A brace of birds
Jedry theorized that some of the reason for the decrease in rock ptarmigan on the LaPoile barrens on the south coast may have been the arrival and expansion of the eastern coyote.
A cousin of the willow ptarmigan, the rock ptarmigan is limited in its range throughout the island to the highest, most rocky ridges and barren hills of the Long Range Mountains, Buchans Plateau, the Gaff Topsails and some sporadic areas along the south coast. The two species are hard to tell apart but the “ rockers” have a more pronounced gray brown chest and head than their cousin. It is also a little smaller than the willow and has a more slender bill. And, during winter “rockers” exhibit a black mark running from the bill to the eye.
In July, 2004, the rock ptarmigan made front page news when Queen’s University biology professor Bob Montgomerie released research suggesting the rock ptarmigan of Gros Morne Mountain was in danger of disappearing. Montgomerie stated the rock ptarmigan of Newfoundland was genetically distinct from all other rock populations due to its isolation and that this is the most southerly place the birds occur.
In an attempt to improve ptarmigan habitat, the Provincial Government conducted experimental prescribed burning on the Fairhaven barrens during the late 1980s.
Bi l l Power reported in The Telegram (December 1989) that the burning was begun in 1988, in an attempt to restore partridge habitat that had become overgrown by scrub foliage. In the first two years of the study a total of 660 hectares, or 6.6 square kilometers, were burned. The burning method was known as the aerial drip torch, in which a 45-gallon drum of gel suspended from a helicopter was drizzled over the area. Of course, while the area was being burned, it was closed to partridge hunting.
However, the five years of burning on Fairhaven ground apparently did little to improve partridge densities. According to the Communications Branch for the Department of Environment and Conservation,“One year after the burn there was no difference in ptarmigan densities in the experimental and control areas. Three years after burning, the number of breeding pairs on the burned area was only slightly greater than on the control area. The prescribed burning experiment did not substantially improve the breeding densities of willow ptarmigan.”
Avid partridge hunter Craig Piercey of Conception Bay South told me he used to take part in partridge counts in Fairhaven. Hunters would bring their setters and they would split up and cover different sections of the burn. As the dogs located birds, the gunless hunters would record the numbers of birds. Craig told me that it was mainly single birds and a few pairs he used to see. His opinion was that it didn’t hold a lot of partridge.
The Fairhaven Barrens were reopened to hunting for the fall 2010 season by Minister of the Environment and Conservation Charlene Johnson. It remains to be seen how hunters will fare this year.
Darrin McGrath is the author of eight books including The Newfoundland Coyote and Moose Country. He writes for magazines such as Outdoor Canada, Canadian Wildlife and American Beagler. He won a Gold Medal at the 2007 National Magazine Awards. Reach Darrinmcgrathdarrin@yahoo.camailto:mcgrat firstname.lastname@example.org,> , or leave a message at The Compass.