Observing the sharptail shuffle

Brule, Wis. Light drizzle became large droplets on the pines,
then plopped on our camper roof. The temperature slowly, but
without hesitation, dropped throughout the night.

When we slung the door open in the morning, a brisk breeze told
us this would not be the optimum time to count sharp-tailed grouse
in northern Wisconsin.

Jim Evrard, fellow Wisconsin Outdoor News writer and retired DNR
wildlife researcher-turned wildlife research volunteer, and I had
set up camp at the Bois Brule Campground in the Brule River State
Forest.

Finding a campsite along the wild river wasn’t difficult we were
the only ones in the campground.

Though the wind howled and the clouds threatened snow at 4 a.m.
this late April day, we had male sharptails to count.

Jim’s a veteran of sharptails counts; I was a novice. But it
didn’t take long to catch on. For the most part, we drove down
meandering sandy roads, stopping occasionally, walking to the front
of the pickup truck, and listening for the “cooing,” gobbling or
other such vocalizations of male sharpies in love.

Wind makes the hearing aspect of sharptail surveys most
challenging. Furthermore, the birds favor days in which the sun
shows itself. I tend to agree.

Why the sharpie count?

Like many critters, sharptails used to perform their mating
ritual on dancing grounds, or leks, across the state. But habitat
destruction has left sharptails with very little preferred habitat.
In fact, the Wisconsin DNR says birds are found only on about a
dozen northern wildlife management areas and adjacent privately
owned lands, often wooded acreages owned by paper and lumber
companies.

Further limiting current sharptail numbers is the cyclical
nature of the bird. The DNR’s Keith Warnke says the population
peaks or bottoms out about every 10 years. Last year, hunters were
told the grouse were near the lower end of the cycle.

While the hunter harvest of sharptails was between 6,000 and
8,000 during most of the 1960s, the birds total population now is
fewer than 5,000, according to the DNR. And the harvest is quite
limited. In fact, in 1996, the season on sharptails was closed. It
reopened in 1997 with five hunting units and fewer than 700
available permits. Last year, only three units were open to
sharptail hunting, mostly in Burnett, Douglas, and Bayfield
counties. Just 630 permits were available in 2001. The season opens
later than most small game seasons to further protect sharptails.
Last year, the season ran Oct. 20 through Nov. 11.

Jim, also a member of the Wisconsin Sharp-tailed Grouse Society,
says the spring counts are what determines how many permits will be
available for a given management unit.

“Since the DNR never had enough money to do a statewide
sharptail survey and money is particularly limited now, volunteers
are recruited to help count birds,” he says.

The survey is a cooperative effort of the Sharp-tailed Grouse
Society, the DNR, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Great Lakes
Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Where you’ll find them

In the realm of upland game birds, prairie chickens prefer as
their name implies prairie. Spruce grouse, similarly, like wooded
lands.

Ruffed grouse and sharptails fall in between, with sharpies
leaning slightly toward prairie preference, according to Jim.

That’s why, on the wildlife areas that are managed for
sharptails, DNR managers undertake practices to make the habitat
sharpie-friendly, such as conducting controlled burns, mowing
areas, and treating overgrown segments of habitat with herbicide.
All of these promote prairie and limit forest vegetation.

For the past several years, counts have been taken on state
wildlife areas including Crex Meadows, Douglas County, Kimberly
Clark, Moquah Barrens, Namekagon Barrens, Pershing, Riley Lake, and
Wood County, as well as Dike 17 in central Wisconsin. In 1991, 362
dancing males were counted. That number dipped to 159 last year.
The high point was 1998 when 371 were counted. Crex Meadows in
Burnett County has consistently produced the greatest number of
surveyed dancing male sharpies.

Our sharptail count

The sky was just becoming light when Jim and I drove down our
first survey path through land owned by the Mosinee Paper Company.
We hadn’t driven far when we spotted an in-flight sharptail heading
northeast.

It was a good sign to start the morning. However, it wouldn’t
get much better. Hindered by the elements, we counted a total of
just five birds that morning along several miles of survey route in
Douglas County.

And we weren’t able to sneak up and observe the highly bizarre,
but extremely effective male mate-attracting actions, which,
besides an elaborate array of vocals, includes the equally
elaborate dance a series of tail rattling, jumping and “posing” for
the female.

A year ago, Jim counted seven birds at two locations in the same
area.

Happy returns

Jim returned to the Douglas County location a week later to
survey again.

“What a difference a week makes!” he reported. “I went back to
the census area last Friday morning (one week after our somewhat
dismal count) and counted flushed 26 sharptails in three leks.”

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