Sax-Zimmin’ with Dad and Grousin’ with Evan

IMG_0920Last week we enjoyed an extra-long weekend due to fall break, so we made the 265-mile trek home to northern Minnesota to visit our families and enjoy the beautiful northwoods. Going up north is always a delight, but doing so in the fall is special treat.  The stunning colors, the perfect temps, and the sweet smell of decaying Aspen leaves all remind us of this great land in which my wife and I grew up.  Let’s not forget the birds, though.  Northern Minnesota has its own species of interest that are not found in most of the state or the country for that matter. To that end, I had been coveting some recent pictures in my Facebook feed of Great Gray Owls in Tamarack trees in the Sax-Zim Bog.  The Bog is only 45 minutes south of my parents’ place, so I usually try to hit it up each time I go home.

Since Great Grays are crepuscular, the best times to see them are in the hour of first light and the hour of last light. We arrived at Mom and Dad’s in the early afternoon, but after a couple hours of visiting, Dad and I were headed south to try to find a Great Gray before dark. I never get tired of seeing this owl and the possibility of seeing them in the golden yellow Tamaracks was very appealing.  Tamaracks are a conifer found in boggy land, and their needles are green in the summer, turn gold in the fall, and then drop like the leaves of deciduous trees.  They are as fascinating as they are beautiful, especially when their fallen needles transform gravel roads to streets of gold.

Dad and I trolled up and down McDavitt Road several times at 5 MPH, scanning every snag and every possible perch for the Great Gray Ghost. This was the road where they’d been seen within the last week, so it was where we concentrated our search.  I was hoping to see an owl, get my desired shots, and then take some scenery shots to show off the yellow landscape of the Tamaracks interspersed with the vivid green of the Black Spruce. But, every possible second of remaining daylight was given to the search, and we were coming up empty.  I did stop to take a picture of a porcupine snoozing in a Tamarack.  Whether he’s lazy or relaxed, I just couldn’t resist the photo-op.

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I’m afraid the porcupine was the only interesting thing we’d see in the Bog.  There were hardly any birds around, let alone any interesting species.  The next morning I continued my owl hunt closer to home as they have been found within 5 miles of my folks’.  I have yet to see one so close, but I’m determined! That determination will have to carry me forward because my luck was no different on this outing.  The birding was better than in the Sax-Zim Bog, though, as I found some Gray Jays and a couple of Ruffed Grouse.  The skittish grouse bolted when I popped up through the sunroof for a picture.

Speaking of grouse, my previous fall breaks in the northwoods used to be consumed with me pursuing Ruffed Grouse with a shotgun.  On the surface it may seem a bit of a contradiction that I’m a birder who hunts.  However, it is that interest in nature and wildlife that comes with hunting that helped propel me into this obsessive birding habit. Though I still hunt on a limited basis (just Ruffed Grouse and Ring-necked Pheasants), it is is not as interesting to me as birding, where I can experience the thrill of the hunt and the beauty of nature without the restrictions of seasons, state lines, and bag limits.  The thrill of locking eyes with a Great Gray is much more appealing. Maybe I’m just growing up.  When I saw the two grouse I wasn’t even interested in grabbing my gun out of the back of the car.

Despite my shift into birding, I still have a young boy and old dog who very much would like to chase some game.  So one morning I took Evan and my Yellow-Lab, Faith, on a short walk on my parents’ 80 acres.  Faith led the way with a vigor that belied her age (she lives for this), and Evan was several paces behind me.  We were hunting on trails in an area with young Aspens (about 10-15 years old).  It is perfect habitat that produces grouse every year.  This year was no exception as all of us, dog included, were startled by the pounding wings of our first grouse.  Though it was close, none of us saw it because of how thick the woods were.  That’s how it often goes.  We soldiered on and hiked on a trail carpeted in clover, a favorite food of the Ruffed Grouse.  The surrounding woods here were young Aspen trees 4-5 feet high growing up and around the stumps and logs of the mature Aspen stand the was here just a couple years ago.  Going off trail would be an impossible task.  Anyhow, when I paused at a bend along the trail, there was an explosion of wings to my left from the thick young trees and tangle of downed logs. Two grouse rocketed out.  I could only see one and only for a split second because of the surrounding trees and brush.  I fired a couple of times but missed.  It didn’t bug me.  As Faith was now investigating the scent of these birds (she was a little late) and I was contemplating the miss, a third grouse got up from the same spot!  Again, I only saw it briefly and fired the last shell I had in my gun.  No luck.  Ruffed Grouse are probably the most difficult game bird to hit on the fly because they live in the woods where your chances of hitting them are not as good as hitting the branches and trees they fly through.  To emphasize this point, a couple of colleagues recently returned from a grouse-hunting trip, and they had 55 flushes but only 3 kills.  I was not sad over the misses.  Evan got to see some grouse flush and watch me shoot.  He was happy.  Faith was doing what she was made for.  She was happy.  I didn’t have any birds to clean and eat.  I was happy.  Plus it was really special to see three grouse together; they are normally found as singles.

My birding pursuits continued Up North.  Dad and I made a dawn raid on the Sax-Zim Bog one of the mornings, arriving there just as you could make out the silhouettes of the trees. The best we could muster were some Gray Jays in low light.  All was well – birding the Bog with Dad is a great excuse to visit and drink some coffee.  Seeing owls is just a bonus.

Gray Jay

Gray Jays and Ruffed Grouse are some nice northern Minnesota birds, but I had a great find while I was out driving on my own one afternoon.  I had seen a couple of birds fly and thought they were ducks.  The habitat wasn’t right though since there wasn’t any water around.  I drove that way and was startled to see Black-billed Magpies!! I found four in all, and one even came out to the road to pick at something.

Black-billed MagpieI remember when I first got into birding and being shocked that this cool bird could be found in Minnesota since I had never seen one in my life up to that point.  They are known to frequent the Sax-Zim Bog. In fact, the Bog is the furthest location to the east where this species breeds.  I have seen them in the Bog and in northwestern Minnesota, but I was astounded to find them so close to where I grew up.  It was hands-down the best find of the trip.

I had better bog-birding outside of Sax-Zim on this trip.  Perhaps the only thing the Bog has on the birding scene around my parents’ place is the number of birders scouring it. Given the recent finds though, I might have to keep up the lone-rangering.  When I finally find a Great Gray on my parents’ road, it will be all the more sweeter because it’s close to home far from where birders trod.  The hunt will resume at Thanksgiving, and I can’t wait.

Turkey? Turkey!

After getting skunked on turkeys on both Monday and Thursday, Friday was the final day of my season and my last shot at getting my first turkey.  I was excited.  I had heard gobbling the day before, and the promised temperature of 70° would probably mean the turkeys would be getting into their spring routine of cruising around looking for ladies.  On this day I was hunting out of a deer stand.  It was a comfortable, enclosed stand that had 8 in. high rectangular windows on each of its four walls.  I could see all around me and got to watch all kinds of neat things: a crowing rooster pheasant beating his chest with his wings, two curious raccoons, three deer all within 10 yards, and even some hen turkeys leave their roost and land on the woodland floor beneath me.

One thing I loved about this location was to watch the Mallards and Wood Ducks flying back and forth between the ponds on my friend’s property.  I almost wished I were duck hunting instead of turkey hunting.  I watched one particular pair of Wood Ducks flying toward my general area.  Then I was astonished to watch them land on a tree branch about 20 feet away!  I forgot all about turkey hunting.  I grabbed the camera and jockeyed around that deer stand to try to get good shots through the branches out those small windows.  Here are some of the images I captured.  The hen gave me much more clear shots, so there are more of her than the drake.

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This hen kept calling with this low call which is pictured below.  I finally figured out what they were up to – they were checking out possible nesting sites in the trees.  I watched the hen peek into cavities in trees looking for just the right spot. It was so cool to watch them look for an old-school nesting sight.  Many Wood Ducks use the nesting boxes that people put out for them, which have been largely responsible for the resurgence of the Wood Duck in the last century.

IMG_3004I wish I would have got the picture of the hen peering into the hole below.  It was clear that she was in charge of the decision and that he was just along to say, “Yes, dear.”  She decided the hole below wasn’t suitable because they quickly moved to a new branch.

IMG_3010That next branch was merely 6 ft away from me.  I was excited because of the proximity and unobstructed views of these handsome ducks.

IMG_3005I was setting up to take more pictures when I heard the hen make her call that said, “Come on, hubby, it’s time to go.”  Well, she was looking straight at me when she was making the call.  I pressed down the shutter button just as she launched off the branch straight at my head!  I – pardon the pun – ducked (and maybe swore).  At just the last second she saw me and pulled up, landing on the roof of the deer stand.

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Whoa!  I think both our hearts were beating a little quicker.  Hubby was still on the branch, so I snapped a couple more of him before the two flew off.

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It was the coolest duck experience I’ve ever had.  The Wood Duck is one of my favorite birds of all time, so this was a special occurrence for me.  My hunt was made.  I didn’t even need to get a turkey to be satisfied.

I did continue to wait for a turkey, but nothing was happening today.  My friend whose land I was on told me to try another deer stand on another property of his.  So I did, but I didn’t have any luck.  I wasn’t too worried because my day had already been made but also because I had a back-up plan.  It turns out that Melissa’s co-worker has several turkeys invading his yard almost daily.  He and his neighbor gave me permission to hunt in their somewhat suburban setting in the countryside.  So I went out to this new location around noon.

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I set up a turkey blind on the wooded edge of their property that borders a field.  Do you see it above? I put out a hen decoy and a tom decoy.  Normally you just need a hen decoy because the call you make resembles that of a lonely hen and will draw in a tom.  Since the toms weren’t responding to calls or decoys, my friend suggested putting out a tom decoy as well to try to arouse the jealousy of a tom.

After I put out the decoys and got back into the blind, I used the turkey call and waited.  Fifteen minutes later, I stuck my hands out of the blind with the turkey call and did it again.  Immediately I was answered with the other-worldly sound of a gobbling turkey that was close.  He was off to my right along the wooded edge.  I hadn’t looked there before I stuck my hands out of the blind.  Did I blow it by exposing myself?  I kept calling, and he kept answering.  It started to walk closer and closer.  I could tell it was a jake – a one-year-old male turkey.  He probably thought this was his opportunity to get an easy lady friend.  Toms will push jakes away.  He wasn’t fanned out or puffed up.  He was very leery.  I wanted him to come just a little bit closer, but he eventually turned around and left.

Maybe that was my chance.  I regretted putting the tom decoy out.  I bet that intimidated him from coming to the hen decoy.  I decided to go out and grab it so that wouldn’t happen again.  I stepped out of the blind and saw the jake still on the wooded edge!  I dove back in.  After quite awhile he eventually came back, but he still wasn’t coming close enough.  He disappeared again for a long time.  This time I went out and removed the tom decoy.

I was frustrated that I hadn’t taken the shot when I had it.  Over an hour went by.  Repairmen at the house behind me were coming and going, visiting with the homeowner.  This jake was gone for sure.  There was no way he was sticking around with all that racket.  I’d have to hope for a different, unsuspecting turkey.  After another hour or so, this turkey again decided to come check out that irresistible hen decoy.  And this time he came close.  I took the shot.

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From the Vault: Ruffed Grouse and the Team – 2009

After last week’s blog interview with my dad and his official work with several species of grouse, I remembered having shot some footage in 2009 of Ruffed Grouse males on display. Melissa did a great job editing this footage many years ago into the 3-minute clip below. I think you’ll find the bird behavior fascinating.

I think you might also find the human aspect of this fascinating too, especially if you’ve been reading the blog. The setting of this video is my wife’s parents’ house in northern Minnesota in late April or early May. We, along with my parents, were there to celebrate our niece Mya’s 2nd birthday. I want you to watch/listen for two things: 1) About halfway through you will hear Evan’s tiny 2-year-old voice ask, “Is dat Mourning Dove?” and 2) You will see a shot of Grandpa Rick holding Evan on his lap as we are watching Ruffed Grouse out the window – a wonderful shot that foretells our adventures today as the Team.

Can anyone identify the bird that makes a loud chirping sound in the beginning of the video?  You can even see the bird, but it is too far away to ID.  I have identified one of the other bird sounds on the video as the Red-Breasted Nuthatch.

April Will Be Epic!

Look what I got in the mail today!  Shooting a Wild Turkey is a bucket-list item for me, and now I have the opportunity to make that a reality.  It just so happens that my friend, Terry, has nearly a hundred turkeys running around on his land, and he has given me permission to hunt .  More than that, Terry has ground-blinds set up all over his property with turkey decoys.  He told me to bring a good book and a gun.  He also said Evan, who will be 6, will be the perfect age to sit in the blind and listen and look for turkeys.

Minnesota has eight consecutive turkey seasons in the spring that are each 5 days long. The first season starts April 17th.  To hunt in the first four seasons, you need to have your name drawn in the turkey license lottery.  You can hunt the last four seasons by buying a tag over-the-counter as long as there are still permits available. As you can see, my name was drawn for season B, the second season, which is a Monday through Friday.  I don’t work on Monday, and I may have to take an extra day off to get my bird.  I might be pulling Evan out of school for a day so he can share in this adventure.  I’m excited for this opportunity.  If I see a big, strutting tom, though, I will have a huge dilemma as to whether I should reach for my Canon or my Benelli (12 gauge).

April is also going to be a memorable month because the Team has a huge birding adventure planned.  It’s such a top-secret affair that only a handful of people know about it right now.  In fact, even Evan has no clue it’s going to happen.  For now I’ll just tell you that state lines will be crossed and that Evan and I will be missing some school. So be prepared for some great stories in just two months.  I can’t wait to write them, and I really can’t wait to live them with Evan!

Rooster!

While Evan and I are beginning birders (those who find excitement in seeing birds ALIVE), I have long been a wing-shooter whose primary pursuits have been the ring-necked pheasant and the ruffed grouse.  The fact that I have chased game birds for two decades played a significant role in my interest in birding.  I will go into that more some other day, but in this post I’d like to share a fun hunting story that Evan and I experienced.

Every time I head out pheasant hunting Evan asks if he can go along.  I have let him accompany me on short grouse hunts at Dad’s property where he can walk on trails, and he has sat with my Dad and me in the deer stand.  However, pheasant hunting is much more difficult.  Either I am walking in waist-high prairie grass or slogging my way through a cattail slough.  Needless to say, it is hard work, and I don’t let him come with me.

This Thanksgiving we did not make the 265 mile trek Up North.  Instead, we decided to stay home, and we were invited over by friends for Thanksgiving dinner.  That meant we woke up Thursday morning with no stress of traveling or making a feast.  That fact combined with beautiful weather of sunny skies and 45 degree temps meant I was going to go out for a quick pheasant hunt before feasting on that most delicious of all birds.  Basically I just wanted to get the dogs a little exercise.  I decided this would be the perfect day to take Evan along on an easy hunt.

I took Evan to a Wildlife Management Area that had a road winding through it.  It would be easy walking for him – we could take the road and let my two yellow labs, Faith and Chance, work the cover on the sides of the road. We parked the SUV at the farthest point that motorized vehicles were permitted and stepped outside to an immediate birding experience.  A hundred yards from us was a large slough (20 acres) that hadn’t froze over yet.  Right away about 50 mallards took flight, and gracefully gliding across the water were four swans!  I am not sure of the species at this point, but I think they were trumpeters.  Three were the brilliant white color, while one was a gray juvenile.  This was a big deal – Evan has been enthralled with Trumpeter Swans ever since we read E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan last spring.  They are definitely cool birds.

Less than five minutes into our walk on the road that ran around this slough, Faith’s tail started wagging ferociously – she was on a bird.  Not long after, Chance’s tail was moving faster than a helicopter rotor.  Both dogs were hot on scent and sprinting ahead.  This meant one thing – it was a pheasant, and it was a rooster at that.  Hens do not run and will sit extremely tight whereas roosters will run loooong ahead of you and may never jump up.  In fact, a couple weeks ago, I felt a hen’s wings beat against my leg as she flushed right next to my foot.  A couple days later, I got into a mess of about 15 hens that all flushed within 10 feet of me.  Because the dogs were on the move, I literally ran to catch up so I could be within gun range of a flushing pheasant.  I didn’t have to run long, thank goodness.  As I was watching my young, inexperienced Chance working I heard the unmistakable cackle and saw the flash of brilliant color burst into the sky right in front of his nose.  It was a left-to-right shot, and I pulled the gun up and shot.  I was surprised to see it drop; I usually miss at least the first shot.  Chance pinned the still lively rooster until I could reach it.

I couldn’t believe it.  I never thought we’d see anything.  Not only did we see a pheasant, but it was a shoot-able one that was flushed by my inexperienced (dumb) dog, shot by me (on the first shot), witnessed by Evan – all in the span of a five minute hunt.  We continued walking to try to find a second rooster to fill out my limit, but it just wasn’t to be.  At one point the dogs got birdy again.  Apparently Evan is a quick learner in his dad’s hunting abilities, or he has learned the art of smack talk.  As I followed the dogs this time, Evan hollered at me, “Be sure to shoot it in one shot!”  So if you’re a fellow
birder, don’t be offended by my hunting hobby – I have a pretty minimal effect on the pheasant population!