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.