Home on the plains

MARQUETTE – The Yellow Dog Plains encompasses a unique habitat as well as a unique bird. Now a Northern Michigan University student is studying the connections between the two.

Laurel Hill, a graduate student in NMU’s biology program, is working on her master’s thesis entitled “Changes in the Population and Habitat of Spruce Grouse on the Yellow Dog Plains.”

Hill was inspired by the late Bill Robinson, a renowned Northern Michigan University professor who researched the spruce grouse on the Yellow Dog Plains in the 1960s. Data collected on grouse occurrence and habitat composition was published in his book, “Fool Hen.”

“I was really interested in it, and I was really interested in birds, and after I looked into it, I found that nobody else followed up on it,” Hill said of Robinson’s study.

The Yellow Dog Plains are on a glacial outwash site, according to Hill, with sandy soils prevalent among the gravel and boulders dropped from glaciation. Most of the property is owned by the forest industry, with a satellite image showing a distinct checkerboard pattern from timber harvest. Jack pine forest, Hill noted, dominates the Plains.

In Michigan, spruce grouse are found almost exclusively in the Upper Peninsula, with the Yellow Dog Plains a favored area for the species.

Spruce grouse are hard to spot, but once they’re seen, a good, long look can be obtained.

“They depend on camouflage, so they kind of wait ’til the last minute to flush out, so you could just walk right by one and never see it,” Hill said.

However, they’re nicknamed “fool hen” for a reason.

“They’re really tame,” she said. “You can usually walk right up to it.”

That noted, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources website lists a description of the spruce grouse, which reads, “To see one in its natural habitat provides an enriching experience for anyone so lucky.”

The female could be considered less striking, being deep brown in colored with black barred feathers, while the male has black belly feathers and a red-colored skin above the back of the eye.

“They’re really fascinating because they have evolved such a specific niche, so they are capitalizing on this really poor quality food, pine needles, and they live in relatively harsh climate, so they’re a northern-distributed bird,” Hill said.

Hill recently was awarded a $500 Upper Peninsula Avian Research Grant from the Laughing Whitefish Audubon Society for her study. (She’s also received help from the Huron Mountain Wildlife Foundation.)

“It was probably the most pertinent project we had,” said Ann Joyal, LWAS secretary-treasurer.

In her LWAS proposal, Hill noted her research goal is to compare the changes in the spruce grouse population and habitat in relation to the cumulative habitat modifications over the last 40 years.

And there have been many, she said, such as the development of more road systems, the harvest of jack pine parcels and the establishment of a new nickel-copper mine, Eagle Mine, by the Lundin Mining Corp.

“Climate change is another factor,” Hill said. “That black spruce is moving northward.”

Hill said she will look at habitat use related to stand structure as well as topology. The sizes of forest fragments and how close they are to one another, she said, will be examined,

Hill will use simple bird observations and pellet counts as an index to habitat preference. She will walk north-south transects, designating plots by vegetation density.

If she had more time, Hill said she would band birds.

“I’d like to know if this population’s a genetically distinct population from other grouse, because they do have that deciduous ring around the Yellow Dog,” said Hill, who noted a hardwood forest mix surrounds the Plains.

Hill expects to finish her thesis in March or April 2015, with results submitted for presentation at the International Grouse Conference next year.

“With research like this, you can really tell what kind of stands we need to keep around,” Hill said. “And then also, possibly a management practice that protects Kirtland’s warbler and spruce grouse. They use the same forest, just different ages.”

Whatever the results, Hill has the benefit of watching the spruce grouse in a very scenic environment.

“I never, ever get sick of seeing them,” she said.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.