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Birds

Here’s my un-edited copy of my last column in Ontario Out of Doors magazine. Enjoy!

On a recent trip to Africa, the first full-day of hunting was a wash-out for my buddy Brian and I. The reason? The scope on our rented, bolt-action .30-06 Savage had loosened during the morning sight-in and was way off when Brian tried to take first a gemsbok and later, a zebra. Fortunately, neither animal was wounded – clear misses – and we solved the problem the next morning.

As a rule, I don’t borrow or lend firearms. I learned that from dad, who’d had horrible experiences lending and borrowing firearms.

While Dad’s advice has stood me well, there are a lot of good reasons to borrow, or lend, a firearm.

For one, travelling with a firearm is generally a hassle. Airlines tend to discourage travelling with firearms through bothersome and cumbersome regulations and often substantive, tacked on expenses. And, when I have taken one on an airline (to date, always within Canada), I’ve noted most ticket handlers have little to no experience with the firearm rigmarole, which is both frustrating and time consuming. Because of these omnipresent stumbling blocks, I highly recommend anyone taking a firearm on a flight to be at check-in early. In addition, phone the airline you are flying with well in advance to enquire about their firearm policies and let them know you will be bringing one.

Crossing the border into the USA, or any other country, is even more problematic. Every country has their own system and as a rule, they are not user-friendly. Again, check what you’re going to be up against well in advance of a planned trip.

To avoid the trouble, extra attention, paperwork and other regulations when travelling with a firearm, I’ve found it makes a lot of sense to borrow, or rent, when I get to my destination. I’d like to use my own firearms, but often, it’s just not worth the headaches.

However, borrowing is not without matters of its own.

For example, the last time I went to the US turkey hunting, I planned on borrowing a firearm from my friend Randy. That turned out to be a bit of a schmozzle.

First, it took a lot of phoning around to see if it was even legal for me to borrow a firearm. Michigan DNR didn’t know (not even the Director); eventually, someone from Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said I could.

At the border, I got a thorough interrogation when I informed them the purpose of my trip was a turkey hunt – and no, I didn’t have a firearm. “What are you going to do? Beat them with a stick?” asked the Customs agent.

The most common issues with borrowing and renting firearms are to do with safety, handling and condition of the firearm. One way to minimize problems is to request, well before leaving on the hunt, to have at least a couple of firearms to choose from.

Before using a borrowed gun, check for signs of mis-use. Avoid firearms with a cracked stock, loose, or missing parts, a safety that doesn’t work, or any other obvious fault. Check the action and ensure it’s smooth. Check the bore of the barrel for obstructions. Cycle a few rounds through it without firing.

Once you’re satisfied a firearm is safe, you need to do some shooting.

During the shoot, wear clothes you intend to hunt in. Does the gun feel comfortable? Is it too long or too heavy?  Test fire from a bench – with the same cartridges you intend to hunt with – to sight-in as well as getting a feel for what the trigger-pull is like.

Assess recoil by trying some shots while standing or kneeling.

After each shot and especially at the end of shooting, check to ensure nothing has loosened (like scope mounts!).

Still, despite everything you do, problems can arise.

On the last day of my African hunt, I shot a red hartebeest that didn’t go down immediately. But the action jammed and it took both me and my (required) Professional Hunter guide, to eject the spent shell. I don’t know whether it was the result of a fouled chamber, or improperly re-sized re-loads. Fortunately, the shot had been good and the hartebeest was down.

Despite the many potential negatives, there are positives from borrowing firearms. It can be a chance to try out a make, model, calibre or gauge, or a load new to you.

One firearm I rented in Namibia, a bolt-action Remington 700 in .30-06, was fitted with a  Trijicon 2.5-12.5 X 42 scope, a scope I was unfamiliar with, but would now consider for use here in Ontario. On my Michigan turkey hunt, Randy lent me his Thompson Center Encore with 12 gauge barrel and T/C Turkey choke. The scope was a Truglo red dot; ammo was ACTIV brand Penetrator nickel plated turkey load, 2 ¾”, #4 shot, 1 ¾ oz. It was all new to me – but it worked great and I bagged a nice tom with a single shot at 25 m.

Also in Namibia, Brian and I had the opportunity to hunt with firearms fitted with suppressors, commonly called silencers. What a hoot! Firing a .30-06 that was no louder than a .22 short and with similar recoil was amazing. The suppressors did add considerable weight, but given we were using shooting sticks (held by the PH), that wasn’t an issue.

In summary, there are pros and cons to using borrowed firearms.  Use due diligence and chances are the experience will be an enjoyable one.

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From the top, L to R: Long-tailed Paradise Whydah, Crimson-breasted Shrike, African Palm Swift, Lappet-faced Vulture, Cape Turtle Doves, Red-billed Spurfowl, Swainson’s Spurfowl (with young), Secretarybird, Shaft-tailed Whydah, Monteiro’s Hornbill, Kori Bustard, Lilac-breasted Roller, Green-winged Pytilia, African Red-eyed Bulbul, Grey Go-Away-Bird

One of the many highlights of my trip to Africa was watching birds. We all like birds. Getting to see a whole bunch that I’d never seen before was great.

Our guides and other residents were able to identify many of them and give us their common English name. But I saw lots of birds that I didn’t know. It didn’t help that no one had a field guide to the birds of that region.

Finally, after months of dithering, I ordered a pictorial pocket guide: Birds of Namibia; Ian Sinclair & Joris Komen. It was a great help, as even though I didn’t know – in most cases – what it was I was aiming my camera at and shooting, I did amass a reasonable array of photos (the ones on this post are some of the better ones). Having cataloged those images, I was able to match most of my photos with those in the pocket guide and get the name of the bird to the species level, as well as to sex.

Most of the bird names the Namibians provided were spot-on, but sometimes there was more to the bird name than what they told me.

For example, one of the most magnificent song birds, with a black head, a bright chestnut coloured breast with yellow underparts and really long tail, was a Paradise Whydah bird, according to my guides. The pocket guide identifies the bird as the ‘Long-tailed Paradise Whydah’.  Only the male has the long-tail and bright colours.

Another example was to do with some gallinaceous birds, what here in North America us hunters call upland game birds. While we were driving around, we often flushed coveys of what we were told were sandgrouse and quail. Unfortunately, I was never able to get photos of these birds, but the pocket guide gives a good account that I referenced. There’s no doubt about the quail; there’s only one species in Namibia, the Common Quail. But there are four species of sandgrouse, three of which could easily have been the sandgrouse we encountered. Maybe we saw only one species, or two or all three, but that’s something I’ll probably never be able to figure out.

There were also other gallinaceous birds that our guides called francolins. The pocket guide shows six species of francolin, all of which resemble one-another somewhat, but looking at the photos and accompanying text suggests they aren’t that hard to distinguish one from another. Well, I got pictures of at least two species, the Red-billed Spurfowl and the Swainson’s Spurfowl.  There’s nothing in the guide as to how or why some of the francolins are grouped together as Spurfowl, but when I look at my photo of the Red-billed Spurfowl I’m drawn to the spurs on the bird. They’re huge!

Similar to some of our North American grouse, like the Ruffed Grouse and Sharp-tailed Grouse, the sexes of most francolins (4 of 6) are quite similar.

A bird I thought might be some kind of parrot turns out to be . . . some kind of a parrot, called the Grey Go-Away Bird. Cool. The name caught me by surprise. It seems it got its name, like a lot of birds, from the sound of its call, described as a nasal ‘waaaay’ or ‘kay-waaaay’.

A little bird that I caught a good picture of in full flight had a bright red-eye and eye ring. Turns out it’s the African Red-eye Bulbul. Bulbuls are a group of birds I’m not familiar with – they look like what many of us simply call ‘dickie birds’, little songbirds of some sort.

Anyway, the African Red-eye Bulbul reminded me of a day back in university when a geology prof, new to Canada from England, asked what this blackbird with the red wing was. Of course, we had a good laugh as it was the Red-winged Blackbird!

I’m glad I finally got the field guide to the birds of Namibia. Next time I travel to an exotic location, I’ll buy a bird guide before I get there.