If there’s a quintessential outdoor experience, walking Ontario’s uplands on a crisp autumn day might be it. A bird hunter would be hard pressed to find a place filled with more beauty, diversity or promise. Depending on location, a hunter could flush ruffed, spruce, or sharp-tailed grouse, or Hungarian (Gray) partridge, pheasant, woodcock, snipe, or ptarmigan.
Upland gunning is steeped in tradition, at its best in the company of an eager dog, a favourite shotgun, and likeminded companions. In Ontario, though, it can also be a solitary trek along endless logging trails that meander past beaver meadows, evergreens, birch, aspens and sumac. It could be the surprise rise and whir of a woodcock at your feet, or the expected, yet still startling, flight of a ruffed grouse from under the nose of a seasoned dog. A day afield might take a hunter through the stillness of a spruce stand or the nostalgia of an abandoned farmstead. For the truly adventurous, it might even be a walk beyond the treeline for ptarmigan.
A fast-pointing open-choked shotgun in 12 or 20 gauge loaded with No. 7 shot is a good bet to bring these prized birds of autumn to hand. There’s little room or time to swing in the thickets and birches. Sometimes falling leaves and the whine of a disappointed gun dog are all there is to show from an encounter. Other times, there’s fine table fare and the recollection of everything done just right.
In general, upland birds are dwellers of second-growth woods. Living in dense thickets adjacent to fields, burns or meadows, they’re never far from a thick, dark coniferous stand, or a tangle of alders, and are always close to food. Find places such as these and birds won’t be far away. The crop contents of the day’s first bird will provide a hint of where to find more. Upland game birds key in on specific food and habitat. So should you.
When flushed, upland birds often rise almost within reach, from total camouflage, in a flight that gains altitude quickly, levels off, and heads straight away. In open fields, hunters can be misled. These birds are quicker than you first think.