Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Grouse Hunting at Quabbin Reservoir
October 24, 2015
By Steve Grinley
A couple of weeks ago, Margo and I attended a wedding in Princeton, Massachusetts in the central part of the state. The ceremony was held in an apple orchard on what turned out to be a beautiful fall afternoon. Because the celebration continued into the evening, we planned to stay over and do some birding the next day around the nearby Quabbin Reservoir. We don’t get out to that part of the state often and we thought that an autumn day would be a perfect time to hike some trails and do some birding there.
Quabbin is surrounded woods, fields and marshes and wide trails that usually lead down to the water. The trails were once roads that led to the towns that were abandoned and eventually flooded to create the state’s largest reservoir. Each trail in is gated to prevent motorized vehicular use, and hunting is not permitted making it a safe place to walk in fall.
We did have one target bird in mind for our visit and that was a ruffed grouse. Grouse are often reported from the Quabbin area. Ten or fifteen years ago, we could hear, and sometimes see ruffed grouse along Pike’s Bridge Road in West Newbury. More recently, we could hear ruffed grouse drumming in the spring at Wompatuck State Park in Hingham, just south of Boston. Its drumming sounds like a basketball that had been dropped on a floor, speeding up at the end. It is a sound that almost resonates inside your ears, so you almost “feel it” as much as hear it. But it has been at least a couple of years since we have seen or heard a grouse in Massachusetts.
So we decided to start our Quabbin exploration at gate 41 near Petersham. We visited this gate last winter to see the gray jay (formerly Canada jay) that had been found there. We had remembered that there were a lot of fruit bearing shrubs along the trail, a good food source for grouse (and, I suppose, bears). In fact, there were several reports of grouse sightings from the scores of birders that visited the site during the few weeks that the jay was present. But we never saw one.
Immediately after walking through the gate, we were greeted by a small flock of yellow-rumped warblers that flitted about the trees, eating insects off the remaining leaves. A couple of ruby-crowned kinglets were among them. Song sparrows and white-throated sparrows scratched the ground among the fallen leaves and a swamp sparrow called from the edges of the brook below us and perched up briefly. Further down the trail were chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches and a golden-crowned kinglet. A turkey vulture soared high overhead while blue jays seemed to be everywhere, screaming a lot about nothing. No gray jay this year, and no ruffed grouse either.
Our next stop was at a gate a little south that was labeled 42 on the map, but not labeled at the gate, so we were never sure where exactly we were. Without cell coverage in the area, our map apps were useless. This trail was much less travelled, but we walked it anyway. Again we encountered white-breasted nuthatches, chickadees, blue jays and white-throated sparrows. There were many robins eating berries off trees. We found a brown creeper circling up some trees, a blackpoll warbler high in another tree, and two hermit thrushes fed along the trail in front of us. Overall it was pretty quiet and, again, no grouse.
Back to the car, we decided to head a little further north and found gate 37. More chickadees were along this trail, as well as both downy and hairy woodpeckers. A red-breasted nuthatch crept along the branches of a pine tree. We came across a beaver pond and counted seven wood duck swimming about. A belted kingfisher gave its rattle call in the distance and eventually flew over the pond – very nice!
It was getting to be later in the afternoon, and thought about heading back, but we continued on a little further. We found a pocket of warblers moving about the trees above us. There were several yellow-rumped warblers but also a pine warbler among them. One warbler with yellow below and a wagging tail turned out to be a palm warbler.
As we studied the warblers high in the trees, we heard a sound. It sounded like a basketball dropped on a floor and it resonated in our ears.
“Did you hear that?” I asked Margo. “I thought it was a truck.” She said. But we were nowhere near a highway. A few minutes later we heard it again. Definitely a ruffed grouse! We both smiled. A few minutes later it drummed a third time. I had never heard one in the fall, but there was no doubt.
The sound came from well within the woods. Still we walked up the trail a little way to see if we could get any nearer, but we stopped hearing it. We turned around and decided to leave, but as we passed the original spot, the grouse drummed again, as if to make sure that we really heard it! We smiled once again – and most of the way home!
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