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Upland game birds

The last three fall bird hunts have tended to be  . . . poor.

That’s not really the right word to describe those hunts, but it’s a start.

The issue has been injuries to my good buddy and hunting dog, Neva.

One year, she had a run-in with a porcupine within the first hour of the pheasant hunt in Alberta. It was a full-on face plant of quills and required a trip to the vet, in Medicine Hat, over an hour’s drive away. Never did shoot a pheasant that year . . .

Another year she cut her paw on glass, we presume, on our first ruffed grouse hunt of the season. There was no reason for glass to be there in the bush, but it was close to a forest access road, and way too many people throw their garbage – like beer bottles! – out the window when driving around. Regardless, it was a deep cut, needed stitches, and put Neva out of commission for a good month. By the time she had recovered, there was snow on the ground, which seems to result, at least around here, in the virtual disappearance of the grouse. I don’t know what happens, but once there is snow on the ground, you can go for miles and hardly ever find a bird. So that year was also a washout.

Last year we were on our property, hunting grouse for the 2nd or 3rd time, when Neva flushed a grouse, ran over an old garbage pile, and cut a paw again. Needed stitches, out of commission . . . . .

The fellow who last lived on our property – back in early post-war years, I think – was for the most part a bootlegger. We’ve removed pick-up loads of cans, bottles and iron over the years. There were literally huge piles of cans and bottles all over the place. I know there’s still a couple out there, but I can’t recall exactly where. If I find them, I’ll clean them up too. At least the places and trails where we usually hunt and go for walks with the dogs have been cleaned up. I still worry about shards, though.

So far this year Neva has avoided getting injured. And we had a great time!

We didn’t kill a lot of birds, but we flushed many. I even shot a few woodcock and saw and missed several others. Most woodcock I have ever seen in the Kenora area. A banner year!

Neva was 5 this year. Given her history of hurts, it’s easy to see she hasn’t had a lot of bird hunt time.

ruffed grouse-164

I thought we’d see a lot of grouse on our property as we had seen a number of coveys during summer. However, that wasn’t the case – sometimes we’d be out for an hour and not see a single grouse. I suspect the foxes and coyotes cleaned them up as well as the 10 skunks (10!) Lil live-trapped in the yard.

I haven’t hunted with her for a few days – the deer rut is on and smelly bucks are distracting to a dog that loves to hunt. I have to admit I’ve never seen dogs that like to hunt as much as these Wachtelhundes.

Unfortunately, there’s snow on the ground and I haven’t seen a grouse for days, not even during a full day of deer hunting where birds had been plentiful in early October.

Fortunately, there’s not a lot of snow – yet.

Oh well, it was a great fall, full of flushes and even some shooting. If the weather holds, we might even get to do a bit more of both.

And next year, maybe Neva and I can do some duck hunting.

Neva-13

May 7 and the ice is gone – from most lakes. There’s still ice on the big, deep lake trout lakes and one can still see the odd patch of snow/ice in the bush. Last night it was -80 C, so it’s not as if the blossoms are in bloom. Fact is the pussy willows have only just begun to emerge. No green sheen in the forest yet.

At least the pond in front of the house has been ice-free for several days, albeit most mornings there is a bit of ice along the edges. But that quickly melts off and is long gone by the afternoon.

When there was a mix of open water and ice on the pond, the ducks were in active courtship. The hooded mergansers in particular were really going at it. Lots of fighting and displaying and ‘gronking’, which is the sound of their mating call.

There were also wood ducks, green-winged teal, ringnecks, common mergansers and of course mallards. Very early, a pair of Canada geese built their nest on the beaver house and we expect the goslings will be hatching any day now.

I put up a blind to photograph from and for a few days there was a lot of action for me to try and capture. However, things have slowed down considerably and lately it’s mostly just a group of three drake mallards that come by the blind. Maybe things will pick up once the nights get a bit warmer and things start to green up.

In addition to the waterfowl, there’s been a steady stream of other migrants. Of special note was a pair of willets (first I’ve ever seen) and several rusty blackbirds. And the tree swallows are back – all three nest boxes look to be claimed.

Some deer did make it through the winter. In addition to the three that were almost daily visitors for months, there have been of late a couple of others coming to nibble at greenery on the lawn. Yesterday we noticed a large paw print of a bear on the road only a couple of hundred meters from the house. Maybe it’s the big brown one I saw last spring.

spring-7

Also yesterday, in the morning, we saw from the house a very fluffy, orangy red fox catching some rays. A couple of weeks ago, just when the ice was starting to melt, a coyote – the first we’ve seen on our property –showed up one day, but we haven’t seen it since. Best of all, I haven’t seen a timber wolf for several weeks.

There seems to be good numbers of ruffed grouse as we hear many drumming, not just on our property but pretty much wherever we have been. Neva seems to find one or two to flush on her daily walk, which keeps her happy. I like grouse a lot, so seeing and hearing grouse every day is a good thing.

Lil and I haven’t seen a single moose track anywhere we’ve been. Granted, we’ve not been travelling far and wide, but in years gone by it was common to see moose tracks on our property and here and there on the roads near town. Those days are long gone.

The MNRF released its moose tag quota allocations for the 2019 hunt and, unbelievably, is planning on issuing more cow tags than bull tags across the province as a whole. This despite the fact moose numbers continue to decline and in most WMUs, moose populations are well below their targets. In the WMU Lil and I hunt (06), only 1 tag was issued – for a cow. It seems to me this is complete lunacy, but it’s also what I’ve come to expect from an outfit where I worked for more than 30 years. I’m just glad I don’t work there any more – it’s hard enough admitting it’s where I had a career. I just shake my head.

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.

 

 

 

Today the upland game bird season opened near my home, here in Ontario. I enjoy upland game bird hunting and in addition to hunting close to home, I have, for many years, tried to do a hunt out in the prairies as well. But this year, I won’t be doing a western bird hunt. Time to reminisce, I guess.
Below is a story I wrote a few years back that I wasn’t able to sell. There’s not many publications that will take this sort of story and given the sorry state of the magazine industry, it didn’t really surprise me I didn’t sell it.
The good news is, it’s now free for your reading pleasure.  Hope some of you enjoy the read.The bad news is Brill has left us, as has Daffy. We miss them greatly.

Dawn breaks cool and misty. We’re anxiously waiting, wanting to give the birds a chance to fly off their roosts to their morning quest for food. We haven’t seen or heard any other hunters rumble down the gravel road past our camp, an ATCO trailer furnished sparsely but lacking little, towards the river. The rolling mist brings the road into view sporadically and while the lack of traffic is comforting, it’s still early. We know there will be competition and we’ll just have to deal with it. Space is one of the best attributes the west has to offer and thank goodness there is usually more than enough for all those that may show up. An easterner, but having experienced the open range for years, it’s easy for me to understand why westerners often express feelings of claustrophobia when transplanted to forested landscapes.

Brian, who had a career as a short order cook during and immediately after his university years, asks us what we’d like to eat. During our many hunts together, he’s assumed the mantle of camp chef. It’s not something we ever discuss; it’s just the way it is and I assume that as long as we are hunting together, it will always be. But despite some mild hunger pangs, we elect to go with Glenn’s suggestion to ‘do a short hunt and come back to camp for a really big breakfast’. And maybe by then, Peter will have arrived.

Having decided to forego our morning meal, we instead attend to other duties, like cleaning up. Some of us have our best friends along on this trip who require our attention, so there are dog walks, watering and feeding tasks to do.

The dogs stay in the trailer with us, and not surprisingly, seem to know there is real hunting soon to be done. They are scuffling about, whacking their wagging tails on table and chair legs, us and anything else that’s close by. I appreciate that the dogs are reasonably well-trained and it’s unlikely their agitated behaviour will result in much breakage or upsets, as we learned long ago not to leave anything fragile within wagging distance.  Excited dogs remind me of nervous people; the commonality is that both seem to have to pee a lot.

I take my girl Brill, outside. After she takes care of her business, we eye each other and I can’t help but smile. Immediately, Brill begins to yap and run round around in circles. She loves to hunt upland birds and I muse she is recalling memories of past years when she’s joined us on our western hunts. I watch her as she continues on her vocal and circular routine and wonder what, exactly, is she thinking about? Birds, I suspect.

Our trailer squats on a flat spot where upland and bottomland collide. It’s ranch country, so up on top, of course, it’s wide and open and dry. There are some decadent stands of big cottonwoods in the river valley, along with thick shrubbery that extends up into the attendant coulees. We suspect the primary reason the grand trees don’t seem to be regenerating is from thrashing and grazing pressure, but we’re careful to keep our thoughts to ourselves, lest we alienate ourselves with our ranch hosts. Substantial acreages of the bottom land have been converted to irrigation farming, producing grains and other crops, but even here livestock is often run. In addition to cattle, a few sections hold horses, which these days seem to be kept mostly for traditional reasons and nostalgia. Across the road from the trailer, there’s the bull pasture, and to the east and west, interspersed by tree and other cover, a number of various sized fields irrigated with circular pivots.

Gazing at the vastness of the scene in front of me, it’s easy to understand why the west is often referred to as ‘Big Sky Country’. The term might have been coined in Montana, but southern Alberta has similar scenery. Plus, I can’t think of a better way to describe the unfettered view of miles and miles of rolling grassland with the occasional dot of a clump of poplars and a never-ending skyline. Even though it’s early in the morning and light levels are still low, there’s an obvious hint of green to the viewscape that greets my eyes.

In the fall, for the most part, the scenery out here is usually a simple mixture of yellows and browns, plus whatever colour the sky happens to be. When snow blankets the ground, it can be hard to separate heaven from earth.

It is a very dry place we hunt, although this year, on the drive in, we had commented on the height of the grass and how things didn’t seem near as brown as they have in the past. There were also vibrant splashes of reds and orange in the coulees. We conclude it must have been a good growing season, and hope this translates into a bumper crop of birds.

We had also talked how things actually appeared to be somewhat lush, although as we rolled along it struck me that ‘lush’ is probably not the best word to use in a country where the ground is largely carpeted with cactus. I glance down and see I’ve narrowly missed walking into small clump of prickly pears.

Brill has finally stopped her antics and leads me back inside the trailer. The ‘boys’ have just about got things cleaned up, and it looks like we are ready to go. My gun is already in the truck, so all I have to do is don my vest, make sure there are enough shells in my pack and pick up Brill’s water dish. Glenn has jugs of water for both us and the dogs. Rob pours himself a thermal cup of coffee and then ruins it by pouring in a dollop from a can of Carnation evaporated milk. Brian has made himself a thermos of hot tea, which he, as with Rob’s coffee, never has to share.

I suspect our plan to ‘have a quick hunt before anyone else arrives then come back to camp and have a big breakfast’ is doomed to fail, which I mention to Brian. He laughs and doesn’t need to remind me that it’s a plan we’ve made before and one which has never worked out. If we’re lucky, we may get to eat by early afternoon.

All of us engage in some non-serious banter then decide, like we always do, to head east past the ranch house and hunt on the edge of Reg’s largest pivot.

With dogs and hunters loaded into two trucks, the ‘Trailer Park Boys’, a name taken from the TV show and whom we are referred to by the locals, and only somewhat because of our accommodations and habits, finally pull out. It’s Day 1 of a new season.

It’s also opening day of the pheasant season so that’s going to be the focus of the morning hunt. The seasons for sharp-tails and gray partridge – we still call them Hungarians – have been open for a couple of weeks, but there is very little hunting pressure on them in the area, except by us, of course. However we don’t think we put much of a dent into the populations, even during those years when we do well. As such, they’re never far from mind and we don’t turn our nose up at them. All three species are, on occasion, on or near the pivot, although we’re far and away more likely to encounter ringnecks there. And the ringnecks here are all wild birds, as the closest areas stocked with pen-raised birds are more than 30 miles distant. We like this.

The fog has lifted, leaving behind a bit of a chill and dampness. The winds are light – there’s always a wind – and the skies remain overcast. It almost feels like rain, which would be unusual. In all the years we’ve hunted here, it’s seldom rained, and then never hard enough to keep us from being afield.

As we are getting out of the trucks we hear two cock birds crowing near the banks of the river, in a place where the willows are so thick that often the only way through them, even for the dogs, is to follow the cattle and deer trails. Glenn goes to block where the river, the willows and the edge of the irrigated field meet, while Brian and his Lab Daffy, Rob, Brill and I head into a strip of cover to try to flush some of the birds we know are there, because they always are.

Brill is a Wachtelhund, a German breed I have as a result of my friendship with Gerhard (Gary) Gehrmann. Gary is originally from Germany, having settled in Northwestern Ontario, where he owns a hunting lodge catering mainly to European hunters. Like many of the versatile German hunting dog breeds, the Wachtelhund can be used to help with hunting almost any game species, no matter the size. While only about 60 pounds, they can be fearless, and aren’t afraid to hold wounded wild boars, black bears or even timber wolves at bay.

I haven’t used Brill much on big game. My first Wachtel, Heidi, loved moose hunting, but these days there are few moose where I live, and as such, Brill hasn’t had many moose hunting opportunities. Based on her demeanor, I doubt she would show much interest. She is a great waterfowl retriever, but it’s upland birds that bring out the best in her.

The Wachtelhund’s, like Daff the Labrador, are flushing dogs, but with one very unique, and lovely trait. They bay – actually, it’s more of a bark – when on hot bird and small game like hare, scent (they don’t bark for waterfowl, which I find really amazing). The hotter the scent, the louder and more frequent the barking. In thick upland bird cover, this is a Godsend, as you don’t need to interpret body language as to whether the dog is acting ‘birdy’. You don’t even have to see the dog.

So, here we are on the first drive of the first day of our week-long hunt. Within a minute or so of release, Brill disappears into the cover of dense grasses, berry-laden buffaloberries and thorny shrubs like hawthorns and currants that border the edge of the pivot field and lead to a stand of mature poplars. It’s not long before I hear her bark, and then spot her – mostly just her tail, beating briar bushes – about 80 feet from me.

About 10 seconds after her first bark, she lets out another, then another. She’s now into ‘Shrill Brill’ mode, and within moments, Daff, Robbie and I are bounding over to join in the hunt. A few years earlier, on Brill’s first hunt with us, both humans and dogs quickly caught on that a barking Brill means action, and if you want to participate, you’d best get over to Brill ASAP.  It’s obvious those lessons haven’t been forgotten as I watch and participate in the pile-on that takes place on the small plot of cover Brill is working.

Facing a stampede of two and four legged hunters, two cock birds simultaneously hurtle from shelter and frantically claw skyward and toward the safety of the river. I get the 12 gauge Ruger Red Label OU up and start my swing, but before I can get a bead on a bird I hear Robbie touch off a shot. He’s always first off the mark. Always. Unfortunately, it’s a clean miss, as is my shot. There are two more shots with the same result.

Brill continues to run around barking her face off  – this usually lasts a minute or so after birds have flushed – while Daff ambles over and gives all of us that “What? You missed?” look he excels at. I call Brill off by repeating ‘Gone Away!’ several times. Finally, she gives up and comes to me, panting heavily, eager to check out the next piece of cover.

We make our way down to the willows that grow on the sandy shoreline of the river, when Brill starts barking again. Then all heck breaks loose. I hear at least a couple of birds flush, someone yells “Hen!”, then there’s shooting, more barking, more beating of wings, some indecipherable yelling and another couple of shots. Stuck in a miserable patch of ‘slaplings’, all I’ve seen through my vegetative curtain is a flash of brown. At last I break out into the open, just in time to see a bird sail into the muddy brown waters of the river, a few feathers still aloft, floating along on the soft breeze. Daff jumps into the strong, swirling current of the river off a steep bank edge and does an admiral job catching up to the floating pheasant. When he brings the now soggy rooster back to Brian, I see both have huge grins on their faces. It’s the only bird we have in hand.

It seems we flushed three roosters and two hens. At least we are on the scoreboard.

For the next couple of hours, we work our way around the perimeter of the pivot with similar results. That is, we flush quite a few pheasants, touch off a fair number of shots, and occasionally connect. Just as the sun begins to break through the clouds, we find ourselves where the pivot and coulees converge. Maybe there will be a flock of Huns there, or some sharp-tails. Maybe both. One can only hope.

Brill goes over to inspect a towering thatch of grass beside a patch of stunted poplar trees only marginally taller. I can’t see her, but hear her bark. I’m some distance away so I pick up the pace in concert with Brill’s escalating vocalizations.

A brown bird bursts from the edge of the poplars clucking, and I immediately recognize it as a sharp-tail. I manage to squeeze off a round before the sharpie has gone10 feet and am rewarded with a crumpled bird. Another sharpie does the same thing with identical results. A double? Close enough, and I’m elated. Brill retrieves both of the plump prairie birds and I stuff them into my vest alongside my one pheasant. The extra weight feels good.

For the past 30 years I’ve lived in the southwestern border of the boreal forest, which is less than two hours from the pancake flat eastern prairie fringe and a long days drive from where I am today. It’s lake country with excellent angling for the likes of walleye, lake trout and muskellunge, and there is good hunting for whitetails and moose (sometimes!), as well as ruffed grouse, spruce grouse and, in large cutovers and burns, even sharp-tails. It’s a wonderful place to live, with a further redeeming feature being its closeness to the wide open west. I love both.

I think about how lucky and blessed I am as I watch and listen to Brill, who’s ran back into the cover that coughed up the brace of birds now in my vest. Her occasional bark has none of the almost panicky nature it has when the scent is hot, so I assume she’s sniffing memories of what I’m now in possession of.

I can see that the Trailer Park boys and Daffy are making their way towards me. I’m wondering if Glenn or Robbie will suggest that maybe we should check one more patch of cover – there are now other hunters nearby and we’re still hoping to put up a covey of Huns – before heading back to the trailer for that ‘really big breakfast’. If they don’t, I know Brian will bring it up.

The skies have cleared and the temperature is climbing rapidly. Good friends, good dogs, wide open spaces and Alberta birds.

It’s going to be a good week.