Upland Bird Outlook, 1998
by Ed Mitchell
Upland bird nesting started under a pall of wet gloom this spring as El Nino played with our weather patterns but now it appears we will have
good days afield this fall for most species.
We started the year with as good a carry-over as we will ever see. Winter weather was wet but most of the precipitation in the best upland
bird areas came in the form of rain rather than snow and the temperatures were simply not a problem for the birds. Winterkill was about as close
to zilch as it can be. The 60 to 80 percent winter loss we expect among most upland species did not happen.
This is not because we donít have ducks in the northland. The great gouts of moisture did land too far south last winter to make the
Canadian duck factory ideal this spring but, overall, the nesting counts are good. The official numbers for the continent amount to about
84 million total ducks in the fall flight. This is off from the 92 million we talked about last fall but it is so many more than we had during the
last half of the 1970s and in all of the 1980s into the early 1990s that we should still be thrilled as kids who know Santaís on his way and we
havenít had a Christmas in years. We should be but, generally, we were not all that happy last fall when we had ducks but no duck weather
to bring them to us and there is reason for concern about our prospects for this season.
What I have been saying the previous two years will be true again, the country is lush and, without unusual weather during the hunting
seasons, we will have to hunt hard for these animals. They have feed anywhere they want to be, so they will probably remain scattered. And
when the country is belly-deep to a tall horse in vegetation, casual hunters will never know how many animals they are among but fail to see.
Thatís the good part. The bad part is that rains continued through May and most of June. Fluffy chicks last only a matter of hours once
they chill in wet weather.
We do raise quite a few of our own ducks, mostly mallards, so the early part of the season could be good. We could also have more
accommodating weather than we did last year and wind up with as good or better hunting anyway. How the wind blows plays as big a part
as total duck numbers in Idaho hunting success.
Not Good for Grouse
Early nesters including sage grouse and forest grouse lost most of their chicks in most places. Unlike pheasant, partridge or quail, sage grouse
usually give up for the year if their first attempts at rearing a brood fail. These big old native birds live a long time, compared to introduced
species, and seem to have a more ho-hum attitude to reproduction. The best we can hope for is to find some pockets where the weather did
not coincide with sage grouse chicks in the fluff. Forest grouse reproduction was probably spotty at best, but the survival from last year,
which was a year of excellent numbers, could help salvage prospects for these birds.
Pheasant, Quail and Partridge Should be Plentiful
Pheasants, partridge and quail prospects remained hard to judge through the early summer. Following my daily route and looking for bird
activity, I worried until about the beginning of August because I was not seeing young hatches. Since the first week of August, what Iíve
seen and heard from other anxious watchers indicates a late but strong hatch for these birds.
One factor often overlooked is bug life and its importance to upland game bird rearing. With heavy cover and spring moisture, this has
been about the buggiest summer I can remember. When insects are the sole source of food and protein in the first weeks of young birdsí
lives and the supply is so plentiful that they have only to turn their little heads to find a beakful, life is good. Most of the broods I have
seen are large and I think this is one reason for excellent survival.
(Note: A special pheasant Youth Hunt is scheduled this year.)
Some Need Time to Grow
Maturity may be a factor in the early fall. As of the first week in August, I was seeing some near-grown pheasant and some broods still
striped, fluffy peepers. In the last week of August, some young quail were hard to distinguish from their parents while other broods just
down the road reminded me of scurrying mice. Obviously, nesting took place all through the summer. Those of us who hunt quail early
will have to be choosy and wait until November for some coveys to grow up.
Chukar Numbers Look Good
The only more or less definite numbers come from the first Fish and Game flights to count chukar in the Hells Canyon of the Snake River
and at Lucky Peak above Boise.
Hells Canyon chukar are looking fine in the August 25 flight. 109.3 birds per square mile, up 17 percent from the long-term average and
48 percent from last year (which was a pretty fair year for chukar there). Around Lucky Peak, the birds were down 38 percent from last
year but still 11 percent over the average. The Bruneau River was not flown this year, apparently because Fish and Game cannot afford
the cost of helicopter time to do it all.
The outlook, from all observations so far, is that we should have a fine fall afield if we donít count sage and forest grouse. The report
on sharptails is encouraging, too.
Donít Stay Home This Fall
One caution: the weather guys who predicted the course of El Nino were close to the mark. If their forecast of a strong La Nina in the
Northwest is correct, we could be looking at the kind of winter that carries off most of the birds. Cancelling work and going out every
time we can is my recommendation. We cannot stockpile the surplus, so just tell the boss you will see him after the first of the new year.
You and that old hound dog need the exercise anyway.
STORMFAX: El Nino Weather and La Nina Years
Dog Training Rules
Idahoís Forest Grouse