Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Tailgate Shot

A recent post on the Facebook group Grouse Dogs about ATVers displaying birds they had ground-swatted and shot out of trees set me to thinking about my own hunting practices, as well as how I convey my success to the world.  I'm guilty as charged (see above) of using the tailgate pose to demonstrate success in the field for a variety of reasons. Many times I forget the camera at home, or don't use it in the field in the rush of the moment, and the only way to record the day is a snapshot in the driveway like this.  Other times, I fall into the trap of the numbers game.

What doesn't get photographed are the many days, like yesterday, when I come home empty-handed, but still enjoyed the hour or so Jenkins and I rambled through the woods.  Perhaps I should start photographing the birdless tailgate shot because those days can be just as, or even more, successful than heavy gamebag days.  Here in America we use the tailgate pose because we too often get caught up in numbers, like comparing salaries to determine who has the more successful career.  And when the limit is four or five or whatever, we use that as the measuring stick. It's not like we drive 55 or 60 when the speed limit is 70.  We drive 75 or 80 usually.  (My speed limit analogy isn't suggesting, dear readers, that you're poachers).  Numbers, however, don't tell a quarter of the story.

Sure, there's not much more I like than the warmth and heft of a just shot grouse riding in my gamebag up against the small of my back.  A bird in hand does define success: all the hours of dog training, the miles of walking, the shells spent practicing a quick and smooth swing.  Not much beats seeing that bird tumble out of the sky.  More birds should mean more success compounded exponentially, right?   

The older I get the more I value each and every bird.  These days I worry about shooting too many birds and the law of diminishing returns.  Each bird is a gift, not a number to be tallied on a scoreboard.  I hope you don't think I'm a softie, but sometimes I feel like kneeling down next to the dog with the bird in hand and crying tears of joy.  I feel like I have won the lottery, like manna from heaven was just dropped into my hands, and it just takes that one bird.  I need to remind myself of this from time to time.  Especially at this time of year.                  

Friday, December 11, 2015

Deer Hunt or Grouse Hunt?

Even though the freezer is low on venison, it's not a difficult choice for me. Besides if it's just a matter of meat in the freezer, I'm much more adept at grouse hunting than deer hunting.  There were a dozen other things I should have been doing yesterday -- grading papers, prepping for class, finishing that article with the looming deadline -- but a patch of blue in the sky and temps in the mid-40s had me loading my gear and Fergus into the car and driving north.

I wasn't disappointed.  About 50 yards from where we parked, Fergus slammed into a point, his head lower than his hips, his tail arced ever so slightly.  I hustled up to him and walked a wide circle around his point and then straight at his head.  When I was about ten yards from him, the bird came up out of a clump of tag alders, a left to right crossing shot in open woods.  I dropped it, and we had our first bird.  I could have packed it in right then and there and been happy.   I almost did, thinking about all the stuff left undone back home.

We got back to the trail, and I turned right away from the car and headed south toward some cover a mile or so from the parking lot.  I had not been there this season and wanted to check it out.  But Fergus had other ideas.  As we moved south, he kept working to the east off the trail into a two-year-old popple cutting.  These trees were about head high, not a place where I would expect grouse to hang out.  I called Fergus back to me twice, and both times he ran straight back into the cutting.  The third time, I followed.  In 20 years of hunting this cover, I had never worked this way, always bypassing it for what I thought we greener pastures to the south.  

In short order, Fergus went on point, and again I hustled up to the dog. Before I could get there, two grouse blew out of the cutting, 50 or 60 yards out, and I watched them bore to the east.  Fergus broke (Bad Dog!) and busted three more birds, who followed the first pair.  I whoaed him and set him for a short time, and then we set off after the birds, going deeper into terra incognito. Another 150 to 200 yards east and Fergus pointed.  Again two birds flushed out of range as I moved up to him.  Fergus worked to his left a few steps and locked up again on the edge of some old tag alders that bordered a marsh.  I worked up on the other open side of the tags, and the bird came out on my side low and hard, offering me a rare wide open shot on a grouse.  I tumbled that birds as well, and was feeling quite proud of myself for going 2-for-2 with my old Ithaca as I inspected the bird and Fergus buried his nose in the breast feathers.

We kept going east, and Fergus had five more points.  One bird blew out of a balsam fir, two I never saw, another came up behind me and a pair flushed out of tag alders and I missed the first one with two shots, ruining my chance for a double.  I really didn't care that I never put another bird in the bag. After all, it was December, and I wanted to leave some seed birds for the following year.  Judging from the dozen or so we put up, there would be plenty in this spot -- a spot I'm sure I will now hunt for years to come.

No venison, but I did get two more birds for the freezer -- and a pile of memories for the coming winter.      

Monday, November 23, 2015

Hunting in Southwest Iowa 

Over a long weekend we drove down to Pottawatomie County in southwestern Iowa to visit family and do a little pheasant hunting.  We haven't hunted down there for at least ten years, and Fergus and Jenkins had never even smelled a pheasant before.  Above is the first rooster Jenkins pointed, and Susan's sister, Cindy Freemyer, dropped it as it flushed out of the ditch.  Cindy, by the way, did an excellent job guiding us around the Iowa farms and countryside.

Jenkins figured out the prairie birds long before Fergus.  In fact, he pointed the first covey of quail we came across during the first day of hunting.  I didn't even fire when I flushed them because I didn't know or remember what they were -- that's how long it's been since I've hunted out of the state.  You can take a boy out of the woods .....  Fergus, with seven seasons of grouse and woodcock hunting, didn't know what to do out in all that open country.

The birds were pretty sparse, although it was good to see coveys of quail coming back, until the last day of our trip.  A couple of inches of snow and some raw winter weather had the birds holed up in the thick grass and cattails. Fergus nailed three hens and a rooster in a patch of tall grass, and we fired, missing the rooster.  But from then on, he nailed the birds.  Instead of running around like we were out playing, he worked the cover.  It had finally clicked, and we had a wonderful day of hunting, the birds popping up out of the brilliant white snow. As Cindy predicted before we set out that day, "This is the perfect day for a hunt." She was dead right.                                                                     

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Puppy Training

My brother came up from Iowa over the weekend for some hunting and brought along his six-month-old setter, Lucy.  She drug the checkcord through the woods and followed Fergus around yesterday, looking for some lagging woodcock, but all we found were grouse. Fergus didn't mind because he prefers the bigger birds.  Lucy didn't seem to mind either. 

Fergus did point one woodcock this morning, maybe his last of the season with the gun deer season coming up and shutting down the upland hunting for a while. By then, I figure most, if not all, of the woodcock will be in the warmer south lands, and the season has been closed for almost two weeks now.  The warmer weather makes it feel more like October, not mid-November.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Hunting Before Work

We snuck in a short hunt this morning before work and the imminent rain, wind and snow.   Photos by Susan Parman.

Jenkins pointing a grouse.  He relocated a step to his left and flushed the bird.  It was a ways away, and we never saw it.  Nevertheless, I was not happy. I set him up and told him to be careful.

Jenkins tearing after me, trying to get out in front.  He is much more athletic than Fergus in the woods, but works closer.

This point came five minutes after Jenkins busted the grouse in the first picture.  I made a big circle around him.  Nothing.  As I worked back toward him, a woodcock twittered up and flew to the east. We wished the woodcock well on its journey to Arkansas or Louisiana.  We never did find that grouse. 

Calm before the storm -- it's thundering and lightning as I write this. Doesn't looks like such a good day for hunting tomorrow or Friday.  Winds in excess of 40 mph, rain, some snow.  Fergus and Jenkins wouldn't mind the conditions.  Any day is a good day to hunt to them.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Just Grouse

We're hunting just grouse from here on out since woodcock season ended in Wisconsin a week ago. There are still a few straggling woodcock around, and a couple have fooled me when the dogs have pointed them. I see paint on the ground or figure from the dog's posture that it's a woodcock, and then a grouse comes blowing out of the cover.  It's like expecting a curveball and getting the fastball.  This picture is Fergus pointing a grouse, his tail slightly higher than when he points woodcock.  Or at least it seems so to me.   

This time of year right before gun deer season is often my favorite time to hunt grouse if the weather holds.  The trees are stripped bare, the woods opened up.  Last year at this time, we had a 10" blanket of snow on the ground, which effectively ended the season.  This fall has been significantly warmer, and looking at the long range forecast, it appears this fine weather will continue.  These days in November are gifts. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

One More Week

Hard to believe there's only a week left in the 45-day woodcock season.  The woodcock moon occurs tomorrow morning, so with the heavenly bodies aligning, I'm expecting a last good week to the season.  We haven't seen massive flights of birds, but definitely days with lots of birds.  Here's Susan at the Woodcock Rock, a little pocket of cover that always holds a few.  This time it held a couple of grouse, too, which befuddled us since we expected woodcock.  Ah, the delightful dilemma of thinking woodcock and getting grouse or vice versa.    

Here's the first grouse shot with my Ithaca 37, a gun I bought this past spring.  It's a 20 gauge Ultrafeatherlight with the aluminum receiver and weighs just a bit over five pounds.  A bottom load/bottom eject design, the shotgun is a good design for lefties like me.  All I had to do was switch the safety around.  This is the first pump I've owned and the first I've carried in the woods.  I like how it points, but I'm not so adept at pumping in the second round yet.  That's usually not an issue since most of the grouse I put up don't offer much of a second shot.   

Monday, October 12, 2015

Summer Hangs On

Summer is dying hard here in the Upper Midwest, which is good for our garden, but not so good for grouse hunting.  Yesterday, the temp rose up near 80.  I went out early and hunted with Fergus for a couple of hours.  He was done by 9:30 or so, which he indicates by flopping to the ground on his side and panting like he is about to explode.  I just sit down with him and wait until he gets up.  I was bushwacking and came out onto a trail and ran into three other hunters, and he did his flop in front of this audience.  "He doesn't do so well in the heat, does he?" one guy said.

I'm seeing lots of woodcock lately and assume they are flight birds.  A lot of them are flushing head high and then dropping back down, covering about 20 or 30 yards.  Others are running away from points, if you can call what woodcock do "running".  Fergus pointed about ten yesterday, including a pair that came up at once.

Another cold front is predicted to sweep through Wisconsin this afternoon. It's supposed to drop temperatures, and maybe it will tear most of the leaves off the trees.  Should be primo hunting this week, like a real October.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Tail Tale

I've shot grouse with a couple of short tail feathers before, often the two middle feathers.  The one I shot today, however, is the funkiest looking fan I've taken in 25 years of grouse hunting.  It almost looks like two different fans.  Even the colors and markings are different.  We almost didn't get this bird since it hung up in a popple after I shot it.  I walked over to where I thought it landed, didn't see it on the ground and finally noticed Fergus looking up into the trees. The grouse was lodged in the V of a branch about 15 feet up in the air.  One shake of the popple, and it dropped to the ground, almost bonking Fergus in the head.

Other hunters have told me that tail deformities such as this are from a predator (fox, coyote, wolf) snapping at a bird and getting a mouth full of feathers instead of a meal.  Then as they're growing back, they look like this. That just an old hunter's tale?     

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Fall Finally Arrives


Monday a cold front blew through Wisconsin, dragging with it some cool Canadian air. According to the National Weather Service, September of 2015 went down as the 5th warmest on record.  It felt more like July or August, so we kept our hunts short in whatever cool the early morning or evening offered.  Fergus would flop on his side after a half an hour of hard running and pant in a panic.  Both dogs would wallow in whatever muck they could find.

But that all changed on Tuesday when I had a good hunt with Jenkins, and this morning when I jumped out of the truck with Fergus, it was 36 degrees.  The frost was heavy and the trees dripping as they warmed.  Speaking of trees, the popples are finally starting to drop their leaves, but it's still pretty thick out there.  We had our best hunt of the season, putting up 15 grouse and 7 woodcock.  

We had one strange flush this morning.  Fergus went on point in some tag alders about 10 yards from a creek.  I waded in, flushed a bird over the creek, shot and missed.  Two more birds came up, one squealing.  It was a wood duck joining the fun with another grouse.  I pulled off the duck and fired at the grouse and somehow it went down.  Lucky shot.  Ferg was on it quickly, and we had our first bird of the day. 
October feels like October, and life is good.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Woodcock, I Mean, Grouse Moon

Last night's lunar eclipse was a beauty, and it would have made a memorable woodcock moon had it occurred in October.  I wish it were the woodcock moon, bringing with it thousands of flight birds since so far this season I'm having difficulty locating woodcock other than those I helped band this spring.  I've trained the dogs a few times on those birds, but I can't shoot them.  It would be like shooting a pet.  Plus, doing so would skew the science and research the banding provides.

I'm wondering if the warm weather has moved the woodcock around some since they don't seem to be in my usual hot spots.  As I write, a cold front is sweeping through Wisconsin, and it's supposed to bring us back to autumn, so I'm hoping the woodcock hunting picks up.        
On the other hand, I'm finding good numbers of grouse.  Since it's been unseasonably warm this season so far (the warmest September I can remember in my 25 years of grouse and woodcock hunting), I've limited the length of my hunts, getting out for an hour or so in the morning.  After an hour, Fergus and Jenkins are panting and gasping and looking for the nearest muck hole to wallow in.  One cool morning, Jenkins and I did get out for a two and a half hour jaunt and put up 14 grouse.  After he bumped the first one and I corrected him, he was spot on with several fine points the rest of the morning.  Perhaps last night's full moon/eclipse was the grouse moon.    

For more on the woodcock moon, see the article I wrote in the Fall issue of the Ruffed Grouse Society magazine.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

It's a Jungle Out There   

Here's Fergus pointing a woodcock on Saturday, the grouse opener.  He didn't get the memo that woodcock season begins the following Saturday.  Although we only hunted a few hours over the weekend in the early morning before it warmed, we did see decent numbers of birds in northcentral Wisconsin.  Jenkins got unhinged by a large covey of eight to ten birds on Sunday.  He's never seen those kinds of numbers all at once.  After the initial flurry, he settled down and did point one juvenile bird that lingered after the first flush, which I shot at and hit through all the green.  I'm always amazed when I get a bird this early in the season since I'm mostly shooting at sound, maybe a fleeting silhouette.  

I expect the leaves will hang on for a few more weeks.  The summer-like weather is back today and the weather man says it will stick around for much of the week.  I'm praying for some cool Canadian air to drop down into Wisconsin and remind us what time of year it is.  

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

If Only They Look This Big .... 

I hope the birds look this big on Saturday for the Wisconsin grouse opener.  After shooting a couple of rounds of skeet over the weekend at the Cable Rod & Gun Club, it seems my shooting will need all the help it can get come this weekend.

With high temperatures predicted to be in the mid-60s over the weekend, it should be cool enough to hunt comfortably, at least in the morning.  It's still pretty green out there with most of the leaves still clinging to the trees.  I never know whether to shoot 9s (more BBs to find their way through the brush) or 7.5s (heavier shot to penetrate the brush), so I usually compromise with a 9 in the bottom barrel and a 7.5 in the top.

Fergus and Jenkins haven't hunted since May when we banded woodcock, and they're a few pounds heavy even though they've been going on runs with me.  The early opener is a chance for them to tune up as well so by the time Park Falls gets lively in October, we should be in fine shape.  We may even get a few birds before then, especially if they look this big when they come up.      

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

One Month To Go

Grouse season in Wisconsin opens in exactly one month, September 12th.  Woodcock season opens the following Saturday on the 19th.  This picture is from mid-September last year, and as you can see most of the leaves are still on the trees.  Sometimes the first few weeks of the season feel like jungle hunting, shooting through all that green, sweating and slapping mosquitoes. Several years ago, it hit 80 degrees on opening day, so I ease into the season and hunt the cool of the early mornings.  I'm careful since Fergus does not tolerate the heat well.  Nor do I, come to think of it.    

Even though it's summer yet, the garden still lush, the time has come to get the dogs in the woods for a little fine tuning before the season begins. We're waiting for the first cool morning to come along, one in the upper 30s or low 40s.  I also need to get to the range and break a few clay pigeons, maybe the Cable Rod and Gun Club next week.  I feel like a kid waiting for Christmas to finally arrive.  


Monday, August 3, 2015

In Harm's Way

This is Ox, who died in 2009 at nearly 13 years of age of a combination of Lyme disease and Leptospirosis (See CDC link for more info).  I write this because a friend recently sent me information about Leptospirosis vaccinations and the debate about whether it's better to vaccinate for the disease or treat it when it occurs.  Where we hunt in northern Wisconsin, the woods are rife with Lyme, Lepto, as well as Anaplasmosis (CDC link), another tick-borne disease similar to Lyme.  Hunting in the woods around here, we understand the risk to not just our dogs but ourselves.

Some days I think we should just keep the dogs, as well as ourselves, safe inside the house with as little exposure to risks as possible.  There's a lot of bad stuff our there, so play it safe and keep out of harm's way.  But then I think of all of the good out there and how much my dogs love to hunt, and I can't deny them what they live for.

When I hunt Fergus and Jenkins individually and back out of the drive, I glance over at the picture window and see the dog left behind inside the house -- nose pressed against the glass, ears down, eyes begging. "Please, take me.  I'll be good.  I promise."  Some days I relent, roll back up the drive, go back inside and grab the other dog, who runs out to the truck dancing around like a kid at Christmas.  That kind of joy is infectious and difficult to deny.

My dogs don't fret over risk.  They want to live and breathe and hunt.        

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Raspberries Have Ripened

Here's Fergus is our berry patch going after raspberries like a black bear.  He and Jenkins have made paths through the jungle of vines in their quest for fruit.  They seem to find the berries by smell rather than sight, judging from all the snorting and snuffing they do when they pick berries.  Dogs only have two color-detecting cones in their retinas, unlike humans who have three, so apparently red looks more like brown to them.

The blackberries and blueberries will follow the raspberries and in turn ripen, and before we know it fall will be here.  Grouse season opens here in Wisconsin on September 12.  We have less than two months to get ready.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Wisconsin DNR Releases 2015 Drumming Counts

Ruffed grouse numbers in Wisconsin will be about the same this fall as last fall.  Ruffed grouse drumming counts were down 13 percent in the northern part of the state and up 38 percent in the central part of the state, according to the Wisconsin DNR.  See the complete article here: 2015 drumming counts.

I have run into four broods this year -- three while mountain biking and one while driving -- so I think nesting conditions were good, but obviously this is just my take or perhaps my optimism. Two of the hens did their broken wing routine to try and lead us away from the chicks.  I haven't experienced this show in a few years.

I'm expecting decent bird numbers in 2015, a bit better than last season.  It's less than three months until the Sept. 12 opener.  Time to start training and shooting.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Wisconsin Wolf Numbers Up

According to the Wisconsin DNR, wolf numbers are up 13 percent over last year.  On June 11, the state wildlife agency estimated a total of 746 to 771 wolves roamed the state after their winter counts from Dec. 1, 2014 to April 15, 2015.  This number also included 208 packs and 30 lone wolves, with the densest population in the northwestern part of the state in some of the Wisconsin's best grouse and woodcock cover.  

Every place I hunt now has a wolf pack, something I didn't even consider 20, even 10 years ago. The pack roaming around my cabin in Saywer County has now split into two packs -- Seeley Hills North and Seeley Hills South.  This pack killed a friend's black lab last June.  That said, I don't want to sound like an alarmist.  As I wrote in a Jan./Feb. article in Pointing Dog Journal, I think Fergus or Jenkins is more likely to get struck and killed by a car or die of Lyme disease complications than be killed by a wolf.  I will keep them close as I hunt this fall, however, particularly in areas of known depredation.

A few months back, the wolf was relisted as an Endangered Species, and the Wisconsin DNR no longer has the authority to manage them.  There will most likely be no fall wolf hunt in Wisconsin.  The good news here is upland hunters won't have to worry about their dogs stepping in a wolf trap. 

See the Wisconsin DNR's wolf page for more info.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Dance Goes On

After a week of canoeing and camping and fishing in the Quetico Wilderness of Canada, we stopped at a friend's place on the drive home last Saturday, May 30th.  Yort lives just across the border in Hovland, Minnesota, and has carved out a homestead on 80 acres of boreal forest.  As the darkness deepened, the woodcock starting peenting and skydancing on the three acres of meadow surrounding Yort's cabin. It was a beautifully clear and cold night, and I could make out three males singing against a darkening star and planet-filled sky.  The dance helped the beer taste even better.

I don't think I've ever witnessed the skydance so late in the season.  I consulted the woodcock bible (Sheldon's Book of the American Woodcock) and found this: "Mendall and Aldous found two male woodcock performing 'half-hearted' courting flights in late July.  Pettingill cited instances of woodcock mating flights in October, but he did not hear the vocal song of the typical spring flight.  Liscinsky (1964) heard a woodcock going through a typical flight song on October 18 in central Pennsylvania.  I have witnessed many flights in July in Massachusettes similar to those described by Mendall and Aldous."  A May 30th flight song, particularly in northern Minnesota/almost Canada, is the norm not the exception.  I'm happy to have witnessed it one more time.  


Friday, May 22, 2015

Bird Dog Photography

See the summer RGS issue for a sneak peak at some Hannah Stonehouse Hudson bird dog photography. Even though I'm hopelessly biased toward the three photos of Fergus, my favorite is the GSP (I think) going for a cracker.  Hannah captures not only the moment of the hunt, but those before and after.  

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Woodcock Banding Journal

May 13, 2015 -- frost overnight, clear blue skies this morning.  Went out with Tom Goltz to the 2 Km Cover, and we ran Fergus, his first attempt at banding.  As we gathered our gear in the parking lot, we could hear a grouse drumming to the east, an auspicious start.  I left the camera in the truck so I could concentrate on controlling Fergus.

Fergus pointed five woodcock and one grouse in about an hour and a half.  The first two woodcock were males, but then he pointed a brooding hen.  After flushing the hen, I grabbed Fergus and tied him to a tree.  I went back to where the hen flushed and crouched down, and in a few moments I spotted a little fuzzy woodcock.  It was within arms reach but didn't flinch.  Tom worked a circle around me, looking for chicks, and then I found two more in short order.  We looked several more minutes for the fourth, but never found it.  Their beaks were 21 mm, so they were two or three days old.  With Tom's help, and Fergus waiting patiently at his tree, I banded the three chicks, and he released them.

On the way out, Fergus pointed a grouse and two more woodcock, the last a chick that could fly. Two weeks old and already flying.  Precocious little birds.  For the season, Tom has banded 37 chicks, two more than his previous all-time high of 35.     

Monday, May 11, 2015

Duty Calls

It's that time of year -- spring clean-up time.  After the snow melts and before the grass starts to green up, one of us has to grab the shovel and remove the winter deposits.  Much of our one acre is wooded, and the setters have learned to do their business in the trees.  But every once in a while, they leave me a little something to scoop up.  Which is OK, it's just part of part of owning a dog.

My mother's next door neighbors own three large dogs, and their house, situated on a postage-sized lot, is literally ten feet away from hers.  Not in tune with property lines, their dogs often leave her deposits, which she rightfully deplores.  I told her to collect them all in a bag, and when the bag is full, walk next door and ring the doorbell.  When they answer the doorbell, hand them the bag and say, "Here, I believe these are yours."  One of my former colleague's mother actually did this -- with a straight face if I remember.  It would probably be more neighborly to call these guys listed above.  

Sunday, May 3, 2015

May Day Banding Day

On May Day, I went out looking for woodcock broods with Wisconsin-licensed bander Tom Goltz and his five-year-old Brittany named Ivy.  Tom's English setter Ruby had pointed two broods the day before, and he had banded six chicks, so we were hoping for more success, particularly me since this was my first go at banding.  We didn't start until one o'clock, giving the morning over to the turkey hunters, but despite temps in the mid-60s, it was a fine day to be in the woods with the spring wildflowers blooming: hepatica, bloodroot, trout lillies, even a few small trillium.  

We worked a low swampy section of tag alder and popple in the county forest, where Ivy pointed our first woodcock, a male which flew off strongly, and then a second male.  Next, we lost Ivy for several minutes as she pointed and held a grouse.  An hour or so later and almost back to the parking lot, I started to despair of finding a brood when Ivy struck this point.  Tom and I tip-toed around Ivy searching for the hen, their camouflage blending them in with the leaf liter on the woods floor. Finally, I spotted the bird a couple of yards off Ivy's left shoulder.

Tom flushed the woodcock and grabbed Ivy, and the bird flew off uncertainly about ten yards. "That's probably a brooding hen," Tom said after he threw down his hat to mark the spot of the flush and tied Ivy to a tree.  We tip-toed around even more carefully so as not to step on any chicks when one little bumblebee-like chick made a run for it. "Grab it," Tom said, and I did ever so carefully, handling my first ever woodcock chick.  It was a bit smaller than a tennis ball, weighed about as much as an envelope and was quite tame once I cupped it in my hands. Tom held out a small mesh bag, and I dropped the chick in.  It took us several more minutes to find the rest of the brood.  Woodcock lay four eggs, so we had three more to go. We found the next chick right away, then another several minutes later and placed those in the mesh bag with the first captured.  We looked and looked and looked for the fourth, for maybe ten minutes, but never found it.  As we searched, the hen was making a small racket ten yards away, while Ivy was whining tied up to her tree.

The real work began.  Singly, we pulled each of the chicks out of the bag, measured their bills and placed a small aluminum band on a leg.  Their bills were 15 mm long, which Tom said meant they were about a day old.  Beaks grow two mm per day so measuring them is a reliable gauge of their age.  Since the chicks were so docile, the operation went smoothly.  Open up the band with the banding pliers, slip it over a leg, making sure not to pinch a toe, and clamp it down. Transfer banded chick to a second bag and onto the next.  Woodcock chicks are precocious and grow quickly -- in two weeks they can fly and are nearly full-grown in a month's time.    

When finished, Tom sculpted a small nest out of leaves where we found the chicks, placed them in the small depression and dropped his hat over the top of them to calm them.  We untied Ivy, Tom grabbed his gear and his hat and we quickly made our exit.  It was an efficient operation, hopefully someday yielding information to the USFWS if a band is recovered, to help us understand why woodcock populations are declining. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"Sonnets to Six Grouse Dogs"

This came in the mail today, an early birthday present.  Opinions range all over the board concerning George Bird Evans, from elitist and jerk to artist and gentleman.  I never met Evans and only know him through his writing.  He wrote prolifically about grouse and woodcock hunting, nearly 20 books, and he did it true and well for the most part.  I'd like to own all of his hunting books, but many cost as much as a shotgun and nearly all as much as a case of shells. And words and pages don't kill grouse. 

As a setter lover, I'm obviously biased toward Evans, who wouldn't have hunted without an English setter at his side.  An Affair With Grouse is my favorite Evans book since contains sonnets to six of his beloved Old Hemlock setters: Blue, Ruff, Dixie, Bliss, Briar and Belton.  In it he writes, "The perfection of a life with a gun dog, like the perfection of autumn, is disturbing because you know, even as it begins, that it must end.  Time bestows the gift and steals it in the process."

My upcoming birthday, like those of my dogs, will add another year to my tally.  Evans will help me treasure the years I and our setters have left.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Leopold's Sky Dance for Earth Day

Monday evening about sunset, I walked down the road from our cabin amid snow squalls and bitter northwest winds to an opening in the woods.  For the past ten years, I have been coming here to this meadow in spring to observe the woodcock's sky dance.  It was cold standing there in the wind and snow, and I had almost given up and turned around for home when I heard a peent.  The woodcock started slowly, but as the sky darkened, his peents increased in frequency and then he lifted up into the air and climbed in tight circles and performed his song and dance.  In a matter of minutes, I could hear three separate woodcock peenting and dancing.  I watched until I could no longer see the birds against the darkening sky and then walked home feeling quite warm.

I know of no better description of the male woodcock's courtship ritual than Aldo Leopold's in A Sand County Almanac: "Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter.  Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky.  Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crooked plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy.  At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began, and there resumes his peenting."
Like Leopold, since I have observed the sky dance, I no longer shoot as many woodcock as I once did.  I can't imagine spring without dancing woodcock.                                                                     

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Tracking Woodcock

According to the GoogleEarth map (Spring 2015) used to track migrating woodcock, two birds have settled in my neighborhood ( after migrating north from their winter grounds.  They're represented by two green dots in northcentral Wisconsin on the above mentioned map on the RGS website.  These woodcock are wearing tiny transmitters (PTTs) so we can live track their whereabouts in a study sponsored by the USGS and the USFWS.

What's fascinating is the divergent routes these two birds took to get to their breeding grounds in Wisconsin. One woodcock flew straight north from Louisiana to Wisconsin, while the other bird veered much farther east over to Indiana and lower Michigan then flew what looks like a couple of hundred miles up and across the cold water of Lake Michigan back into Wisconsin.  Why the difficult flight over the lake?  Wind blew the woodcock off course?

Although transmitters give ornithologists much more info than legs bands, I still hope to help a friend band in the coming days/weeks as the chicks hatch because even this older technology and cruder means of keeping track of woodcock yields valuable information.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Woodcock Found

Here's Jenkins pointing the first woodcock of the spring for us in tag alders.  Photo credit goes to Susan Parman since I had coffee mug in hand.  Fergus actually found it first, and then Jenkins nailed it moments later from the other side in a nice pincer movement.  Susan and I spent a half minute or so carefully surveying the ground before we spotted the woodcock sitting tightly a few yards from Fergus.  I try to look for the alternating bands of dark chocolate and dusty mustard across the top of its head, but it always amazes me how camouflaged these birds are.  Determining there was no nest and no eggs, I waded in and flushed the bird, which flew strongly to the west.  

Here's Fergus on a ski trail, all mucked up from slogging around in the tags, pointing the second bird of the day.  I walked around his left side, and the bird flushed before I got past the dog. It was sitting on the trail up against the popple about two yards from Fergus's left shoulder. (I blew up this picture as much as possible to see if I could spot it.  I think Fergus's big, dirty body is blocking it.)  This bird flew away weakly, barely getting head high, and dropped back down about 30 yards away in the popple.  I called the dogs in and cast them in the opposite direction from this bird not wanting to bother it anymore than we already had.  Since there was neither nest nor eggs, we figure this woodcock dropped in overnight and was exhausted from its migratory labors hence its weak flush.

Before setting out, I brushed up on capturing and banding woodcock by reading Andy Ammann's guide for doing so.  By the way, this small booklet is still available on the Ruffed Grouse Society's website (  Ammann reminded me to go slowly when we had dogs on point and watch my step.  Hopefully, one of these two birds is female and nests in the area close to these points.  Banding should begin in late April or early May.  

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Tick Season

It shocks me every spring how quickly the ticks emerge.  Actually it's more like late winter. The bloodsuckers crawl out of their winter hovels and seek out hosts as soon as the first bare ground comes to light.  When a patch of matted grass appeared in early March on a south-facing slope in our yard, of course Fergus and Jenkins moved in to sniff it out.  They came inside covered with dozens of ticks, hoping for a free meal of blood.  We had nearly 40 days of sub-zero temperatures this past winter, but the cold of a hard winter didn't appear to deter this year's crop whatsoever.  

And so begins tick season -- my war against all ticks, particularly Ixodes scapularis, the deer tick. Two of our setters have had tick-borne illnesses.  Fergus contracted the anaplasmosis four years ago last November, and six years ago Ox died of a complication of diseases at age 13, including Lyme.  I, too, have had a bout with anaplasmosis, so for me this is personal.

My war is mostly a defensive battle.  We have used Frontline on our dogs, but recently switched to Vectra, which seems to work better.  A thorough tick check, however, before the ticks have a chance to bite and anchor in is the best defense.  I usually press the ticks I pull off the dogs onto a piece of duct tape, and when I have filled the tape with writhing ticks, I ball it up and throw it in the trash.  If the woodstove is going and I'm feeling childishly vindictive, I drop a few onto the hot surface, roasting them alive.  Straight to tick hell.

I recently learned chipmunks are the unwitting allies/hosts of ticks after reading a 2007 article in Science Daily ( With a half dozen rock walls and terraces, our one acre is ideal chipmunk habitat -- and thus ideal tick habitat.  I know chipmunks are cute little critters, but we are infested with them.  I always hope the resident fox keep the population in check or a red-tailed hawk drifting by takes out a few, and this past February I spotted a white ermine skulking around our woodshed.  Hopefully, he helps me out with some population control.

Chipmunks raid our garden, eating or destroying peppers, sunflowers, squash and whatever suits their pallet.  It's then I take matters into my own hands, matters in this case being my pellet gun. Fergus and Jenkins love to point chipmunks and will hold point until the chipmunk blinks and bolts. Then it's usually a mad dash to the nearest tree.  They have yet to catch one, but they tree chipmunks for me like seasoned bear hounds, which makes my job easier.

Shooting chipmunks is not sport, it is not fun.  It's about survival and defending my own. Forgive me if I think my food supply or my dogs are more important.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

What Kind of Dog is That?

We get asked this question occasionally, especially when walking our dogs on leads in the city. My favorite question so far: "Is that a long-haired Dalmatian?"  Once is a while, people who know setters will ask what kind of setters we have?  Llewellin?  I usually answer bird dog setters.

English setters have evolved in the past 150 years in many directions, the AKC and American Field distinction between show and field setters the most obvious break.  A peek in the classified section at back of a gun dog magazine reveals many ES field lines: Llewellin, Old Hemlock, Twombley and Ryman among others.

My setter bias leans in the Ryman direction.  According to The Real Ryman Setter, written by Walt Lesser and Lisa Weisse, an excellent history of George Ryman's line of setters by the way, Ryman set out to breed bird dogs, more specifically a grouse and woodcock dog,  Since that's what we hunt in northern Wisconsin, Ryman seems the obvious choice for us.

When I see any English setter out in public, though, I'm drawn to it like a bee to honey.  I walk up to the owner like a yokel and ask, "Can I pet your dog?"  I can't help myself.  I love setters, like other dog owners love their labs, their chows, their poodles.  Sometimes we cannot even articulate why we prefer a certain breed.  Years ago we threw our lot in with English setters, and we have yet to regret our decision because we wanted calm and gentle gun dogs we could share our home with.  AKC, American Field, Llewellin, Ryman -- they're all English setters, they're all dogs.  And really it's the dog I love.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Bird Dog Photography Workshop

If you want to improve the photos you take of your favorite flushing or pointing dog, or any dog for that matter, I can't think of a much better way than attending this workshop led by Hannah Stonehouse Hudson (  The workshop, hosted by Pineridge Grouse Camp in northern Minnesota, takes place May 28-31 and features a private session with Hannah.

I met Hannah in October of 2012 when she photographed a grouse and woodcock hunt in northwestern Wisconsin for A Passion for Grouse, a massive grouse book for which I wrote a chapter.  Dennis LaBare set up the hunt and brought along his pack of setters.  It was a foggy morning, and the popple woods Dennis selected was full of flight bird woodcock.  Hannah took some of the finest pictures of birds dogs I have ever seen, but then I'm quite biased as many were of Fergus.  My favorite picture is below, which I like to call "Fergus in Birdland."  
See for more of Hannah's work.  

Friday, March 20, 2015

Cheeseheads Finally Agree on Something

A recent poll in Wisconsin showed we overwhelmingly agree on at least one issue -- we value public land.  This principle, supported by about 90% of those polled, cut across class and political boundaries.

The poll, commissioned by the Nature Conservancy and conducted by Public Opinion Strategies (, came in response to Governor Walker's latest budget proposal that defunds the evidently popular Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.  For the last 25 years through this fund, the Wisconsin DNR has bought land or easements on more than 627,600 acres in the state. 

Walker's budget would shut down state land deals until possibly 2028 and order the state to sell off 10,000 acres.  That's a step in the wrong direction.

Last season, I hunted exclusively on public ground -- for ruffed grouse, woodcock and deer.  But that's not all I do on public land.  I fish, mountain bike, cross country ski, snowshoe, hike, canoe, camp, bird watch, pick berries, scavenge for ramps (wild leeks) and cut firewood.  No doubt I missed a few other activities.

I'm not suggesting we gather in the capitol rotunda and belt out Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land, but if we value public land we should speak loudly about this issue to our representatives and be heard by them.
See for the full press release of this opinion poll.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Syrup Boys

We have a lot of pet names for our dogs, Setter Boys being among the many nicknames they have. This time of year when Fergus and Jenkins follow me around the yard as I collect sap from our maple trees, I call them the Syrup Boys.  Mostly, they follow me around because they know the squirrels like to lick the sweet sap dripping out of the taps, and any prey is better than no prey.

The syrup season started abruptly this year.  After the sixth coldest February on record in Wisconsin, the second week in March warmed up with a couple of days approaching 60, and the sap started to rise in the maples, particularly in our best trees.  Since the weather has returned to normal -- lows in the 20s and highs near 40, perfect syrup weather -- the other maples around our lot have started to produce as well.  

I tapped nine trees this year, which should yield about two gallons of syrup, unless I get weary of all the boiling.  The sugar to water content is unusually low this year, around 1 to 50, which means more boiling to concentrate the sap.  An exceptional year is one to 20-30 sugar to water ratio.  I've heard some commercial producers around the area are reporting sugar contents as low as 1 to 100.  The syrup I've made so far this year is extremely dark and full of flavor.  My syrup seems to taste and look different every year.

I gave up sugaring a few years back and bought syrup from friends. Last year, after seeing this Kitchen Vignette ( video on PBS, I was motivated to restart my backyard sugar operation.  I have yet to make the maple pie. Clouk, clouk, clouk.  

Monday, March 16, 2015

Give the Irish Their Due

Every dog must have its day, so in honor of St. Patrick's Day, the English Setter Brewing Company ( will be known as the Irish Setter Brewing Company.  If I'm ever in Spokane, Washington, I'm stopping here.  It sounds like the brewery has plenty of interesting beers to go along with grilled grouse or woodcock rumaki: Tri-Color Blonde, Llewellyn Porter, Wiggly Butt IPA and Grouse Guinness.  They also serve up a Red Setter Retriever, perfect for St. Paddy's Day.

Many years ago, at least in dog years, English and Irish setters had common ancestors.  As did the Gordon setter.  This Louis Aggasiz Fuertes painting from around 1910 shows the three breeds in the field pointing.  Wikipedia has a nice entry on Irish setters.

My Uncle Gary (my mom's first cousin actually) hunted over Irish setters some 40 years ago.  I remember he and his dogs stopping at our Calmar, Iowa, home on his way out to the Dakotas to hunt pheasants.

Sadly, the Irish setter isn't used all that much in the field anymore.  Only twice in the last 20 years while grouse hunting have I run into hunters running Irish setters.  They do seem to be making a small comeback, though.  The 2015 Jan./Feb issue of Pointing Dog Journal ( lists two classified ads for Irish setter kennels in its back pages.   

My brother tells me Uncle Gary shot an L.C. Smith side-by-side over his red setters.  A fine gun for a fine dog.  Happy St. Patrick's Day.  

Sunday, March 15, 2015

March Madness.....Getting a Puppy

I can't ever remember seeing an ugly puppy.  Seeing a puppy makes me want to add another member to the pack, and the internet, with the millions of photos posted on-line, simply fuels this passion, so ....

Here's Fergus as a puppy.

And Jenkins.

And perhaps the best puppy photo I have of the two.

Both dogs are Beirl Setters from Mellen, Wisconsin.  Deb Beirl has a wonderful website ( with nine pages of puppy photos of perhaps 200 setters.  Enough to fuel the madness.