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January, 2020. Happy New Year!

Winter has set in and the forecast is for a cold spell. But first, some (more) snow.

It was cold early to mid-fall in 2019, but then it turned ‘mild’. Not a snow-melt above the freezing mark mild, but few -200 C bone chillers, the last couple of days a minus 32, but no minus forties at all. All in all, a rather pleasant Christmas and New Year holiday season.

The moose and deer seasons are closed and I stop grouse hunting on Dec. 15. For years and years Dec. 15 was when the moose, deer and grouse hunting seasons used to simultaneously close here in the part of northwestern Ontario where Lil and I live. In recent years, there have been some season length extensions to grouse seasons, but I haven’t taken advantage of them. It seems that once the snow comes, the grouse are hard to find and from my perspective, a 3 month hunt for big and small game that ends Dec. 15 is all I want or need. By then it’s time for get ready for the upcoming holiday season and try and be primed to participate in the festivities.

And so here I am in early January at the beginning of a brand new decade. A hundred years ago we’d be entering what came to be known as the roaring 20’s.

But this is a new time and place. We’ll just have to see where it leads.

As usual for me, this is when I reflect on the hunting seasons that just passed. As I previously wrote, I had a wonderful hunt with Neva, our Wachtelhunde hunting dog and companion.

I didn’t go moose hunting as neither Lil nor I even applied for a tag to hunt an adult moose. In the two Wildlife Management Units we like to hunt, there was only 1 tag available in each unit. One of the tags was for a cow, which seemed ridiculous (if there are so few moose that licensed hunters are provided with only 1 tag, why would it be for a cow?) and in the other WMU, we had no idea where there might even be a moose in a place with both access and where there was a reasonable chance of success. So we opted out of applying for a tag, but bought licences to retain priority for future draws. Prior to the season, and then during the season in a WMU where I was deer hunting, I did see moose.

I didn’t shoot a deer, either. I did have opportunities, but did not have a doe tag and the few bucks I saw I opted not to shoot.

There are lots of places where I see game during the fall hunting season where I can’t hunt. Some of the animals are on protected areas and other properties I have no permission to hunt on; sometimes I see animals I don’t have a tag for; and, there are a lot of animals that are on or adjacent to a road. Around here, you can’t shoot down, across, or from the traveled portion of a road and on some roads you can’t even have a loaded firearm until you are well away from the right-of-way. And on many roads, it can be dangerous to come to a stop unless you can pull off, which isn’t always possible. Often, there is simply no space to stop, pull off or park.

So given all these places where I’m not hunting, I take advantageous of photographic opportunities when I can. As with a gun, there’s still much more seen than shot, and there’s still places where I can’t shoot with the camera – but there’s more spots where I can pull out the camera to try and get a shot than there are spots I can pull out a gun.

I also have to say that shooting wildlife with a camera isn’t easy. Often, it’s harder than with a firearm. For example, shooting ruffed grouse on the fly with a camera is quite the challenge that I haven’t yet mastered and likely never will (although for me, the same is true with a shotgun . . . ). Still, I sometimes score and when I do, it’s a very satisfying feeling.

Similarly, I’m always trying to get good shots of buck deer. Deer are not near as plentiful here as they used to be a few years back, but there’s still some around. The best place to see buck deer though, is in the city. Over the past few decades, deer in northwestern Ontario, like in a lot of villages, towns and cities all across North America, moved in, found suitable housing and are now a fixture in many neighborhoods.

The other thing with the camera is that you can shoot any species at any time with no need for a license or a tag. There’s waterfowl, fur-bearers and basically anything that walks, crawls, slithers, swims or flies can be the subject of a photo shoot.

whiskey-1

But now that we are into January, there’s not near as much life around. Big game hunting is over as it is for waterfowl and upland game birds. With respect to photo shooting, the majority of birds have left, many of the animals have gone into hibernation and most of the deer have lost their antlers. I still see a few grouse – lately a couple come each evening just before it gets dark to bud in the white birches. A few other odds and sods, but it’s not a wildlife viewing paradise by any stretch.

rgrouse-12

So the hunting season is a wrap and photo season has transitioned.

Still, it’s a New Year and it’s all good.

Time to go ice-fishing.

trout

 

rg-1

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.

 

 

 

snapper-1

Lately, while driving around, I’ve seen lots of turtles digging out holes on the shoulders of the roads to lay their eggs. Most of them are painted turtles, but there’s also a fair number of large snapping turtles. These are the only two species found in this area.

People must be looking out for them, I’m happy to say, as I haven’t seen very much in the way of road kill. Some years there is a lot of turtle carnage on our local roads. But it’s still early in the year. Turtle egg-laying will last another month.

Painted turtles are smaller and seem to be more common, but I think the snapper biomass is substantial. Some of these turtles are huge; easily over 30 cm across their carapace and weighing over 6 kg.  Snapping turtles, like many turtle and tortoises, are long-lived – it’s believed their life-span is well over a hundred years. As a group, turtles haven’t changed much over the past 200 million years, so one has to suspect they are reasonably well designed and suited to their lifestyle. They certainly look prehistoric.

Not surprisingly, there’s not a lot an adult snapping turtle has to fear – outside of humans and their vehicles. Some people like to eat snapping turtles (painted turtles can’t be harvested) as they supposedly make a good soup. I’ve not tried it, but have to think that whatever the taste, large snapping turtles likely have high concentrations of elements and toxins that can’t be good for you. That’s what happens when you live a long time.

Interestingly, despite the fact snapping turtles have been listed as a ‘special concern’ species under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act,. 2007, hunting them is allowed. It’s a kind of a weird situation; the regulation on harvest and possession are listed in the hunting regulations summary, but to harvest a turtle (they are in a category called ‘game amphibians and reptiles’) you need to have a valid sport or conservation fishing license. Both residents and non-residents of Ontario (most of the snapping turtle harvest in this area has been by Americans) can harvest turtles. The season is open all year – with a daily bag limit of 2 and a possession limit of 5. If you harvest a snapping turtle one must complete and submit a mandatory Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (OMNRF) questionnaire (both online and printed versions are available). But like all mandatory hunting reports the OMNRF requires one to fill, it’s mandatory in name only. There has never been a charge laid with respect to failing to do any mandatory report, be that for bear, wild turkey, wolf or snapping turtle. So at least at this point in time, it’s a useless and toothless regulation.

There’s a large snapping turtle in the beaver pond in front of our house and it’s been there for many years. Snappers are scavengers and hunters and will eat just about anything they can, including frogs, snakes, goslings and ducklings. Lil rescued a duckling from it’s jaws once a few years ago, but I imagine it’s got a few we are unaware of. Maybe it’s one of the reasons all the geese and ducks left the pond this year shortly after the young fledged.

Sometimes, if it’s a cold year, the eggs a snapper lay won’t hatch that year, but might the year following – if the nest isn’t found by skunks, raccoons, crows, ravens, mink, marten or otter. Although the turtles cover the hole with sand and gravel, I suspect the scent trail gives it away. Or the crows and ravens, which spy on everything, simply wait for the turtle to leave before helping themselves to a meal of fresh eggs. Lil over-wintered a cache of eggs one year that someone stumbled across while doing some construction work, and had good success in getting them to hatch out. Unlike adults, young turtles are preyed on heavily by a host of meat-eating birds and animals.

Female snappers can hold sperm from males they’ve mated with for several seasons, “using it  as necessary”.

Snappers got their name because they snap – unlike many turtles, they are too large too hide in their shell, so instead they use their might to hiss and snap at animals they perceive to be a threat. They don’t have teeth, but have a powerful beak, and one doesn’t want to get bitten.

I like turtles, even the somewhat hideous and kind of scary snappers.  With a bit of luck, turtles might be around for another 200 million years. They’ll probably out last us.

trumpeter

About 100 years ago, trumpeter swans were on the verge of extinction. It was thought there were less than 200 in all of North America, done in largely by unregulated hunting and, in some areas, habitat loss. Around 1960, about 2,000 swans were found in Alaska. Today, they are widespread across much of the USA and Canada, and they number in the many thousands, and are still increasing. It’s a really good news story.

In Ontario, trumpeter swans were considered to be extirpated until restoration efforts began in 1982, following successful restoration efforts in the USA that began in the 1960’s. The first successful hatching of trumpeters in 200 years in the province was believed to be in Wye Marsh in southern Ontario in 1993, but that observation had to be revised because unknown to government biologists, trumpeters released in mid-western USA states had traveled north and started nesting and producing young in the Kenora area of northwestern Ontario as early as 1989. This information was provided to me by a commercial bait fisherman, and was subsequently verified by Lil and I.

Today, there are well over a hundred nesting pair in northwestern Ontario, and I don’t know how many in southern Ontario. Lots. As I mentioned in my last post, it was quite delightful when four birds roosted for the night in the small pond beside the cabin I was staying in with friends, near Kemptville, which is just south of Ottawa, the nation’s capital.

They are a huge bird, weighing up to 30 pounds, or about 14 kgs. They are called trumpeters because that’s their call, and once you’ve heard it, you won’t forget it.

One of the problems in early restoration efforts was lead poisoning. The birds were picking up spent pellets from waterfowl hunters, and the adult birds were having difficulty reproducing. But efforts to ‘shake’ the marsh the birds had been released in (to sink the lead pellets), and the ban on lead shot for the purpose of hunting waterfowl, eventually worked and the lead pellets that remain in marshes have largely sunk out of reach of the swans and other dabbling types of waterfowl. Reproduction these days is quite good, and at least in the Kenora area, swans with up to seven cygnets have been recorded.

Interestingly enough, the trumpeters have never been classified in Ontario as a Species at Risk.  In my opinion, the way species at risk are identified and managed needs a total re-think. It’s mostly, again in my opinion, a piece of legislation that is used more for political purposes than as a management tool. I’ll discuss this more in future posts.

So welcome back, trumpeter swans. We’re glad you’re home.

 

 

 

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I went down to the Ottawa region for a week to do a bit of spring turkey hunting. Given the facts that my hunting friend and guide had spent the past 5 months in the Bahamas and the winter down east had been, from what I could tell, dang cold and snowy, I didn’t know what to expect. I feared turkey numbers might be down.

It quickly became clear that turkey numbers were indeed down from previous years, or they were hiding, or something. I only heard two, maybe as many as four, turkeys gobbling during five early mornings and four evenings of hunting in three different spots. Lucky for me, I managed to call in a jake – but it came in silently.

On the first morning, the youngest member of our quartet, hunting by himself, bagged a nice tom. Three of us hunting on a nearby farm heard and saw nothing, although I may have heard a single gobble in the distance (with tinnitus, it can be hard to hear sounds clearly). The next morning, back at the farm, one gobbler was going at it and was lured in by Don, who promptly missed. That’s all we saw or heard.

That evening I hunted where young Brian had bagged the tom, and where I had spotted a turkey in the distance earlier in the afternoon. No action for about an hour, but then suddenly at 6:30 pm there was a turkey at my decoy and that was it for him.

After that, not much was seen or heard. We saw a few turkeys driving around, but far fewer than in years past. Few chances for photos, and in fact I didn’t get any of note. Old Brian, whose hunt camp we stayed at, decided that given the apparent low numbers of turkeys in the area he hunts, he probably won’t harvest another, unless turkeys start showing up all of a sudden, which is possible.

Winter can be hard on turkeys. In the Ottawa area, far north insofar as turkeys are concerned, has regular bouts of cold, snow, freezing rain, thaws and then more cold, snow, freezing rains and thaws.  In addition, the Ottawa region is flat and swampy, which means there are few sunny, south facing slopes where turkeys can gather to mitigate the effects of inclement weather conditions. Their saving grace are farm fields that often remain bare, or partly bare, owing to farmers spreading manure, or other farm related activities beneficial to turkey. Plus I suspect many rural folk feed turkeys like they do other wild birds.

It was still a good hunt and nice to be out in the spring woods. The ruffed grouse were drumming, ducks and especially Canada geese were everywhere, and one evening four trumpeter swans landed and stayed the night on the pond beside the cabin.

In addition to the the wildlife, it was nice to visit a number of friends I tend to see infrequently

So a good week and really nothing to complain about.

wduck-1

It’s spring, finally.

The ice is off our pond, although there’s been a skiff of it every morning of late, because during the night the thermometer has still been dropping below the freezing point. But, by late afternoon, the ice is mostly gone. There’s still a lot of ice covering nearby on the deeper lakes, but I suspect it too will all be gone in a week or so, as temperatures are projected to rise.

A pair of geese are nesting out front on the pond, and the gander does an admirable job of chasing off other geese, as the pond must only be large enough for a single pair. At least that’s what the gander must think. Some days there have been several mallards, accompanied by a fair bit of fighting and chasing, and I’ve seen one ‘coupling’. Judging by the preening and primping by both that followed their tryst, they seemed to be quite pleased with themselves. Although mallards are known for having a fair amount of same sex sex, I haven’t seen any of that.

During the few days of warm and wet weather  we had before it returned to cool (more normal), the wood ducks had a good go at it too. For the better part of an hour there was a lot of chasing each other by the drakes, spurred on, it seemed, by a lot of female vocalization. All to woo the fair damsel, and entertaining to watch, for sure. Afterwards, the males have seemed to become good buds, and I’ve not seen any aggression to one another again. Somehow, I doubt the good camaraderie will last for long.

There’s also been a few hooded mergansers on our pond, and they too had a bit of a tiff among the males, but they had, it seemed, bigger issues with the gander. The gander seems to make it a pont to mix it up with all the ducks, especially if they get too close to his nest mate.

This is the first year in a while the prairies haven’t been in a spring flood state, so what impact that will have on our local waterfowl will be interesting to observe. When there is plenty of water on the prairies, that’s where most of the ducks are – but if the prairies are dry, birds move out to the forest fringe (like here in extreme northwestern Ontario). It’s not as productive, but much better than a dusty slough.

But it’s still early days. The next month will make tell the tale. Waterfowl populations, overall in North America, are doing very well.

Nice to see.

Sask-1

I heard some disturbing news this week about ‘farmer attitude’. Most of us hesitate to be overly critical of farmers or anything to do with farming, as farmers provide us with food, which all of us need. Farming is also what let us evolve from being simple hunters and gatherers, so farming is really the hallmark of modern civilization. We need farmers.

Still, there are problems and issues with respect to farmers and farming. For example, in Canada, there is virtually no original tall grass prairie left. Before the plough, though, Canada had millions of hectares of tall grass prairie; native tall grass prairie was so high, you apparently had to stand on a horse to see over it. Now it’s all wheat, canola, sunflower seeds and other crops. Further west, in the short grass prairies, there’s more rangeland – a lot of it’s too dry for crops – but it’s still mostly farms and ranches.

Of course, that’s not so much the fault of farmers, but government policy, which over the years encouraged every hectare to be ‘put to good use’. Along the way, tens of thousands of wetlands have also been drained. As a result, the Canadian prairies have more species Threatened and Endangered with extinction than any other biome in the country.

Despite the problems, there’s still a lot of wildlife in the prairies, and over the years I’ve been spent a lot of time there hunting big game, upland birds and waterfowl. During that time, I’ve watched landowners – farmers and ranchers – continue to drain wetlands and cut down patches of trees, shrubs and hedgerows to put more land into production.

One result was a bit of cowboy poetry. This one is called ‘Stubble Rap’. I wrote it years ago, and was reminded of it this week, so I thought I’d share.

Stubble Rap

When you’re living on the prairies and you see a slough
You’ve got to ditch it, drain it, burn it too
You can’t leave the prairies wild and free
It’s especially important
To remove every tree

Can you ditch it, can you drain it, can you burn it?
Can you fence it, can you plant it, can you spray it?

Put away the tractor
A combine won’t do
It takes a backhoe to drain a slough
Then you plant some wheat
Some canola too

You fear the heavy rain but you don’t want drought
If the hoppers come you spray them out
And if you’re really lucky come the harvest moon
You’ll be another wealthy farmer
From a town like Saskatoon

Can you ditch it, can you drain it, can you burn it?
Can you fence it, can you plant it, can you spray it?

You can ditch them, you can drain them, you can burn them black
But rain, sleet and snow will see the sloughs come back
Precipitation is the farmer’s foe
Always on the backhoe
Always on the go

Can you ditch it, can you drain it, can you burn it?
Can you fence it, can you plant it, can you spray it?