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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A New Year is upon us and my best to all.

Here in Northwestern Ontario, we had a very mild fall, up to December, when winter finally came. We now have close to 50 cm of snow on the ground and the temperature has been in the – 20 0C range for much of the past month, including today. No – 400 s, though, which can occur, and is something I really don’t like. Things just start not working and worse, start breaking, at that temperature.

The whitetail deer does around the house are still able to walk around in the snow without too much difficulty. The snow is not quite to their bellies, is light and there is no crust. The deer went into winter in good condition – courtesy of that mild autumn – and barring another big dump of snow soon – as well as a normal ‘end’ to winter around the first of April, should get through OK. A rule of thumb is 50 days of 50 cm of snow and there will be significant deer mortality. Not quite there yet and what is there can be expected to settle several centimeters over the next few days. No major snowfalls forecast for the immediate future.

The wolves have not been around for several days. However, where we went ice fishing for lake trout on New Year’s Day, we saw that there had been 4 or 5 of them out on the ice the previous night.  Given where we were fishing isn’t all that far from home as the crow flies, that’s where the missing wolves might be. With deer numbers way down from previous years, this could be the winter that finally brings wolf numbers down, too.

It’s interesting that once the snow comes, the ruffed grouse seem to almost disappear. I suspect they feed voraciously on buds in tree tops (such as white birch) at dawn or dusk, fill up their crops and then spend days roosting in either the snow or thick conifers, until their food source is exhausted. Then the cycle is repeated. I recall one winter seeing where a grouse had plunged into the snow and stayed there for several days (I saw the plunge hole and recognized it for what it was). By week’s end, I thought maybe it had perished, but when I went to check, the bird burst out of the snow at my feet, startling me, of course, as they are wont to do.

It looks right now that most of Canada is experiencing cold and snow. Even Lala land in Vancouver, British Columbia, has snow and ice on the ground. Many Vancouverites are ill prepared for snow and cold and many don’t even own a snow shovel. I’m sure the carbon tax will help people cope.

There is no getting around the fact that winter is hard on wildlife. Of course, some species are adapted to it, but in areas with regular, harsh winters, the abundance and diversity of species is a pale shadow of what thrives in warmer climes. The winter of 2013-14 in much of the country, including where I live, was horrendously long, cold and snowy, and wreaked havoc on the local deer population. It didn’t do our struggling, reintroduced elk population any favours either. Pat Karns, a former and now departed wildlife biologist in Minnesota, once wrote a paper ‘Winter: the Grim Reaper’, outlining how winter, more than any other factor, was responsible for deer dynamics on northern ranges.

It’s a classic and a ‘must read’ for wildlife biologists and nature enthusiasts alike.

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The blueberry crop is spotty because of the tent caterpillar outbreak

Back in early May I posted “Sometimes Ducks Like it Dry”, because the weather had been unusually dry. But almost as a cautionary note, I also said “Many years our area gets cool, wet weather in June and July, which raises water levels and drowns out the wild rice beds.”

Guess what? June and to date, July, have been monsoon-like. Water levels are high high high and from what I’ve seen many of the wild rice beds have suffered. Our field is sopping wet – water squishes out underfoot when walking there. Lil and I have been on pond detail almost daily, meaning breaking the beaver dam to let water out, but the pond is still at an all-time high. That’s what happens when rain storms are measured in centimeters (or inches!).

The worst storm was the night we had a bit of a family reunion. Got more than 15 centimeters of rain (you read that right) overnight. Road washouts were everywhere.

I didn’t mind the rain as much as the thunderstorms. They were intense. Finally, about 3:00 am, we had a direct hit to the house (luckily we have lightning rods), which knocked out our power immediately.

It also blew up our phone lines, nixed the compressor on the refrigerator, axed the WiFi modem, damaged the TV satellite receiver and blew out a couple of light fixtures along with several flood lights on our motion sensor detectors. What a mess. A least there wasn’t a fire and no damage to my desktop computer or other sensitive electrical components.

I doubt all the rain has been good for the grouse hatch. A few days ago we were (again) out checking our remote critter cams and saw a number of ruffed grouse with broods, but they seemed to have only 2-4 young. Not a good sign.

The rain didn’t seem to have much of an impact on the large tent caterpillar outbreak (this was their peak year). The caterpillars denuded thousands of square kilometers of deciduous forest. Around our house, they also gobbled up the blueberry bushes, so this year there are few berries here. There are blueberries around, though, as some places – like those areas with few to no poplar trees – didn’t get hit, which makes sense. The outbreak is over now, as the caterpillars have cocooned up. The leaves are growing back on the trees and bushes that were ravaged. Although the foliage is nowhere near as thick as it was.

On a final note, I was hoping to get some photos of moose tracks for the magazine I regularly write for (Ontario Out of Doors) on the day we went to check our cameras. Although we drove close to 100 km of bush roads in areas that had some of the highest moose densities in Ontario in the 1990’s, I didn’t see a single track. Part of the problem, of course, was the heavy rain, which tends to wash out tracks rather quickly. But the bigger issue is . . . just not a lot of moose around. Sad, really.

My camera checking partner, Murray, was just back from a three week trip to Norway, where he saw three moose. More than he’s seen in the past several years here in Ontario.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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These days you hear and read a lot about how government departments, agencies and other businesses are making decisions that are based on science. They call it ‘science, or evidence-based’ decision making. Like most of what you see or hear, there’s a kernel of truth there, but often not much more than that.

Since this is a blog about wildlife, I’m going to limit my comments to that subject. But if you think about what’s going all around you with respect to social, economic and other matters, I’m sure you’ll come to the same conclusion. In other words, a lot of talk, but not much walk.

Back to wildlife. . . I’d like to see the science behind a ruffed grouse daily limit of 5, possession limit of 15 . . . because there is none. Studies done decades ago that concluded hunting has little impact on grouse numbers have long been debunked. Hunting does have an impact, especially where the landscape is highly fragmented, hunting pressure is on the high side, and predators abound – like much of southern Ontario. Ruffed grouse numbers across a large swath of the south of this province have been poor for years, but daily bag and possession limits are the same everywhere, and seasons are long (interestingly, they’re the longest in the south! I guess the philosophy is there are so few grouse and the birds are so wily, you need a lot of time to chase after them, especially to have the hope of bagging enough for a hearty meal).

If we go to the opposite end of the spectrum (biomass wise) you get a moose season (again, in Ontario) that has virtually unlimited calf hunting (everyone who buys a moose licence can hunt and kill a calf, although the magnitude of this problem was sort of recognized and the length of the wide open calf moose hunt changed last year. Now, the wide open moose calf season is only two weeks in duration across the core of the moose range, as opposed to the 11 weeks it used to be). But cow moose, even if they accompanied by a calf, can still be hunted during the ‘general’ moose season. Here’s an instance where the science has shown that orphaned calf moose have little chance of survival in areas where wolves are common (and wolves are common over almost the entire moose range in Ontario), yet the science is given short shrift. It’s no way to address declining moose populations.

So instead of really getting at the heart of the issue (i.e., reducing or eliminating the harvest of cows and calves where moose populations are severely depressed, and not letting bulls be killed prior to the rut – which is also going on), the management solution that’s set to be implemented is to ease up on wolf hunting restrictions, hoping a higher wolf harvest will lead to fewer wolves, less predation, and therefore more moose. That might work, but again, the scientific evidence that it will, is darn skimpy. Working against the plan is the fact that in the past, when wolves in Ontario could be hunted with no limit (under the new proposal, the season limit will be two wolves) and people were allowed to pursue them and shoot them from airplanes, wolf numbers in Ontario remained robust. And killing lots of wolves to provide more moose for hunters isn’t exactly something that a large portion of society views favourably.

There are lots of other examples of wildlife being managed despite what the scientific evidence suggests is the prudent course; enough, I’m certain, to fill a large book.

But instead, let’s just look at one more.

It’s as close to irrefutable as I can imagine that unregulated hunting – anywhere – can lead to serious declines in populations of wildlife. Occasionally, as in the case of the great auk and arguably the passenger pigeon, hunter harvest was the primary cause of their extinction. Other species in North America, including elk, antelope, bison and wild turkey, were almost hunted to extinction, but survived. Fortunately, herculean efforts by dedicated conservationists prevented these and other animals from going extinct and restoration efforts – including highly regulated hunting – have seen populations rebound dramatically.

But over large swaths of Canada, the magnitude of unregulated hunting is now rapidly expanding and wildlife is once again under the gun. It’s a huge threat to wildlife and it’s happening despite evidence provided by science; the issue is being ignored in favour of narrow, legalistic, guilt-ridden social concerns. What I’m talking about, of course, are rights-based hunting privileges.

In most of Canada, based on the Supreme Court of Canada’s interpretation of Treaty, Aboriginal and Métis Rights, as enshrined by Canada’s constitution (which came into effect in 1982), Aboriginal and Métis people can hunt (and do a bunch of other things ordinary Canadians can’t do) with little or no regard to provincial or federal regulations. Yes, there are some restrictions (for example, the geographic area where ‘impunity’ applies may be restricted to a Treaty area, where Treaties have been signed), but by and large there are: no requirements to have a hunting license, no bag limits; no specific hunting seasons for the species in question; and, no need to follow a number of other regulations that apply to the general hunting public (for example, in Ontario only licensed big game hunters need to wear specific types of clothing, i.e., hunter orange; and, only licensed hunters can’t night hunt).

In essence, these ‘rights-based’ individuals are outside the law and their activities (in this case, hunting), can’t be managed or regulated by the provincial and/or the federal authorities charged with managing wildlife on a sustainable basis. In theory, Aboriginal and Métis people can manage themselves, but there are, for the most part, no legal mechanisms in place to ensure that happens and also nothing to enforce compliance. Besides, many or even most people and communities with these rights don’t want or think there is any need for restraint. Given that all hunters, whether licensed or rights-based, have access to all the modern marvels of technology (e.g., 4X4s, ATVs, GPS, 10 million power candlelight spotlights, etc.), it’s easy to see there needs to be regulations that limit the hunter kill.

It’s a large and growing problem with no solution in sight. The likely outcome, I think, is that many populations of wildlife will be hunted down to low levels, like they were by European colonialists, before everyone ‘wakes up’ and realizes a regulatory framework for all people, regardless of their race, needs to be in place if wildlife is to survive and thrive.

It’s interesting how history repeats itself. It’s also interesting how people who profess to be committed to science/evidence based decision making can so easily turn a blind eye to reality when the fog of being politically correct consumes the soul.

 

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It was another hot and humid day yesterday, and raining again today. Lots of rain this year, although no huge deluge, like in some years. But a lot of rain. Lake levels are up, ponds and marshes are brimming. The forest is lush.

Sometimes early summer rains wreak havoc with small game like ruffed grouse and snowshoe hare. The prevailing thoughts are that the rains result in hypothermia, and too much moisture can mean a lot of biting insects and other factors which result in poor offspring survival. This is especially true if the timing of the rains coincide with birthing dates and especially if the rains are coincident with cold.

Fortunately, the heaviest rains seemed to have been late enough to get many of the wee creatures into their second or so week of life, and weren’t associated with undue cold. Plus, after several years when the mosquitoes in particular seemed to be worse with each year passing, this year saw a dramatic fall in mosquito abundance. Oh, there were still mosquitoes, but this year I didn’t need to wear a bug net when I went outside at dawn or dusk, like I had to last year. And the numerous dragonflies seem to be keeping the lid on the deer and horse flies, which I really appreciate.

It is always difficult to foretell what’s happened with respect to reproductive success of all the creatures out in the forest, but based on a number of observations, many species appear to have had good reproductive success. I’ve seen several broods of ruffed grouse and numerous small snowshoe hares. Lots of young Canada geese, who seem to have bred early as the young are already starting to fly, which is about two weeks earlier than in some past years. I’ve also seem broods of wood ducks, ring-necks and of course, mallards.

Other species – the non-game variety – also seem to have had a good year of reproduction. Tree swallows, barn swallows and cliff swallows all seemed to bring off young. In the recent past, some years have been complete failures for the local swallows. In general, the passerines (or dickie birds) seem to have had a good year. Around the house and flitting over the pond, there are numerous eastern kingbirds, cedar waxwings and American goldfinches. I’ve also seen some young of the year ruby-throated hummingbirds over the last couple of days.

And it’s been a good year for some frogs and garter snakes. Leopard frogs seem to be everywhere, which is great, as for many years they were scarce and seemed to be headed towards oblivion. Lots of tiny spring peepers too. But I haven’t seen any small toads – last year and the year before they were numerous – and we haven’t even heard many adults trilling. Same goes for the tree frogs, although there were some adults singing earlier in the year.

Friends of mine – biologists who had a special interest in herptiles (reptiles and amphibians) – say we actually don’t know much about herptile population dynamics and what the main drivers are. It seems populations go through inexplicable ups and downs, and not in a cyclical fashion like many other species.

That’s my quick mid-summer update on the status of the local small fauna. I’ll try to get back to some more controversial topics in the weeks ahead, but summer is a time to relax, and enjoy the heat. It won’t last long.