Throughout this spring and summer, I have been noticing the absence of ruffed grouse around here. In April usually the air is filled with the deep, mechanical sound of grouse drumming; this year I scarcely heard any. My coworkers joke about there being one grouse and one duck left in the county.
Not to worry now; they're back.
It is a phenomenon we have noticed in other years; as soon as the leaves are off the trees, we start seeing ruffed grouse on our 40 acres. I remember deer hunting one year, sitting perfectly still in a fallen tree as sunset approached, and counting at least five grouse in the nearby aspens, feeding on the buds.
Where are they for the rest of the year, and why do they seem to concentrate on our land in November? Perhaps it has something to do with the cover and warmth provided by the coniferous woods, with a food supply from aspens, alders, and various other shrubs close by. We have one kind of shrub I have not identified yet that has bright red, dry berries still clinging to the bare branches; maybe the grouse are eating those.
Ruffed grouse are usually stealthy birds; often their presence is not known until one flushes suddenly from the forest floor in a startling explosion of wingbeats. They stay away from the house and yard. They are unlike their northern cousin, the spruce grouse, which apparently is unfazed by human activity. Once when we were cross country skiing near Gunflint Lake on the Canada/Minnesota border, I skied right by a spruce grouse that was sitting eye level in a spruce tree. I turned around and went back to look; it just sat there, a few feet away. I skied back to tell The Hermit and our friends Jim and Cheryl, who then came up and took several close up photographs of the grouse. Perhaps this one was slightly amused by these strangely-dressed creatures with long, skinny feet.
This morning, however, I had a close encounter with a ruffed grouse right in the yard. I was walking back to the house from the composting toilet, a distance of about thirty feet, when I heard wingbeats and felt something fly just inches over my head. I looked up to see the brown tail feathers of a ruffed grouse that must have been roosting in the balsams nearby; it flew into the pines on the other side of the house.
That is just one of the many things that happen here that I will never take for granted.