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small game

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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The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) recently announced some changes to small game hunting regulations. I’m not sure what to think about them – mostly I see that the changes aren’t based on scientific evidence, as there is little to no research being done in Ontario on management of small game species. And given how quickly the MNRF backed down on one of the significant changes they made – within days! – it suggests to me the MNRF is flying by the seat of their pants.

One of the changes made was to ban completely the harvest of snapping turtles (This one is particularly weird. Snapping turtle harvests were shown in the Hunting summary, but you needed a Fishing licence to harvest them). Prior to the complete close, residents and non-residents could harvest 2 snappers a day and have 5 in their possession. In most of northern Ontario, the season was the entire year (despite the fact the north is generally frozen solid from sometime in November through into April). In much of the south, the season ran from July 14 to Sept. 15. I don’t harvest turtles personally, so this doesn’t impact me, but I have to wonder what the evidence is to ban their harvest completely, everywhere. When I was a District Biologist I recall southern based managers telling me there were few records of snapper in the north, so their belief was they must be uncommon. People didn’t believe me when I told them that, in fact, snappers were very common, and that was the reason sightings weren’t being documented. Just like no one documents sightings of field mice . . .  .

Now, snappers live for many decades, so killing a big old snapper (might be 80 or 100 years old) for a bowl of soup or some delicate tid-bits of meat from the back could certainly be questioned, but it seems to me a complete ban is over the top. Apparently, when changes were proposed by the MNRF, the option of a complete ban was never presented.

Another change? It’s to ruffed grouse daily bag and possession limits in Wildlife Management Units 68, 73 to 76, 82 to 84. They will be 5 and 15 respectively for both residents and non-residents – however, when I look at the 2016-17 Hunting Regulations Summary, I don’t see any change . .  .I’m missing something . . .

Regardless, it’s 5 and 15 everywhere there’s an open season for ruffed grouse in Ontario (actually, it’s ruffed grouse and spruce grouse combined). Interestingly, a few years ago, for a few years, I wrote the game hunting forecast in Ontario for Ontario Out of Doors magazine. My contacts in southern Ontario always told me that ruffed grouse were just not doing all that well there. It’s the same in many parts of the USA. Indeed, friends of mine, avid grouse hunters – some hunt with dogs – seldom IF EVER get a limit of ruffed grouse in the woods near Ottawa, which for those who don’t know, is in south-eastern Ontario. I think the only reasoning behind ‘5 and 15’ is “that’s the way it’s always been”. There’s certainly evidence (research done in the states) that hunting can have an impact on ruffed grouse populations. But rather than at least see if reduced limits, and maybe shorter seasons, tried over a ruffed grouse cycle of say 10 years, in a few, chosen WMUs might improve grouse numbers, the decision was to opt for same everywhere. It’s easier, less confusing and maximizes ‘hunting opportunities’. Again, I don’t see any evidence of use of science behind this decision, except for the buzz that it’s a management scenario that meets the criteria of ensuring ‘sustainability’. These days, that’s all that counts.

Meanwhile, no changes yet to sharp-tailed grouse seasons or bag limits. Many parts of Ontario let you take 5 a day of these birds and possess 15 – (5 and 15 is a meme, or at least a mantra in Ontario) even in WMUs where few or even none have been seen for decades (and there are a number of WMUs that fall into that category). Many jurisdictions in Canada and the USA where sharp-tails are common have a relatively short season (about a month, as opposed to Ontario’s 3 or 4 month season) and have a daily bag limit of 3, possession limit of 6. That’s what it is in eastern Alberta – and I’ve shot lots of sharpies out there – it’s great hunting. Back here in Ontario, I’ve only shot a handful of sharpies – and many years I see none – but the season is 3 months long and the daily bag limit is 5 and I can put 15 of them into the freezer. It makes no sense to me.

Another change was the change that didn’t happen. At first, snowshoe hare and cottontail rabbit seasons were going to be reduced – instead of the season ending on June 15, like it has for decades, the season was to end on March 31.  Almost immediately there was a hue and a cry from a number of quarters and then quick as a bunny the MNRF backed down on this proposal and said the old season would remain – at least for this year. Obviously another management option that wasn’t well thought out . . . . the consensus was this change was responding to emotive pleas from some people and organizations that the government lends an ear to .. . .  .

There were some other changes, but for me, these where the highlights.

More changes are forecast for the future. I’ll be watching.

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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.

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We’re nearing the end of August, which means the short northern summer is waning. Still, it’s been warm; hot even, on some days. Recently, a few nights were cool and by morning there was extensive fog. Before noon, the fog was burnt off.

Looking back, the non-sledding season was a book of contrasts. Late April and early May started off dry, but soon the rains came. And came. It rained a lot in June and July and while August hasn’t been quite as wet, rains have still been a feature of the weekly weather. It’s also been a warm summer (summer warm, winter cold; who’d have guessed?) and with all the rain, it’s been humid. As such, the biting insects (mosquitoes, black flies and various species of tabanids [e.g., deer flies and what we call ankle biters]) have been out in force all summer. The flies are still making a pest of themselves.

With all the rain, water levels rose during the summer and the once-promising crop of wild rice was drowned out.

It’s also been a pretty wet year over much of the Canadian prairies, although overall, conditions in the continental west were, apparently, drier (at least to begin with, just like here) and for ducks, habitat conditions ‘deteriorated’. Still, according to Ducks Unlimited, “duck numbers in the survey area are statistically similar to last year and remain steady”.

When I first started heading west to hunt, sometime in the 1980’s, it was, in the words of some former colleagues, “drier than a popcorn fart”.  Duck populations were close to or at all-time lows.

That was back in the days when we were all worried about a new ice age. Then, global warming hysteria took over and the models have been predicting “hotter and drier”. However, rains and snows have instead steadily recharged the prairie potholes over the past couple of decades and despite continued ditching and draining (burning, too), duck populations have surged.

According to DU:

“Total populations were estimated at 48.4 million breeding ducks in the traditional survey area, which is 38 percent above the 1955-2015 long-term average. Last year’s estimate was 49.5 million birds. The projected mallard fall flight index is 13.5 million birds, similar to the 2015 estimate of 13.8 million.”

On another note, I’ve seen some decent sized flocks of ruffed grouse of late, so maybe there’s been good brood survival despite the wet. Good thing it wasn’t ‘cold’.

And despite what some of the local game agencies have been saying, I don’t think it’s going to be much of a deer hunt this fall. Yesterday, Lil and I were out picking blueberries – still some good berries on the bushes, but not for long – and didn’t see a single deer track. A few years ago the areas we were in had deer aplenty. So while last winter was relatively mild, wolf numbers remain high (a situation the Provincial wolf scientist has acknowledged) and have no doubt continued to put downward pressure on the deer population.

And neither Lil nor I drew the single adult moose tag available in the Wildlife Management Unit we like to hunt. Out of curiosity, we checked out a tiny bit of our favourite ‘moose spot’ yesterday and did see sign of at least three different moose. Oh well, maybe next year.

Meanwhile, I’m off to the North American Moose Conference in Brandon, Manitoba in a couple of weeks. I’ll be doing a presentation there and then soon after that, will be off on a fly-in moose hunt in northern Manitoba.

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We were out checking on our trail cams a few days ago we use to monitor our reintroduced elk herd (one was stolen – an $800 Reconyx; we reported the theft to the police, but it’s ‘not their top priority’). Didn’t see any live elk, moose, bear or wolves (however, quite a few were captured by the cameras) and only a couple of white-tails. I imagine the females of all species are busy with young and trying to be as secretive as possible, while the male deer are dealing with sensitive and fast growing antlers (the bull elk already have some pretty impressive growth!).

Of note, we did see several hen ruffed grouse and all of them had young. Didn’t see too many young poults, though; the ones we did see were smaller than a ping pong ball. But each hen did the ‘I’m hurt! I can’t fly! My wing is broken!’ and tried to lure me away from the young ‘uns. Some tried to scare me off with an ‘attack’, and al were quite vocal; hissing, mewing and doing other calls trying to distract me. I didn’t pester them for too long, just a minute or so while trying to get some photos of the ‘how to act wounded and lure the threat away from the babies’ routine.

One thing; there must have been great synchronicity in the hatch.  Synchronicity in hatching of birds, as well as the birth of ungulates, is thought to be good as it ‘swamps’ predators and helps reduce losses. For example, wolves and bears have an innate ability to know to look for newly born fawns and calves, but there is also an element of learning how and where to look which improves the effectiveness and efficiency of their search. So if the birthing season is prolonged, it gives predators a longer time period to hone their hunting skills to find newborn, good for predators but not so good for the prey. Once the newbies are a few weeks old, though, they have a much greater chance of escaping, as even a little fawn deer or calf knows how to run like the dickens or keep itself behind mom (e.g., a cow moose) as she fends off wolves or bears.

The best way to achieve a synchronized birth is to have a short, intense rut, when most of the females are bred in just a few days. A breeding cycle that drags on for many days, weeks, or even months, can be disastrous. And short, intense ruts are most likely to happen when there is a healthy population of prime, adult males around – they know how to woo the women.

It’s probably not near as complicated in grouse world, but the situation is likely similar. Older, male ruffed grouse might be better suitors than yearling; however, I suspect weather plays a more important role in grouse hatching success and synchronicity in nesting than behaviour. Early May – when the grouse were mating – was warm and dry. Late May and early June, hatching time for grouse, has been wetter and in a relative sense, cooler, which might not be great. Cool and wet weather can play havoc on new-born chicks; they often get pneumonia or other fatal ailments when the weather in inclement. Maybe next time we are out to check on our cameras we’ll see some more grouse families and get an idea on flock size. But at the moment, things are suggesting it could be a good fall for ruffies.

And given the ruffed grouse is one of the best tasting treats in the northern forest, that’s a good thing.

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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.