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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.

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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.

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On January 1, I posted ‘Missing the Mark’, where I suggested that the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) had done a poor job with respect to proposed changes as to how wolves could be hunted in Ontario. Here’s my brief summary of the changes they proposed:

  • the present requirement to purchase a wolf seal to hunt wolves under the authority of a small game license will be repealed, and all that will be required to hunt wolves will be the small game license itself; and
  • the yearly limit will remain at two wolves, but wolves and coyotes will be separated  and there will be no limit on the number of coyotes a hunter can harvest.

It will still be mandatory to report your wolf harvest, but seeing as mandatory reporting is not enforced (I’ve been told there has never been a charge laid in Ontario wrt failing to provide a mandatory hunt report), that requirement remains toothless.

The changes proposed are mostly to try and increase the wolf harvest in response to declining moose populations. As I said in my post at the time, I predicted that would raise the ire for those who like wolves, and aren’t strongly pro-hunting.

Well that’s exactly what happened. It seems the s*** hit the fan, and at the end of the day, none of the proposed changes are going to be implemented (the MNRF must have really taken a verbal beating by the people who are enamored with wolves, don’t like the idea of managing predators [especially if it’s to ‘help’ big game], dislike wolf hunting in particular and for the most part are not in favour of hunting in general). You can read the decision here:

https://www.ebr.gov.on.ca/ERS-WEB-External/displaynoticecontent.do?noticeId=MTI2OTQz&statusId=MTkzMzk2&language=en

So we’re back where we started, with all hunters (resident and non-resident) still having to buy both a small game licence and a wolf seal, and the inability to hunt wolves during an open season for bear, elk, deer or moose unless one is also in possession of a valid license for one of whatever big game season is open..

This is a crazy, stupid way to manage wolves. Wolves should have a stand-alone licence  (why does a non-resident have to buy an $272.41 wolf tag AND a $120.93 small game licence? And then can’t hunt them during the deer or moose season without ALSO having a valid moose [$483.48] or deer [$241.61] license ; i.e., that moose or deer license can’t have been used to tag a moose or deer prior to hunting a wolf).

In addition to only needing a wolf license to hunt wolves, I think wolves could and maybe should be classed similarly to bears, in that non-residents would have to hunt wolves through an outfitter in a specific management area (outfitters have bear management areas, or BMA’s; I think these could be modified to be BWMA’s – bear and wolf management areas). I also think the number of wolf tags available for non-residents in a BWMA could/should be limited, but if they were managed through a BWMA, that may be self-limiting all by itself).

A stumble, then a fumble. How ridiculous.

 

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Spring is on its way, although the dreaded ‘Polar Vortex’ descended upon us last night, bring the temperatures well into the freezing zone. We also got a skiff of snow. Temperatures are supposed to stay cold for the next few days, but it looks like things will be on the cool side at least for 10 days or so, if you believe the weather forecast. After three days out, I think weather forecasting starts to enter the realm of science fiction . .  .

Regardless, it’s been a mild winter, which was welcome after the last two winters I can only describe as dreadful. There’s still ice on the lakes and some snow in the bush, but the sun has strength, the days are longer than the night and all in all things are looking up.

A few species of migratory birds have stated to show up, but not a lot. Crows, herring gulls, Canada geese and a smattering of robins have been spotted, along with some mallards, hooded mergansers and goldeneye ducks. The big rush should start soon.

But already there have been a few interesting observations. One is a crow that sits in the trees in our yard that coos like a pigeon. It’s the weirdest thing. Lil says it was here last year, too, and must have picked up the cooing habit from the pigeons which frequent our place.

The other neat thing we saw (Lil saw it first) is a mallard with a mostly white head (that’s it in the photo). It’s a bit grainy, as it was quite a distance away when I saw it and had to really crop the photo tightly so as to get a clear view. It’s obviously a  drake mallard (and there were a number of mallards with it and in close proximity), but for some reason the normally green head is mostly white. As the eye is dark and the rest of the bird appears to be a normal colour, it doesn’t appear to me to be a case of albinism. Maybe it had a sickness, or other near-death experience and the shock of it all caused it’s head of feathers to turn white. Or maybe it’s very old . . .

Actually, the mallard is likely to be suffering from leucism, or leukism, an abnormal plumage condition caused by a genetic mutation that prevents pigment, particularly melanin, from being properly deposited on feathers. No idea why it affected only the head, nor do I have a clue as to what might have caused the genetic mutation.

Regardless, colour variation is quite common in the animal world and white – or black – birds and animals aren’t all that uncommon. Still, it’s always interesting to see anomalies and speculate as to the cause.

If we see anything else that’s unusual, I’ll let you know.