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.

 

In addition to wolves and coyotes, bears, deer, moose and turkeys have to be tagged in Ontario.

I recently purchased a wolf/coyote tag so I can hunt wolves. Actually, I just need/want the tag to be able to shoot a wolf if it happens to show itself on the frozen pond in front of the house. As I’ve said on a number of occasions on this blog and elsewhere, I don’t hate wolves and appreciate the important role they play in the overall scheme of things. However, there are, right now, lots of wolves around, a holdover from when deer were super-abundant. Deer populations have collapsed, but wolves have hung on.

But with few deer (and virtually zero moose), the local wolves are getting desperate. They broke into a neighbors kennel the other day and attacked a dog; the dog was saved only because the neighbor heard and then saw what was going on and managed to beat the wolf off. Hence the need/want for a wolf tag.

It’s not a wolf licence. Wolves in Ontario fall under the auspices of a small game licence, so to hunt wolves you need a small game licence and a wolf tag. There are some stupid regs associated with this scenario – one can’t hunt wolves with “a rifle with a muzzle energy greater than 400 ft-lbs . . . during the open [firearm] season for a big game species [without] a valid licence for a big game species that a season is open for.” Even if you have a small game licence and a wolf tag. That’s just ridiculous. But, since there is no moose or deer or elk rifle season open where I live right now, it’s not a pressing issue.

Anyway, I had to go down to a licence issuer to buy the tag. It cost me $11.36 and was printed out on a sheet of letter-size bond paper. The tag itself is only a portion of the sheet of paper (less than ¼) and there are instructions where to fold it and cut it out.

As I said, the tag was printed out on standard bond paper.

The Ontario Hunting Regulations Summary says “The term ‘game seals will be replaced by ‘tags’.”

I haven’t asked anyone why the change, but it seems to me it’s pretty hard to claim a piece of paper that can virtually disintegrate if it gets a soaker is a ‘seal’.

Which leads to the question: what is the purpose of a ‘seal/tag’?

Seals have been used by game agencies to ‘tag’ an animal a hunter has the authority to harvest. ‘Seal the deal’, so to speak. A seal was meant to ensure the harvest of a particular species, or type of animal (e.g., buck, doe) was tightly controlled. This is different from how fish are generally managed, where there are simple catch and possession limits (e.g., you can catch x number of walleye every day during the open season, and possess another number. But if you eat, or give to a friend your catch limit, you can go out the next day and do it all again). It’s all about abundance – generally there are lots more fish than there are animals.

Although there are caveats, the simple way to view seals and tags is to understand they are meant to ensure that once one has sealed/tagged an animal, you can’t kill another, unless one has another seal/tag.

In Ontario, and many other jurisdictions, seals have been made from a relatively indestructible material; like plastic, or nylon. Often, they had one side that was ‘sticky’; to seal an animal one had to remove the covering on the sticky side of the seal, attach the seal to the animal (at the kill site), and press the sticky side together. Usually, the time and date of the kill had to be notched into the seal. These two requirements (having a sticky seal that couldn’t be ‘unstuck’ and notching the seal, were designed to keep hunters honest and ensure the seal couldn’t be used again. In addition, seals are/were difficult to copy, so what you got was what you got.

The last few years Ontario has been getting out of having tags ‘stick’, but they were still made out of a mostly non-destructible material, had to be attached to the animal at the kill site, and had a requirement to be notched as to time and date of the kill, again, at the kill site. And they were difficult to copy.

But such seals, even without the sticky (or a wire which also used to be issued that was used to help attach the seal to the downed animal) aren’t cheap, or at least have some cost to them. As such, they’re one place where game agencies, being stretched ever thinner and under constant pressure to trim costs and find ‘efficiencies’, have been focusing their attention of late.

To achieve ‘efficiencies’ – and supposedly to make life more convenient for hunters – Ontario has done away with seals and replaced them with tags. There’s no requirement for tags to be printed on something that’s weather resistant and, except for wolf/coyote tags (I have no idea why there is an exception for these canids), a hunter who is eligible can print off both their licence and associated tags at home.

I’ve heard that there has been advice put out by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) to put tags in something like a zip-lock bag to keep it from being destroyed, but I don’t see such info on the tag I purchased nor do I see anything like that in the hunting summary.

There’s still the requirement to notch the tag at the kill site, but the tag doesn’t have to be attached to the animal if the hunter remains in possession of the animal until it’s brought “to the site of processing and is being processed for long-term storage”. If one isn’t in accompaniment of the animal, or “immediately available to produce the tag for inspection”, the tag has to be attached to the appropriate place on the animal as described by the tag.

Well, I can see problems here . . .

For one, requiring the tag to be notched at the kill site before the animal is moved, and not destroying the integrity of the tag, is going to be a challenge in any kind of inclement weather.

It is an offence to make a copy of any licence or tag, but given they can be printed out on paper and it doesn’t state, in either the current regulation summary or on the tag itself (at least it doesn’t on the wolf tag I have ), in plain language that making a copy is illegal, the tag is a weak replacement for a ‘seal’. And a paper tag is very easy to copy.

There is a code on the tag that can be scanned by a QR reader, and apparently it is encrypted for use by Conservation Officers. However, everything I have heard to date suggests the field CO’s don’t have, at least as yet, the ability to detect whether a tag is an original or a duplicate. Hopefully, that will be sorted out before too long . . .

Still, the tag is on paper, which means the QR code can be easily damaged and thus won’t, if damaged, be of much use with respect to enforcement.

Apparently, the switch from a ‘real seal’ to tags created a fair amount of acrimony within the MNRF owing mostly to problems around enforcement and security. I think I can see why.

To a large degree, MNRF and others in the hunting community are counting on hunters to be supportive of the new system and abide by the regulations.

However, as I pointed out in my last post, hunting culture in Ontario, in my opinion, has moved away from being supportive of what the MNRF is up to, and the incidence of blatant disregard for rules and regulation is high.

I hope I’m wrong and the things will go off this year with minimal problems.

I guess we will soon find out.

 

In Ontario, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), is undertaking a review of the present moose management program. It’s the latest in a long list of moose management reviews that have been done over the years.

The moose is the largest member of the deer family in the world. They are an important game animal in no small way because they are highly edible. They taste good. The harvest of a single moose can provide the meat needs for a few people for a year. And bulls grow large antlers, which provide hunters with a trophy and fond memories of past hunts.

Ontario has about 100,000 moose, give or take. Numbers go up and down; right now, they have been on a downward slide in most of the province for several years. People are worried about the moose population – hence the review. The MNRF review is scheduled to occur over the next couple of years.

I’ve written about the plight of moose on this blog, in magazine articles and recently published in the journal Alces a case study that was a review of deer and moose over the past many decades in Ontario’s Kenora District.

I don’t know what the terms are for the new moose review, but here’s what I think are the issues; it’s pretty much what the issues always are:

  • hunting
  • predation
  • disease and parasites
  • habitat

With respect to hunting, there’s much that could be done to help rebuild moose populations. Some of what’s recently (e.g., drastic reduction in adult tags, shortening of the calf season) been done might be helping to re-build herds in some Wildlife Management Units (WMUs), but problems remain.  For starters, I think that harvest strategies that are applied mostly across the province don’t work the same everywhere – for example, seasons and bag limits need to be more flexible and be tailored more closely to suit local conditions. I’m not the only one who believes we are still shooting too many cows and calves in some WMUs. Few, if any, other jurisdictions that manage moose allow the level of hunting for cows and calves that Ontario does.

The biggest hunting problem, though, is cultural. Few hunters believe the MNRF is doing, or has been doing, a good job of moose management. They lost faith in the system and many hunters are so frustrated they are openly flaunting the rules. More than 60 moose were seized by MNRF Conservation Officers during the first couple of weeks of the hunt. Typical offences were shooting a moose for which the hunter(s) had no valid tag, perhaps in a WMU where the tag did not apply, or shooting in an unlawful manner or place (e.g., shooting from a boat, on a road or at night).

People are doing unlawful things and have lost faith in the system for many reasons. One big one is how the draw or tag system works.

In Ontario, a hunter needs to buy a moose licence to be eligible to apply in a draw for a tag. A tag is usually valid for either a bull or a cow, in a specific WMU. In a few WMUs, a tag is also required to harvest a calf moose. In many WMUs with a moose hunting season, there is both an archery only season and a general gun season.

Everyone who buys a moose licence can hunt moose. Party hunting is allowed. There are some caveats, but basically, if a group of several hunters goes moose hunting, anyone in the party can shoot a moose as long as someone in the party has an adult validation tag.

If no one has an adult validation tag, then hunters can only hunt calf moose. The moose season in most of northern Ontario is 8 or 9 weeks in length, but the calf season is only open now during about two weeks of the moose season.

Rather than get into more details at this point, I think it’s worthwhile to look at a couple of what I and many others think are fundamental problems with the system as so far discussed.

First, everyone can buy a moose licence which allows everyone to hunt moose. But as described, to hunt an adult moose, a hunter must have an adult validation tag. A validation tag is available through a draw – some validation tags (typically about 12-14% of the total available in the province) are allocated to the tourist industry (outfitters) and can be purchased from the outfitter. Most resident hunters opt for the draw, as non-residents, for the most part, can hunt only through a tourist outfitter. As a result, a moose hunt through a tourist outfitter is pricey.

The basic problem with the draw system is that a hunter must purchase their licence before being eligible to enter the draw. The draw is random, with two pools – a preferred pool (Pool 1) and a non-preferred pool (Pool 2). To be in the preferred pool, one had to have applied previously and have been unsuccessful in drawing a tag.  First time moose hunters are in the non-preferred pool as are moose hunters who drew a tag through the draw in the previous year.

Some hunters are lucky and frequently draw an adult validation tag; others might go 10 or more years without drawing a tag. There are some wrinkles to the system, but that’s the essence of Ontario’s moose draw system.

The simple pool that can result in going years without a tag coupled with the need to buy a moose licence before knowing whether you actually will get a tag has resulted in a great deal of discontent among Ontario moose hunters and is one of the major factors why hunters have lost faith in the system.

Other jurisdictions with a draw for big game animals, including moose (such as Alberta and Wyoming, to name a couple), charge a modest fee to enter into the draw, but don’t require you to buy a licence unless you get drawn and are eligible for a validation tag. In Alberta, every time you apply for a tag, but don’t get one, you get a point. The way that system works is that hunters with the most points get a tag.

For example, if there are 10 tags in a WMU and 50 people apply and have been applying every year, one gets a tag every 5 years. If more tags become available (e.g., because the moose population increased) and the number of applicants remained the same, it might take only 4, or 3 years to draw a tag. If the population dropped or moose hunter applicants increased, it would take more years to get a tag.

But it allows the hunter with a relative amount of certainty to see where and when they are likely to get a tag. A hunter can apply to whichever WMU they wish; some will take longer to get a tag, some less – but the hunter has much better certainty about the chances of getting drawn. Plus, one doesn’t have to dish out the expense of a licence every year, which is a plus to hunters worrying about costs, which over time, can add up.

Ontario justifies its system partly on the basis that all hunters can still go hunting – party hunting is allowed and everyone can hunt calf moose.

Few jurisdictions provide these opportunities and for good reasons. Party hunting can be quite effective and killing calf moose has been shown to be an impediment to maintaining moose populations. Other jurisdictions tend to have much more restrictive party hunting regulations than what’s allowed in Ontario. It was also once thought that the hunter kill of calf moose would have little or no impact on moose population growth, because the hunter harvest of calf moose would be what biologists call ‘compensatory’. In other words, if hunters didn’t kill calf moose, wolves, or bears or other causes of mortality would, and at the end of a year the number of calf moose that survived to be one year of age (and require an adult validation tag to be harvested by hunters) would be the same.

However, that theory has been thoroughly debunked. Except where the hunter harvest is relatively low and moose productivity high (e.g., areas with excellent habitat conditions and relatively low numbers of wolves and bears), hunting calf moose is additive mortality. It makes sense – adult moose were once calves; kill too many calves and where do the adult moose come from? Not the cabbage patch.

There’s lots more that can and could and should be done to improve the management – and numbers – of Ontario’s moose herds.

Over the coming weeks and months, I’ll be discussing many of them.

In the interim, I think we need to fundamentally change the way the draw system works. Sticking with the same system and expecting things to improve is insane. We need a system that hunters can support. Without the support of hunters, all is lost.

 

I recently returned from a mule deer hunt in Alberta. On the last day of the season, I was able to fill my tag with a nice buck, with help from my good friend and hunter host Glenn.

Unfortunately, I don’t know whether the deer will be edible.

In this part of Alberta, north of Medicine Hat and close to the Saskatchewan border, mule deer have a high incidence of chronic wasting disease, or CWD. Our friend Rob, who often hunts with us, has had his last two harvested mule deer from the same area (2017 and 2018) test +ve for CWD; he’s had a total of 3 +ve CWD mulie bucks over the past 5 years.

CWD is a prion disease thought to have originated from scrapie in sheep, but no one knows for sure. Prions are very weird, in that they are a ‘bent’ protein, not a virus or bacteria; so they are not a living entity in the classic sense. My friend Brian thinks they fall into the realm of ‘magic’, as they defy reason. There is no cure and once an animal is infected, the disease is always fatal. Apparently, the incubation period is a minimum of about a year, sometimes more than two years in mule deer, before clinical signs begin to develop (drooling, body tremors, loss of weight).

Worst of all, it seems you can’t get rid of CWD from the environment. It survives in soil and vegetation for upwards of a decade and even autoclaving won’t destroy it. Magic.

There is fear that as it becomes prevalent in a deer population, extinction of infected herds is a possibility. Game departments in a number of states and provinces are limiting movement of hunter harvested deer by enacting legislation that makes it unlawful to move around or import unprocessed carcasses. That means the animal must be de-boned and antlers on the skull plate cleaned. It’s hoped this reduces the rate of spread of the disease as these parts harbor most of the prions.

Where CWD is prevalent, or where there are worries it might show up, it’s either mandatory or recommended that the head of a harvested deer is submitted for testing, dependent on the jurisdiction and specific area the deer was harvested from.

It’s often said CWD is unlikely to jump the species barrier, but if it came from sheep, and is known to now occur in mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, moose and caribou/reindeer, that claim doesn’t seem to hold a lot of water.

As of yet, it has not been diagnosed in humans, but the World Health Organization recommends against consumption of a CWD infected animal.

Trying to stop the spread and rate of infection of this disease is more than a challenge. There’s just not enough known about the disease.

For one, it seems old, mature mule deer bucks are much more likely to get infected than younger bucks or does of any age. In Alberta, whitetails on the same range as mulies have a very low rate of infection as well, although in other jurisdiction, for example in Wisconsin, whitetails in ‘hotspots’ do have high rates of infection. Free-ranging elk don’t seem to be particularly vulnerable to infection. Moose can become infected, but it’s rare. Reindeer in Norway were recently found with CWD (how did it get there? Previously, it had only been documented in the USA and Canada, at least as far as I can tell. CWD is not as yet a problem in Canadian or Alaskan caribou.

In elk, some specific genotypes don’t get the disease, but these animals, apparently, are rare in the population and exhibit other traits that make them undesirable. One such elk in a US compound has survived for years in a pen where all other elk that have been placed there over the years became infected and died. Her name is ‘Lucky’.

Other than trying to restrict movement of hunter harvested carcasses, the other method game agencies have used to try and stop the spread of the disease has been to de-populate deer in the area deer were been found to be infected (the Norwegians killed 2500 reindeer when they detected the disease in a couple of animals). This action seems to work in early stages, when only one or two animals have been found with CWD; but once it’s established, de-population is probably a lost cause. Killing all the deer to try and stop the disease from killing all the deer seems  . . . pointless, comes to mind.

In Alberta, the rumour is that mule deer management practices are going to change, perhaps as early as 2019, to try and contain the disease. Presently, mule deer are managed mostly through a draw, which directly limits harvest levels. This management practice has been in place for many years and resulted in Alberta substantially improving the overall quality of the buck harvest – a lot of bucks were able to live long enough to grow a big set of antlers.

But if it’s old bucks that are most likely to get and spread the disease, the thinking is that maybe it’s time to reduce the average age of mulie bucks. The easiest way to do that would seem to be to relax harvest restrictions by managing mule deer with a ‘General’ license; e.g., getting rid of the quota system and simply requiring hunters to buy a mule deer license/tag that’s valid during the open hunting season. More hunters, a higher harvest, fewer mule deer overall and far fewer old bucks.

That might work, except maybe not. In south-east Alberta, where CWD is most prevalent, there are large acreages that are more or less mule deer sanctuaries, and wouldn’t be affected by an easing of hunting restrictions. First off, there’s CFB Suffield; it’s 45,836 ha in size and right now, only open to limited elk hunting. There are also numerous large ranches (often these ranches are 10’s of thousands of acres in size) that either prohibit or severely restrict hunting, so any liberalization of hunting of mule deer would have little or no impact on those areas.

On the other hand, what are the options?

One thing for sure, more research effort is required. Unfortunately, because CWD impacts mostly on game animals and the hunting community – and hasn’t caused human illness or death (yet!!!) it’s a low priority for governments everywhere.

Still, there’s hope. Very recently, a bulletin from the Wildlife Society said “researchers found that high levels of major compounds in soil organic matter — humic acids — degrade CWD prions. When prions in soil were exposed to high concentrations of humic acids, researchers found lower levels of them. They also noted lower levels of infectivity in mice that were exposed to soil with higher levels of humic acids.” That’s good, and welcome news.

But more work is needed. Now.

In the meantime, I’ll be waiting for the results of testing on the mule deer I tagged.

Fingers crossed.


The top two photos were taken Nov 19, 2016. The bottom Nov 6, 2018. Same deer?

It has been a cold autumn, although there isn’t near as much snow as there was at this time last year. The ponds and shallow lakes have frozen over, which usually signals that the winter snowfall will be less, as opposed to more. I’m good with that, as shoveling the drive isn’t my favourite winter pastime.

Moose season is still open and although I have a bull tag, Lil and I haven’t been able to fill it. We were scuppered early in the season by a couple of poachers who were trying to shoot moose for which they had no valid tag. They wound up chasing them away from Lil – she had been sitting by a small meadow near a road and listening to the moose making their way to her, when these nitwits came by, spotted at least one moose from their vehicle, and jumped out after them. The moose ran between Lil and the poachers so she was afraid to shoot. I was a short distance away watching one of two spots – the frightened moose ran through the spot I wasn’t watching.

As I said, scuppered; we didn’t even get ID off the poachers who sped away in their truck after Lil yelled at them.

Then, a couple of weeks later we were headed home and there were 4 moose on the road, one a yearling bull which would have been just fine to tag. But, you can’t shoot from or down a road and the moose were able to escape in the thick bush and flooded timber beside the road.

We had a couple of other close encounters, but lately we are seeing far more wolf tracks than moose sign. The wolves are running up and down all the roads and trails (for miles and miles!), which are keeping (along with human night hunters) the moose deep in the forest, where it’s impossible to hunt them (and there aren’t all that many moose; I have the only adult tag issued for the Wildlife Management Unit we’re hunting).

It is amazing how many wolves there are in this area (timber, or gray wolves, not coyotes). Over the last decade or so, I’ve seen several dozen wolves. During the same time, I’ve seen less than 10 moose.

But although the wolves are for certain killing moose, it was white-tailed deer that were largely sustaining the wolf population over the winter. I would have thought that when the deer population collapsed a few years ago, wolf numbers would similarly collapse, but so far, that hasn’t happened. I suppose there were still enough deer around, but I can’t believe there are now enough deer left for the wolves to make it through this winter.

Worse, last winter was long and the snow was deep. Officially, it was classified as ‘severe’, which should have translated into a further decline in deer numbers.

And the evidence from this fall sure supports that. Driving north 50-60 km to our moose hunting spots this fall, we have yet to cut a deer track in the snow. During our walks for moose, we’ve seen a grand total of 3 deer tracks.

When I went to our traditional deer hunting areas, the picture is still grim. A few days hunting specifically for deer didn’t yield a single sighting. There were tracks – here and there – but very few rubs and I only came across a couple of small scrapes under two adjacent jack pine trees on a pipeline ROW.

Lots of wolf sign, though.

So given the lack of deer everywhere, I thought I might as well hunt deer on our property, given there are a small number of resident does and I figured a mature buck should, or could, show up from somewhere during the rut. We had seen a single spike buck off and on during the summer, but that was one buck I wasn’t prepared to harvest.

I also thought I might get a chance to take a wolf, as they have been regularly chasing the resident deer and are continuing to whittle them down.  In addition, it appears the wolves took our one, resident beaver just before the pond in front of the house froze over. All that work, fixing up the lodge and putting together a feed pile for the winter, for naught.

I watched the small field on our property several mornings and evenings without much luck. I did see, on a couple of occasions, the spike buck and what I assume is its twin sister, but that was about it. No wolves, either.

Then, on Nov. 6, a large buck appeared. I took a couple of photos and then decided I should harvest it. I had never taken a deer from our property (this is our 22nd year there), but I figured it might be the only chance I would get this year, so I took it.

It was a nice buck and the wear class age puts it at 5 ½ years. That’s amazing!

To have survived that long in the midst of such high wolf density is close to a miracle.

What’s also amazing is I think it could be the same deer I photographed two years earlier breeding a doe beside the house. After that, I had never seen that buck again.

Of course, I can’t be sure it’s the same buck. But the photos do suggest to me that it’s at least a possibility.

I do feel somewhat sad about killing it, but at least I know it’s passed on its DNA, which is a good thing.

And I’m still going to be hunting wolves – which were in the yard again last night. There’s just way too many, in my opinion.

 

 

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.

Most fires burn the forest in a patchy manner. New growth sprouts quickly after a fire; species like moose fare well in the aftermath of fire. Kenora District is in Northwestern Ontario, a place where fires are omnipresent.

It’s September and nearing the end of what’s been a hot summer in much of the northern hemisphere. A hot summer, with lots of fires, almost everywhere. Because of climate change, the prediction is that the future will bring more of the same. Talking about climate change, at least here in Canada, seems to always be top of mind.

Most of the mainstream reporting on how to prevent a future of more fires appears to be concentrating on fighting climate change. I have seen a few reports suggesting we need to do a better job of planning and prevention, but such reporting is the exception, not the norm.

However, the way I see it, addressing fire management by trying to change the climate is largely a waste of effort, time and money.

We know there’s always been fire and there always will be fire. And everyone agrees that fire is a major force that needs to be reckoned with. But figuratively and literally, we can’t put out every fire.

With respect to wildfires, what I think we need to do is a much better job of integrating fire into land management actions; not an easy task, as everyone is afraid of fire, for very good reasons. I live in the woods so I’m well aware of the fire danger.

Regardless, it’s too bad in all the attention the fires have been getting there’s been very little information on how the fires will change the landscape in their aftermath, or on trying to explain the role of fire in ecosystems. Some of the recent wildfires that I’ve cursorily examined here in Ontario will very likely quickly improve habitat conditions for big game like moose and elk; the impacts on caribou, a species at risk, are more difficult to assess. But in the long run, fire is also good for caribou.

In British Columbia, I suspect some of the fires are burning through beetle infested forests – which could also be forests with tremendous potential to grow big game – but those are items I’m not hearing much about. The reporting is all about the extent of the fires, how much they are costing and the dangers to humans and our structures. And, how it’s all related to climate change.

One message that gets the short-shrift is that most of the areas where these fires are burning – again, almost everywhere in the world – are fire-dominated ecosystems. For example, boreal forests across much of Canada are typified by trees like jack pine, black spruce and aspen. These tree species dominate the boreal forest landscape because their rejuvenation depends on fires. The boreal forest is always burning up. If it ever stopped burning, it would soon begin to look very, very different.

Regardless of what we do we are going to continue to see wildfires; some years will be more an inferno than others.  Despite the fear and real dangers fires present, fire is actually a good thing; if fires were eliminated from the landscape, the environmental impacts could be great.

Fires renew the forest (many trees and shrubs regenerate best in the aftermath of fire) and many species of wildlife depend on young forests for their survival. Eliminating fire would risk putting many species in danger of extinction. Fires also help cleanse the landscape of disease and pestilence (ticks and pine beetle come to mind, but there’s a lot more).

Anyway, it’s impossible to eliminate all fires. And to repeat, it’s not even desirable.

What we can, and should do, is do a better job of managing for fires – growing fire-resistant forests adjacent to towns and cities would be a good start.

Just blaming climate change is…stupid.