By Kurt Krueger
SPRING is second best of the four seasons in my book, a time marked by the return of migratory wildlife, pre-nesting rituals, warm breezes, open water and one of the scribbler’s favorites — drumming grouse.
It’s the slow transformation toward green-up after more than six months of bare trees and dying vegetation that invigorates the outdoor spirit. Mowing the lawn isn’t my favorite hobby, but it beats shoveling snow any day.
While it doesn’t match the beauty of fall colors or the excitement of the year’s peak fishing and hunting, spring means new life for plants and animals as the most impressive of nature’s cycles shifts into full gear.
The sounds of spring that really grab my attention are those first lonely wails from a common loon as they echo across the nighttime sky. The big birds were talking just before midnight Saturday, and the calls were loud because I don’t live on a lake.
The chattering call of a pair of kingfishers that were working a shoreline for fish caught my ear Sunday. The birds were doing their full-body dives for fish in a little bay that held two drake mallards. There was no springtime dueling, so I’m guessing that both were holding not too far from where hens were preparing nests for the weeks ahead.
With winds gusting to 40 mph and beyond, it was no surprise that three eagles were doing circles in the sky over the Eagle River Chain without ever flapping a wing. They were soaring so high that their sole purpose had to be recreation. Or maybe they do it just because they can.
There are few times of the year when wildlife are more active, but the activity of spring is generally dominated by wild chases associated with mating, nesting and territorial disputes — a rite of springtime.
Who hasn’t seen two drake mallards in classic pursuit of a hen, making laps around the lake and through the trees until one of them emerges the victor.
It is that type of chase that makes spring so exciting in the turkey woods, as dominant toms use their gobbles to demand the attention and companionship of the hens. Hunters will attest to the fact that tom turkeys often go on the offensive, searching out uncooperative “hens.”
And that brings me to the bird I fancy the most, the ruffed grouse, a true Wisconsin native. Unlike tom turkeys, male grouse strike out a territory and put on a somewhat stationary show in hopes of attracting multiple females for breeding.
Male grouse pick a favorite log, rock or hilltop with which to perform their ceremonial “drumming,” a low thump, thump, thump sound that starts slowly and ends with a traditional drumroll. Just like the gobbling tom turkey, a grouse’s drumming is intended to draw females.
And what a display they put on, cupping their wings and tossing them in front of their body to produce a percussion sound — a sound created strictly by short wing beats in front of the chest area. As each finishes its drumroll, it displays the black ruff surrounding its neck and fans its tail in hopeful expectation that a hen is near.
The beauty of drumming grouse is that they are somewhat predictable, meaning they can be located, watched and photographed by those who have the patience. But it will take a camouflage blind, because these birds have keen eyesight and are instinctively wary, even when drumming.
If you can locate a grouse log in an area not entirely cluttered with brush and trees, remember that you may have to arrive before dawn to beat the grouse there. And quite probably, you won’t have decent lighting for a photo until a couple of hours later.
I’ve heard it said before, and agree whole-heartedly, that the ruffed grouse would have been a better state bird for Wisconsin than the robin. Heck, the robin can’t even hack it here 12 months of the year.
Not that there’s anything wrong with snowbirds, it’s just that they hardly deserve the title of state bird when they spend half of the year in some other state. Even the small chickadee is a better candidate than the robin based on its hardy demeanor.
As much as I love spring, the shame of it is that we are still waiting for the accompanying weather to arrive this year. Five weeks of spring have already passed, according to the calendar, yet there were snow flurries in the air on the first day of May.
But cold weather hasn’t stopped the spring wildlife show, which is going strong within every forest, marsh and shoreline zone. And new life will emerge, in the weeks ahead, because of it.