feature By: Timothy C. Flanigan, John N. Felsher, Jeff Nedwick, Dave Books | August, 17
It’s time, once again, to offer up our traditional preseason look at the habitat conditions, weather phenomena and bird populations across the Lower 48 states that will probably play a major role in the situations you face when you step into your favorite upland bird hunting spot this autumn. This year, we’re fine-tuning the focus of our report just a bit: Instead of asking state-level game bird biologists to gaze into crystal balls during early spring and make astounding predictions for autumn, our crack team of reporters set out to scout the situations in each state. So, over the next few pages you’ll see their “scout,” their reports on what they’ve learned about bird hunting possibilities as we approach our favorite opening days.
As always, please remember that our deadline forces us to gather this information a few months in advance of publication. For current information about the states you are interested in, please check out the link to “State Hunting Laws” on the “Resources for Bird Hunters” page on our website, www.uplandalmanac.com.
Timothy C. Flanigan
Connecticut – Widespread habitat manipulation to aid the recovery of New England Cottontail Rabbit population is also creating excellent woodcock habitat and their numbers appear good. The grouse population remains low with a few birds in the northern portion of the state.
Delaware – New Castle County wildlife areas received over 1,450 acres of game bird habitat modifications including 30 acres of food plots and 70 acres of warm season grasses. Seven hundred and fifty acres of pines were thinned at Midlands Wildlife Area, and agriculture was suspended on additional areas to benefit doves and turkeys in Sussex County.
Maine – Woodcock singing ground survey counts were high last spring and hunting prospects are good. A three-year decline in grouse numbers leads biologist to expect mediocre grouse numbers this fall. Wild turkey densities are currently high, and hunting is quite good.
Maryland – The western counties of Garrett and Allegany offer “fair” grouse hunting, and good flights of woodcock frequent both. The Mt. Nedo WMA in Garrett County offers extensive woodcock habitat, and the Millington and E. A. Vaughn WMAs along the Eastern Shore offer great woodcock hunting in January. Timbering in the Savage River State Forest and Indian Springs wildlife management areas is enhancing grouse habitat.
Massachusetts – Good grouse hunting is predicted across central and western Massachusetts, and the birds are particularly abundant in the pitch pine/scrub oak ecosystems in southeastern state forests. Woodcock numbers remain stable, and flights of migrants frequent suitable habitats throughout.
New Jersey – Sixty thousand pheasants will be released on 24 Wildlife Management Areas, and 11,000 quail will be stocked on the Peasey and Greenwood Forest WMAs. Stocking information is available at http://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/smgame_info.htm. Grouse numbers are very low, but woodcock harvests are trending upward.
New Hampshire – Small Game Survey participants are needed, and grouse hunters are urged to participate in the state’s Wing and Tail Survey (www.huntnh.com/hunting/small-game.html). Participants in either survey will be entered into a raffle for a firearm donated by Sturm Ruger and the Ruffed Grouse Society. Good grouse hunting is predicted in the White Mountains and central regions.
New York – Habitat management has increased grouse and woodcock flush rates in the St. Lawrence Valley, Northern Adirondacks, Otsego-Delaware Hills and the Great Lakes Plain areas. Hunters are urged to participate in the Grouse and Woodcock Hunting Log survey (email@example.com, subject: “Grouse Log”; 518-402-8883). Approximately 30,000 pheasants will be released on public lands and public-accessible private lands. A list of these lands is available from the Department of Environmental Conservation (http://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/7844.html).
Ohio – Woodcock have responded positively to habitat improvement projects throughout the state, and hunting is quite good. Grouse numbers remain low, but fair numbers of wild pheasants may be found in suitable habitats. Also, the DNR will release 15,000 to 18,000 roosters during the hunting season. Mourning dove populations are strong throughout the state, and good turkey numbers exist.
Pennsylvania – Optimism exists for good woodcock hunting, but grouse numbers have plummeted, prompting the closure of the post-Christmas season. The closure of two pheasant farms reduced fall releases by approximately 55,000 birds, and this year a $25 pheasant hunting permit will be required for adult hunters.
Rhode Island – Woodcock numbers have responded well to habitat management in the Great Swamp Wildlife Management Area, and decent hunting is predicted. Doves are benefiting from targeted habitat management and plantings of sunflower, buckwheat and winter rye on the South Shore, Carolina, Arcadia and Eight Red Farm WMAs where hunting should be good.
Vermont – Forest management on state lands is reversing a decline in grouse and woodcock numbers. The best hunting for both species is found in the state’s central and northern portions. Ongoing ruffed grouse habitat management in the southern half of the Green Mountain National Forest is encouraging grouse populations and enhancing hunting prospects.
Virginia – The Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) is monitoring the impact of West Nile Virus on ruffed grouse, and survey participants are needed. Contact Gary Norman, firstname.lastname@example.org, 540-569-0822. Ruffed grouse will benefit from current timber management on the Highland Wildlife Management. Maps of the timbered areas are available on the website. Because woodcock migrations vary substantially between the Mountain, Piedmont and Tidewater regions, an ecology study has been initiated to justify varied hunting season dates per region.
West Virginia – Both turkey and grouse reproduction were above average, and very good game bird numbers are expected this year. A two-year young forest initiative and research program is being implemented by the Department of Natural Resources and West Virginia University on selected wildlife management areas. Woodcock flights are typically strong, and gunning should be good throughout the state.
John N. Felsher
Alabama – Quail populations remain low but are increasing on public properties where the state does extensive habitat enhancements, explained Chuck Sykes, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division director. The state and U.S. Forest Service will turn 7,000 acres of Conecuh National Forest into Boggy Hollow WMA and set it aside for small game and bird management. “About 75 percent of Alabama bird hunters pursue mourning doves,” Sykes said. “Dove populations are good and stable. Snipe are common in marshy areas along the coast.”
Arkansas – Arkansas partnered with the National Park Service and the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative to create the first NBCI Bobwhite Focal Area ever located on NPS land, specifically the 4,300-acre Pea Ridge National Military Park in northwestern Arkansas. Doves remain widespread and abundant throughout Arkansas.
Florida – Both quail and dove populations remain stable, reported Mark McBride, a Florida biologist. Look for doves on planted fields, food plots and right-of-ways on WMAs, particularly Teneroc, Allapattah, Frog Pond, Hilcohee and Caravelle Ranch. For quail, visit Three Lakes and Babcock-Webb WMAs.
Georgia – More than 500,000 acres of private plantations intensively managed for quail provide outstanding bird hunting. On public land, visit Di-Lane Plantation, River Creek, Silver Lake, Elmodel and Chickasawhatchee WMAs. People hunt doves throughout Georgia and ruffed grouse in the Chattahoochee National Forest.
Kentucky – “An exceptionally wet growing season, followed by a drought in eastern Kentucky fostered poor reproductive output,” said state biologist John Morgan about last year’s quail season. “Bobwhites remain in a 50-year decline, driven mostly by poor habitat.” The good news: Hunters can still find some bobs in south-central and western Kentucky. Try hunting Peabody WMA. For grouse, visit Daniel Boone National Forest.
Louisiana – The wild quail harvest increased 58 percent during the 2015-16 season, compared to 2014-15, said Cody Cedotal, a state biologist. For quail, hunt the 600,000-acre Kisatchie National Forest. Dove populations remain stable. Louisiana provides important woodcock wintering habitat, particularly in the Atchafalaya Basin. For something different, try hunting rails, gallinules or snipe in the coastal marshes.
Mississippi – Mississippi hunters annually bag about a million doves. Any field might hold birds, but the best hunting occurs in the agricultural lands of the Delta and Prairie regions. “Most dove hunting and harvest are heavily concentrated in the first two weeks of the season,” said Rick Hamrick, a state biologist. “Although declining over the long term, woodcock populations appear to be somewhat stable over the short term.” For quail, try DeSoto National Forest.
Oklahoma – Drier than normal conditions made bird hunting difficult during the 2016-17 season, but quail numbers trend upward. “Southwest Oklahoma probably had the best quail season of all the regions,” recalled Derek Wiley, a state biologist. Pheasant numbers climbed in northern counties. Besides bobs, Oklahoma hunters can also bag scaled quail.
North Carolina – Like most Southeastern states, unseasonably warm weather affected North Carolina last season. Grouse and quail populations remain low, but people can hunt pheasants in the Outer Banks. “Pheasants have a very limited distribution, but populations are relatively stable in those areas,” remarked Chris Kreh, a state biologist. “Quail hunting is generally best east of Interstate 95.” For grouse, head to Pisgah or Nantahala National Forests.
South Carolina – Approximately nine million doves greeted South Carolina hunters on opening day of the 2016-17 season. The state maintains about 50 dove fields. Some better public lands for quail include Webb Center, Crackerneck and Belfast WMAs. “Quail populations may have bottomed out, but people can find very high populations in pockets,” advised Michael Hook, a state biologist. “Hurricane Matthew may have been helpful to woodcock hunters in the coastal plain who reported above average bags.” A few sportsmen hunt grouse in northwestern South Carolina and rails along the coast.
Tennessee – The best quail hunting occurs in middle and western Tennessee. For grouse, visit the Cherokee National Forest. “We had a mild winter in 2016-17, so quail and grouse were not stressed by the weather,” recalled Roger Applegate, a state biologist. For doves, visit one of many fields leased for public hunting.
Texas – No other southern state offers upland hunters more game choices and habitat diversity. “Bobwhite hunting in south Texas and the rolling plains was awesome last season,” commented Robert Perez, a state biologist. “This was our third year in a row of favorable conditions in many parts of the state. We expect a good carryover of birds.” Some better public properties include Chaparral, Matador, Gene Howe, Daughtrey, Black Gap and Elephant Mountain WMAs. Texas sportsmen can also hunt mourning and white-winged doves, scaled and Gambel’s quail, pheasants, sandhill cranes and chachalacas, large chicken-like birds found in no other state.
Illinois – On the average, 35,000 hunters harvest 740,000 doves each year, making doves the most popular game bird in Illinois. Try one of the many Fish and Wildlife Areas or private lands enrolled in the Illinois Acres for Wildlife Program.
Quail and pheasant populations continue to decline – especially in the northern portion of the state – but should get a boost from an additional 15,000 acres of State Acres For Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) in the Grand Prairie and Southern Till Plain Natural Divisions.
Indiana – Dove harvest has dipped slightly the past couple of years but remains popular on Fish and Wildlife Areas (FWA) located across the state.
Quail hunters should check out the Goose Pond and Glendale FWAs, which collectively feature about 11,000 acres of habitat specifically managed for quail.
Hunters should also look at Access Program Providing Land Easements (APPLE) property for walk-in hunting access opportunities.
Iowa – Good over-winter survival of hens should lead a continued pheasant rebound in the northwest, central and east-central portions of the state.
The Iowa Hunter Access Program (IHAP) – Iowa’s private land walk-in hunting initiative – has grown to over 20,000 acres. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources website provides detailed information and maps for all IHAP locations.
Kansas – Glen Elder Wildlife Area and the Norton Wildlife Area are the first focus areas under the new Kansas Pheasant Initiative and should provide new options for pheasant hunters this fall.
One hundred fifty thousand of Kansas’s one million acres of private land walk-in hunting are also enrolled in the Voluntary Public Access program (VPA) which offers managed pheasant habitat on accessible private land.
Michigan – Michigan continues to expand its Grouse Enhancement Management Sites (GEMS). Four new GEMS have been added since last year, bringing the total to 18. The timing is perfect since the state’s halfway to its 10-year population peak.
Michigan continues to lead the nation in woodcock harvest, and this year’s outlook looks good.
A second consecutive mild winter helped hen pheasant survival, and populations are expected to remain stable or grow slightly in the thumb region.
Minnesota – Ruffed grouse populations are halfway to their 10-year peak, but population increases could be offset by a lack of snow and multiple ice storms, which hindered snow roosting. The best hunting continues to be in the northeast portion of the state.
Woodcock populations should be up slightly – especially north of Brainerd.
Pheasant hunters should try one of the 212 Walk-In Access areas south and west of Interstate 94.
Missouri – Quail are the primary game bird in Missouri and receive most of the focus from biologists. An additional 20,000 acres of quail habitat were added to the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE), and hunters should focus on one of the 14 Quail Emphasis Areas.
Missouri also offers walk-in access to private lands through its Missouri Outdoor Recreational Access Program (MRAP).
Nebraska – Nebraska combined six new Pheasant Opportunity Areas and two existing Pheasant Focus Areas under an initiative called the Bergren Plan (formerly the Pheasant Mega Plan). Hunters should start seeing improved hunting in those areas.
Good pheasant hunting can also be found on private land enrolled in the Open Fields and Waters program in the northern panhandle and southwest portions of the state.
North Dakota – In addition to the more than one million acres of state, Bureau of Land Management and U.S Forest Service land, upland bird hunters in North Dakota have access to nearly 750,000 acres of private land through the Private Land Open to Sportsmen (PLOTS) initiative. To find areas with good cover, the state’s website provides maps that can be downloaded to a smartphone or GPS.
South Dakota – South Dakota is home to the best pheasant hunting in the country. Hunters should focus on areas just east and west of the James River.
The north-central portion of the state experienced a significant ice storm and above average snowfall which may have impacted over-winter survival of hens.
Private land owners continue their strong support of pheasant hunting. The state has more than 1,000 food plot cooperators and a robust walk-in access program.
Wisconsin – Ruffed grouse are approaching the midpoint of their progression toward the 10-year population peak so hunters should expect to see as many or more birds as last year. County forest lands in the north-central portion of the state are a good area to target.
These same areas also hold good numbers of woodcock.
Early season dove hunters should focus on the southeast portions of the state.
Arizona – “We’re expecting a bit of a bump up in Gambel’s and scaled quail numbers this year,” said Arizona Game and Fish Department biologist Randy Babb. “We had a nice winter rainy season, and those rains translated into a good greenup, more insects, better quail survival and bigger broods. The problem is, we’ve suffered through a quarter-century of drought, so our Gambel’s quail numbers are still below average.” Babb was cautiously optimistic about Mearns’ quail in the southeastern part of the state. “The timing of summer rains is critical,” said Babb, “but we’re hoping for another good year.”
California – Katherine Miller, upland game bird biologist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, is looking for a rebound in upland bird numbers this year. “We’re coming off a severe drought so it may take a few years to rebuild populations,” she said, “but the wet winter and moist spring stimulated the growth of grass and forbs and provided a bumper crop of insects for pheasants, quail and chukars.”
Colorado – Ed Gorman, biologist with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, expects a good year for pheasants and quail in eastern Colorado. “Winter weather didn’t adversely affect survival of adult birds, and we had favorable nesting habitat in our core pheasant range in the eastern part of the state,” he said. “We’re also hoping our scaled and bobwhite quail in the southeast had a successful hatch.”
Idaho – “We had one heck of a winter, especially in eastern Idaho,” said Jeff Knetter, game bird coordinator with the Idaho Fish and Game Department. “Our lek counts for sharptails were down, but chukars wintered okay in most of their range. The good news is we had tremendous spring moisture, which produced great cover with plenty of forbs and insects.”
Montana – “December and January were pretty tough in eastern Montana,” said Ken Plourde, upland game bird habitat specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, “but we got a nice reprieve in February so our adult pheasants came through the winter in decent shape.” Improved spring moisture benefited nesting conditions for pheasants, sharptails, Huns and sage grouse, he noted. “The downside is we’re continuing to lose CRP acres; it’s not a total nightmare, but some northeastern counties took a hit.”
New Mexico – Casey Cardinal, game bird biologist with the Department of Game and Fish, is expecting another good year for Gambel’s and scaled quail in southern New Mexico. “It probably won’t be the epic year for scaled quail we had two years ago,” she said, “but another nice bird season thanks to good over-winter survival and favorable nesting conditions.”
Nevada – Shawn Espinosa, upland game specialist for the Department of Wildlife, is optimistic about the upcoming bird season. “We’ve had an incredible turnaround in moisture,” he said, “with snowpack in most mountain ranges 150 to 200 percent of normal. Our reservoirs are full, and our creeks are flowing better than they have in years.” The outlook for chukars and Huns is positive, he noted, with sage grouse trending up as well.
Oregon – “We had a significant winter in northeastern Oregon,” said Dave Budeau, upland game bird coordinator for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We have water where we haven’t seen much for a long time.” While the weather may have contributed to some chukar mortality, the winter moisture, coupled with a wet spring, provided favorable habitat conditions with plenty of insects. “Overall,” said Budeau, “we have the potential for a better year.”
Utah – Like neighboring states, Utah had a cold, snowy winter. According to Jason Robinson, upland game coordinator for the Division of Wildlife Resources, northern Utah got blasted with winter storms, with some subsequent chukar die-off. “February and March were better,” he said, “but we’ll probably see fewer chukars in the areas that were hit hardest.” On the plus side, the losses of adult birds could be offset by a good hatch due to abundant spring moisture.
Washington – “We had an extremely wet spring with record rainfall,” said Joey McCanna, upland bird biologist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife. “As a result, early nesting attempts by some pheasants may have failed. But the spring greenup provided excellent habitat for later-nesting pheasants, as well as for quail and chukars. I’m looking for a decent upland bird year.”
Wyoming – “We had lots of snow in western Wyoming last winter, which stimulated the forb growth and insect production needed by sage grouse chicks,” said Jeff Obrecht, information specialist for Wyoming Game and Fish. “Last year’s sage grouse production was down—a little less than two chicks per hen—but we’re hoping for a rebound this year.” Obrecht noted that late April moisture statewide should have helped nesting in the Bighorn Basin, Wyoming’s best chukar and Hungarian partridge range.