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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 antlers of all the Ontario cervids have, by now, been free of velvet for weeks. The crowns are now hardened bone, slowly shrinking as they dry.

Antler velvet is a hairy skin that is a component of growing antler bone. It’s very sensitive as it covers a mass of blood vessels and nerves that will quickly transform into a crown of antlers. Antlers are said to be one of the fastest growing tissues found in the animal world.

On whitetails, the velvet is shed quickly and, it seems, in private. I’ve never witnessed a buck shedding its velvet; only once I saw a buck that had obviously just shed its velvet (the buck in the photo). Fresh red blood still smeared the whitish bone. I once watched a bull moose losing its velvet; it used the dead, overhead branches of a large spruce to rake its antlers and as the velvet sloughed off, the bull would shake its head, grab velvet in its mouth, chew it off and eat it. Velvet is high in nutrients and minerals; it’s seldom allowed to go to waste.

Most hunters are fascinated by antlers and in many cultures antlers are considered to be a trophy and a memorable part of the hunt. There are a number of organizations that maintain records of large antlered specimens and there are also various standardized methodologies used to ‘score’ or rank antlers. One of the best known is the Boone and Crockett Club (B&C) that uses a scoring system with the same name. The club was founded in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt, who was president of the USA from 1901 to 1909.

In England and Europe, the antlers of stags, notably those of red deer, have adorned the walls of castles and homes of nobility for centuries.

Antlers – presence or absence, plus size – are often an integral part of how members of the deer family are managed by game agencies everywhere.

B&C categorizes antlers as being either ‘typical’, or non-typical. Typical antlers reward size and symmetry; in other words a great typical buck has ‘perfect’ antlers, the large antlers are a mirror of each other and have no unusual or abnormal growths of points other than what is considered to be normal for the species.  Non-typicals are just that. The biggest antlers are usually non-typicals.

For the antlers of a white-tailed buck to be listed (declared a bona-fide trophy) in the typical category by B&C, it must be measured by a certified B&C scorer and have a net score of at least 170. Most trophy typical whitetails have 5 points on each antler, although some have 4 and some more than 5. The present world record was shot by Milo Hansen in 1993 in Saskatchewan. It is basically a 6X6 with two small points on the right antler; it has a net score of 213 5/8ths.

Before a set of antlers can be officially measured and scored, there must be a ‘drying’ period of at least 60 days after the harvest of the animal. Particularly large antlers may shrink a few inches in that 60 day drying period; shrinkage could continue for a few years, but once the deer has been officially scored and measured, that’s the score, regardless if it continues to shrink (marginally) over time. Antlers are measured without velvet.

An elk antler from an animal that roamed Minnesota prior to their extirpation in the mid-19th century was recently found in the bottom of a lake in that state. A large antler, it was hollow; apparently it had developed full size but not yet full ossification. It probably wound up in the lake early in the fall. How that happened is by no means clear, but if it was deposited in early fall, it must have been associated with the death of the bull, as elk antlers aren’t shed until March or April. The inner, softer, developing portion deteriorated over time in the water, but the outer core was still intact. Maybe it was still in velvet.

Another interesting antler factoid.

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September and October are my favourite months of the year. Time to reap the fall bounty. Of course, autumn is the hunting season, and I’m a hunter. But I don’t just hunt game like moose , deer, upland game birds and waterfowl (although I am leaving for a moose hunt tomorrow). In university, one of the profs called me ‘the fungi hunting Finn’, recognizing my fondness for wild mushrooms. It’s a tradition I’ve clung to.

There are plenty of species of edible mushrooms, but I only feel comfortable picking a few species. By far the best, in my opinion, is Armillariella mella, commonly called the ‘Honey Mushroom”, or the ‘stump mushroom’. As the books say, it’s “one of the best edibles” and during a good growing year, they can be surprisingly abundant.

Not every year is a good growing year, though, especially in regions like the one I live in where soils are thin and can dry out quickly. Plus, the area is prone to periods of drought. As a result, most years I don’t find any of my favourite fungi.

But this was a very wet summer (June, July and August all saw well above  average rainfalls) and the trend continued into September. So my fingers were crossed that this would be a year for ‘shrooms.

Once the grouse season opened, I spent a few mornings and afternoons with the dogs trying to pot a couple of birds and noticed that mushrooms seemed to be everywhere. So I started looking in earnest for honey mushrooms a few days ago, after a couple of nights of cool temperatures that were right around the freezing mark. That seems to be the cue honey mushrooms need. I figured our property should harbor a crop as we had had about 80 acres of poplar harvested a few years ago, which should have created the needed rotting stumps.

And I was right! It didn’t take long to find enough to fill up a paper bag. I had some with a moose steak yesterday and today they garnished a plate of ruffed and spruce grouse cooked in gravy.

They were GREAT. Edible, choice; you gotta love it.

 

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I just returned from Brandon, where the 50th Annual North American Moose Conference and the 8th International Moose Symposium were combined and held. There were people from North America and Eurasia attending the meetings, but I only managed to intermingle for a short while; I was a one day attendant during a set of meetings, field trips and social events that lasted several days. I really enjoyed myself and it seemed to me that was the feeling that captured the general mood.

I heard several talks about moose and listening to those presentations was like music to my ears. I heard that as a species, moose seem to be faring well, although populations in some areas have declined precipitously. I live in one of those areas – northwestern Ontario – I was there to provide an overview of the factors driving moose and white-tailed deer populations in the Kenora District of Ontario.

I don’t think my presentation was quite as lucid as I had hoped and I know I made an error when I couldn’t see the labelling on one of the graphs I had inserted into the power point presentation. Unable to read the labels and the legend, I promptly got the deer and moose stats wrong. Oh well, that will be corrected during the final write-up and anyway,  I think the crowd got the gist of my presentation.

It’s still an emerging consensus, but it appears that in much of eastern North America’s moose range, moose populations are limited by the presence of a parasite called brain worm. In that eastern, wetter, more highly forested biome, the parasite is commonly found in populations of white-tailed deer, where it seems to affect deer minimally, if at all. However, when moose become infected with brain worm, the animal often dies.

In the western, drier and more open ranges of North America, there is little to no incidence of brain worm in deer or moose. The presence of brain worm seems to do a good job of helping to explain how moose populations are compromised by high populations of deer.

It seems that in the east, once deer densities exceed about 4 deer/km2, moose populations decline. When deer densities are low, rates of transmission of the parasite from deer to moose rarely occurs.

There’s a lot more to the stories on moose and deer dynamics, but one of the topics of interest is how moose recover from low densities. In western Manitoba, southern Saskatchewan and south-eastern Alberta – the Canadian prairies – the thinking is that moose populations have been on the rise coincident with a decline in the number of rural farmers and ranchers living on the landscape. There’s evidence that incidence of illegal, unregulated hunting wasn’t necessarily high, as moose populations were long-depressed in the prairies, but it didn’t take a lot of moose hunting to keep populations low. As people abandoned their homesteads, more and more moose managed to find refuge and survive. Today, moose populations in grain and cattle country are robust.

The eastern forest areas where moose have recently declined are the same areas where deer populations simultaneously surged. But recent winter of deep snow and cold have knocked deer populations back; if they stay low or decline further, moose populations may be poised to recover.

A growing concern is that where moose populations are lowest, recovery could be jeopardized by legal, but unregulated hunting (Aboriginals and Metis have the constitutional Right to hunt and fish; the present interpretation is this means the hunting of moose by some can be done at any time of the year and there are no seasons or bag limits on the harvest).

The moose harvest by such individuals may not have to be much to prevent severely depressed moose populations from recovery.

Unregulated hunting is certainly not the only issue regarding moose population (or other game species) recovery dynamics. But to help solve the puzzle as to how to effectively manage moose populations in particular, it’s a factor that needs a lot more attention than society at large has lately been willing to give it.

grouse-9

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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Not long ago, the Ontario government was proposing to loosen restrictions on wolf hunting, largely in response to some people in the hunting community who have some political clout and connections and who believe a higher harvest of wolves will help struggling moose populations recover. I didn’t think much of what was being proposed (the intent was OK, but I thought the proposed actions had been poorly thought through). I also thought that what was being suggested would result in a substantial backlash from anti-hunters and others, who might not be anti-hunting per se, but nevertheless wouldn’t like what they saw as a good way to manage either wolves or moose and would mount an effort to block the proposed changes. See my posts ‘A Stumble and a Fumble’ (Apr 5) and ‘Missing the Mark’ (Jan 1).

Needless to say, the initiative went down in flames. No easing up or relaxing of the regulatory framework on hunting wolves. For a while, it was status quo; but it didn’t take long before changes were again being brought forward by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), this time under a new Minister.

I suspect the MNRF Minister who was in charge when the relaxing of wolf hunting regulations was proposed was heavily chastised by his party peers for the initiative. I’m also quite certain the initiative drew the ire of a number of environmental organizations who have close ties to the Liberal party and they were ultimately the ones to tell the Premier that relaxing the rules on wolf hunting as proposed was simply ludicrous and unacceptable (to them).

Governments are never happy when they have to back down on something they have said they want to do.

Thus it didn’t surprise me that shortly after the initiative was shot down, there was a cabinet shuffle and the MNRF minister lost his job and was moved to another portfolio.

The new Minister has changed course and the MNRF is now proposing to give wolves and coyotes far more protection in Ontario, albeit not across the whole of the province, but over a substantial piece of geography in eastern Ontario. The purpose is to protect the so-called eastern wolf (and very recently renamed the Algonquin wolf), a new ‘species’ of wolf found mostly in and around Algonquin Park. The same groups who were successful in lobbying the government to not go ahead with its earlier proposals to ease up on wolf hunting and trapping regs are pushing the government to close wolf and coyote hunting in 34 Wildlife Management Units’s.

Interestingly, a recent article by Carl Zimmer of the New York Times (which was subsequently reported on by Kip Hansen in a post The Gray, Gray World of Wolves on the blog https://wattsupwiththat.com gives us this story:  DNA Study Reveals the One and Only Wolf Species in North America. (my underline)

The first large study of North American wolf genomes has found that there is only one species on the continent: the gray wolf. Two other purported species, the Eastern wolf and the red wolf, are mixes of gray wolf and coyote DNA, the scientists behind the study concluded.

The finding, announced Wednesday, highlights the shortcomings of laws intended to protect endangered species, as such laws lag far behind scientific research into the evolution of species.”

Ontario scientists, in fact, have known for a long time that the ‘eastern’ wolves and gray wolves, also commonly known as timber wolves, interbreed and produce viable offspring. Given they look similar, interbreed freely, produce viable offspring and do not owe their presence on the landscape to human meddling (i.e., none of these wolves are the result of humans transplanting wolves from one locale to another), Biology 101 would say they are not separate species.

But the use of endangered species legislation in much of North America (and who knows, likely elsewhere) is seldom about the protection of species. The legislation has been usurped by what many would call radical environmentalists to get as many not just species, but populations of animals protected, so as to stop things like hunting, trapping and infrastructure development, like roads, pipelines or whatever. In Ontario, there are thousands and thousands of gray wolves, and the species is in no danger of extinction; in fact, by any measure one wants to look at, wolves in Ontario are thriving.

So . . . . first it was going to be ‘open season’ on wolves. No need for a special wolf licence and much cheaper licensing requirements, especially for non-residents. Now the big switcheroo; let’s provide wolves with even more protection, in fact increase the area where there is an outright ban on wolf hunting and trapping. Much better!!

It’s not hard to imagine the next step is to get moose populations, at least in some parts of the province, listed as a species at risk and ban hunting of them as well.

It’s almost funny how ‘protection’, in the minds of many, automatically means ‘ban hunting’, because that’s the ‘best’ option in their minds. Surely to goodness we have the ability to manage wolves and moose (and other animals) in such a way as to continue to allow hunting (and trapping) in a manner that’s sustainable. Isn’t that what the wildlife management profession is all about?

Where’s the science that supports an outright ban on hunting and trapping of wolves? Answer; there isn’t any. It seems to me it’s mostly politicians and their environmental lackeys targeting hunters and trappers, because for many if not most of those folk, hunting and trapping, in their minds, is simply bad bad bad. By the way, it’s not an ‘outright ban’; hunting and trapping of wolves by Aboriginals and Metis will continue as usual (i.e., no changes to their rights to hunt and trap as they wish).

Regardless, the scientists who support this wolf hunting and trapping ban for licensed hunters and trappers should be ashamed of themselves. Reprehensible behaviour, in my opinion.

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The big turtle still lurks in the pond out front of our house. It’s a snapping turtle (Chelydra serpintina) and she’s huge; it’s quite likely she’s also very old. It’s been in the pond, as a large adult, for several years. And like from the start of her occupation, she’s still snapping down and making off with waterfowl.

Snapping turtles eat a wide variety of things including “a surprisingly large amount of vegetation”. Sounds like an omnivore to me.  It’s no wonder snapping turtles remain rather abundant (really?) even in areas as highly populated with people and their developments as Ontario.

In Ontario, they’re classified as a ‘Game Amphibian’. If you have a valid fishing licence (either a resident or non-resident) you can catch them ‘by hand or with a box or funnel trap’, according to the hunting regulations (what?). There’s a season for Ontario residents and another for non-residents. The daily bag limit is two and as long as you’ve never caught and kept more than two in one day, you can have up to five in your possession. There are other rules and regulations (of course!) that pertain to your interactions with snapping turtles, but the point I’m making is that since you can harvest them almost everywhere in Ontario, in a season that in many Wildlife Management Units never ends (the open season is all year long), there must be a lot of them around. Right?

However, some believe the present fishing and hunting legislation and regulations don’t do a good job of managing  snapping turtles.  And, they say, at least in some places, there aren’t many snappers left. Some of these individuals and groups believe snapping turtles should be managed as a ‘Species at Risk’ (SAR); not as a ‘Game Amphibian’.

A big problem is there isn’t a lot known about Ontario’s snapping turtles and the information that’s available is limited in scope. For example, while it’s mandatory to complete a questionnaire if you actually harvest a snapping turtle, not many mandatory questionnaires are submitted. Why? Probably because:  A, I suspect not many people who live in or visit Ontario actually harvest snapping turtles (do you know anybody?); and B;  for those who do harvest a turtle, it’s unlikely they fill in the form and report it to the provincial government.

“B” is probable because the last time I looked, no one has ever been convicted of the offence of not completing and submitting a mandatory hunt report. That applies not just for snapping turtles, but all mandatory reports about ones’ hunting activities of game animals in Ontario. So even the harvest data that does exist, is suspect.

Aboriginal and Metis, with a few restictions, can harvest snappers without a license and there are no season, catch or possession limits. I suspect that harvest methods are also less restrictive than they are for others.

Still, if snapping turtle populations have declined over time, I’m certain hunting is only one of many potential factors. Because they have a relatively low reproductive rate (the survival rate of all early age classes is dismal), anything that increases the death rate among adults could spell trouble. In some places they might be getting killed because they’re viewed as as a pests and nuisance. It’s common to see them killed owing to collisions with automobiles. Developments that drain marshlands and otherwise harden the landscape don’t do turtles favors.

Probably in some places, there are lots of snapping turtles; other places, not so many. Seems logical.

But the bottom line is no one really knows how many snapping turtles there are in Ontario.  Are there a lot? Enough? Not enough? It’s an ongoing battle that has potential for serious repercussions, not only for those who harvest snapping turtles, but for all sorts of human endeavors that require permits to proceed.

It’s busy work, keeping a lot of people occupied, but I don’t think the ongoing discussions are accomplishing a whole lot. On the other hand, it is what governments do.

Meanwhile, I know where there is one really big snapping turtle that’s still up to her old tricks. Out there in the pond, sneakin’ around, snappin’ up waterfowl . . .