Friday, December 22, 2017


      Below is a link to a quick read about bloat. We all love our bird dogs and certainly would hate to see a dog suffer.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Upside Down

Can  you see Colby pointing?
      Regenerating clearcuts make for great grouse hunting. Certain things make some better than others. I like to see young poplars coming up. Maples and birches are good too, but if there are young choke cherries I usually pass it by. Softwood trees nearby are important for shelter too, but it doesn’t take many. Grouse will walk a long way into a cut, from the shelter of softwood trees, so be sure to hunt quite a ways into the cut.
      Some clearcuts are almost impossible to walk through from the slash left behind. Others are easier if branches and tree tops were hauled away with the wood. In our area almost none of the ground is flat and the logging roads tend to be in the valleys. The best hunting if often at the tops of the cuts, because the birds see fewer hunters and frequently there are stands of softwood trees at the higher elevations. So you had better be in shape because climbing those clearcuts can mean hard walking.
      When you find a productive cutting and hunt it over the years, the trees get bigger and you probably don’t notice the changes. But one day you will realize the place isn’t what it used to be. It is because the forest became too mature and the nesting areas and food sources are gone. Grouse and woodcock are birds of the early successional forests.
There is even an old stone
foundation nearby.
      So besides hunting grouse, you continually have to hunt for new cover. If you don’t you’ll soon be finding fewer birds.
      This past fall we stumbled upon a new favorite. A logging road will take you up above the clearcut and then it is only a hundred yard walk down a gentle slope to reach it. Better still, the loggers left behind a few ancient wild apple trees that had been hidden. There is an assortment of weeds, water is nearby, and stands of softwoods break up the landscape. Clusters of young alders, the diameter of shovel handle, stand like tall skinny commuters waiting for the bus. The place is going to be a good one for several years.
     No, I won’t tell you where it is.
Maggie is pointing a woodcock.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Deer Season

      Sneaking out of the house was nearly impossible. Since the start of bird season the dogs never took their eyes off me, particularly Maggie our youngster. Earlier in the day, I had snuck my deer rifle out and tucked it in a corner of the entry. Leaving sad faces behind, I walked out of the house in my deer hunting garb.
      An inch of snow covered the ground and no wind moved the air. An overcast sky promised daylight fading early. The snow had fallen a couple of days before, but constant cold temperatures had kept it from melting.
      I picked a course away from the house where the dogs could not see me entering the woods with a gun. If they had my wife would have been forced to listen to a sorrowful chorus.
      Just beyond the edge of the lawn, tracks showed where a bobcat had walked up through the softwood trees and sat. Was it there in daylight? Did the cat know there were dogs around? From its perch it looked up the hill at the house and our shop.
      An old skid road lead down to the edge of the soggy marsh. The damp snow-covered ground muffled my footsteps and I took care not brush against dead twigs. The coyotes keep a worn path parallel with the wetlands, and I followed it west. Judging from the tracks, only a few had passed by since the snow fell. Snowshoe hare tracks were everywhere and I wondered how they survived. Their lives had to be constant terror with all the coyotes in the neighborhood.
      A blown-down fir tree forced a course change. Stepping from hummock to hummock, I crossed wet ground beneath firs and cedars.
      Movement…I froze. A blue jay landed on a low branch, then flashed away again.
      Where the ground grew firmer, I followed the stream beneath a canopy of tall softwood trees. The ground there is predominately flat and slow streams meander through from the north, joining the larger stream further west. Beyond where I could see, the hill goes up through birches and maples, with patches of evergreens breaking up the forest. Craggy, near vertical, ledges break up the slope, making ascent or descent impossible in places. To the south, on the other side of the stream, a smaller steep hill climbs upward through mixed woods. Some of that hill is so steep that deer detour around it.
      I hope to find tracks ahead where the deer funnel between the steep slope and an open field beyond. Two years ago there were so many tracks it looked like a highway. The previous fall our trail cam caught deer there too.
      A twig snaps off to my right and I freeze. Up in a tree a squirrel chatters. I wait and listen, watching for movement. A slow step to my right puts a fir tree in front of me, a possible shooting rest if I needed one. The squirrel was very persistent, but finally stops. I wait another fifteen minutes, then continue.
      Tracks show where a bobcat has climbed up on a stump and sat. Could it be the same one that visited the house? Tiny tracks that look like lace ribbon weave across the snow. Coyote tracks are everywhere.
      I reach the open field without seeing a single deer track. Discouraged, I turn northward to head back along the north side of the valley, following the edge where the land starts to climb. That course would make a giant circle around our home. 
      One giant white pine clings atop a craggy boulder the size of a house and I wonder how it stays. A spruce holds on similarly. Holes in the mammouth rocks formed gloomy shadows. 
      The dark craggy vertical ledges breakup the slope and I know deer cannot cross them. Just beyond a giant white cedar, a stream tumbles down from above, creating a series of roaring waterfalls. When I stop to watch a grouse explodes from the top of a fir tree. Where was he when I had my bird gun?
      Another skid road takes me up through skinny young maples. A lone coyote had taken the same path. Off to the left an enormous shattered fir tree lays on the ground, broken by a recent wind. Either side of the whippy maples the forest looks eerily dark beneath dense fir trees.
      Deer tracks.
      Big ones. They go down the slope into softwood trees not far from our home. How old are they? The edges looked sharp and no snow was in the imprints. The deer must have crossed the valley. How I could have missed them? I must have crossed them on the other side.
      Darkness and the end of shooting time was only a half hour away. I waited in the shadows of the softwoods, timing fifteen minutes on my watch, then slipped uphill to a woods road that would take me back to our field.
      Coyote tracks littered that road and yellow snow showed where they had marked. The neighborhood seemed to be overrun with those hoodlums. Next to a rotten stump, bobcat tracks went in under the low branches of a fir tree to sit in the shelter of its branches.
      It was time to call it a day.
     At three in the morning I woke, realizing that the reason I hadn’t seen the deer tracks anywhere else on my circular hunt was because the deer hadn’t crossed to the other side of my circle. Could that snapping twig and chattering squirrel been caused by that deer?

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Puppy

Maggie in her new home.
     Ripsnorter Magalloway Magic Snapshot came home with us the end of February, 2016. In our neck of the woods, February brings nights with temperatures well below zero, and even days that barely creep up to zero. Maggie slept in a kennel beside our bed to wake us when nature called, and, when it did, I would slip on the heavy flannel lined pants and chamois shirt.
Hurrying back to the house.
     In the winter darkness she would scurry off to search for the right spot beneath the low limbs of a softwood tree. That was her choice every single time. To keep track of Maggie I slipped a collar on her with a blinking red light. What looked like a tiny fire truck zigzagged about the yard.
With her great aunt Chara
     Every day she explored and learned. Her great aunt Chara kept her in line. Colby, seven years older at the time, became her playmate. Her willingness to please made her easy to train. Snow, mud, pools of water, all were great fun. The woods became a giant playground. Unfortunately, Chara passed away that summer, but Maggie had already learned much from the old wise one.
Pointing a planted quail.
     That August Maggie pointed pen raised quail like a champ, even retrieving ones shot. Her first hunt tests she received near perfect scores and that first fall we searched out woodcock.
Pointing a woodcock.
     I won’t say Maggie pointed every woodcock she found, birds were bumped and sometimes patience during a point ran short, but she did better than a passable job. Frequently she honored Colby’s points. Sometimes she pointed on her own. Her enthusiasm felt infectious.

A lunch time break.
     Now in her second fall, Maggie points woodcock regularly and even an occasional skittish ruffed grouse. Her range is perfect, she frequently checks back to see where I am. There has never been a dog more anxious to have a hunting bell hung around her neck than Maggie.
Ripsnorter Magalloway Magic Snapshot

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Across The Stream

     Across the stream the cover looked perfect. Isn’t that always the way? Mixed hardwoods towered over clumps of alders and softwoods stood in clusters, all on flat and relatively dry ground. Up in our neck of the woods, if you are not going uphill you are most likely headed down. Horizontal country is rare. And everywhere your feet seem to get wet.
      Ferns and grasses covered that oasis, with patches of wild hops, seedy weeds, or raspberries breaking up the forest floor. To an old bird hunter, it looked like the Garden of Eden.
     For years I had looked at it, across a rather formidable stream. It was property open to the public to hunt, but road access was for the privileged few or on foot around locked gates. Or across that unfordable stream.
     The past summer was as wet as any other up in this neck of the woods, but the last two or three weeks had been dry. Evidently the spring runoff had moved the stream's bottom around and changed the course of the stream a bit. Passing by the other day, I was surprised to notice a place to cross.
     After parking, we started to our collect gear and ready the gun. Instantly, the two dogs locked up on point about fifteen feet from the back of the truck. Ahead of them a nearly vertical drop fell to the water a dozen or more feet below.
     Stepping toward them with gun in hand, a grouse exploded across toward the far side. I never even attempted to bring the gun up. The youngest wirehair, Maggie, launched and landed mid-stream and I don’t think she even knew she got wet.
     The climb down to the stream was a challenge, followed by a leap to a gravel bar, then steps from rock to rock to rock, then another leap to a steep slippery muddy bank, all the while holding onto a very dear shotgun.
     The country looked even better up close.
A scraggy old tree.
No chainsaw had visited that plateau in decades. Three men together would not have been able to put their arms around one particularly fat yellow birch. Ancient alders lined the streambank and scraggy old cherry trees towered overhead. Fat white birches shed sheets of bark and an occasional red maple stood nearby. Further inland, scattered clumps of softwoods offered shelter and a zigzag of alders split the property.
     followed the stream edge, ducking under or stepping over alders. At times we took the easier way, weaving inland to push through weeds or dried grasses. A finger of slack water finally cut off our course.
     The rumble of the stream competed with the rattle of the leaves. Moose and deer tracks hid between the dried leaves in the soft moist ground. Dog bells jingled and it felt like civilization had to be far far away. Overhead, ravens rasped about something.
Hunting inland we followed another line of alders that wove back along an old crooked stream that had barely any water in it. In places wet ground called for careful foot placement to avoid disaster. Twice grouse launched off of the ground, startling us. One flushed low at my feet when I stepped last a cherry tree. It offered an easy going away shot, but the dog’s bells were ringing ahead of the grouse so I held the shot.
     The dogs pointed a woodcock under big old alders, but then the youngster, Maggie, attempted to catch it. Another was bumped, which was nobody’s fault, we’ll blame the wind. We followed to where it disappeared into a cluster of red twig dogwood that stood beside a dark stand of softwood trees, but never found it again.
Colby has been around long enough to know the tricks.
     Colby, the older wirehair, locked up on third one back at the alders. Maggie honored like a champ. That bird came home with us.
     I had to wonder when that land had been logged. Everywhere up in that neck of the woods had been cut over at least once. Could they have just taken the spruce or pine? An area I had logged as a young pup had been harvested that way. The big old yellow birches we passed had to be two hundred years old.
     In a clump of fir trees, Maggie poked around the base of one maple that stood among them, repeatedly coming back to its trunk. Her tail was just a blur. Finally, she looked up, which caused me to look up too, and sure enough a grouse sat hidden among the branches. I am sure the bird wished it were somewhere else, or that we were. Several pictures were taken and then the bird bolted, escaping unscathed without a shot fired
Do you see him in there?
     The string of alders led us through more beautiful cover, but we found no other birds. Eventually we came back to the stream, far upstream from where we had started. We hunted further upstream a bit, but the country turned to mostly softwoods and didn’t look as promising. We turned back downstream to find where we had crossed earlier.
      Crossing back was just as challenging, but we made it with dry feet. And climbing up the banking to the road was the most physically demanding part of the day.

     Sometimes the grass is greener on the other side of the stream, you just have to get there.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

New Country


        It was a few years back, I had been thinking about it since the previous year, when I drove by the gate and noticed a partridge in the road about a hundred yards away.  We were miles from anywhere on logging roads that day, so I pulled over, let out the dogs, and grabbed my gun to see if the dogs might point that bird.  
        It had taken some doing to just find it, the little guy walked farther than I thought it might.  Chara, my older wirehair, pointed staunchly, I walked in, and then the bird burst into a thicket of softwood trees never to be seen again.
      That road went on around a long bend to the left, apparently following the edge of softwoods growing in a boggy area.  On the other side of the road was a cutting, probably ten years old, maybe younger, gently sloping uphill.  It was late in the day, the last day of our week-long hunting trip, so we didn’t go far, but I knew there was country to explore.
      Often during the next summer I studied the area on Google Earth, looking for softwoods, streams, and fitting the topography into the cuttings.  Frequently I would measure distances to get everything in prospective, trying to plan hunts that would explore the most productive looking country.  Finally, fall arrived.
      I parked in an abandoned logging yard not far up that road and let the two wirehairs and the young shorthair out.  Three dogs?  I love pandemonium.  Light rain fell and the temperature wasn’t much over freezing.  Wherever the ground appeared flat, water puddled from the almost steady rain of the previous week.  But it was the first day of my annual hunting week and life couldn’t have been better.
      We worked the edges of the softwoods and mixed cover, working the high side of the logging road and heading up further into the forest.  No birds.  A couple of miles or so from the truck, and starting to get quite wet, I convinced my girls to hunt the low side of the road back toward the truck.
Well down the slope and far from the road, Chara, the older wirehair, started to get birdy among a mixed stand of mature fir and red maples.  A woodcock bolted up the hill.
          We followed, hoping to find that woodcock again, and soon Chara’s tail started to blur as she sorted out the scents.  Colby, the younger wire, picked up the scent too, while Georgia, the young shorthair, dashed about further down the hill, unaware what the other two dogs were up to. 

Chara at her best. 
          Chara froze.  It didn’t look like partridge country, not on a rainy day anyway, with tall maples and yellow birch trees, so I thought she must be marking the woodcock we had flushed before.  I did my best to hurry over the squishy ground.  Colby noticed Chara and stopped in her tracks.  You got to love that dog.
          A partridge rocketed into the air and flew diagonally up the hill, gaining altitude all the way, launching far ahead of the dog and well out of range.
          By that time water had found its way into various inner parts of my clothing and my legs ached from trying to find footing on the lumpy water-logged ground.  We hunted back up toward the road, with its easier walking, and headed toward the truck. 
          It certainly was rugged country and we would be back.  

More New Country

So close yet so far...
     Across the river looked to be mighty birdy country, but the water was too deep to wade, so to get there meant many miles on logging roads. Mature alders, with pockets of poplar and clusters of softwoods, beckoned. Dozens of times I had seen it, but traipsing all over the country on the other side of the river, I had never figured out where to find it.
     Studying topographical maps and aerial photos, I finally unraveled it.
Beavers were everywhere.
     It took a hike through softwoods to get there, probably a mile. In places the sphagnum moss was so thick you could actually hear yourself think. Most of the spruce and fir trees were large, so the walking was easy, but in places thickets of smaller trees or cedars and water under foot made the going slower. When we could, we followed game trails. I wish deer were taller.
     Along the river ancient cherries stood over the alders. Dead elms desperately tried to hang onto their limbs and scattered fat fallen fir trees required detours. Fingers of water forced reconnoitering and alternate courses. But it was bird country.
     The dogs tore through the cover. Maggie, the youngster, shot about like a ping pong ball, almost immediately bumping a grouse. It looked like a cannon-fired turkey crossing an opening over tall grass. Colby, the experienced older girl, work methodically. Bells were ringing. Birds were pointed, birds were bumped, and, at the end of the day, the birds were luckier than we were.
Do you see him there?
     There’s more country to explore along that section of the river. We’ll be back.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017


     There is some encouraging news about the magical woodcock. In our area, their numbers have been steady the last few years because of local timber harvesting, which creates abundant early successional forests. Young woodlands are important to both woodcock and ruffed grouse. Nationally, the news is also encouraging too.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Getting Ready

     It is time to get ready for bird season. The young woodcock and grouse of the year are old enough to fly, so we have been running the dogs in the woods with their bells on. Maggie, our youngest, is showing her smarts and acting like a champion. The older girl, Colby, still likes to show off and finds her share of birds, but her older joints have slowed her down some. It brings great joy to see them pointing side by side.
     It is important to get the dogs in shape, and us too. One of the important things is make certain dog's toenails are ready for hard running. Here is an excellent link that shows proper trimming.

Good stuff to revive boots.
     The shotgun needs to get some serious use too, to freshen up the muscle memory. It has been way too long. Boots are new and broken in, and there are plenty of shotgun shells on the shelf. Maybe the Filson pants need new wax.
     One of the nicest things about upland hunting is there isn’t a lot of paraphernalia needed. It’s time to start pouring over maps and plan the season.
Ripsnorter Magalloway Magic showing her stuff last year.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Brook

     A woodcock fluttered up and away my very first time there. 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 brook changes when the spring runoff chews away at its banks and tumbles streamside trees. One favorite bend used to be around a narrow gravel bar, but has grown to nearly the size of a tennis court. 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, so I stay away.
     Fishing downstream, sinking flies in the deeper holes or among the shadows along the banks, you will eventually come to the alder flats. In October, when the weeds finally lay flat, the woodcock will be found feeding in the soft soil beneath those alders. Some great memories linger in that tangle. But by mid-November the place feels as empty as a ghost town.
     Further 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 tiny 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 whopper 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


      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.
     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?
     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.


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


     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.