Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Woodcock and Wild Turkey Connection

On Wednesday morning this week I heard several woodcock males "peenting" as I walked past their singing grounds to turkey hunt. That morning two hens fed, harassed each other and made their acquaintance with my hen decoy in the harvested bean field I was watching. But not one tom or jake showed himself.

On Friday morning, the woodcock males were much quieter. However, the gobblers were vocally outdoing themselves on their roosts and after they hit the ground. Two toms walked into range, one gobbling and puffing himself up in full strut. The other one seemed more concerned about looking out for camouflaged forms sporting shotguns. A third gobbler was still in a tree behind me, and he was shouting up a storm and getting a response from the vocal bird in front of me each time. A distant dog barks: gobble, gobble, gobble. A bird chirps: gobble, gobble, gobble. I shift my weight on the leaves: gobble, gobble, gobble.

Do I draw the conclusion that there is an environmental factor which causes an inverse relationship between the level of mating activity of male woodcock vs wild turkey males and that I can tell how active the male turkeys will be by gauging if the woodcock males are active? In this case, active woodcock mean inactive toms. Doubt it. I'm sure for every hunter who experienced this scenario, there is another who has observed the opposite reaction.

Though it's premature to conclude a connection, I'll continue to pay attention to the woodcock for clues to turkey behavior. Making and testing observations while hunting is part of the allure of the sport after all.

Unfortunately, I'll have more opportunities this spring to test my woodcock/wild turkey connection theory. We're only allowed one bearded bird during the season here in Michigan, and on Friday morning I whiffed an 18-yard shot at that non-vocal tom about the same time he discovered the camo dude aiming at him.

I really would have preferred to bag the strutting bird anyway.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Thoughts on Recreation: Bird Hunting and Skiing

The same thoughts popped into my head several times during the Valentine's weekend I spent at a ski resort.

Could any of the skiers feel as deeply about their sport as I feel about bird hunting?

Almost instantly I would wonder, wouldn't I be offended if someone was as cavalier about bird hunting as I am about skiing?

For me, skiing is enjoyable, fun. It's done outside and is physically demanding, characteristics I appreciate. But to me it lacks the soul cleansing, gratifying sensation that comes with doing what you feel down to your toes that you were meant to do and do right. Conversely, skiing lacks the ability to break my heart if I feel I didn't live up to its code.

Is it wrong to think that the level of emotional commitment should be higher in bird hunting than other recreational activities such as skiing, since it involves the solemn act of taking the life of something so beautiful and meaningful?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Wild Game Feast Menu

Every year, the group from woodcock camp gets together with a large gathering of friends and family once hunting season has ended. We enjoy a meal where woodcock, pheasant, venison, rabbit and whatever other morsels we could secure from sources other than the grocery isles at Meijer with the skilled - or lucky - placement of a projectile or projectiles from a rifle, shotgun, bow or muzzleloader, share main dish honors.

It's time to start planning the menu for the annual wild game feast coming up in March. No, I won't reveal the location and date, to keep away the hungry hordes of party crashers, and because we haven't exactly picked the date yet.

Of course, there will be woodcock. The north woods were kind to our hunting party this year. For our woodcock bagging success; not so much for our grouse endeavors. (I can't say I helped matters with my shooting, or by barging in too soon when we were circling an apple tree where we suspected grouse were congregating. At least five ruffed grouse took flight from out of the tree and surrounding brush before Rick had a chance to take his stand by the birds' suspected escape route, which turned out to be their actual escape route. Sorry, Rich, Scott, Gregg, Mark, Dennis and Andy.)

By saving and pooling our take, we will serve 16 woodcock at the feast. We make kabobs from the breast and legs of the birds, skewered alongside onion, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, and green, yellow and red peppers. We baste them liberaly with a mixture of olive oil, beer, garlic, pepper, season salt and some honey while they cook over a hot grill. The trick here is take the kabobs off the heat when the breasts are about medium rare, otherwise they take on the objectionable flavor and consistency of boot leather.

The woodcock kabobs with their dark, dense, rich breast meat, akin to wild duck, and their light, white, tender legs, which remind me of good frog legs, provide an almost yin and yang dining experience in one dish. It's definitely a mistake to discard the legs of woodcock. Even though it takes a delicate biting technique to access the tiny bites of meat from the leg quarters, the reward is worth the effort. (Note to self: be sure to soak the wood skewers in water several hours before cooking birds.)

Maybe not surprising, many of the wives prefer to pass on the kabobs. It's my opinion that the objection is not due to the taste of the woodcock kabobs, though for some it takes awhile to develop an appreciation for the dark breast meat. I think part of the ladies' mental ankst comes from the name of the migratory bird and their reluctance to put THAT in their mouths, especially in front of the other wives. It didn't help when we got together for the meal that first year and every time someone ate some kabob Rich would start chortling, "You took a bite of my woodcock! Look, everyone, Megan is chewing on my wood-cock!" At least that's my theory.

My son Nash took a doe in September, but there isn't much left of that to share. Rich killed two deer this year. He gets some of his venison ground into burger so in addition to grilled whitetail steaks, venison pie, always a crowd favorite, will potentially be on the menu. The key to venison pie, a friend who taught me to make it years ago said, is the green cabbage. I've never omitted that ingredient which adds a sweetness to the burger. Besides two layers each of venison burger and chopped up cabbage, put one layer each of thinly sliced potatoes and carrots between two pie crusts in a pie plate, season each layer of meat with salt, pepper, Red Hot and worstershire sauce. Bake about 90 minutes and you've got yourself a memorable meal.

Most of the cooking takes place at my house and we eat next door at Scott's. Last year, Mark, a wildlife biologist who manages a large hunting tract in northern Michigan, brought along a deer heart, which four of us guys snacked on while cooking. I saved the heart from Nash's deer in the hopes Mark will again prepare the dish, as I believe it would make a fine tradition. As I remember, Mark simply sliced the heart into about half inch pieces and sauted in butter with onions and garlic. Then he added a little water to the frying pan, covered with a lid and let it simmer a short time. By the time we were on our second bites all four of us were digging in with both hands.

Mark is also contributing elk from his Wyoming trip. He's been out west on an elk quest each year we've had our wild game feast, but this is the first year he's actually tagged a bull. He hunts public land. All of us accustomed to bagging woodcock, with weights in the ounces, is looking forward to, and a little intimidated by, eating the heavy, large-hoofed elk, however Mark decides to prepare it. I'm hoping for a roast from the rump, pan seared in butter with garlic cloves stuffed into slits in the side and then roasted until medium rare in a hot oven.

Ringneck pheasants are always on the menu. No matter how many pheasant nuggets I make, it's never enough. Half the batches of the fried breast chunks get dunked in a buffalo sauce comprised of half Red Hot sauce and half butter. Most of the kids prefer the undunked nuggets which aren't spicy hot. A couple beer-can pheasants make it to the wild game dinner table, and I usually use the thighs from the nugget birds in a pheasant and dumpling dish which I prepare in a pressure cooker. That recipe sometimes contains a rabbit or some pheasant breast to lighten the flavor of the dark thigh meat from the pheasant.

Getting enough pheasants for a large group feed in Michigan requires a visit to a preserve. Nearly every year, guys at the company where I work get together with additional invited guests at the Ringneck Ranch in Hanover, Michigan for a tower shoot, which we did two weekends ago. We shot a little less than half of the birds during the European tower shoot in the morning and had the whole preserve to ourselves the rest of the day to field hunt the hens and roosters we missed. If you're not familiar with a tower hunt, I'd describe it here, but it sounds so much easier than it actually is that I will leave the details to your imagination.

It's true the preserve hunt lacks a lot of the mystique, allure and gratification that a hunt for wild bird provides. It does provide lots of fun. There's also a fair amount of performance anxiety to overcome, especially when that horn sounds signaling the first pheasants are being released, then again when you determine that one is actually, finally, coming toward you. Each bird looks like it's going to fly your way, even when they are going directly away from you. I'd hate to admit how many times I had to reset my safety without firing because of that phenomenon. The preserve hunt provides good times with a large group of guys. Even though I like them, there's no way I'd take a big group of buddies like that onto one of my coveted private-property bird hunting tracts.

Sage and Sparty, my German wirehaired pointers, performed very well in the field hunt. The birds cooperated for many points, holding long enough in front of my dogs' noses for us human hunters to push into flight. When it all comes together it's almost regrettable to shoot the bird, except of course, dog and hunter both relish the retrieve too.

The Ringneck Ranch staff cleans and plucks the take and hands to the tired hunters the birds individually wrapped in plastic bags. You couldn't have a good beer-can pheasant if it weren't still in its moisture-retaining skin. The bags are handed out to each hunter in equally numbers, no matter how skilled each shotgunner performed that day. I took home 12 pheasants instead of the allotted 10 because Dennis didn't think he'd eat that many birds before freezer burn would ruin some. Don't worry, he'll be at the game feast, getting his fair (or more) share of pheasant nuggets.

The number of guests varies from year to year. This is our seventh annual feast, I believe. Think you wouldn't want to be at this table? Neither did Scott's brother and the brother's girlfriend last year. The couple were in from out of town and had plans to leave during the dinner to visit friends nearly an hour away. A quick and heavy Michigan snowfall changed the road conditions and their will to attempt to travel.

Surrounded by heaping platters of wild game, the couple vowed to "eat some salad." With a little cajoling and by observing that none of us were keeling over dead, they got brave enough to sample some of the more mainstream-looking dishes. (I think it helped that they were encouraged by some of the women in our annual group that in the early years had been skeptical of the possibility that wildlife could be eaten and enjoyed.) Soon enough they were filling their plates with all types of the menu items.

I admit to feeling a little victorious at winning over some non-hunters to the joys of eating "exotic" meat as I watched the handsome couple happily filling up with big forkfuls of venison and game birds as they obligingly listened to the stories of the hunters who brought them home.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

More Aspen Cutting = More Grouse . . . Is Michigan Cutting More or Less Aspen Due to Bad Economy?

With unemployment about 15 percent, Michigan is feeling the effects of the bad economy more than other states.

This leads a Michigan bird hunter to ponder what kind of impact the economy is having on the state's ruffed grouse.

Besides the mysterious 10-year cycle that causes the numbers of ruffed grouse across its range to peak, crash and repeat, the ruffed grouses' fortune more than anything rides on the availability of prime habitat, which consists of young aspen forests.

The best way to get young aspen forests is to cut old aspen forests. It takes only about four years for an aspen clear cut to regenerate and attract and help build populations of ruffed grouse and woodcock.

You can't open a newspaper, turn on a news broadcast in Michigan or have a conversation and avoid hearing a report about budget cuts taking place at the state level, city level, township level, school level, or personal wallet level.

So far, I haven't heard one reporter discuss the economic impact on my favorite game bird the ruffed grouse.

The economy, of course, could have a huge impact on the future of the birds. Could the state be cutting aspen like there's no tomorrow to increase revenue from forest products? That would help ruffed grouse populations explode like, well, a ruffed grouse in front of a pointing dog's nose.

On the other hand, could demand for forest products be so suppressed by the slow economy that the price being paid for aspen trees isn't enough to cover the cost to fuel up the logging equipment? I don't have to say this scenario would not bode well for Michigan's ruffed grouse or grouse hunters' success rate/enjoyment from exciting grouse encounters in the field.

Turns out, neither my boom nor my bust theory is correct, according to a forestry supervisor with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

"Our level of aspen harvesting has not been modified significantly due to the conditions of the economy," said Larry Pedersen, a forest planning and operations supervisor in the forest resource management section, in an e-mail response to my e-mailed questions. "We are fortunate in Michigan to have a relatively diverse wood products industry and we have weathered the overall economic downturn without much of a downturn in our timber harvests, including those for aspen."

The math seems to check out. I found average timber or "stumpage" prices online.

The maximum sold price of mixed aspen in Michigan averaged $130 from Oct. 1, 2008 to Sept. 30, 2009.

The average maximum sold price of mixed aspen in Michigan from Jan. 1, 2006 to Dec. 31, 2006? That year, it was $127.

Looks as if I can't expect the bad economy to dramatically increase ruffed grouse hunting opportunities in the next few years.

On a positive note, I did see quite a bit of good looking aspen stands on the east and west sides of the state this past fall, and it looks like the opportunities won't get worse either.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Kansas! Now What?

Okay, I've blurted out on this blog that I'm taking a pheasant hunting trip next fall from Michigan to Kansas. Now what?

So many decisions to make. For starters, I'll need to find a hunting partner to rope into going with me (and splitting costs).

Here are some more offhand considerations I'll need to address before making the road trip a reality, in no particular order:

 Approval from my wife.

 Vacation time. I can purchase additional vacation where I work. Will I have enough days to fulfill family vacations without purchasing extra days?

 Kansas? How do I know Kansas is where I want to go... I may want to research to see if Kansas is the best choice.

 If Kansas is the place, where in Kansas?... More research...

 Start saving for the trip. The boys will need college cash in the future that keeps increasing its pace in my face. Maybe Killian's can be replaced by Red Dog without much sacrifice.

 Pray for continued health.

 Brush up wing shooting skills. It would stink to save up dimes and vacation days only to crumble like generic brand saltines in the face of pressure in the form of flushing roosters.

 Make sure the dogs are prepared. Sure my two wirehairs did fairly well with very little prep before the Michigan woodcock season. But what happens when they're out of their normal routine? A little more exercise and some off-season bird work are in order.

I'm sure I'll come up with more things to consider as time progresses. In the meantime, I'll keep you posted here on my blog on how I'm doing getting ready for my trip to Kansas. Or Iowa, or North Dakota. . .

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Running Out of Pheasant Shot, or The Story of the Snipe in my Twitter Photograph

When I mention snipe hunting to friends, even fellow bird hunters, most look as if they're anticipating a punch line.

Even though I don't know one person who has ever been duped into going into the deep woods and trying to call fictitious critters into a burlap bag, everyone seems to have that exact image in their head of snipe hunting.

Just so we're clear, snipe, or common snipe is a bird that looks a lot like a woodcock. The best way to tell them apart in the hand is by looking at the stripes on the head. The stripes on a snipe go front to back; the stripes on the head of a woodcock go from "ear" to "ear." In the air, the snipe's wings have a bent shape that remind one of the flight of a killdeer.

I look at the Michigan hunting regulations every year and see the daily bag limit of eight birds and think "I'd like to get a piece of that action." I spent several days with Andy Ammann, a man who came as close to achieving rock star status as any wildlife biologist, when he was in his 80s in the early 1990s. We were trying to locate broods of snipe so he could band the chicks. Since passed to happier hunting grounds, no doubt filled with young aspen coverts, Dr. Ammann is credited with getting a December grouse hunting season in Michigan, and for developing the technique to locate and band woodcock chicks using pointing dogs as a way of gathering important life cycle information to help in regulating the hunting of the secretive birds. I believe there is a Ruffed Grouse Society chapter named after Dr. Ammann. (I should check online to see if any of his books titled A Guide to Capturing and Banding American Woodcock Using Pointing Dogs are available.) We never found any chicks together, but he did assure me the birds are sporty hunting and plentiful in Michigan, especially along certain shorelines of the Great Lakes.

Finally, last season, approximately 18 years after my conversations with Dr. Ammann, I bagged my first snipe. Regrettably I never have targeted the species, or even tried to find those shorelines where they are plentiful. (It's still my intention to do so some year.) However, I couldn't have been happier than that fortuitousness moment last season when pheasant hunting a farm near my home when my dogs bumped a snipe that flew in front of me.

Normally when pheasant hunting you can't pull the trigger on a snipe. They are a migratory bird and you cannot hunt them with a gun capable of holding more than three shells. No problem for me, as I usually tote an over/under on pheasant hunts. Like ducks, snipe require the use of non-tox shot loads. Luckily, I had run out of my normal lead pheasant shells. On this tromp through the small farm marsh, I happened to be loaded up with steel shot duck loads which I have found to be effective on the big, long-tailed upland birds. The loads were No. 4 steel shot, which would not be recommended for the diminutive snipe, but legal nonetheless.

So my first snipe got posed with one of my dogs and a rooster pheasant I also took on that hunt. It's the photo posted on my Bird Country Reports blog and Twitter account. In order to see it you would need to click to view the larger version of the photo, and even then you would be doing great if you spotted the little bird in the photo next to the gaudy ring-neck. If you look closely at the photo I put below here you may notice part of the bill missing and hole about the size of a No. 4 steel shot pellet on the remaining portion of the bill.

Close up photo of common snipe:

Here are woodcock in a photo for comparison to the snipe:

Friday, November 13, 2009

Breaking In the Kennel on Wheels

So that they'd associate their new "kennel on wheels" with a postive experience from their first time riding in it, I took the dogs this past weekend to one of their favorite places: The Ringneck Ranch in Hanover, Mich. The dogs and I have done some guiding at "the Ranch" so we have privileges to run there after the customers have left for the day. (See video of when I picked up the dog trailer here.)

My 14-year-old son and 10-year-old son went too. In fact, dad didn't even take his gun from the case. I'm not saying it was easy walking away from the truck without the over/under. When the first bird flushed, going up behind us, I had to suppress my instinct to grab the single-shot out of the hands of my 10-year old who happened to be closest to me. The pheasant sailed unscathed into the field in front of us. A few minutes later, it held momentarily for a point and presented a fairly long shot opportunity for my 14-year-old son. I watched as he kept the barrel moving through his shot, sending the hen on a fluttering trajectory into a patch of foxtail between sorghum rows.

The dogs worked well, there were plenty of leftover birds and the boys ended up bagging two pheasants that were dutifully retrieved by the wirehairs.

The dogs enjoyed their first outing in the new trailer.

Watching the boys develop bird hunting skills, and more importantly, sensing them developing an appreciation of dog work and a love of bird hunting, made this one of dad's all-time favorite hunts.

After-hunt photo: