No matter where we live and what timber types we hunt: habitat transitions, edges, stand density, escape cover and food will always be important qualities to judge a cover by.
Grouse need to be able to shift at a moments notice to conceal themselves or change cover. An edge needs to provide a grouse with food or cover. However, the best edges will provide both. The worst edges for a grouse are trails and near openings. Each area serves a purpose in the life of the grouse. The more edges there are in an area typically the higher the chances for a grouse not to survive very long.
Trail edges allow avian predators to be successful providing them with open areas to sweep down and take a grouse. Young fox, bobcat, coyote and other 4 legged hunters will use these edges to hunt especially early season.
The Woods are full of edges (transitions)
Man made edges are obvious. Trails, roads, and property lines, cut boundaries from logging operations and so forth. However, do we ever stop to think what are the natural edges (transitions of habitat) in the woods. In forestry we call it transitions when two different timber types come together thus forming almost an unseen edge where the two will blend and then separate out into their specific timber type.
However, nature has created her own edges (transitions) and it is determined mainly by elevation and soil type. As elevation changes typically the soil will change as well. When the soil changes it determines what will grow in that soil at that elevation.
For this example lets start at the level of water. Water gives way to grassy areas and cat tails etc. that typically flood right away. The grassy areas give way to Tag Alder or other lowland shrub that periodically floods. In the northern central (Midwest) and northeastern regions (NY,VT,NH,ME) as we rise in elevation we will start to see swamp conifer or cedar mix and then eventually start to see a bit of aspen come in.
In what I call the middle ground we will find the aspen stands that many of us hunt. Nestled between lowland and the upland hardwoods these stands provide some of the best opportunity for the life of the grouse. Aspen stands provide a large area of protective cover, a floor that offers a salad of food and an excellent area to raise their young.
The density of specific age aspen creates the canopy for protection from avian predators but still allows enough sunlight to filter through to provide a smorgasbord of food for a brood to be raised on. As elevation increases, the aspen will give way to hardwoods and upland conifer areas.
Edges and Stand Density that Assist in the Great Escape
Lower elevation typically provides denser conifer cover. Cover density increases with a decrease in elevation. This is why many times you will see a grouse fly or run down hill to escape into dense cover. However, only when you have cut off the escape path for a grouse will it move up hill. Many conifer can be found in these lower elevations in dense clumps with low hanging branches that provide excellent protection from predators and the weather for a grouse.
Between the lowland conifer cover and the upland hardwoods is the aspen. The area that grouse tend to prefer the most, that is not to say you will not find grouse periodically in other areas. When aspen stands are not available grouse will look for stands of cover with a density that will provide both protection and food source for them. The stand density that a grouse needs is typically found by locating young stands of habitat. Whether that be an oak, cherry or any other clear-cut that will produce the thick density of young trees that is suitable grouse cover. Of course there are the old farm fields that are left fallow that over time revert back to woods that have proven suitable cover for awhile that a grouse can use.
It is during early fall we find grouse in some of the most unusual places. Young grouse of the year are programed to roam. Meaning they have only lived so far their short life in the brood range and now nature is telling them to find a place for the winter and off they go looking for that place. The call to search for a new home typically begins with the males of the brood that are already getting testy with each other. Then in the early part of October the young females of the year start searching for a new place that will provide winter habitat for them. Both male and females will look for protection from the element and food in what will become their new home.
It is because of dispersal that we find these birds in some very unusual places. They are not there for long and typically they are passing through making use of a short term food source that is available
Being raised in lower Michigan all I had ever seen in logging jobs were selective harvest. I can still remember as a child watching the loggers fell huge oak trees and listen to the roar as the trees fell with a jarring thud as they hit the ground. I imagine most would not have found that very interesting but as a youngster I liked watching it. Maybe that is how I came to choose forestry as my profession.
I can remember one late afternoon after the loggers had left for the day. Walking into the woods that use to look like a cathedral to seeing grape vines hanging in the open and trees scattered on their sides on the ground. The woods had taken on a totally different appearance...one that I was not sure I really liked. I walked down the full length of a large oak and stood there on the tree now on its side and looked at the mess. That was my first introduction to a clear cut.
Looking back what I did not realize about this woodlot was that it was too old and had been let go and not managed. I remember well that many large trees would fall after storms and lay there to rot and not be utilized. There were the Beech trees full of holes that provided an excellent home to a huge group of raccoons. The owner had chosen to clear cut these woods because the timber was well past its prime. Thus the mess and what I now call the "Ugly Duckling Stage"
As a young child I thought the woods would never come back. However, as the years past and I left for college and came back for Thanksgiving break, I decided to go squirrel hunting one late afternoon before dusk. I had worked a woods nearby and called in a few squirrels and decided to walk over and look at the "Ugly Duckling Woods".
I was very surprised to see a young, vibrate forest. A forest where only the raspberries where on the edge reaching for sunlight but in the inner part of the forest I could see the young plants etched in the light snow as if frozen in time. The ferns lay bent over and the woods looked healthy again. The huge stumps where now rotting and falling apart and the young canopy was close together allowing these little plants to thrive throughout the summer and once the leaves fell to the ground the frost would kill them off till next spring.
With a density so thick that it was hard to walk through. It was here that I heard the whirl of wings and the flash of brown as multiple grouse took to flight. These birds were in here feeding on the catkins form a hazel brush thicket. This thicket provided a nice dense cover with plenty of food for them and protection.
The grouse quickly exited the cut and flew to the nearest pines down by the swamp to take cover for the night. These birds had a couple of edges in this cut. The edge of the cut that blended into the mature hardwoods where there was little to no food for them. The trail that ran through the cut, and the swamp and thick pines on the lower edge of the cut.
The Hazel brush within the cut provided a secondary canopy and edge for these birds to protected them from predators after all the leaves had fallen and the pines down by the swamp gave protection to these birds from predators and weather.
For their main escape habitat edge there was a swamp conifer and cedar swamp for when the weather really got bad and the birds would go in there to wait out the storms or find a dry place away from the weather. Within the cut there were multiple patches of pine groups that allowed for easy escape on foot for these grouse. These areas were like a stepping stone for the grouse. The grouse would head for one of these areas when pressured and work to the end of the pine patch and flush from there to the swamp conifer and cedar area.
All these multiple edges/transitions in one place created the multifaceted habitat for these grouse to survive. As I walked back to the truck I decided I would not call this cut "the Ugly Duckling Cut" anymore. This now became my special Grouse Cut!
Reading the cut from the ground up
Elevation and soil indicate what will grow best within a certain area. The quality of the soil will help determine the quality of the regenerating stand. This is true with any type of forest the better the soil the better the regeneration of the next forest after a harvest. Soils that are rocky will have a more sparse look when it comes to the regeneration of habitat and typically more weeds. Sandy soil can also create a sparse looking stands due to soil compaction or lack of rains. These type of stands can become stressed quickly.
Better regeneration will produce a more consistent canopy and this will determine the quantity as well as quality of the food that will be found on the forest floor for the grouse. The more consistent the canopy in a young forest the more small plants "salad" that will be available for the grouse. Thus the canopy provides protection from avian predators but also will provide enough light for small plants to grow but not too much light to allow thick clumps of raspberry bushes to overgrow an area. As is the quality of the cut important so is the edges or transitions in and around a cut.
Late Season Needs
Once the salad is gone from the forest floor, life for the grouse takes on a need for everything to be within a short distance for these birds to conserve their energy and help maintain their body fat. Lowland habitat, hazel brush, buds from mature trees and dense conifer cover and a few open areas are all needed by the grouse during the winter.
The open areas provide winter burrows for the grouse when snow depths are over 12". The buds from mature woods provide food and many times there are smaller trees of Ironwood in the under story that also provide catkins for food. Patches of thick hazel brush near or within a cut will provide both food and cover for the grouse. More often than not the cuts we hunt in late season are more mature and have scattered pines growing in these stands. Conifer is always close by providing safety from predators and protection from the weather. Everything in the winter is typically within a short walk or one flush. Conserve energy, easy food source, protection from weather and a quick escape are needed for winter survival for the grouse.
So the thoughts behind all this writing is that we as hunters need to study the habitat before hand or as we are working a woods. We need to consider the daily and seasonal needs of a grouse and hunt accordingly. I leave the rest of this writing for another post. Hope you enjoy. Looking forward to this season and the woods and being with my dogs.