Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Brook


     The first time there, a woodcock fluttered up and away. That was eleven years ago and it seemed like a pretty good omen. Barbed wire buried inches beneath the bark of softwood trees told it once was a pasture. In places, remnants of old fields still border the stream, but alders and poplar are squeezing the grasses away.
     Every year the stream changes when the spring runoff chews away at its banks and tumbles trees. One favorite bend around a narrow gravel bar has grown to nearly the size of a tennis court in size. The stream is a property bound and someday it will be interesting to sort out who owns what, but that isn’t a worry now.
     On the north side of the stream, softwoods cover the flat valley bottom. Soft needles and moss muffle footsteps, and moose and deer keep a path well trampled. In places the ferns are waist high, easily tall enough to hide dwarfs, elves, and forest creatures. It is a magical place. Farther from the stream, the land abruptly climbs and the forest changes to mixed hardwoods. Along this edge is where the exploding ruffed grouse live.
     Brook trout hide in the stream’s shadows, beneath undercut banks and fallen tree trunks. In the fall they slip up some of the tiny feeder streams to reproduce, sometimes in places that are so shallow their backs are out of the water. It is best to give them some privacy then.
     Fishing downstream, sinking flies in the deeper holes or among the shadows along the banks, brings you to alder flats. Come October, when the weeds finally lay flat, the woodcock will be found feeding in the soft soil. Some great memories linger in that tangle. But by mid-November the place feels as empty as a ghost town.
     Downstream a bit, beavers keep trying to dam the stream, but always disappear after the dams get started. Possibly someone traps them out, but the abandoned barriers create lovely tranquil pools. There, a dry fly often coaxes a trout into doing something stupid, or at least showing its location. The trusty old green woolly bugger usually catches the biggest fish.
     Most of the trout are gently put back into the stream. A whooper would be as long as the spread of a man’s hand, but those are rare. Occasionally, a couple medium sized ones will come home to be cooked in bacon fat for breakfast. A kingfisher might protest, but he can catch his own trout.



Monday, July 24, 2017

The Thunder of Wings

It's that time of the year.
     Two days ago, while walking to the compost, a young grouse exploded out of the weeds beside our field, startling me and brightening my day. On the way back to the house two more thundered to the air, catching the attention of Maggie, our youngest German wirehair. For the next twenty minutes she hunted that patch of woods hard, but found no more birds.
     It is the time of the year when the young grouse are exploring their world. The young birds are not always the brightest and either they learn quickly or end up as somebody’s dinner. Often they appear dazed at a roadside and would make easy pickings for hawk. By October they are a different bird, wary and wild.
     Fortunately, at this time of the year, there is a smorgasbord of things to eat. Blueberries are abundant and soon raspberries will follow. Insects are everywhere, to supply much needed protein. All sorts of plants are going to seed,
Her young were hiding in the weeds.
     Two weeks ago, a short distance down our gravel road, a grouse stood like a statue while her brood hunkered down in the roadside weeds. Before we could get pictures, she strutted into the brush to vanish.
     A week before that the same experience happened on a logging road miles in the woods. That one sat for a picture.
     On the way to a blueberry patch this morning we saw a woodcock standing on the asphalt of a winding back road. Before the camera could come out it leapt into the air to fly away in the classic erratic flight of a woodcock. A friend had asked only a day or so ago if I had seen any woodcock lately and I had said no.

     Is it going to be a good bird hunting year? Only a fool will make a prediction. In the meantime the brookies are biting and there are blueberries to pick. 

Headed for a pie.



Saturday, June 24, 2017

Waiting…

      There are a million chores that arrive with spring. Up here in northern grouse country, spring doesn’t come until summer, so much is jammed into a short period of time. The grouse have stopped drumming and a woodcock hasn’t been seen flying up the valley in over a month. Both could be sitting on nests or tending to their young. Abundant foliage crowds the forest, limiting visibility and providing cover for ambushing armies of mosquitoes. When the chores are finally caught up, what is a grouse hunter to do?
      Trout fishing!
      Both sports share similarities, with long histories and loads of nostalgic traditions. Finely crafted rods are works of art, just as fine doubles can make a man’s heart flutter. Volumes have been written and tales romanticized to questionable extremes in both sports. If only our dogs could participate.
      In the valley below Camp Grouse, a small stream rushes to join the larger river two miles away. Every year it is different, and this year fallen trees appear every which way, like a giant pile of pick-up-sticks atop the water.
Pick up sticks.
      A favorite fir tree that leaned out over an undercut bank has succumbed to gravity. It should look like a fallen Christmas tree, with the collection of lost flies decorating it, but the trunk is awash and the flies are gone forever.
      The jammed up log piles offer shelter for the brookies, or squaretails as some of the locals like to call them, and make for challenging fishing. Thinking and figuring is what it takes, just like grouse hunting. Knee-high rubber boots are all that is required for most of the stream, along with a rod and a box of favorite flies.
Is Maggie pointing a trout?
      Simple, that is the way fly fishing should be. Just like grouse hunting, where a shotgun and dog are all that is required. Breakfast swims under all those tangled trees.
      And the dogs wait, patiently, watching the goings on and trying to understand what we could possibly like about trout fishing.

Friday, April 28, 2017

April at Camp Grouse

       The snow finally left about a week ago, it had doggedly lingered in the shadows of the softwood trees. If you poke around on the north side of the hills, there probably is still some in the shadows.
       In the woods the ground is very soft. None of the spring flowers are up and streams are high, making crossings difficult. The juncos reappeared for a few days, then left. A mourning dove arrived early, before the snow had gone, and took advantage of lawn exposed by the snowplow, but he is gone now too. We are waiting on the warblers, but every day birds show up that we haven’t seen all winter.
       Fishing will start soon, as the water warms and the streams drop. Most of the ponds still have ice on them, but it will soon disappear.
       Woodcock came back weeks ago and probably are nesting by now. Every day the grouse are drumming in the woods, one down below the house and another up above. The weather plays a big part in the breeding success, so we watch with fingers crossed.
       April is anticipation.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

A Skeptic…

     Being a skeptical Yankee, I might be a bit slow to accept new ideas. At my age, I’ve seen enough new ideas come and go to let other’s try them first before I jump in.
Gun-tips 
     One of the reasons I love upland hunting is there isn’t a lot of gear needed, unlike duck  hunting where you accumulate a boat load of decoys, calls, waders, and the list goes on.Turkey and deer hunting can be almost as bad if you let it. Upland hunting only requires a shotgun, a fistful of shells, and a bird dog, and I’ve heard tell some do it without a dog, but I can’t imagine that. 
     Anyway, a company that makes a product called Swab/its contacted me to see if I wanted to try a few samples, for free. Being a New England Yankee, the free part caught my attention.
     Opening the package kindled my skepticism. The foam tips looked like they would dissolve in gun cleaning solvents. Would they last more than one use?
Swab/its
     Well, I’m a believer. The little Gun-tips are great for cleaning inside the gun, getting the dirt out of all the corners and they don’t leave lint behind. Solvents don’t affect them and when they do get dirty I have just washed them out with warm water. Maybe the manufacturer doesn’t want to hear that.
     The bore swipes do a good job. I keep one for solvent and another lightly oiled to run through the bore when I think it is clean. So far so good. They come in a variety of gauges and calibers.

     Sometimes a new idea comes along that works.



Thursday, March 9, 2017

Is Your Cat a Killer?

Woodcock eggs
    We have all seen housecats coming home with a mouse or bird in their mouth, looking quite proud. Recent studies are showing housecats killing staggering numbers of birds and animals. Ground nesting birds, such as grouse and woodcock, are very vulnerable.
     If you have a neighbor that allows their cat outdoors, test your diplomacy and get them to read the link below.


Woodcock


Friday, March 3, 2017

More on Neutering

    For the last couple of decades we were told that if we didn’t spay or neuter our pets we were irresponsible. Possibly, we were rushed into this new mantra without looking at the side effects. Below are the results of two more studies that delve into the side effects.





    I know one case does not make a study, but my experience with our oldest German Wirehair Pointer, who I had spayed at a young age, confirms, in my mind, much that is mentioned in these sites. If it were possible, I wish I could undo the damage done and put off her spaying possibly indefinitely, or at least until she had been a couple of years old.
    Life is one long learning curve.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Ghosts

     It happened back in my early duck hunting days, long before I owned my first duck boat. In those days I used to put a tiny outboard on the side of my old 18’ Grumman canoe and head out into the marshes.  My Brittany spaniel, Zac, usually was my only companion and the canoe would be piled high with decoys.
     That morning was black, with no moon and a thin fog to soak up the stars. Not a breath of air rippled the inky water of the bay. 
     I had grown up around there, so the waters of the inland bay were very familiar. A saltwater river flowed with the tide to a larger bay and then the ocean.  Back in those days, nobody was around that time of the year and no lights showed along the shoreline.  Far to the northwest and across a distant marsh, the dim glow of one streetlight could be seen
     Zac and I headed off in the right direction, my eyesight good enough to differentiate between the black of the water and the still blacker land.  Running lights or a flash light would have destroyed my night vision, so I never ever considered them.  In all the years I’d been hunting there I’d never seen another boat out on the water, so the odds of hitting another unlit vessel were about the same as getting killed by a meteor.
     In the far corner of the bay, where the river entered, I slowed because the tide was low and I didn’t want to break a shear pin.  The bottom was soft everywhere, but not that soft. Finding the middle of river turned out to be a bit difficult.  Eel grass clogged the shallower water. Worried, with the tide so low, we barely made way. My eyes strained to see the banks of the river.
     And then beside the canoe, about amidships, a great white ghost reared up from the black water, appearing over six feet tall.
     My Brittany stood up on her hind legs and almost fell backwards from the boat. In an instant the canoe’s momentum carried my head within an arm’s length of this creature.  Reflexes brought my arms up to shield my face. Spread wings flapped, as big as bed sheets and about to engulf us.
     In one long second, the canoe’s headway carried us beyond the ghost. 
As my pulse returned to normal, the vague shapes of maybe a dozen swans could be seen on the river. Zac stood atop the piled decoys looking aft. 

     Those things should have running lights.    

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Winter Grouse

Our brook.
We walk often in the winter. When the snow is deep enough that the dogs bog down, the plowed logging roads become our choice on weekends. But the favorite is below Camp Grouse, a path that follows where the flat wetlands meet the craggy hill before turning back and following the brook. Most of its course is beneath softwoods or a mixed canopy, and with regular walking the path is packed enough that snowshoes aren’t necessary. Underneath the softwood trees the dogs can usually manage without sinking into the snow too.
          The path can be walked every day for a week without a new animal track crossing anywhere, then, as if in chorus, a half dozen species will have traipsed about. Snowshoe rabbits are the most common, which are hares really. Lately turkeys are probably the second in number. Then there’s a mix of coyote, beaver, bobcat, mice, otter, small birds, deer, and an occasional moose.
Grouse tracks
          The track I am always looking for is Mr. Grouse. Sometimes he is close to our house and sometimes further away. Seldom is he deep into the softwoods, but more likely along the edge where hardwoods mix in. The dogs will sniff the tracks and follow, but they almost never find him on the ground. Occasionally he bursts from a softwood tree high up overhead and the dogs get excited at the sound. I am sure that most often we pass beneath Mister or Misses Grouse and they just watch.
          The population is down this year though, so hearing a grouse isn’t as common as it should be, nor are there as many tracks as some years.
Colby among the long shadows.
When the weather is bitter and the birds are struggling, it is a shame to have them wasting energy on useless flushes to avoid no real danger. I neither encourage nor discourage the dogs. The older one is happy to stay on the packed trail and would be happy for us to move to where winter never would come. The younger dog dashes about, oblivious to the snow and cold. When a grouse does flush out of a tree I cringe a bit, hoping it doesn’t fly far or burn too many calories.
       Last year little snow fell and snow roosting would have been impossible for the grouse. Snow roosting, where the birds dive and borrow into soft snow, keeps the birds warmer on cold nights and hides them from owls and hawks. Perhaps that is part of the reason the grouse population plummeted.
      This year the snow cover is sufficient for snow roosting and, so far, there have only been a few really cold nights. Hopefully the grouse that are in the woods now will still be there to breed in the spring.
      With the lengthening days we should hear the drumming soon. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

A Winter’s Walk

    The snow is deep and climbing over the plowed up snowbank is difficult. Then caution is required going down the slope, although slipping would only land one in a bed of thick fluffy snow. Stepping into the shelter of the softwoods a tiny stream gurgles beneath the snow, but a few steps on there is silence. The new snow has stolen all sound.
     The dogs zig and zag, following their noses and scents we can only try to imagine, snow is flying everywhere, then they disappear ahead.
    Boisterous squawks and clucks and thundering flaps of wings ahead!
    A big black turkey flaps overhead, then another. Hurrying on, the huge three toed tracks cover the snow. The dogs bound about with enthusiasm, going back then rushing ahead. Another turkey is aloft…five in all.
 
   When things quiet we proceed. Colby, the oldest German Wirehaired Retriever, stuffs her head into a fresh deer track. There are many tracks, all headed down the hill and none were there before this last snow. Both dogs show interest, but neither follow, instead vaulting ahead on the path hidden by snow. They know the way.
    An opening in the forest allows sunlight, it is almost a small field, and another slope through wrist-sized maples takes us to the valley’s bottom. More deer tracks, most wandering, with a few snowshoe hare tracks mixed in.
    Beneath tall softwoods a stream rushes, coming down through ledges above us and hidden by ice to be easily crossed. Only the muffled babbling gives away its presence.
    Next to the edge of a meadow, whose tall grasses are unseen beneath the snow, stands a fat ancient white cedar. The deer have beaten a path, coming down a particularly steep slope and passing next to the big tree. Maggie, the younger wirehair, plows through the open meadow in big bounds, the feathery snow up over her shoulders.
    On the far side we hear a grouse flush from a tree.
    Our path follows the edge where the soft boggy open ground meets the forested steep rocky slope. Above us spruce, maple, and birch cling to craggy ledges. Fractured rock shapes the hillside, creating vertical walls. A deer used our path since the last snow while one or two others crossed the spongy meadow.
    In a thicket of young fir trees we leap over a small brook. No ice has formed there yet. Only a couple of weeks ago spawning brook trout swam in the gravely shallows. Perhaps the soil of the boggy meadow warms the water to keep it from freezing. Beyond the stream the softwoods are huge and again swallow up the sound.
Branches bent with snow hang into our trail, sometimes sneaking snow down the collars of our coats. The path is hidden beneath the new white blanker and we stop to sort things out.
    A second ruffed grouse thunders from high up in a fir tree.
    The dogs sniff beneath its branches with tails wagging. There are no bird tracks in the snow. In ever widening circles they search. We walk on.
    Approaching a dogleg in the main stream we pass through alders then step out onto what is a gravely bar in the summer, but now is a plateau of snow. On the far side a small field allows the north wind to drift snow over the stream’s banks, creating wavy shapes with sharp edged shadows. A gentle wind nips at our faces so back into the shelter of the tall softwood trees we go.
    An otter created a shortcut where the brook makes a bend, leaving a lumpy trough through the snow. How many trout might the critter consume in the winter? Our path now parallels the stream. Pools that hold trout in the summer are now covered with ice and snow, but dark inky runs and riffles have so far remained fluid.
    Deer have crossed where the forest hugs the stream from both sides, avoiding the field and a near vertical slope ahead on the far side. Rabbit tracks mix with the deer tracks. Squirrel tracks look tiny. Unidentifiable little tracks look like stitching on the snow.
    A fir that leaned over the stream the past three summers has shattered from the weight of snow and now bridges the stream, its stubborn jagged stump pointing defiantly upward. Clumps of ice cling where the green branches touch the water and balls of snow sit atop, while dark water bulges around their bases.

   The path continues between the straight trunks of tall spruce and firs. Rusty barbed wire, inches inside the wood, stretches between a handful of trunks. Other fallen trees lay cross the stream, but have done so for two or three years. One day a large spring runoff will carry them away, but in the meanwhile summertime trout hide beneath.
     At another large bend, where the stream alters its course to create a gravel bar half the size of a tennis court, the otter again made a shortcut, probably preferring the shelter of the woods to an open exposer. Even though its tracks are fresh, the dogs show no interest.
    In the opening a second freshly fallen fir collects ice and snow, enough to make the water bulge on the upstream side. The spring freshet will rip the tree from the bank for sure and again change the shape of the stream. In ten years that gravel bar has quadrupled in size.
    Maggie covers all of the flat ground between the stream and the hill, hunting hard and oblivious to the snow. Colby doesn’t like the cold or the snow and stays closer. Neither dog shows any interest on walking on ice where the stream is frozen, but we keep an eye on them anyway.
    Beneath tall softwoods the path bends where the water has undercut the banks in another sharp turn. Upstream, an almost continuous riffle creates a long straight stretch. Rabbit tracks weave with no discernible pattern. In an abandoned field on the far side, alders have flourished to create what looks like excellent woodcock cover.
    Eventually we turn away from the water to cross to the slope that will take us up to our home. Deer have followed the edge of the incline, staying in the dense cover of young fir trees. Their tracks pass under unbelievably low leaning dead softwood trunk. We pick through the thick trees up to an old skidder trail then follow it up the hill.
   Ahead of us is home.