Late Season Upland Birds

My Lab, Kiri, sniffing the brush for grouse scent.

The aspens are quiet now, and it was a rare early winter treat to be able to take a walk through the aspens, last week, in search of ruffed grouse.

I hadn’t been in the thickets since the last day of October, after we got slammed with heavy snow in the first days of November. Over the years I’ve done lots of grouse hunting in the snow but I’ve made a concession to age, and now I stay out of the woods when they’re covered with snow. A blanket of snow hides all sorts of traps and pitfalls and I’d just as soon avoid a nasty fall.

For better or worse, the mild weather of late November melted most of the snow in the lower elevation aspens, and a walk in the grouse woods on a cold, sunny afternoon was a welcome diversion from sitting in front of a computer.

When the elk and deer seasons ended on November 26, some people sighed with relief or disappointment and put their guns away for another year.  There are others, like me, who grab shotguns and head for the hills, also feeling a bit of relief because we can hunt grouse without worrying about some over-anxious fool taking a shot at us or our bird dog.

For the most part, I rarely see other hunters in the aspen thickets where I search for grouse. The big game season is an exception, because it puts a lot of people in the hills. A rare exception was some years ago when I’d just finished a walk for grouse and another guy with a bird dog was just getting ready to walk in. The deer and elk season was on and, incredibly, he was wearing a brown vest and no hunter orange. I assume he survived his walk, because I didn’t hear any reports of a grouse hunter or his dog getting shot.

As I went in the forest, there were footprints in the remaining snow patches, indicating that even if people hadn’t been grouse hunting, there had been lots of hunters out. Curiously, in spots the footprints were ice prints. Snow that had been compressed by a hunter walking across a meadow had turned to ice, while the snow around it had melted.

Unfortunately, on this walk my black Lab, Kiri, didn’t find any grouse scent in the brushy thickets and we finished our circle through the trees and brush without flushing any grouse.

The afternoon wasn’t a total loss. There is a sparkling spring on the mountainside that nourishes a bountiful crop of watercress in all seasons. I’d brought a plastic bag along just for the walk. Grouse are always an iffy proposition, but a watercress salad with dinner was a sure thing.

A secluded mountainside spring and the makings of a watercress salad.

Montana’s upland bird season runs through New Year’s Day, so there is still time to get out with a shotgun and go for a walk in search of game. The waterfowl season goes well into January, though it’s always a good idea to read the regulations because there are different closing dates, depending on whether you’re hunting ducks or geese, and what part of the state you’re in.

There is always the intriguing possibility of flushing pheasants while hunting ducks, so stay alert for surprises.

I got this pheasant last week while hunting ducks. The ducks outsmarted me, though.

Sometimes, the surprise is that we go for a walk in the woods and not find any birds. That’s when we get philosophical and repeat the old gag, “That’s why we call it hunting and not shooting.” Still, whether we finish the walk with or without a heavy vest, we will have had a healthy walk in Montana’s great outdoors, and that’s never bad, and a bird dog that’s had a few hours of exercise is a happy and peaceful dog.

Montana’s upland bird season is a long one, going from the first day of September through New Year’s Day, and from the heat of late summer to the bitter cold of winter.

To truly appreciate those glorious days of October, we need to sweat in September and shiver in December.

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