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Behaviour

Our house is oriented to face due south. The deck is open, but covered, so it’s more like an open porch.  Built into an old sandpit on a hillside the deck is about 3m from the ground, which slopes down to the pond, which the house overlooks. The best view the house offers is from the deck. From the deck, you get to see a lot that goes on in and around the pond.

But if you are inside the house, you still get to see stuff when you are looking out a window.

This year, one thing we have watched happen from the deck and through the windows of the house is game bird production. Mostly high numbers of chicks hatched, but also mostly poor success in keeping a brood together and alive.

There were many different species of waterfowl that hatched out a clutch of chicks that we saw on the pond, from the house, during their first days of life. We’ve seen a brood of grebes, wood ducks, hooded mergansers, mallards and Canada geese. There was a single brood from each of those species; the young mallard ducklings showed up most recently, so maybe the hatching season isn’t over yet, but I think it’s getting late in the breeding season. There was a pair of green-winged teal on the pond for weeks early in the season, but we never saw them with chicks and the adults are now elsewhere. Ring-necks hung around for a while, but although they, like the teal, have nested here in the past, we don’t think they tried nesting here this year.

We’ve also seen a little flock of ruffed grouse scurry by the front of the deck a couple of times.

We have counted close to 40 young, all broods and species (ducks and grouse) combined. Quite a few, I think.

But from there, it seems to have been a downhill slide for chick survival. All the Canada geese goslings are dead. One of the young grebes appears to have disappeared.  Lately, we have seen only two of the hooded merganser ducklings with their mom – the brood started out with 11. We haven’t seen the wood ducks for many days now; there were a couple of orphans on the pond for a couple of days, but those too have now disappeared.  We think the mallards are still more or less intact. The grouse brood was small the both times we saw them.

It made me think about how what happens at the micro level, may or may not reflect what goes on at the macro level. Or vice versa. What we’ve observed is moderate to good hatching success for some, but apparently not too stellar when it comes to survival.

What we saw in and around our pond – the outlook from the house – was a good lesson in how dramatic the result at the macro level could be. If survival on ponds like ours is similar over a wide area, then the fall outlook for game birds might be grim. On the other hand, if hatching success was similar, but survival was better than on our pond, then the game bird outlook for this fall could be quite rosy.  Or, results could be .  . . mixed.

Of note is that during some forest travelling, I have been seeing quite a few ruffed grouse broods. But the number of chicks in all the flocks I’ve seen is on the small side. But a lot of small flocks could still mean a good fall hunt for ruffies. That’s where I’m leaning, as there did seem to be good numbers of adult grouse this spring, and I did hear a lot of drumming.

In the meantime, it’s time to do a bit of fishing and concentrate on berry picking. Around the house, the Saskatoons, blueberries and raspberries are quite good, right now. It is also looking good for choke cherries, which have just started to ripen. It doesn’t look like there’s going to be a bumper crop of pin cherries or Canada plums, which, like the choke cherries, are only beginning to ripen.

Further afield, the wild berry crop looks to be . .  . mixed.

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Wolves come in a wide variety of sizes and colours.

I’m back to posting on my blog . . . .I hope to post regularly, but also likely infrequently.

Blogging is, or can be, hard work. Still, I’m doing it because it can provide a forum for ideas that hopefully helps more than just me in understanding events that are of concern to a lot of us. Certainly, I am a follower of several blogs and I get some very interesting and useful information from them.

At any rate, the reason(s) I’m going to try this (blogging) again is that I can’t help but be astounded at some of the going-ons in wildlife world. Wolf management, for example.

Let’s look at that one. It’s appropriate, I think, especially given that I’ve always had a photo of a wolf as the ‘signature’ of my blog.

I have used a wolf photo, in part, because wolves evoke a wide range of thoughts and ideas amongst anyone with an interest in wild things. It’s been that way for a long time – as the song says, “it’s been that way since the get-go.”

Historically, wolves were believed to be ‘bad’ by the majority of people, at least in Europe (those North American ‘colonizers’) and getting rid of wolves was ‘good’. It’s not hard to see how those ideas came to be, considering rural folk in Europe, for hundreds and even thousands of years, were mostly poor, didn’t have guns and were often reliant on a farming existence that was quite fragile. Wolves killed and ate livestock and back in those days, probably killed and ate more than a few people. So it made a lot of sense to try and get rid of wolves; which they did, eventually.

While this was going-on, Europeans began colonizing North America, bringing along with them their ideas about what to do about wolves (get rid of them).

Which, again, they did; much of what became the lower 48 along with large swaths of southern Canada became wolf-free zones.

But there were still a lot of wolves in the world and the wolf did not go extinct.

In Eurasia, large numbers of wolves continued to persist, particularly in Russia; in Canada and Alaska, wolves have always ranged far and wide.

With wolves gone across large landscapes, but still abundant elsewhere, the ‘let’s get rid of all the wolves’ meme lost pre-eminence.

It was replaced by the ‘we like wolves a lot!’ meme.

One outcome was a re-classification of the wolf. In the minds of both the public and government, the wolf changed from being a lowly varmint to the more lofty status of a noble game animal. To provide them with love and protection, wolves, in places, were put on endangered species lists, which brought with it money and the implementation of many a wolf recovery program.

Largely a result of the new meme, wolves today are more widespread and abundant than they have been in over a hundred years.

They’re back with a vengeance in the western mountains of the US, much of the mid-western forests and are occasionally reported in New England.  Of course, there still abundant over much of Canada and Alaska.

And coyotes are almost everywhere outside the tundra. Then there are wolves that people don’t really know how to classify except to say they’re some sort of wolf . . . Newfoundland, once free of all wild canids, now has coyotes and . . .some other canids.

Over in Europe, wolves have also been on the path to recovery. Hiking their way across and out of Poland, wolves have successfully recolonized Germany, to the point where there is now a growing rumbling that wolf numbers are getting out of control. In late 2017, there were estimated to be 60 packs of wolves in Germany, 13 more than the year before. The total number of wolves is officially estimated to be 150-160, although unofficial estimates say there is more than twice that number. Wolves are also showing up in other European countries, including France and Spain.

With many landscapes now occupied (infested?) with wolves, I think it’s time to move away from ‘we like wolves a lot!’

Unfortunately, that meme is not yet dead, although it has been wounded.

For example, the old mantra that wolves only kill the very old, the very young, the sick and the injured has been thoroughly de-bunked.

Wolves will try and catch and kill and eat whatever they can.

In the mountains of northern Idaho and southern British Columbia, the South Selkirk herd of caribou is down to three animals. What’s the main culprit behind their disappearance, despite decades of effort at maintaining and increasing their numbers?  Wolf predation. Even though it is astounding that wolf culls were actually attempted, they weren’t successful in getting rid of the wolves there (maybe it’s a lost art) and so the wolves have been catching, killing and eating all the caribou.

In Canada’s Pukaskwa National Park on the northern shore of Lake Superior, the wolves finally caught and killed and ate every last caribou a few years ago.

This past winter, Ontario did an emergency capture and transfer of caribou off Michipicoten Island. This was done because it was feared wolves there were going to catch and kill and eat all the caribou on the island.

So it’s clear that wolves can drive herds of ungulates, at least locally, to extinction.

It’s also become clear that in addition to killing them all, wolves are capable of killing enough to reduce populations to low levels and then keep them there. It’s called a predator pit – after falling in, there’s no way out. It’s been observed with respect to white-tailed deer in the northern forests of Minnesota and a number of small, scattered herds of woodland caribou wherever they occur.

That’s proof of the pudding that there is no ‘balance’ of nature. Nature is never ‘in balance’. There is a constant struggle for survival that goes on and in the end, most species actually lose out. There are vastly more species that have gone extinct than survive today. And the vast majority of extinctions have had nothing to do with, to use a phrase, humankind.

So knowing what we now know, I think it’s time to get rid of and replace ‘we like wolves a lot!’ with something a bit more reasonable. A lot of people are thinking along those lines.

Something is needed that will result in changes to the present, often absurd, over-protection of wolves way of doing things.

Like here in Ontario, where moose populations have been in decline for years despite severe and increasing restrictions on hunting. The answer seems to be to give wolves even more protection.

Now there’s a proposal in the works to ban wolf harvest completely from a huge swath in the south-central part of the province to protect the ‘eastern’ wolf, something that, with some half-hearted scrutiny, can be shown to be completely bogus, as there is no such animal. The ‘eastern’ wolf, described in part as a rather smallish wolf, occurs sympatrically with gray (timber) wolves. The wolves breed indiscriminately with one another and produce viable offspring of various size and colour. Biology 101 says that makes them the same species. But when you’re hitched to the ‘we like wolves a lot!’ bandwagon, you don’t let sound science get in your way.

It’s worth noting that scientists in the USA, who have analyzed the data, don’t recognize the eastern wolf as a separate species of wolf. They are more along the lines of wolves being Canis soup.

Over in Germany, wolves are still provided with complete protection. With numbers rapidly expanding, there are dire consequences to wild herds of deer and livestock being predicted.

Fighting over how to manage wolves in the US continue to escalate; in some areas,elk herds are taking a pounding from high wolf predation.

With all these conflicts, one would think that reasonable compromises regarding wolf management could be found, but none appear to be anywhere, at least not on the immediate horizon.

So despite all the evidence that shows there is absolutely no doubt that there can be too many wolves and that managing wolves using sound wildlife management  should be a no-brainer, the ‘we like wolves a lot!’ continues to rule the day. It can’t last . . .

Meanwhile, over on Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, the wolf population – which arrived naturally – is down to a single animal. The Isle, which got rid of all the wolves naturally, pushed the US Parks Service to produce plans to re-introduce 20-30 wolves to the island over the next three years at a cost of about 2 million dollars.

I really think it’s time to change that meme.

Well, that’s my back to blogging post. Hope you enjoyed it.

deer-53

Lil and I applied for a moose tag the other day. The chances of getting a tag look slim. In Kenora District, where we live, the 3 WMUs have a combined quota of 3 bull moose, one for each WMU. There are more tags to the east, but because of that – and it isn’t like there are a whole bunch of tags – the demand still far outstrips the supply.

It still seems weird to me that only 1 bull tag (no cow tags) is allocated in those WMU’s, but there is a two week calf season with no quota on the number of calves hunters can take. And 1 tag sounds fishy to me. Even if the population was only 10 moose, taking 1 bull would still allow the population to grow, and I know, and the MNRF knows, there’s more than 100 moose in WMU 6.

Of course, Aboriginals, including Métis, have no seasons or limits on moose, or anything else for that matter. So licensed hunters are the ones that suffer, and it may not do the moose population any good, depending on what happens with the native harvest. It’s no way to manage wildlife.

It also seems to contradict our Prime Minister, who proudly says “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian”.  Err, not really, not when it comes to rights and freedoms, which is what that mantra is supposedly all about.

Oh well, not much I can do about that. Sadly, the number of people who want to address the issue is small in this country. Someday it’s going to be a big issue and resolving it won’t be pretty.

Meanwhile, Lil and I have been entertained by the ducks in the beaver pond out front of the house. Most days there are buffleheads, ring-necks, mallards, green-winged teal, wood ducks and hooded mergansers there, in addition to a pair of nesting Canada geese. No sign of the blue-winged teal yet. And the only shore birds I’ve seen are a solitary sandpiper and a couple of common snipe (and we’ve heard, of course, a number of peenting woodcock). But it’s early yet, so we’re sure to see some other species in the weeks to come.

A peregrine took a run at the pigeons that frequent the yard the other day, but didn’t appear to get one.

Oh, and the timber wolves are still around.

Lil was outside when the dogs started barking like craze, so she walked down to the end of the driveway – less than 100 meters – and saw some fresh wolf tracks on the road. Soon, the dogs were barking like crazy again, and when she checked, saw another set of wolf tracks. That’s when she called me to have a look.

We went out to the road and were looking at the tracks and it seemed they had been chasing a deer. I looked up and exclaimed –“There’s a wolf now!” It crossed the hydro line and walked out on the road, and then another one came out on the road a bit behind. They didn’t seem to be bothered by us; ambling off slowly when we yelled at them.

A couple of days later some deer showed up and one had a huge patch of fur missing off its side with noticeable scabbing. We thought the wolves would get it that night, but it’s been around for several days now. Some of the deer that were almost daily visitors during the winter months have disappeared, though. Of course, that doesn’t mean the wolves got them – they could just be dispersed since it’s almost fawning time.

Still no sign of moose.

cards-16

Spring is in the air. Yesterday was a very nice, late winter’s day (actually, the 1st day of spring), although by evening the wind was howling, the temperature was plummeting and snowflakes were being blown around. But earlier, it had been a nice day.

It’s been a weird winter. For the first time since I’ve lived here – over 35 years – most of the winter saw the snow with a hard crust, the kind you can walk on. In fact, I’ve looked at snow records for this area that go back to 1955 and see no indication of a winter with similar snow conditions.

I don’t know how that’s going to play out for the local wildlife, but I’m inclined to think not too badly. During our daily walks with our dogs, we are regularly seeing snowshoe hares, ruffed grouse and deer. On the other hand, there aren’t near as many hares as there were earlier, a testament I’m sure to the hunting success of the lynx, marten and fox, the tracks of which we regularly encounter, but seldom see.

And while there remains a small herd of about 7 deer on our property, we note they are regularly harassed by wolves. We haven’t seen any wolves of late, but every few days their tracks show us they are still nearby. Neighbors have told us the wolves have killed at least a few deer in the past weeks near them. It’s a concern that in our drives away from town, we see few – very few – deer tracks. No signs of moose at all.

With so little big game, it’s hard to see that wolves didn’t suffer. Wolves can’t thrive on a diet of mice and hares. Research has shown that each wolf needs about one adult deer every 20 days over the course of winter just to survive. But wolves are, if anything, survivalists. I admit I’m amazed there are as many wolves as there are. When the deer population crashed four winters ago, I would have thought the wolf population would have followed suit no more than a year or two later.  Still, it’s only a matter of time.

Despite the recent melting, there’s still a covering of snow on the ground and it’s still dense enough to support one’s weight. Like I said, yesterday was nice; it was sunny for most of the day and the temperature got to about +80 C.  Last night it dipped to -150 C and isn’t supposed to get above the melting point again for another couple of days.  There’s a lot of ice on the local lakes – more than two feet on the lake where Lil and I went fishing yesterday, so ice-free days are still off a bit (yes, we did catch some fish. Tasty speckled trout, as a matter of fact).

On a gloomy note, I received a report last week on the state of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in North America, the prion, brain-wasting disease now found across wide swaths of North America that’s killing off white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and even moose. CWD continues to spread and once established in an area, seems to be impossible to eliminate. Once an animal is infected, death always follows. Some of the models being used to predict the outcome of this plague suggest that local, perhaps widespread extinctions are possible, if not probable.

What a mess.

Oh well, it’s spring! No time to get depressed. Plenty of time for that later.

swallows-23

A barn swallow, not near a barn.

I’m a hunter. I spend a lot of time thinking about hunting. I think I’m from the old school of wildlifers who went to the wildlife management profession because I was and still am a hunter. There are still some of us around.

I recall learning that managing wildlife and hunting was a close tie because in general, the people who were most passionate about wildlife were hunters. If you didn’t hunt, there were better things to do than spend a career trying to manage wildlife.

The reason the people who were managing wildlife in the early days – and for a long time afterwards – is rooted in history. Lots of people knew there was a wanton slaughter of wildlife going on, but it wasn’t going to stop until hunters themselves put a stop to it. And that’s what happened.

Hunters demanded new rules and regulations, because they knew hunting was a problem.

Over time, the management of wildlife became increasingly complex. But for a long time, the focus was the management of game animals and hunters. And most Provinces and States maintained Game Departments.

Some of the first changes began a few decades ago when Game Departments started to see themselves merged with other departments or agencies with environmental responsibilities.

Once that happened, the tide turned away from hunting, hunters and game.

Hunting, though, is still a problem.

And it’s not getting the attention it needs, in part because hunters don’t have near the clout they used to have in government wildlife management circles.

The focus today is on non-game species, often species identified as a ‘species at risk’ (which suggests that unless something is done, that species could become extinct . . . go the way of the Dodo).

These days, the majority of employees in wildlife management agencies are non-hunters and many studied non-game species during their formal studies in college and university.

A consequence of having a lot of people involved in non-game management – and a lot of interest to be involved in that field – is it creates pressure for non-game departments to grow and expand their budget. That’s just the way government works.

There can be consequences. One that many of my colleagues and I see is a growing trend to identify and categorize more and more species as being ‘at risk’, even if they really aren’t.

Let’s look at the barn swallow as an example as to the point I’m trying to make.

To start, guess where barn swallows nest?

Barns! However, the kind of barns barn swallows like – big and airy with haylofts – no longer dot the countryside. They’ve been falling down for years and aren’t being replaced. Fewer barns, fewer barn swallows.

But barn swallows don’t just nest in barns – before the days of barns, they had to have been nesting in other places.

The fact is, there still are a lot of barn swallows nesting and flying around the countryside. Just not as many as there were back when barns were common..

But because the decline – in some places – was large and is still on-going, the powers that be have decided there must be a problem. In Ontario, the barn swallow is listed as being threatened with extinction. COSEWIC, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, also lists it as Threatened.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, though, one of the most prestigious institutions in North America in bird studies, says this about the barn swallow:

“The Barn Swallow is the most abundant and widely distributed swallow species in the world. It breeds throughout the Northern Hemisphere and winters in much of the Southern Hemisphere.”

Here’s the link. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/barn_swallow/lifehistory

As a species, the barn swallow is in no danger of extinction. True, its numbers are down – maybe precipitously in some places – but is the species really in trouble? It’s the “most abundant and widely distributed swallow species in the world”.

Lots of money is being spent on barn swallows, wood turtles, whip-poor-wills and many, many more non-game species. A lot of that is a ‘good thing’. But it’s not all good.

These non-game species programs cost a lot of money. Managing game costs money too, but game management also generates a lot of money. Lots. There’s not much money to be made managing barn swallows.

If we did a better job of managing game animals, there’d be more money for all sorts of wildlife management. But managing wildlife, in large part for hunters, isn’t ‘cool’. It’s ‘icky’.

There’s no doubt in my mind game species and hunters are too often getting the short shrift.

Hunters and not a small number of non-hunters, know this isn’t right, but don’t know what to do.

Better game management makes economic, environmental and social sense.

In many areas it even has the potential to improve race relations.

It’s just the right thing to do.

ruffies-2

A New Year is upon us and my best to all.

Here in Northwestern Ontario, we had a very mild fall, up to December, when winter finally came. We now have close to 50 cm of snow on the ground and the temperature has been in the – 20 0C range for much of the past month, including today. No – 400 s, though, which can occur, and is something I really don’t like. Things just start not working and worse, start breaking, at that temperature.

The whitetail deer does around the house are still able to walk around in the snow without too much difficulty. The snow is not quite to their bellies, is light and there is no crust. The deer went into winter in good condition – courtesy of that mild autumn – and barring another big dump of snow soon – as well as a normal ‘end’ to winter around the first of April, should get through OK. A rule of thumb is 50 days of 50 cm of snow and there will be significant deer mortality. Not quite there yet and what is there can be expected to settle several centimeters over the next few days. No major snowfalls forecast for the immediate future.

The wolves have not been around for several days. However, where we went ice fishing for lake trout on New Year’s Day, we saw that there had been 4 or 5 of them out on the ice the previous night.  Given where we were fishing isn’t all that far from home as the crow flies, that’s where the missing wolves might be. With deer numbers way down from previous years, this could be the winter that finally brings wolf numbers down, too.

It’s interesting that once the snow comes, the ruffed grouse seem to almost disappear. I suspect they feed voraciously on buds in tree tops (such as white birch) at dawn or dusk, fill up their crops and then spend days roosting in either the snow or thick conifers, until their food source is exhausted. Then the cycle is repeated. I recall one winter seeing where a grouse had plunged into the snow and stayed there for several days (I saw the plunge hole and recognized it for what it was). By week’s end, I thought maybe it had perished, but when I went to check, the bird burst out of the snow at my feet, startling me, of course, as they are wont to do.

It looks right now that most of Canada is experiencing cold and snow. Even Lala land in Vancouver, British Columbia, has snow and ice on the ground. Many Vancouverites are ill prepared for snow and cold and many don’t even own a snow shovel. I’m sure the carbon tax will help people cope.

There is no getting around the fact that winter is hard on wildlife. Of course, some species are adapted to it, but in areas with regular, harsh winters, the abundance and diversity of species is a pale shadow of what thrives in warmer climes. The winter of 2013-14 in much of the country, including where I live, was horrendously long, cold and snowy, and wreaked havoc on the local deer population. It didn’t do our struggling, reintroduced elk population any favours either. Pat Karns, a former and now departed wildlife biologist in Minnesota, once wrote a paper ‘Winter: the Grim Reaper’, outlining how winter, more than any other factor, was responsible for deer dynamics on northern ranges.

It’s a classic and a ‘must read’ for wildlife biologists and nature enthusiasts alike.

The hunting season, for white-tailed deer and grouse, in my area ended ½ hr after sunset yesterday (correction:grouse season is still open; it now closes at the end of December. But I have never hunted past Dec 15, which is when the season used to close.)

It was a rather uneventful day. I didn’t go hunting and hadn’t been for several days. For the second straight year I didn’t harvest a deer. I did have opportunities; more than last year. I saw at least 4 different bucks. Yearling bucks were the youngest and smallest; the other bucks were at least 2 ½ years old and the largest one might have been 3 ½.

I took a number of ruffed grouse and a few spruce grouse this autumn (plus some pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge in Alberta). I hunted with my dog Neva here and in Alberta, and a bit with Lil and our other dog, Dory (near home). Dory’s front legs have never worked properly so she’s had that handicap all her life. But Neva seems to have brought her joy and Dory now enjoys being able to hunt with us, even if it’s only for a very short time during an outing.

The moose hunt also ended, but my moose hunting this year was restricted to the week I flew into the wilds of Manitoba; zippo on that hunt. I did have a tag for moose hunting in Ontario, but I wasn’t interested in hunting a calf because I don’t believe in calf hunting (not like it’s being done in Ontario); and, I didn’t have an adult tag on my moose license – nor did any of my normal hunting buddies.

The highlight of my hunting season was in early September. Saw a magnificent bull elk on a misty morning. There is no licenced hunt for elk in Northwestern Ontario, but someday there might be. Elk were re-introduced in this area in 2000 and although there have been some setbacks, there are a few herds around that seem to be doing OK. There’s been some encouraging reports of late, so ‘fingers crossed’.

The last few days of the hunting season have been cold and windy; into the minus twenties in Celsius – ‘silly arses’ – degrees. Too cold for me to want to go hunting.

There were not a lot of deer around anyway; most days when I went hunting I didn’t see a single deer. But tracks and dropping and rubs and scrapes showed there were deer scattered about and twice we saw deer along the highway driving to our hunt spot, or coming home after the hunt was done.

I saw almost as much wolf sign as deer sign. Everywhere I went there were fresh wolf tracks. On a few occasions we could hear them howling, sometimes quite close by. On a hill my buddy Deryk and I have hunted for years, there was very little deer sign (none on the hill itself) but we counted at least a dozen piles of wolf crap. More than once we saw wolves.

When it gets cold and snow covers the ground, the ruffed grouse just seem to disappear. I hadn’t been shooting any lately, not just because it’s been cold, but more important, many places now convenient to hunt might be areas where trappers are working; some trap sets could easily be tripped by an inquisitive dog and that would be the end of that. We had been letting Neva hunt grouse on many of our almost daily walks on our property; I just hadn’t been trying to shoot them. I like seeing the grouse and if they stick around, we can continue to ‘hunt’ them all winter, or at least on some nice days when there a few birds out and about.

Now that deer and bird hunting is over, I think it might be time to hunt wolves and get ready to do some ice fishing.

Maybe combine the two.

And maybe dream of an elk hunt.