Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Flight of the Timberdoodle

Remember when you were young, and every day was full of new adventures and new discoveries?

One of the best parts of having young children is the opportunity to view the world through their eyes.  I love to share what I know about the natural world with my children as we walk in the woods. Every animal track or sign of spring they discover lights their curiosity like a firefly in July.  Those moments of discovery are less common as we age, likely because we're just too busy, or preoccupied, to notice the wonders around us.

Recently, however, I was pleased to delve into a sign of spring that had, until recently, eluded me, the American woodcock's truly unique springtime mating ritual.

The American Woodcock is a fascinating creature.  With more nicknames than Babe Ruth, woodcock may be known locally as Timberdoodle, Bogsucker, Mudbat or Night Partridge.  My interest in this unique bird was stirred by upland hunting and piqued by the narratives of gifted writers Aldo Leopold and Chuck Fergus.

A shore-type bird with a love of the uplands, woodcock possess a unique look. Eyes set too far aft on its head, a long beak strangely jointed to form natures strangest chopsticks, and wings that seem too long and pointy for its portly build, make for an almost comical appearance.

For some upland hunters of the Northeast, woodcock are the native brook trout of the uplands; diminutive, but beautiful; particular in their haunts, but potentially abundant when found; native to lush and mysterious places that many walk by in pursuit of larger game;  a well-kept secret.  Add to their mystery a habit of exploding into flight inches from a dog's nose, or a hunters boot, and a flight pattern and speed that allows some hope for shooting success, but delivers seldom enough as to be frustratingly addictive; and you have a sporting opponent of the highest quality.

But it is their unique springtime mating ritual, often called the skydance, that has brought the woodcock most of its limited notoriety.  As they make their way north from their warmer winter haunts in southeastern states, male woodcock begin to stake out territories and compete for the attention of females.  Female woodcock are, apparently, not easily impressed, and so males go to great lengths to vie for their affections.

The aspiring Don Juan seeks out a clearing near a wooded area.  He also looks for heavy shrub cover nearby, to provide concealment, and areas for feeding on woodcock's preferred fare, the earthworm. For an hour or so at dawn and dusk, he will put on a show that is part opera, part airshow, in hopes of attracting amorous females.  He is so in character, that admiring fans can get a front row seat on the edge of the stage, without alarming the performer.

For the best chance of viewing the show, sneak in before dusk, take a seat near the edge of the clearing...and wait.  If you are in the right place at the right time, just as your eyes start to work a little harder to make out the shapes of the vegetation against the sky,  you will hear the characteristic nasal peent that begins the show.  The sound gives the impression that a frog, cicada and duck have merged into one creature.  After a few erratic peents to warm up, the male settles into a steady rhythm.  Volume can seem to rise and fall as the singer marches in a circle, projecting his voice in all directions.  Without warning, save perhaps a slightly longer hesitation between calls, the performer suddenly takes flight with the characteristic twitter, the sound of air between the slender primary feathers of his wings.  He rises from the thicket making a pass just above the vegetation, or overhead, if you're lucky, as he begins to spiral higher into the sky.  The twitter is audible, even as you likely lose sight of the flier. When he has reached the apex of his flight, the sound changes as he adds in warbling vocals on his erratic, narrower, descent.  As he closes in on the area from which he rose, the sounds suddenly cease as he glides silently to a touch-down very near his launch point.  A brief pause...peent...and the show starts again.

Lang Elliott, a gifted nature photographer, recorder of nature sounds, and author, expertly captured the early part of the woodcocks's show below:

Particularly lucky viewers may hear the soft, almost hiccuping tuco call that can precede the peent, or the cak-cak-cak sound of neighboring males settling territorial disputes with aerial dogfights.  If you find yourself in close proximity to a calling male, I have found that a spotlight on the performer does not inhibit his calling.

If you have a chance this spring, get out and enjoy this bit of Nature's magic and remember what it's like to be a kid again.

Monday, March 23, 2015

A New Adventure

Truth be told, my fishing suffered severely in 2014.  That's the bad news.  The good news is that my upland hunting increased exponentially, due to my new hunting companion, Toby, the Field Bred English Springer Spaniel.

In the fall of 2013 he was but a wee lad, but Toby has grown to be a 43 lb. ball of energy and instinct. People love him.  Birds fear him.

Although I've had dogs all my life, Toby is my first Springer, and this has been my first crack at training a bird dog.  Knowledgeable friends, good books, the internet, a heavy dose of persistence, consistence, and patience, can give even a dog training novice a crack at satisfactory results these days.

With all bird dogs, but particularly with the flushing breeds like Springers, obedience is the real key. The instincts are in least you hope they are, once you've convinced your wife that a well bred dog, and all the associated equipment and veterinary costs are well worth the investment.  The real trick is to develop an obedient dog that will willingly work with, and for, you.  If he'll work close, resisting the urge to work too far out in front of the hunters, and come when called - his nose, a natural drive to hunt, and his natural desire to retrieve, can be directed toward the fun and enjoyment of you and your hunting companions.

We first hit the bird fields when Toby was 7 months old.  A knowledgeable friend with a well-mannered Springer helped us navigate the maiden voyage.  Toby did an admirable job of finding and retrieving planted chukars.  It was clear he had the right stuff, and the self-applied pressure increased as the little voice inside my head said "You're clearly the weak link in this relationship...try not to screw it up".

Successful first hunt

A long summer of field work, obedience training, and fun followed.  Working to train a pup to voice and whistle commands is highly rewarding.  A good bird dog pup's desire to please is remarkable, and fun to harness. Watching your pup paddle eagerly to a dummy you just launched to the middle of the farm pond, and return to your side with equal enthusiasm, before dropping the dummy in your hand, is a fantastic feeling that swells your chest with pride.  With Toby's affinity for the work and desire to please, I knew that when training sessions didn't go well, It was likely my fault.
As summer wound down, dove season was the first opportunity to put Toby on birds, and several trips afield produced a handful of opportunities.  It was obvious that Toby's retrieving skills were better than my wing shooting skills, as the pup found each bird that was knocked down and brought it to hand.  Occasionally, he would look up at me, as if to say, "How come you're shooting, but no birds are falling?"  Fortunately, bird dogs have short memories in regard to these matters, and have no desire to tease you about your misses (this is not true for all hunting buddies).

October brought a wonderful opportunity for Toby and me, as we headed north to Maine with four other dogs and 10 good friends.  For more than a week, we chased grouse and woodcock from Millinocket through the North Maine Woods.  The outpost camp we rented through Libby Camps was a fantastic home base for some self-guided bird hunting fun.  We stopped at the main lodge on our way to camp, to share lunch, gas up, and pick up some navigational and hunting tips. The Libby's are raising the sixth generation of capable hosts and guides, and their love and knowledge of the North Main Woods is second to none.  

Toby grew a great deal as a hunter that week, overcoming a nasty cut on one of his pads to work with other dogs, and for other hunters.  Daily construction of a booty made of duct tape made it possible for Toby to hunt.  Each night, protective gear removed, he went back to using three legs.  Each morning, after being taped up, he hit the woods in four-wheel drive.  By the end of the trip, Toby had added grouse, woodcock and a nice water retrieve on a duck to his resume'. 

Five dog mobile home

Mooseleuk Lake, North Maine Woods

Scouting the Lake

Wood fired cookstove - Grouse Hunting Palace

Endless logging roads through prime habitat

Gettin' the job done
Back home in Pennsylvania, with shorter, cooler days, came the opening of pheasant, grouse and woodcock season in Pennsylvania and we had great fun canvasing local PA State Game Lands for stocked pheasants. Pennsylvania has ramped up its pheasant stocking program in the last number of years, and, while I find a greater satisfaction in hunting wild birds, it is hard to argue with the opportunity to chase some surprisingly wary birds so close to home.

After school adventures

I also came to more fully appreciate what a wonderful family sport upland hunting can be.  My seven year old son and ten year old daughter love to follow Toby in the field and watch the birds rise with the Springer nipping at their heels.  The young apprentices were also eager to carry the birds, when we were lucky enough to bring them down.  This is always a welcome trait in a hunting partner. With a small area of stocked Game Lands five minutes from home, we can head out right after school, hunt for an hour and a half, and still be home for supper.  Bringing home happy, tired kids and a happy tired pup wins me brownie points with my wife.  Brownie points for hunting...what a concept.

Snowy Thanksgiving  Day hunt

All in all, it was a great hunting season.  We hunted from September through January, and Toby logged flushes and/or retrieves on grouse, woodcock, chukar, pheasant, doves and ducks. There is still work to do, but Toby is just getting up to speed - he will turn two as hunting season approaches late in 2015.  He'll need more practice afield, and more training, to resist the urge to punch out too far when birds are running, or hard to come by, and to resist the urge to give chase when his master blows the shot.  Just because your dog heeds the whistle in the back yard, is no guarantee he'll obey when the birds are flying and the guns are sounding.  Repetition and consistency are key.  I'll also look for more opportunities to put Toby on waterfowl, where he can exercise his strong drive for water retrieves. I'm determined to make the time to help him realize more of his potential, knowing that he will repay me with years of good hunting and companionship.                             

                                     Toby doesn't let high water slow down a good pheasant retrieve

I've come to see quite a bit of similarity between fishing and hunting upland birds with a dog.  When fishing, I carry the rod and cast a lure or fly toward promising targets.  While hunting, I carry my shotgun and cast my dog toward promising cover.  In both cases, it is necessary to read the water/terrain, find the likely spots and be ready for the action when it comes.  In fishing, the take is the ultimate moment.  Similarly, the flush of upland birds is the moment you anticipate most. Bringing a fish or bird to hand is the end goal of the adventure, but in both cases, that's not what keeps you coming back.  It's the planning, the preparation, the anticipation, the friendships you develop, and the outing itself.  Getting there is more than half of the fun.  If only catch and release were an option while bird hunting...  

Fortunately, game birds are delicious.