we have some good meat to eat this winter.

As usual, my bear had ground shrinkage. It wasn’t nearly as big as I had thought it would be, but I was happy. And my bear has a beautiful white blaze on its neck. Some day a giant bear will show up when I’m sitting, but in the meantime, I’ll enjoy my harvest. It was something I never thought would happen this year, so I was particularly proud of this hunt. I had overcome a lot of obstacles this year, drove up alone and got into my stand alone, and finally harvested a bear.

So my words of advice, is once again to say, never give up, never think something is impossible. While hunting isn’t a sure thing, it’s for certain that it builds resiliency and determination for unknown outcomes. I’m so glad I stuck with it, bear or no bear, it helped me prove to myself that I was okay. Life was going to be okay, and I’m so glad I hadn’t given up.

My bear and me…life is sweet when everything comes together.

Partridge, Songbirds and Owls, Oh My!

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When I first started hunting, I didn’t seem to see much ‘extra’ wildlife other than the  gray squirrels, chickadees, finches and blue jays. As I became a better hunter, or perhaps because I spent more time in the woods, I have been able to reap the benefits of seeing ‘extra’ wildlife, which is simply those I don’t expect to see and am not hunting for. My first encounter was having a gray squirrel climb the tree I was sitting in and actually come around and almost climb onto me. I don’t freak out easily, but I didn’t want that thing muckling onto my ear or scratching my face in “self-defense”. One good swat and he left, but with plenty to say too. So much for that morning. Trying to be quiet and shoo off an unwanted guest is not easy.

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Partridge under my bear tree stand. (c) S. Warren

I’ve seen more than my share of partridge while deer hunting. The temptation to shoot off the rifle to score some birds has more than once crossed my mind. Sitting during bear season this year, I tried to video with my phone, a clutch of partridge making their way across the forest floor. There were at least four of them parading around my bear bait site…and me trying not to move. They walked right past me and never knew I was there.

I saw my very first cardinal while sitting in a tree stand. I was so excited, I had all I could to hold it in. It was extremely cold that morning. I heard it land on a fir tree behind me. There is fluttered its wings which is what got me to turn my head. It still as vivid in my mind as if it happened yesterday.

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Nuthatch with an attitude. The only bird that can walk down a tree face first because of their unique claws.

Most of the time songbirds are just interesting to watch. They scurry about, doing their thing looking for food. Occasionally they’ll land so close that you think they don’t see you. So when a nuthatch decided to attack me in the bear stand this season, this was the LAST thing I expected it to do. It was persistent (which is supposed to be a virtue) in charging at me from the branch above and wouldn’t stop beeping at me…or whatever you call it…and I really think it was mad. I felt like it had bullied me, but I hadn’t done anything to provoke it. I was just sitting there trying to be quiet! At first I tried to ignore it. When it wouldn’t go away, I tried to video it with my phone, but I only managed to record the vocal attack…wah, wah, wah…as it hopped from branch to branch.

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photo from maine.gov

One of my favorite birds to see are owls. Owls to me are so majestic and no matter when I hear them, it makes me stop and smile. My very first owl that I ever saw was when I was walking out of the woods at dark. A Great Horned owl landed on a bent over birch. It’s wings spanned the path lit by the moon. It reminded me of a Halloween full moon scene. It’s silhouette is still burned in my memory.

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Eastern Screech Owl

Seeing owls in action is when it gets really interesting. Sitting in my tree stand one morning, I watched as a red squirrel chit and chatted its way around the giant spruce in front of me. Out of nowhere and without a sound, an Eastern Screech owl flew in and landed on a branch. He was rust colored, only about eight inches tall. Spotting the red squirrel, the owl began chasing after the squirrel as it moved in spirals around the tree trunk up and down while avoiding capture. The owl hopped from limb to limb and was no match for the squirrel’s speed. The owl eventually gave up and flew away.

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Barred Owl (c) S. Warren

My first bear season, I was visited several times by a Barred Owl. See how well he blends in with the birch tree! The bait area was populated by mice, chipmunks, red squirrels that at times never seemed to shut up. This drew in my Barred Owl who not only looked for his next meal, but also I got to see him get it. He patiently made his way down to lower branches on neighboring trees watching the chipmunks screech at him running back forth instead of running hiding. You’d think they’d be scared and run for cover…but nope and the owl eventually pounced on his meal.

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(c) Erin M.

 

 

I must also mention that my friend Erin and I took a fishing trip and came upon these two Great Horned fledglings this past summer. I’m looking forward to more girl time and teaching my friend how to fly fish next summer.

My game camera gave me an unexpected surprise. I’ve had a lot of different animals on it this season, but never an owl until this. I’m not sure if it’s a squirrel or the flying squirrel that I had on several photos, but it didn’t see the owl coming at all. Nature at work, and that’s the kind of hunter I want to be- delivering a quick death to my prey. Perhaps that’s why I like owls so much.