Ruffed grouse are escape artists. Their survival depends on a short flight to safety for the ground-dwelling bird. The black spruce swamp provides edge cover and an easy escape from predators like you and me. Hunt those edges, and you may get a shot at a wild bird in one of the truly wild places.
A Unique Ecosystem
Three species of conifer in particular occur in swamps in Minnesota: tamarack(Larix laricina), black spruce and white cedar(Thuja occidentalis). They sometimes occur in pure stands, but more often are intermixed.
All three conifer species are normally found in saturated, acidic, peat soil, often with Sphagnum moss. They also do well in wet loamy or sandy soil.
Ruffed grouse may not live in the swamp, but they are often nearby. Where an upland forest meets the conifer swamp, a grouse can escape any predator by flying into the swamp. What’s going to follow them in there?
An Edge for Grouse
In the hot, dry days of early season I find ruffed grouse near water. The conifer swamp is a cool, shady refuge from the sunny uplands in September. As Gordon Gullion says in Managing Northern Forests for Wildlife:
…there is some benefit to hunters in having small stands of pines, spruce or hemlock scattered through grouse habitat. Young grouse favor these stands during the fall and winter and this cover provides a focal point for the grouse hunter.
One of the Wild Places
Pull on your best waterproof boots and take a walk in the black spruce swamp sometime. It’s one of the truly quiet, wild places you find far from the roads in Northern Minnesota. The damp and mossy ground silences your footfalls. Dense and needle-laden limbs of the spruce block the wind and muffle the world around you. Rare orchids grow in the moss at your feet. You might see nutcrackers and gray jays (commonly called Canadian Jays or Camp Robbers) caching their food in spruce bark.
During winter, snowmobile trails often run through frozen conifer swamps, offering your best opportunity to really see the larger landscape of the swamp pines.
Hunting the Conifer Swamps
I often push the edges of conifer swamps in early season, and then again in late season. If you catch a glimpse of a flushing grouse, better be ready. A smart old bird knows the swamp is a refuge you aren’t likely to follow him into.
By Joel Schnell
Posted April 18, 2017.
Joel Schnell is publisher of www.ruffedgrouseminnesota.com
He can be reached at info[at]ruffedgrouseminnesota.com