Early this year I read a headline in the Duluth Tribune, “Volunteers needed to count spruce grouse poop.” Naturally, I was intrigued by this, and reached out to the contact person. I learned that the DNR was looking for folks train to walk transects and identify poop from ruffed grouse and spruce grouse. The data would then be used to track population trends over the next few years. The disclaimer was that the grouse usually like to live in dense areas of forest, so we could expect to be bushwhacking (eye protection required), and they want people to commit for three years (one day each year) of monitoring.
“What fun!” I thought. After all, who doesn’t want to go bushwhacking in the middle of nowhere looking for poop while not getting paid? It sounded like a great opportunity, so I sent back my preferences as far as location, eagerly awaiting my assignment.
Just like that, I was assigned a couple routes, up near Aurora/Hoyt lakes Minnesota. Now to make it to an initial training. Our spring this year was very challenging for this. Ideal grouse poop counting happens when there is some snow on the ground, for the pellets to be displayed on. However, if there is too much snow it makes it extra cumbersome to try to bushwhack (snowshoes won’t help much as a result of the density of the forest). If there is fresh snow, the pellets will be covered up so you won’t see them. If it is fluffy snow, they’ll pop through and you’ll have to search for the little holes they make. If there is no snow, it’s much more challenging to see the pellets at all. So, you can see, it is tricky to try to schedule a training day with a dozen people, when it is so weather dependent.
This spring we tended to get winter storms on the weekends. Two different times we were scheduled to have our training, but then it had to be cancelled last minute because of sideways driven snow. The third time was the charm, however, and we were able to meet with The Grouse Biologist of Minnesota (there is only one in her department) for our afternoon of training.
Part of the reason I sign up for opportunities such as this is because I am interested in seeing who else will be there. Who else will answer the call to count grouse poop?! My training group did not disappoint. In addition to me, the random younger solo person, we also had quite a few folks of the retirement age, and one family (mom, dad, and 10-ish year old son). Of this group, the family was my favorite, as they had so much fun with each other and it was uplifting to think that this young man is seeing that science is about discovery and not about memorizing a textbook.
The transects that we walk are standard: there is a gps point on a road, and you walk in a circle of radius 100 meters around it. The GPS units will tell you how far you are from a point, so as long as you keep the arrow pointing to one side or the other (I kept the point to my right, walking clockwise), hypothetically you will walk in a perfect circle if you keep the number at 100m. Naturally, this is easier said than done.
When I headed out on my own routes, I grossly (grouse-ly) underestimated how long it would take me, as an amateur, to complete this. I had planned to do my two routes, 10 transects, in one day. We were told that each one would take about a half an hour, so mathematically this would result in about 5 hours of transect walking, plus some drive time. When you do the math, a circle with a radius of 100 m would result in a circumference of 628 meters, less than ½ of a mile…so, how long can it take, truly? In my head, this added up to an adventure filled day, but just one of them.
In reality, I was much slower than this. I don’t know if it was me being challenged by my gps, somehow getting abnormally think forest to fight through, not having snow to spot the pellets on, or the added fun of navigating swampy areas that were no longer frozen (since our training was so late, it is SPRING now = things aren’t frozen anymore, and there is no snow). Regardless, the fastest time I had for a transect was toward the 45 minute mark, and that was when it was pretty open. The more challenging ones resulted in clambering over and under blowdowns and fighting through hazel and alder swamps (all while keeping a look out for poop, writing things down, and staying 100 m away from the point. Therefore, what I had planned to do in one day, I needed to split over two.
I found some magical places. Minnesota has such great diversity in forests, even within a small area. I found lands of sphagnum moss and Labrador tea plants (see featured image), stands of red pine, black spruce and tamarack swamps, and mixed deciduous, all with glacial erratics (big rocks) sprinkled through.
There was also So. Much. Pollen. Thanks to being out so late in the spring. The alders, hazel, maple, and willows all are in bloom, and I found myself wiping off the screen of the GPS frequently, as it would get covered by the dust of pollen grains. My sneezes echoed through the otherwise quiet forest.
I did find some grouse poop, as well as some other scat from mustelids (the weasel family), canines (maybe wolf), lagomorphs (rabbits…so much scat), and ungulates (deer). In addition to seeing a couple, ruffed grouse could be heard drumming through the woods. Drumming is when the males beat the sides of their bodies with their wings, making a deep thudding sound that is more felt than heard and is similar to the starting of a small motor. They do this to announce their territory in the spring time.
I am happy to have participated in this study (and to be locked in for the next two years) because it has allowed me to see some pieces of Minnesota that people rarely ever see – to take little snapshots of some of our public lands and consider how much happens out there that we never know about. In addition to the hilarity of trying to walk in a circle through the woods, I found places where I’m pretty sure that fairies live, nearly jumped out of my skin while flushing a grouse, and talked with a jolly family who had a 10 year-old driving the truck while on her grandpa’s lap.
An extra shout-out goes to Jen, who joined me on my second day of data collection for the fun and the post-collection nachos, who gets the award of “Awesome Friend of the Year.”