feature By: Timothy C. Flanigan, John N. Felsher, Jeff Nedwick, David Books | August, 19
It’s time for our annual preseason look at 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. And please remember: Instead of only 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 one can expect to encounter in each state. So here, 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 info 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.
Connecticut – Woodcock numbers remain stable, providing good hunting in young forest habitats. A few ruffed grouse survive in the northern portion of the state. On selected Saturdays, the state will release pheasants on several sites and host hunters on a first come, first served basis for two daily hunts: 8-11 a.m. and 12-3 p.m. Up to 20,000 birds are expected to be released.
Delaware – Woodcock, doves and wild turkeys are benefiting from habitat enhancement work on several Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs). Covey counts indicate a viable quail population. Select WMAs offer opening weekend action on stocked pheasants for youth hunters, ages 12 to 15. Afterward, those birds are available to all hunters.
Maine – Upland bird hunting opportunities in Maine remain very good. Grouse populations in northern Maine are good, and access is not an issue. Spring nesting conditions favored ground nesting game birds, and woodcock numbers should benefit. The grouse seasons now open on the last Saturday in September.
Maryland – A few ruffed grouse still exist in the three western counties. Woodcock hunting remains good throughout. A junior and apprentice license holder pheasant hunting program has been expanded. Increased habitat management on eastern region WMAs and private lands aims to reverse the decline of bobwhite quail.
Massachusetts – The central and western districts offer fair to good grouse hunting, and habitat enhancement is benefiting grouse and woodcock. Expect good gunning for both in southeastern state forests’ pitch pine/scrub oak ecosystems. A release of 40, 000 pheasants will take place on 41 WMAs.
New Jersey – A few grouse survive in the northern forests, but woodcock gunning is good in coastal habitats. The state is considering reclassifying ruffed grouse as “threatened” and northern bobwhite quail as “endangered.” A quail habitat recovery plan is being implemented on Mid-Atlantic Coastal Plain public lands. Participants are needed to supply blood and feather samples for a study of the impact of West Nile virus on ruffed grouse. To volunteer, contact Andrew Burnett, Principal Biologist, Nacote Creek Research Station, P.O. Box 418, Port Republic, NJ 08241-0418; firstname.lastname@example.org.
New Hampshire – Karen A. Bordeau, wildlife biologist with the NH Fish and Game Department says, “The weather this spring is shaping up to be very similar to last year for breeding ruffed grouse and woodcock. The ruffed grouse wing and tail survey results showed an increase in the juvenile/adult female ratio, and the long-term trend is stable.” One lodge and two guides report that for some time they have been fully booked for the upcoming grouse season. Expect good upland action in the northern forests.
New York – Grouse flush rates are best in the northern Adirondacks, northern Catskills and the East Appalachian Plateau. Woodcock provide excellent hunting in good cover. Hunters are urged to participate in the Grouse and Woodcock Hunting Log. Feathers and blood samples are needed for West Nile virus monitoring. Volunteer by emailing email@example.com (subject “Grouse Log”). Thirty thousand pheasants will be released on public lands and accessible private lands.
Ohio – Grouse persist at historic lows within tracts of young forest, but woodcock opportunities remain good throughout the state. The pheasant outlook includes a planned release of 15,000-18,000 roosters on public lands lacking pheasants and a projected 20,000-30,000 wild pheasants existing in central and northwestern Ohio. Surveys indicate that 10,000-15,000 quail remain in south central and southwest Ohio. Mourning dove populations are robust throughout.
Pennsylvania – Optimism exists for good woodcock hunting throughout the state. Grouse forecasts remain guarded. Record-high West Nile virus prevalence in 2018 may have further reduced populations due to the loss of adult breeding birds. Pheasant production has increased, and a youth pheasant hunt is offered in the Central Susquehanna Wild Pheasant Recovery Area this year.
Rhode Island – Woodcock responded well to habitat enhancements in the Great Swamp, Arcadia and Carolina WMAs. Habitat enhancement and plantings of sunflower and buckwheat at the South Shore, Carolina, Great Swamp, Eight Rod Farm and Sapowet WMAs will benefit quail and pheasants.
Vermont – The central and northern regions offer the best grouse hunting, and woodcock numbers remain stable. Both species responded well to early successional forest management on state lands and to three projects in the Green Mountain National Forest. Wildlife managers are promoting beneficial wildlife management to private landowners seeking to create early-successional habitat.
Virginia – The 2018 grouse flush rate was the second lowest recorded; the birds are benefiting from targeted cutting and burning intended to improve habitat for them and woodcock in the Clinch Ranger District’s Turkey Cove Grouse Area. Woodcock gunning is mainly on flight birds with ample flights in the Tidewater region
West Virginia – Ruffed grouse hunting is poor, but fair numbers exist on private timberlands, in the east central spine of the state. Woodcock remain a mainstay for seasonal upland action, and Sunday hunting is permitted. Wild pheasants offer action in the Hillcrest WMA that is managed for farm game including doves. Grouse survey volunteer cooperators are needed. Contact the Elkins Operation Center, 738 Ward Rd., Elkins, WV 26241; 304-637-0245.
John N. Felsher
Alabama – Northern Alabama hunters will be able to pursue sandhill cranes for the first time this year.
“Sandhill crane numbers have been increasing in Alabama for the past 10 years,” explained Seth Maddox, a state biologist. “This will be a limited quota draw hunt.” The forecast also looks good for other species. Abundant rainfall encouraged good cover and quail foods to grow, although bobwhite numbers remain low.
Arkansas – Spring call counts indicated a decrease in the bobwhite population.
“Our spring call count data and brood surveys showed the quail population to be down, but last season was decent to good, especially in the Arkansas River Valley,” recalled Marcus Asher, an Arkansas biologist. “Dove and woodcock hunting have been fair.” Habitat projects on public and private lands should help boost quail populations in coming years.
Florida – Several storms hit Florida in 2018, hurting hunting success.
“North Florida had standing water most of the season,” said Andrew Fanning, a Florida biologist. “South Florida saw the opposite with drought-like conditions stressing dove fields. Local dove numbers remain stable, but fewer migrant birds came down last winter. Bobwhite numbers are stable to increasing in areas implementing favorable habitat management practices.”
Georgia – Heavy rains affected quail hunting success last season, but Georgia sportsmen expect better conditions this fall.
“We are expecting a good dove season,” advised Greg Balkcom, a Georgia biologist. “We will plant many dove fields and add more dove hunting opportunities in the early and late segments.”
Besides quail and doves, Georgia sportsmen can also hunt snipe, gallinules, rails and woodcock.
Kentucky – Record rainfall in central and eastern Kentucky lowered hunting success last year, but more birds possibly survived to breed. Bobwhites, ruffed grouse and woodcock numbers continue to decline.
“Western Kentucky was also wet, but reproduction seemed stronger,” said John J. Morgan, a state biologist. “Our bird hunter numbers are dipping dramatically so people can find good hunting on public areas even later in the season.”
Louisiana – Wet conditions made woodcock hunting more challenging last year, but hunters fared better in upland pine forests than in traditional bottomland hardwoods.
“Alexander State Forest, Dewey Wills, Richard K. Yancey and Sherburne WMAs are popular woodcock areas,” recommended Jeffrey P. Duguay, a state biologist. “Kisatchie National Forest offers the best option for quail.”
The state plans to lease more public dove fields this fall.
Mississippi – Excessive rains flooded parts of Mississippi, keeping many sportsmen at home last season.
“Wild quail populations are low in most areas, but relatively stable,” said Rick Hamrick, a Mississippi biologist. “Based on band returns, many doves harvested in the early season are from the local area.”
For doves, try Delta Region agricultural fields. People can also hunt woodcock, snipe, rails and gallinules.
North Carolina – Hurricane Florence smacked into North Carolina in September 2018, hurting an already struggling quail population.
“Quail populations suffered heavy mortality from the storm,” lamented Christopher D. Kreh, a state biologist. “Quail populations remain near all-time lows, particularly in the Piedmont and the mountains.”
On a positive note, sportsmen can find ruffed grouse in the western mountains if they don’t mind walking a lot.
Oklahoma – Copious rain fell on Oklahoma at the end of the nesting season, negatively affecting upland bird populations.
“Upland game populations across the state have been in a downward trend over the last few years due to weather conditions and habitat loss,” stated Tell Judkins, an Oklahoma biologist. “However, if weather patterns hold, we should have a much better year for all upland species.”
South Carolina – South Carolina experienced a great dove season last year and hopes for another this year.
“We had good weather throughout the 2018-19 season and saw some good late season pushes of birds,” recalled Michael Hook, a state biologist. “The quail season was a little better than average.”
South Carolina sportsmen should find abundant doves on public fields across the state. The state also created four public dog training areas.
Tennessee – Both the quail and ruffed grouse populations continue to decline. For quail, visit Middle Tennessee. For grouse, head to the Cherokee National Forest. For doves, find leased fields.
“Tennessee is fortunate to have an excellent dove field lease program that provides many opportunities for hunters,” detailed Roger Applegate, a state biologist. “Many wildlife areas also manage quality dove fields.”
Texas – With three quail species, two dove species, pheasants, sandhill cranes and some birds found in no other state, Texas offers abundant choices for upland hunters.
“Most of the state received good winter and early spring precipitation, making excellent conditions for ground nesters,” commented Robert Perez, a Texas biologist. “We expect to see good reproduction and an uptick in quail numbers.”
Illinois – The best pheasant hunting in Illinois is in the 27 pheasant habitat areas in the eastern and central portions of the state. Access to these areas is by permit only, and Illinois residents are given first priority. Permits are available via lottery and can be applied for on the Illinois Department of Natural Resources website (www.dnr.illinois.gov).
Quail hunting across the southern portion of the state should be about the same as last year, which saw a third consecutive increase in YOY (year-over-year) harvest. Officials expect neither a drop-off nor an increase in population.
Indiana – Continued population declines have prompted biologists to designate quail as a “species of great conservation need,” a designation that paves the way for future habitat improvement and management initiatives. Despite the new designation, season and bag limits remain unchanged for 2019.
Pheasant populations are expected to remain stable. The harvest has remained fairly consistent, with an annual harvest of about 25,000 roosters. Hunters should focus on the northwestern portion of the state, especially The Nature Conservancy Kankakee Sands area.
Iowa – Iowa had been experiencing a pheasant rebound the past few years, but harsh winter weather may bring an end to that streak. The northwestern, central and east central portions of the state continue to provide the best pheasant hunting.
Like pheasant, quail populations in the southern two or three tier counties had been trending higher, but last winter’s freezing rain and ice may have negatively affected quail populations.
Kansas – After several years of growth, both pheasant and quail harvests were down slightly last year. Biologists are hoping that populations resume their upward trend in 2019.
Kansas continues to invest heavily in private land habitat improvement initiatives like the Walk-In Hunting Access (WIHA) program. Look for quail in WIHA areas in the southern part of the state.
Pheasant hunters should focus on the northwestern and north central portions of the state.
Michigan – For 2019, Michigan added a new Grouse Enhancement Management Site (GEMS) in the Upper Peninsula, bringing the total to 20.
Woodcock continue to thrive in Michigan, and the state once again expects to lead the nation in woodcock harvest.
Kicking off this year is the Michigan Pheasant Hunting Initiative (not to be confused with the Michigan Pheasant Restoration Initiative mentioned in this issue’s “Flushes”). For the first time since its “Put and Take” program of the 1970s, the state will conduct weekly releases of roosters into each of 11 state game areas across the pheasant’s range.
Minnesota – Research into the impact of West Nile virus on ruffed grouse is ongoing, but results of the study won’t be available until late 2019. This uncertainty makes it difficult to predict if last year’s drop in grouse harvest was the start of a trend or an anomaly. The best grouse hunting continues to be in the northeastern portion of the state.
Woodcock hunting in areas north of Brainerd continues to improve.
Missouri – “Worst winter we’ve had in six years,” is how biologists describe the winter of 2018-2019. As a result, quail populations are expected to be down a bit this fall.
New for 2019 are “Quail Restoration Landscapes,” a big-picture management initiative focused on Conservation Areas enrolled in the Missouri Outdoor Recreational Access Program. Hunters can find these areas on the Missouri DNR website (www.mo.gov/outdoors).
Nebraska – Spring rural mail carrier surveys showed pheasant populations were up in five of six management zones compared to 2018, suggesting that pheasant populations weathered the rough winter.
Rural mail carrier surveys in the quail range showed declines in four of the six regions surveyed, confirming biologists’ suspicions that severe winter weather negatively affected quail populations. Quail hunters should focus their efforts in the south central portion of the state.
North Dakota – Pheasant are still feeling the negative effects of the drought conditions of 2016. Compounding matters is the severe winter 2019 weather in some parts of the state, especially the southeastern, that may have hurt overwinter survival. Pheasant hunters should concentrate their efforts in the southwestern portion of the state.
South Dakota – As South Dakota celebrates its 100th anniversary of pheasant hunting, it’s hoping to build on last year’s 47 percent increase in pheasant numbers. Unfortunately, Mother Nature might have put a crunch on the celebration. The state experienced its fifth snowiest winter in history, and these severe winter conditions likely took a toll on hen survival. Walk-in areas in the James River Valley are good places to target.
Wisconsin – Despite concerns about the possible impact of West Nile virus, grouse are approaching the peak in their 10-year population cycle, so biologists are optimistic that hunters will see more birds this fall. County forests in the north central portion of the state continue to be good areas to target.
Wisconsin has always had good woodcock hunting, and 2019 is expected to continue that trend.
Arizona – “We’re optimistic about Gambel’s quail this year,” said Johnathan O’Dell, small game biologist for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “Thanks to winter rains across much of the quail range, our spring call counts were well above average – roosters were screaming their heads off. In the Sonoran desert, winter raindrops are like little quail hitting the ground. But we’re coming off record-low Gambel’s numbers due to long-term drought, so one good winter won’t dig us out of the hole.”
California – Katherine Miller, upland game bird biologist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, expects a rebound in upland bird numbers this year. “We had a dry December but then a lot of precipitation, both rain and snow, from January through March. Vigorous plant growth made for good nesting conditions and produced the insects needed by young birds. We’re expecting a good season for California and mountain quail.”
Colorado – Snowstorms last winter and early spring greatly improved moisture conditions across the state, with only portions of south central and southwestern Colorado still abnormally dry. As a result, bobwhite and scaled quail numbers in the southeast counties should be improved, as should pheasant hunting in the core northeastern part of the range.
Idaho – “Above average winter and spring precipitation produced the green-up and nesting cover needed for our chukars and Huns,” said Jeff Knetter, game bird coordinator with the Idaho Fish and Game Department. Michelle Kemner, regional biologist for Idaho’s southwest region, echoed Knetter’s sentiment. “While flying elk surveys over the Brownlee Reservoir area, we saw lots of chukars and Huns,” she said. “The Huns especially appeared to have an excellent carryover from last year, and I was encouraged by what we saw.”
Montana – “We had normal winter precipitation over much of eastern Montana,” said Ken Plourde, upland game bird habitat specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. “Because early winter was mild, our upland birds went into late winter with good fat reserves, so we didn’t see much winter mortality. A late-April snowstorm in northeastern Montana may have disrupted early nesting,” he said, “but we don’t think the storm had a significant impact.”
New Mexico – “We had abundant moisture last winter,” said Casey Cardinal, game bird biologist with the Department of Game and Fish. “After a banner year four years ago, our scaled quail have been down a bit, but we’re looking for stronger numbers this year.”
Nevada – Shawn Espinosa, upland game specialist with the Department of Wildlife, is optimistic about the fall bird hunting prospects. “Our winter snowpack was 150 to 170 percent of normal,” he said, “so we’re expecting a nice recovery in chukar and quail numbers after last year’s extremely dry spring and summer. Unfortunately, we had higher than normal winter mortality for sage grouse in northwestern Nevada, so that’s the one downside to an otherwise bright outlook.”
Oregon – “Thanks to a moist spring, we had excellent habitat conditions throughout most of our chukar range going into nesting season,” said Mikal Cline, upland game bird coordinator for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. “That plant growth also meant lots of bugs for chicks and poults. We’re expecting a good year for chukars and Huns, probably similar to last year,” she said. “Although our pheasant range has contracted in recent decades, production and harvest was up last year, a trend we expect to see continue this year.”
Utah – Moisture in Utah was generally good prior to nesting season, with only a small percentage of the state showing drought conditions. Top pheasant areas should be the east shore of Great Salt Lake as well as the Cache Valley. Chukar numbers have shown steady improvement in recent years and hunters can look forward to another successful season.
Washington – “We had a mild winter with no significant bird mortality,” said Sarah Kindschuh, small game specialist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Thanks to last winter’s mild weather, we’re expecting chukar numbers to be up this fall. Pheasants are doing well where we still have habitat, and we also release pen-raised birds on wildlife areas, mostly in the western part of the state.”
Wyoming – “Thanks to late spring blizzards, we had a very green spring,” said Leslie Schreiber, sage grouse biologist with Wyoming Game and Fish. “Those storms may have delayed sage grouse breeding a week or two but shouldn’t have done serious harm. We’ve seen a downswing in sage grouse numbers the last three years, so it might take a few years of better moisture conditions to get our grouse numbers back up again.”