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I just returned from my almost annual bird hunt in Alberta. I say almost because some years I don’t do a bird hunt there if I’ve been drawn for a big game hunt (mule deer, antelope or elk). No big game tags this year, but that’s OK, as I really enjoy the bird hunt.

Bird numbers were up from previous years. Not as good as the best years I recall, but still pretty good. We didn’t have trouble finding pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse or Hungarian (gray) partridge and we managed to bag a number of each. It had been an excellent growing year  for crops and so, it seemed, for wildlife. If this winter isn’t too harsh and next spring and summer are again favourable, birds could be phenomenal. But that’s a big if; a lot can happen in a year, especially in the Palliser Triangle, Canada’s version of a desert (which is where the area we hunt is located).

Things started out well as I managed a double on roosters the first afternoon, hunting with my dog Neva. Neva is only 2 years old, so is still learning, but I was very, very happy with her performance this year. She (mostly) listens well to commands and absolutely loves to hunt, and goes all-out all the time. She’s a real joy to watch.

Michael’s two black labs (Colby and Niska) were also excellent performers. Dogs really make a difference and add a whole other (positive!) dimension to the hunt.

But that was as good as it got. The rest of the week I managed a bird here and a bird there; no more doubles, although the opportunities did present themselves. Obviously, I need to do more shooting . . .  I did get my limit of pheasants again on the last day (2 per day; roosters only).

One of the best things for me is the fact all the birds in the area we hunt are wild birds. No ‘put and take’, or daily stocking, which is done in many places, even in Alberta. In Ontario, my home province, there are virtually no wild pheasants anymore, although such birds were plentiful just a couple of decades ago. Pheasants in Ontario are another example and tale of incompetent wildlife management, as well as runaway industrial farming and urbanization.

Where we hunt in Alberta, the pheasants are closely associated with river bottoms. Get up on the high, dry, short grass prairie and they’re just not there. I think that’s a good thing, though, as it minimizes the competition with sharpies, which, unlike the pheasants and the huns, are native birds.

The sharpies are really doing well in ‘our’ hunt area. The mixture of grain fields, short grass prairie, coulees filled with shrubs and the occasional abandoned homestead seems to be providing them with ideal habitat conditions. It isn’t unusual to see flocks with several dozens birds; usually they flush well out of shotgun range, so it’s a real treat to be able to down a few.

Huns are generally better eating than sharptails, which can be quite strong; pheasants are always good-tasting. I find huns even harder to hit than sharptails, as they usually flush simultaneously, often just on the edge of shotgun range and it can be hard to get a bead on a single bird. There’s always a tendency to flock shoot and that’s never a good idea.

We had been hoping to get in some waterfowling, but the geese we saw weren’t stopping to feed on the local fields. The corn fields had been harvested so cleanly I had a hard time finding left-behind cobs. Geese go where the food is; same goes for ducks.

One thing I’ve noticed both here in Ontario and on the prairies, is that the number of swans (both trumpeters and whistlers) seem to be steadily on the increase. Thirty years ago, I seldom saw a swan; now they are a common sight. I suspect that over the next few years there will be more and more opportunities to hunt swans.

For me, now that I’ve unpacked, it’s time to get serious about whitetails. Unfortunately, there are not a lot around. Big bucks are really scarce.

But, you never know. Just need to stay optimistic, which isn’t always easy for me.

 

 

 

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The blueberry crop is spotty because of the tent caterpillar outbreak

Back in early May I posted “Sometimes Ducks Like it Dry”, because the weather had been unusually dry. But almost as a cautionary note, I also said “Many years our area gets cool, wet weather in June and July, which raises water levels and drowns out the wild rice beds.”

Guess what? June and to date, July, have been monsoon-like. Water levels are high high high and from what I’ve seen many of the wild rice beds have suffered. Our field is sopping wet – water squishes out underfoot when walking there. Lil and I have been on pond detail almost daily, meaning breaking the beaver dam to let water out, but the pond is still at an all-time high. That’s what happens when rain storms are measured in centimeters (or inches!).

The worst storm was the night we had a bit of a family reunion. Got more than 15 centimeters of rain (you read that right) overnight. Road washouts were everywhere.

I didn’t mind the rain as much as the thunderstorms. They were intense. Finally, about 3:00 am, we had a direct hit to the house (luckily we have lightning rods), which knocked out our power immediately.

It also blew up our phone lines, nixed the compressor on the refrigerator, axed the WiFi modem, damaged the TV satellite receiver and blew out a couple of light fixtures along with several flood lights on our motion sensor detectors. What a mess. A least there wasn’t a fire and no damage to my desktop computer or other sensitive electrical components.

I doubt all the rain has been good for the grouse hatch. A few days ago we were (again) out checking our remote critter cams and saw a number of ruffed grouse with broods, but they seemed to have only 2-4 young. Not a good sign.

The rain didn’t seem to have much of an impact on the large tent caterpillar outbreak (this was their peak year). The caterpillars denuded thousands of square kilometers of deciduous forest. Around our house, they also gobbled up the blueberry bushes, so this year there are few berries here. There are blueberries around, though, as some places – like those areas with few to no poplar trees – didn’t get hit, which makes sense. The outbreak is over now, as the caterpillars have cocooned up. The leaves are growing back on the trees and bushes that were ravaged. Although the foliage is nowhere near as thick as it was.

On a final note, I was hoping to get some photos of moose tracks for the magazine I regularly write for (Ontario Out of Doors) on the day we went to check our cameras. Although we drove close to 100 km of bush roads in areas that had some of the highest moose densities in Ontario in the 1990’s, I didn’t see a single track. Part of the problem, of course, was the heavy rain, which tends to wash out tracks rather quickly. But the bigger issue is . . . just not a lot of moose around. Sad, really.

My camera checking partner, Murray, was just back from a three week trip to Norway, where he saw three moose. More than he’s seen in the past several years here in Ontario.

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The other day I looked out on the pond and there were two ducks sitting on a log beside a drake mallard. They had a lot of white on them and at first I thought they might be domestic mallards from a nearby farm. But they weren’t.

I had to run upstairs to get a bird book as I didn’t recognize the birds, having never seen this particular species before in full breeding plumage. So another new species recorded on our pond! They were, by the way, northern shovelers, a duck that’s apparently abundant during the breeding season in the prairies, the Yukon and Alaska.

Although Kenora is only a couple of hundred kilometers for the eastern edge of the prairie ecosystem, we don’t see a lot of what is in that biome, or only rarely.So It was great to see the shovelers, even though they didn’t hang around for too long. My bird guide indicates they migrate through and breed in the area, but I haven’t met anyone who has ever run across a nest or a young brood of shovelers here. I’ve met people who have seen theme here on occassion, mostly in the spring.

They do resemble a mallard, except for a bit more white and the extended, black bill that sort of looks like it was squashed in an early stage of development with a hammer.

Given its large, spatula shaped bill – some refer to them as ‘spoonbills’ – it didn’t surprise me when I read that it “has the most unusual feeding habits of any duck.”  If has a fondness for phytoplankton as well as zooplankton, sometimes feeding on the surface in deep water in lakes devoid of aquatic vegetation. To strain for plankton, water is ingested at the tip of the bill then jetted out at the base. Given it likes plankton, it’s no wonder they are known to gather in large numbers on sewage lagoons. Maybe that’s one of the reasons they aren’t exactly held in high esteem as table fare . . .

There’s not a lot of plankton in our pond, especially at this time of year, but there is a lot of insect life, the likes of which makes up about a quarter of the shovelers diet. As animal life is high in protein, it makes sense this species might stop in at our pond for a quick, nutritious meal before moving on. Seeing these birds were on our pond in late May, it’s likely they were drakes that had abandoned their mates; drake shovelers leave their mates as early as the first day she begins to incubate, although some stick it out until the eggs are hatched. In nearby Manitoba, shovelers usually commence nesting in early May.

By the way, the sora rails have also returned to the pond. Hopefully the summer and fall will bring some other species I haven’t yet seen from the deck. I’ll keep you posted.

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It’s the end of April and it looks like winter has let go its icy grip. However, the ice hasn’t melted off all of the local lakes, one can still find a patch of snow here and there and it was below freezing (again) last night. Plus there is not much green to be seen. Still, the days are getting longer and longer and the sun has real warmth to it.

It was a reasonably mild winter; it didn’t get going until late into December and January, February and the first part of March was milder than normal. But it’s been colder than the norm for about the past six weeks so the ‘end’ of winter has arrived pretty much on schedule.

The deer I’ve seen – the relatively few that are still around – look fat and healthy; and, we’ve been seeing a lot of ruffed grouse of late, good signs that the winter was easy on wildlife. Hopefully the spring will not be too cold and wet so deer fawn survival is high and the grouse have a good hatch. There hasn’t been a real good hatch of grouse for several years (cold and wet springs have been having a good run), but one can always hope.

I was also hoping the wolf population would have suffered from a lack of deer to eat, but I’m not so sure. Last night I was photographing ducks (ring-necks, woodies, mallards, hooded mergansers) from our deck while grilling up a breast of wild turkey (I took a real nice tom in Michigan last week) when I heard some splashing in the pond. It takes me a while to focus after I’ve been looking through the viewfinder of the camera, so at first I couldn’t see a darn thing.

But a deer on the lawn below me was staring intently across the pond and when I stared in the direction it was, I saw what was causing all the commotion. A big timber wolf.

The wolf had waded out into the pond and dragged the deer hide Lil and I had frozen into the ice in January (the same deer hide I shot another wolf off the 2nd night after putting out the hide). It didn’t seem too concerned that we were watching and photographing it – maybe it knew that wolf season closed as of April 1. Eventually it dragged the hide into the woods, although we’re sure it didn’t go far as crows and ravens continued to circle and call for quite some time after the wolf had disappeared.

For most of my life, I’d go years between wolf sightings. Now I see one or more every few weeks. Over the past five or six years I’ve seen about 10 or 15 times more wolves than I have moose.

I guess that’s one reason why there are hardly any moose around here anymore. I have to think that at some point, the wolves will have to run out of food and maybe then moose and deer numbers can begin to recover. Something else to hope for.

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Today there was an article in the National Post (and I suspect many other newspapers) that reported a mass slaughter of 19 elk in one night by a pack of wolves. The event took place near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, an area where the state Fish & Game Department runs a number of ‘feed grounds’. Feed grounds are places where elk are fed – in other words, elk numbers are artificially maintained at much higher levels than the range can support because the state feeds them. It’s been doing this for decades, because . . . well, I’m sure there is a reason, likely a number of reasons. I suspect, though, the real reason is to make sure there’s a lot of elk around to keep hunters happy, and in Wyoming, hunting is big business.

The department called this event “an extremely rare ‘surplus killing’”. They believed a pack of nine wolves were responsible and that normally only one or two elk a night were killed. They also mentioned that they had an eight year study of wolf predation on the feed grounds and “generally wolves did not kill what they did not eat.”

I’d like to know more about that study. For one, studies I’ve seen on how much wolves eat here in Ontario say it’s about 1 deer every 20 days. So a pack of 9 wolves would need to kill a deer about every 2 days to survive. Seeing as a white-tailed deer is less than ½ the size of an elk, it seems to me one or two elk a night is a lot more than a pack of 9 wolves need to eat. Maybe there are closer to 30 wolves in the Jackson Hole area, which is a possibility, I suppose.

On the other hand, the notion that wolves, and other wild animals, generally only kill what they need to eat, as if they have some sort of moral compass, is bunkum.

Anyone who has a flock of chickens and lives in the country has likely experienced mass slaughter by a marten, an owl, a skunk, a mink, or (fill in the blank ________ with a local predator). One year we had a rogue black bear who loved killing chickens just to eat their crops that were often, but not always, full of grain. But other than the crop, the bear never ate any of the chickens it killed.

Over the years, I’ve spoken to trappers, outfitters and others, and witnessed myself on a couple of occasions, where wolves went on a deer killing spree. Usually this happened in late winter when deer were in poor shape and when travel conditions, for the wolves, was excellent (hard packed snow, waters still covered in ice). The wolves would chase the deer out on the ice, kill them, and eat a few choice parts and go do it again and again.

Wolves do like to kill. It’s why in ranch country, there are often few wolves – over time, farmers more or less wipe them out, because they got tired of having the wolves come in and lay waste to their livestock.

I like wolves and having wolves around is good for a lot of reasons. For one, it helps to keep animal populations in check and healthy, as wolves tend to weed out the old and the sick (and the young). But in a complex and complicated world with competing interests, wolves, like everything else, do best if managed properly. Too many, or too few, and the problems grow.

For a time, I believed wildlife biologists and fish & game departments were there to use their knowledge of science to help make decisions to manage wildlife on a sustainable basis.

It took me years to figure out that actually isn’t how things work. Wildlife management, like just about everything else, is highly political and decisions are more often than not based on whichever emotions are running highest at that particular moment. Or they bend to the ‘rights’ of people to do whatever it is they please to do (be they farmers, hunters or whatever). Often, this is actually accomplished through the courts of law, which more often than not pays little to no attention to management principles and science.

Another issue that is in play here, and one that never ceases to amaze me, is the prevailing meme held by people who I view as being animal apologists. “Animals aren’t like humans; they never kill just for the sake of killing!”

Err, as a matter of fact, they do. Rather often, actually.

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In the north – and near north – one of the most common urban birds is the raven. Unlike metropolitan areas in the south where crows, starlings, sparrows and gulls are the common scavenging birds, in northern cities and towns, the bird most likely to be found hanging around fast food restaurants and malls is the raven; often big flocks of them.

Ravens, like all Corvids, are smart birds. They can figure things out and have learned to live in and among humans.

People have long recognized that ravens are not the typical bird brain like many of our feathered friends. The ancient Greeks viewed ravens in a positive light – in one tale, the Greek God Apollo took the form of a raven in a battle against the Titans for jurisdiction over the world. Europeans, though, often associated the raven with “war, death and departed spirits”. In North America, many if not most Aboriginal tribes had a special place in their culture for the raven. There’s even a charitable organization called “R.A.V.E.N.”, which stands for Respecting Aboriginal Values & Environmental Needs. One of its missions is to provide “financial resources to assist Aboriginal Nations within Canada in lawfully forcing industrial development to be reconciled with their traditional ways of life”.

On the west coast, the raven is a totem. Amongst the Haida, the raven is known as ‘the Trickster’, and it’s a moniker many today who watch the antics of ravens can easily relate to.

As one might expect from a creature referred to as a ‘Trickster’, ravens are mischievous and, as I mentioned, very smart. Here in Kenora, they know that plastic bags are full of garbage, and actively search for them at the roadside during garbage pick-up days. Any plastic bag left in the back of a pick-up truck will quickly be shredded by ravens scrounging for a meal. Ravens learned to recognize Lillian’s truck, which often had road-kill and other carcasses in it to feed other birds and animals she was looking after (she’s a wildlife rehabber), and would follow her around town. Within minutes of stopping and leaving the truck, they’d be in the back, looking for a meal.

They also recognize hunters, and I often see them following me around when I’m deer or moose hunting. A study in Wisconsin proved they learned to recognize a rifle shot likely meant a deer gut pile, and would show up shortly after shots were fired.

I wrote a column for Ontario Out of Doors magazine once titled ‘The Raven Called’, recounting an experience when I was moose hunting on how a small flock of three ravens pointed out to me where a moose was browsing. Believe me, that’s exactly what happened; there is absolutely no doubt in my mind.

They certainly are interesting to watch and listen to. They make all sorts of weird noises, whether they are flying around, feeding, walking about or simply perched. They are known to mimic sounds they hear in their surroundings, so they don’t make the same calls everywhere.

Ravens live a long time; many survive into their teens and some are known to have survived more than 20 years. They start breeding when they are from 2-4 years old, often start nesting when snow is still on the ground and usually lay from 3-7 eggs. Both parents participate in raising young.

In Ontario, ravens, unlike crows and most other black birds, cannot be hunted and are protected by law.

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About a month ago a good friend from Alberta forwarded me an article he found written by Angus M. Thuermer Jr., reporting on a a study on Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in Wyoming. CWD is an infectious disease known to occur in white-tailed deer, mule deer, moose and elk. It’s part of a family of diseases known as Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs) where the infectious agent is thought to be a malformed protein known as a prion. Prions are not a bacteria nor are they a virus; they are a very strange and poorly understood entity. There is a human form of TSE called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). To date, no humans are known to have contracted CJD from a CWD infected animal, although there is a variant CJD people have got from eating cattle infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), another TSE. CWD is thought to have originated from Scrapie, the TSE sheep can be infected with.

CWD is a large and growing concern in North America because it’s a relatively new disease (the first known occurrence was documented in the latter part of the last century), it’s spreading and it’s wreaking havoc to deer herds in some areas. There’s no known cure for the dsease and once an animal contracts it the end result is always death. It’s spread into the area of Alberta where I hunt so it’s a particular concern for me and my hunting partners.

Thuermer Jr.’s article said that a study by a University of Wyoming doctoral student Melia DeVivo led her to believe the mule deer herd she was studying could potentially become extinct because of CWD in 41 years. The herd numbered some 14,000 in the early 2000s but had dwindled to half that in about a decade.

There was a lot of information in the article, but a couple of factoids were most interesting. One was that researchers found that deer with different genes react differently to CWD exposure; a key gene found with three combinations of alleles can make a deer up to 30 times more likely to be CWD-positive, depending on which genotype the deer is. That’s good news, because it suggests that over time, it’s possible if not probable that deer herds will become dominated by CWD resistant strains of deer (however, as the researchers point out, the strains that are resistant seem to be relatively rare, which might mean they might not be ‘good’ for the survival of deer in other ways; e.g., deer with the resistant strain might be bad mothers). Still, I think the news there are CWD resistant deer is very good news indeed.

The other good news is that studies have shown that free-ranging elk don’t seem to get high rates of CWD infection, unlike mule deer – and penned or ranched elk. No one seems to know why that is the case. Plus, in 2002, a penned elk herd of 39, purposely exposed to CWD, had all withered away and died or been put down within 10 years – except for a lone cow nicknamed Lucky. Apparently she’s still alive, doesn’t look sick, doesn’t test positive for CWD and has had a calf. So it looks like elk also have natural, genetic or other resistance to CWD.

Interestingly, the area I hunt in Alberta where CWD is problematic in mule deer, also has free-ranging elk (that’s one of them in the photograph) – that haven’t as yet, at least as far as I know, tested positive for CWD. That would seem to be consistent with what researchers have observed elsewhere.

To date, the results of the studies Theurmer Jr. reported on have not been published in refereed journals. That needs to happen; otherwise, these important findings risk being dismissed as mere speculation or musings.

CWD is a terrible disease likely to get much worse before it gets better. For a long time, all the news about CWD was bad. But now there at least appears to be a glimmer of hope that all will not be lost.

And that’s a good thing.