Drumming count survey logs ruffed grouse trends
RED LAKE WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA, Minn.—Traffic noise isn't a problem, but a forest full of sounds competes for Gretchen Mehmel's ears on this crisp Monday morning.
Pileated woodpeckers hammer away with a percussive cadence as they bore into trees for a morning snack. Hermit thrushes, white-throated sparrows and swamp sparrows offer melodic contrasts with their trills and calls.
Not to be outdone, spring peepers and chorus frogs are in full voice, as well.
Somewhere back in the swampy brush, an American bittern cranks up the volume with a sound that begins like a loud dripping faucet before we hear the pumping noise that gives the bird its familiar "slough pumper" nickname.
You can't help but smile upon hearing the curious sound:
"Pal-lum poo-ding. Pa-lum poo-ding. Pa-lum poo-ding."
The woods and swamplands are alive with the music of spring, but there's one sound in particular that has drawn Mehmel to this remote forest road before sunrise.
Then she hears it, the hollow thumping that sounds like an old engine chugging to life before revving into high gear as it echoes through the woods.
It's a male ruffed grouse in full splendor on his "drumming log" somewhere back in the trees. Courting males make the sound by rapidly beating their wings to attract a mate and mark their territory.
The sound is felt as much as heard. Seeing it firsthand is nothing short of spectacular.
Mehmel, manager of the 213,554.83-acre Red Lake Wildlife Management Area in Beltrami and Lake of the Woods counties, is among the wildlife managers across Minnesota's ruffed grouse range who take to the woods every spring in late April and early May listening for drumming male ruffed grouse.
Tribal and federal agencies partner with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to conduct the survey, and the results are compiled into statewide and regional indices.
The annual drumming count survey is the best tool wildlife managers have to monitor trends in ruffed grouse numbers. Unlike pheasants or prairie grouse, roadside counts aren't an option for surveying ruffed grouse because of the thick, often remote, woodlands the birds inhabit.
And so, managers take the woods. And listen.
'It happens every year, and we count how many drums we hear per stop," Mehmel said. "We use that as an index to tell us whether the population is going up or down."
For reasons that long have been studied but not completely understood, ruffed grouse populations follow a predictable 10-year cycle of boom and bust.
The cycle is consistent and well-documented, Mehmel says.
"We definitely see that 10-year trend," she said. "It's like anything else; there are outliers, and some things don't match exactly to that cyclical trend but in general, it's pretty good."
Ruffed grouse this year are supposed to be on the upswing part of the cycle, but Mehmel wonders if a midwinter thaw that crusted the snow in which ruffed grouse roost might have affected survival.
"We've had a lower trend and so we're building," she said. "We're supposed to be on our way up, but this might be one of those years where it's not exactly falling into where it should be."
The survey results will paint a clearer picture, but if the drumming that echoed through the woods on this Monday morning is any indication, there's cause for optimism—especially if June weather produces favorable conditions for nesting and production.
Ruffed grouse nest on the ground, and cold, wet weather in late May and early June can hamper chick survival.
"That actually is huge as far as fall" hunting prospects, Mehmel said.
Red Lake WMA's drumming count survey includes five routes, each with 10 stops, in which Mehmel or assistant manager Charlie Tucker stop at 1-mile intervals and listen for four minutes while standing several feet away from the vehicle.
The surveys are conducted at sunrise on days with light wind and no precipitation, Mehmel says. That's when the sound carries best, and the birds are most active.
"Anything over 10 mph, and it's probably too windy," she said. "You've got all these competing noises and it's not consistent and then the results aren't consistent from year to year. You want to have your conditions very similar so you can compare results from one year to the next."
The route Mehmel takes on this Monday morning is the closest survey to WMA headquarters at Norris Camp. After years of doing the survey, the veteran wildlife manager has a good idea of what to expect at each stop along the route.
Some routes consistently are better than others.
"When you do a route year after year, you're kind of biased a little bit," she said.
Ruffed grouse generally favor areas with a mix of aspen and conifers, Mehmel says, and Red Lake WMA's survey routes tend to reflect that preference. The WMA and surrounding Beltrami Island State Forest offer prime ruffed grouse habitat.
Swamplands, brushy meadows and areas with strictly jackpine or other conifers tend to produce fewer drums.
"It used to be thought you couldn't have any conifers, and the best habitat is solid aspen," she said. "Aspen mixed with conifers seems to be the best."
That's apparent at the second stop, where Mehmel tallies five drums.
"That was a good stop," she said. "Usually, you hope for an average of around two drums per stop, but some years it's crazy, and some stops will have six, seven or even eight."
Each route is surveyed only once, Mehmel says, and the total drumming count is divided by the number of stops to produce an average.
For the past four years, Red Lake WMA has offered two blinds set up next to established drumming logs for photographers and other wildlife watchers to witness drumming grouse. Unlike prairie grouse, which gather en masse before dawn on dancing grounds called leks, male ruffed grouse are solitary showmen and can be on their drumming logs just about any time of day.
While not as popular as prairie grouse viewing blinds elsewhere in northwest Minnesota, the ruffed grouse blinds have been well-received, Mehmel says.
It's barely 7:30 a.m. when Mehmel completes the first survey route of the spring and heads back to Norris Camp. An observer tagging along for the early morning survey heads off to the blinds to witness the drumming firsthand.
It's only one survey, but the morning count is up by one drumming bird, which is essentially unchanged from last year, Mehmel says.
"We will obviously need more data to make any conclusions, but it looks good so far," she said.
As if the morning sounds of drumming grouse, spring peepers and songbirds of all kinds aren't enough, a gray wolf darts across the road within eyesight of Norris Camp.
The day is young, and it's already eventful.
"It's wonderful to be out this time of morning," Mehmel said. "Not only do you hear the grouse, you get to the hear the other birds as well.
"It's kind of a fun part of the job."
• See for yourself:
The ruffed grouse blinds at Red Lake WMA are available on a first-come, first-served basis throughout the spring drumming season and can be reserved by calling the WMA's Norris Camp headquarters at (218) 783-6861.
• On the Web: To see a video of the drumming count survey and of a ruffed grouse drumming, check out the website at gfherald.com.