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Bruce Mactavish: The thumper in the woods

A ruffed grouse performs a solo drumming performance from a secluded location in the woods using its wings to produce a deep thumping sound.
A ruffed grouse performs a solo drumming performance from a secluded location in the woods using its wings to produce a deep thumping sound. — Bruce Mactavish photo

Have you heard it? Maybe you were not sure if you heard it but you may have felt the low thumping resonating in your chest. The sound is for real.

It is the drumming of the ruffed grouse, one of the lowest sounds in the world of birds. From a secluded log or rock in the woods the male ruffed grouse takes a stand and drums to attract a female ruffed grouse into its world. The drumming starts slow with a series of single rapid wing beats building into a crescendo of whirling wings. The rapid movement of feathers through the air creates the thumping sound. It carries far through the thick woods but our ears sometimes miss it because the frequency is so very low.  

A ruffed grouse is a wild woodland chicken. Most people know about them or have seen one. And many of you even know how they taste for the ruffed grouse is a popular game bird. Grouse are quiet and retiring by nature. They are inconspicuous but can be viewed with a little luck and seen well with some patience, especially in the spring. After a winter diet of birch buds they are eager to seek out the first green shoots coming up in warm sunny places along the edges of the woods. The shoulders of the road are good places to find those choice succulent greens. This brings them out where we can see them without walking noisily through the woods giving them warning of our approach and time to slip away. Ruffed grouse are reasonably tame when not surprised. You can watch them at leisure if you take your time and keep your movements to a minimum.

Grouse are quiet and retiring by nature. They are inconspicuous but can be viewed with a little luck and seen well with some patience, especially in the spring.

Ruffed grouse however are not road smart. They are hit by cars in the spring time when they try to cross the road from one shoulder to the other. Males excited by the presence of a nearby female will toss away their fears and strut about in the open, with their tails fully fanned and black neck ruffs extended.

According to the number of people reporting encounters with ruffed grouse they must be in good numbers this spring. With some luck you may encounter one during a walk on a wooded trail or around the cabin. And with a whole lot of patience and a little luck you might be able to locate and witness a performance of the thumper in the woods

Spring migration

Spring migration flies during May. Avalanches of new birds arrive weekly. The most colourful gems of spring migration are the warblers. The yellow-rumped warblers and palm warblers have arrived, but we have to wait until the third week of May for the full force of warblers.

Strong southwest winds were responsible for two purple martins at St. Mary’s. These are the largest members of the swallow family in Canada and a rare sight in the province. Alison Mews and Ethel Dempsey found them as they fed low over the ponds behind the fish plant where some insects were flying.

Dave and Veda Hawkins found a pectoral sandpiper in a rain pool on a farm road in the Goulds. While relatively routine during fall migration it rarely travels through the province during spring migration to Arctic nesting grounds. It was a welcome spring novelty for birders from the St. John’s area.

Michelle Davis was pleasantly surprised to have an indigo bunting visit her St. Vincent’s bird feeder. The deep cobalt blue of the male indigo bunting is hardly imaginable on a small bird. A few indigo buntings show up in Newfoundland each spring. They have overshot their mark intending to have stopped somewhere in the northeastern United States. Similarly there have been a half-dozen reports of rose-breasted grosbeaks at bird feeders across Newfoundland and even one at Forteau, Labrador. The males are beautiful with their deep rose-red breast patch and black-and-white plumage. Typically these birds refuel for a few days before heading back south. They take full advantage of bird feeders if lucky enough to encounter one.

Bird feeding and frounce

Frounce is a parasite that attacks the throat of birds with fatal results. During the past two summers it has made an appearance among finches at bird feeders. To stop the spread of frounce a general command to stop feeding birds until the first heavy frosts of fall was adopted. As a preventative measure this year some people have already stopped feeding birds. Others are waiting to see if frounce will appear this summer before they stop feeding the birds. There are no rules. It is a tough decision.

The peak of spring migration is upon us. Enjoy it.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at wingingitone@yahoo.ca

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