Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Minnesota Northwoods trail heads through ruffed grouse country

A male ruffed grouse performs its mating ritual.
Photo courtesy of  Minnesota DNR/

Mid-spring marks good
time to see game bird's
courtship displays


Day hikers can witness the ruffed grouse’s unique mating dance on Minnesota’s Jenkins Creek Hunter/Hiking Trail.

The 4.5-mile trail (one-way) rambles through aspen groves of various ages in the Superior National Forest. Only a segment of the trail need be walked to spot grouse, however; the segment described here is a 0.85-mile loop.

To reach the Jenkins Creek Hunter/Hiking Trail, from Hoyt Lakes take County Road 110 east for 13 miles. Turn east onto County 16/Forest Road 11. The parking lot is in a half mile. At the trailhead, choose the farthest trail on the right, which initially heads east before turning north.

The landscape surrounding the trail is ideal for ruffed grouse and other birds. Small timber harvests spread out over the years allow various ages of aspen to flourish, giving the birds good cover and sources of food. Grouse particularly like the catkins of alder, ash, aspen, birch and hazel trees.

After 0.4 miles, the trail reaches Junction 1. Go left/northeast onto a connector trail.

April mating rituals
Ruffed grouse are not particularly large, weighing only about 1.5 pounds and reaching a length of about 12 inches. During courtship, however, they’re quite easy to spot. Most noticeable are the banded fan-shaped tails. The males also sport a concealed neck ruff that they will display.

After only a few minutes of walking, the connector trail reaches Junction 2. Go left/southwest onto it.

A dry warm day in late April is a good time to hike the trail as the male ruffed grouse make a drumming sound as part of the mating ritual. This sound is created by compressing air beneath the wings. Many of the males drum atop a log, roots and even boulders, all to better attract a female’s attention.

The trail soon reaches a four-way intersection. Going right/northwest takes you on a spur trail. Going left/southeast takes you to the parking lot and cuts 0.15 miles off the hike. Continue going straight/southwest, however.

Extending the trail
Once mates pair up, hens construct ground nests, usually in a depression near a tree trunk or stump. Hatching typically occurs in mid- to late-May. Within four months, the chicks are fully grown.

After 0.4 miles, the trail reaches the parking lot. You can extend the trail by not taking the connector and instead continuing to Junction 3, where you go left/southwest. This adds 0.6 miles to the hike for a 1.45-mile loop.

Hiking boots definitely are required for much of the trail, which offers lots of rough footing.

The Ruffed Grouse Society, Northwoods Sportman’s Club, and U.S. Forest Service jointly developed the trail.

Read more about day hiking Northeast Minnesota in my Headin’ to the Cabin: Day Hiking Trails of Northeast Minnesota guidebook.