I know, I know, not a big deal for most of Michigan, but Ruffed Grouse is a declining species along the southern periphery of its range, due mainly to the alteration of the forested landscapes to increasingly fragmented patchworks of suburbian desert. Plus by the time I really got serious about Kent Co. listing last summer, it was already past drumming time so I wrote the species off until 2011.
Regarding the species' decline: consider Berrien Co., where the species is now down to a precarious few individuals which are very difficult to find now. This is what the situation looked like during the first breeding bird atlas during the 1980s, just 25 years ago:This map will include at most one block for the second atlas period, shockingly. Kent Co. is not nearly as far along in the fall to oblivion as this, but reports from staff at Howard Christensen Nature Center in the Rogue River State Game Area, as an example, indicate that they were common each year until about a decade ago when they stopped seeing them on site. However, based on reliable hunter reports that they are still present in the Rogue, I have been snowshoeing in to look for them over the past 2 weeks. (An aside: Why, you ask, don't I wait until April and just listen for them drumming? The answer: impatience and an obsession with increasing the county list ASAP. Plus I need the time in April to find 3 species of terns here!).
Ayway, today was my third foray into the alder/tamarack swamps off 20 Mile Rd to try to locate one of these elusive birds. The first trip, about 10 days ago, yielded fresh tracks, droppings, and even a roost site of a Ruffed Grouse, but no bird (I did see 4 very unexpected White-winged Crossbills, however!). The second trip yielded no sign and no birds. Which led me to today. I hiked in at least 1 mile through dense alder thicket, still mostly snow covered, in search of signs of this species. It really is beautiful habitat:
This habitat consists of Whorled Loosestrife tufts along Spring Creek (in summer this would be nearly impassable even with waders). Although greater than 95% of the ground is still covered with over a foot of snow, the numerous seeps in this area (which apparently feed the headwaters of Spring Creek) have melted out small pockets of the forest floor such as this:In fact it was exactly at this location where I flushed, at the very end of my walk and not far from 20 Mile Rd, my Kent County Ruffed Grouse. I was basically about 6 feet from the bird (unbenounced to me) when it flushed underfoot in an explosion of wingbeats. It had been roosting silently underneath this snow bank:
It happened so fast I couldn't document the bird itself (I did not see it again as it flew long range). However droppings were present where it had apparently been standing for some time:No wonder I couldn't find tracks in the snow anywhere- the bird(s) seem to stick to the seeps! I also found droppings in one location apart from this. The bird appeared to likely be a "red" morph (as opposed to the gray morph), as I thought I was seeing a rufous background color to the tail (its black subterminal band was obvious as it flew) during my brief view. Here is the wingprint left by the bird as it flushed along the snowbank:
A final excitement for the day was finding my first flower of spring, what I assume is a young Skunk Cabbage (please correct me if I am wrong all you botanists out there!):
#226 and counting! Onward and upward!