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Even a summer fishing trip to Lake Winnibigoshish can’t stop John Zeman from preparing for his autumnal obsession: upland bird hunting with his stable of German shorthair pointers.

“I brought along a couple of my dogs to do some training and conditioning and a little grouse scouting,” said Zeman, 54, of Zimmerman, as he waited out the rain to get back on the water Wednesday morning. “I love fishing and everything, but …”

Zeman is preparing his dogs for a September hunt in Montana for sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge. After that, he’ll hunt ruffed grouse in Minnesota and pheasants throughout the Upper Midwest. “You can’t train or condition a dog in two weeks,” he said. “My motto is get prepared and hope the birds show up.”

Although it’s only July, what Zeman and other Minnesota upland hunters will find afield in the coming weeks is slowly rounding into focus. Here’s a look at how pheasants and ruffed grouse, Minnesota’s most popular upland species, are faring this summer.

Pheasants

Nicole Davros, upland game project leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said two factors influence pheasant populations above all others — weather and habitat. Weather causes annual fluctuations in roadside counts. Grassland habitat for nesting and brood-rearing drives long-term population trends.

While a prolonged drought in the Dakotas threatens recently hatched chicks, habitat conditions in Minnesota are better, at least right now.

“Things are going pretty well so far,” said Davros, adding most adult hen pheasants likely entered the spring breeding season in good body condition after a relatively mild winter. “It’s variable, but we’re starting to see 3-week-old chicks show up with fairly decent size broods of eight to 10 chicks.”

Early spring rains throughout the pheasant range helped fortify grasslands and spur production of insects, which Davros said make up the vast majority of a pheasant chick’s diet. “We haven’t had the drought conditions like the Dakotas, but we won’t know anything more concrete until we do our annual August roadside counts,” she said. “A lot can happen until then and even after.”

For example, Davros said hail from summer storms can kill pheasant chicks and adults. “We’ve already had some localized storms with hail. That always worries me,” she said.

Another worry: Minnesota has been experiencing a steady decline in nesting habitat, especially Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres, since 2007. “Habitat is the key to sustaining long-term populations,” Davros said.

The state’s pheasant forecast will be released the first week of September. The state pheasant opener is Oct. 14.

Ruffed grouse

According to a recently released survey conducted by the Minnesota DNR, spring ruffed grouse drumming counts were up a whopping 57 percent statewide from last year.

“That type of increase is pretty much unheard of,” said Meadow Kouffeld, regional biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society for Minnesota. “Ruffed grouse populations are cyclical. It’s neat to see the 10-year cycle that’s traditionally observed reaching its peak.”

Midwestern ruffed grouse populations rise and fall at intervals of about 10 years, according to the Minnesota DNR. Drumming is a low sound produced by males as they beat their wings rapidly to signal the location of their territory. Drumming displays also attract females that are ready to begin nesting. Ruffed grouse populations are surveyed by counting male ruffed grouse heard drumming at regular stops along established routes. This year, 122 routes were surveyed across the state.

Kouffeld notes the drumming survey is a population index (a way of measuring the long-term population), not an annual census. Such indexes, she said, can have a lot of variability. “You can have observer error or weather conditions that make observation harder,” she said. “It’s impossible to census a forest bird like the ruffed grouse.”

According to the DNR, the 2017 survey results were 2.1 drums per stop statewide. The averages during 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 were 0.9 and 1.1 and 1.1 and 1.3, respectively. In the northeast survey region, which is the core of Minnesota’s grouse range, counts this spring were 2.5 drums per stop. Counts were 1.6 drums per stop in the northwest, .9 drums per stop in the central hardwoods and .8 per stop in the southeast. Statewide, drums per stop were as high as during the last peak in drumming in 2009 but have not yet reached previous peak levels in all regions.

While the overall increased drumming count is good news, Kouffeld said hunter fortunes rest in part on the spring hatch and brood survival. Cold, rainy weather can hurt chicks, she said. However, relatively warm weather in late spring and so far this summer bodes well for chick survival.

Minnesota’s ruffed grouse season opens Sept. 16.

Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer from Prior Lake. Reach him at torimccormick33@gmail.com