Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Birds of November

It’s been a while since I've written anything about hunting here. Simple reason: there has not been much to report. The last really notable outing afield occurred two years ago, when I shot a pheasant, grouse, and woodcock—the three main “upland game birds” of our region—on the same day, at a public hunting ground near Bide-A-Wee. That was a remarkable hunt for a couple of reasons. One, I’d never accomplished that “triple crown” feat before, and it had been a goal of mine. Also, the grouse was pointed in absolutely classic fashion by our young dog, Lily. Previously she had mainly been known for flying heedlessly through woods and field, launching anything avian in her path into the air well out of shotgun range. We knew she could point; we did not know if she would.

She found the bird at least a hundred yards ahead of me and remained staunch in her point for the two minutes or so that it took me to make my way over to her through gnarly terrain. Just as I came up to her rigid,
quivering form, the bird got up, and I dropped it with the first shot. That was a notable achievement for me, too; grouse are very fast flyers, hard to shoot, and I’m frankly not that great a shot. I already had a pheasant in my vest, a bird that I had walked up, shot, and retrieved with no canine assistance whatsoever. The dogs were running around back in an alder swamp. They heard the shot and came running out to find me standing at the edge of the field with a pheasant in my hand. “Hey, look what I found,” I said. “What have you two been up to?” They wagged their tails and sniffed the bird. I think they looked a little shamefaced. It was a classic moment in the field, one I’ll never forget.

The final bird of the day was a woodcock, which I shot over Annabel’s point, again on the first shot. I don’t think we encountered any other birds that day, though my memory on that point is not completely clear. If it’s accurate, this would have been a hunt on which I killed three birds with three shots, and no misses. That’s something that’s unlikely to happen again.

It was an extremely satisfying day afield, and one I had really hoped to build on in 2010, but you know what they say about plans. October last year was ridiculously warm, dreadful hunting weather. I had to make an unexpected trip to deal with family matters at the end of that month, I blew out my shoulder, then it snowed. In all of 2010 I hunted twice, fired the gun four times at two grouse, missing badly on all shots. The one time I hunted alone with Lily, I’m not sure if she was in the same county with me for much of the outing. And Annabel, then 12 years old and game but a little gimpy, and largely deaf—well, I didn’t know if we would ever again put the bell on her orange collar and send her out with a “Hunt ‘em up. Where’s a bird?”

Based on that dismal year, I couldn’t see things going anywhere but up in 2011, but the season did not have a promising start. Another too-hot October, another unanticipated October trip taking a week out of the brief woodcock season. With no real training in the interim, but lots of self-directed “hunts” on our land—home to both grouse and woodcock, and the occasional pheasant—Lily had become an over-stimulated bundle of bad
habits. I didn’t know if we would be able to bring her back. One short outing with Annabel showed me that she could come along on hunts, but only with a chaperone. I was feeling glum about the season, to say the least. I was feeling even glummer about my future as a bird hunter.

Lily is still a couple months shy of her sixth birthday. She’s in her physical prime, and she’s an incredibly athletic dog. There’s no mistaking the sheer, unabashed joy she displays as she catapults up and down the Bide-A-Wee hills. She is also a very sweet girl, eager to please, devastated when she disappoints (our joke about Annabel is that she, too, is eager to please…herself). I had Lily’s temperament going for me when I decided I had to give her a few more tries before reaching any conclusions.

Some memorable hunting and fishing outings are memorable for reasons quite apart from fish in the creel or a bird in the game pouch. Our hunt at a small hunting ground near Bide-A-Wee, just Lily and me, will stick with me for a long time. After several hunts where she seemed to be simply running around in the woods, no sense of purpose about her at all, she suddenly…started…to hunt. Some lightbulb went off for her. Maybe the “chats” we had had on previous outings impressed her. Maybe she just needed to encounter a few more birds in the proper context. The remarkable thing was how sudden the transformation was. From one hunt with absolutely no pointing, or intimation that she even knew how to do so, suddenly she was a pointing machine. Like someone flipped a switch, or switched dogs on me.

We went in to a stand of small aspen.  Lily was working ahead of me to the left. Even before the point I sensed something different in her manner. She was out of sight when her collar started a steady beeping (it’s an electronic collar that beeps every ten seconds or so when she’s running, then every second when she stops). As I came up behind her I could see from her body language that, yes, there was a bird, but maybe not right there. Close, not in front of her nose. I went in ahead of her, circled to right and left. No bird. I told her to hunt and she zipped past me, slalomed through a patch of dogwood. She drew up short, all four feet planted solidly on the ground, and swiveled her head sharply to the right. Then she did not move.

As I approached a woodcock flushed, mere feet from her quivering nose. It veered skyward, over the tops of the aspens, and I had to turn and get the gun up high, and I missed, and I missed again. I cursed, but I recovered from the disappointment quickly. Lily broke her point with the shots, but came to me when I whistled, and I praised her as few dogs have ever been praised in the history of bird hunting. Then we carried on, and in a few minutes she pointed another woodcock (or perhaps the same one), and again my shooting let us down. But again we were SO HAPPY! Finding and missing woodcock is the best game EVER! We had one more bird encounter that day. On the flank of a distinctive little piece of topography, a sort of rocky knoll covered with scrub oak, dogwood, and stunted jack pine, Lily stopped, her head directed downhill, a solid point. The grouse didn’t hold for long, though. It flushed within range of a shot, but entirely out of sight behind a patch of pines. That was it. Three birds found, pointed, nothing in the bag. A great day.

One thing that has been disconcerting this year has been a general scarcity of birds. Often in woodcock season, as the birds are migrating through, I’ll find eight to twelve birds in the best bits of cover. This season I think the most timberdoodles (woodcock have a lot of nicknames) encountered in a day was four. Lily and I hit a fresh piece of terrain on a cool gray morning, just a couple days from the end of woodcock season—pheasant stays open in Wisconsin through December, and grouse to the end of January, though it’s rare that conditions allow comfortable hunting much past the beginning of December. It was great looking cover—scrappy patches of dogwood and alder along a small creek, extensive stands of young aspen, or “popple” as it’s locally known. We didn’t flush a bird. Well, maybe a chickadee. Lily hunted well. She gave me a “false point” once, came to a dead halt and wouldn’t move even when I told her to hunt after I’d circled entirely around her. She was pretty sure there was something there, but there wasn’t. Could be a bird had flushed ahead of us, leaving a strong scent but no feathered evidence. We made our way back toward the car, and I was thinking it was going to be a lost day, but for a pleasant, if somewhat arduous, walk.

We came up out of a ditch and on to the dirt road that dead-ends farther back in the hunting ground. I could see the car in the parking area just ahead, and I broke open my gun—a side-by-side 20-gauge. I had Lily at a heel as we came up on the road, but when I saw the road deserted I let her go, and she immediately left my side and dropped down in the ditch on the other side of the road. I heard the collar start its steady beeping, and assumed she was stopped for a drink of delicious ditch water. But the beeping went on, and I heard no slurping. I realized she was on point.

I found her on a solid point beside a clump of alder. The cover was thick on the road side, more open farther in, and I was fortunate that the woodcock when it flushed did not veer for the road but rather followed the edge of the alders. The flush came as I was just even with Lily, so I didn’t have too much time to think—this is good—and I dropped the bird with the first shot. It fell in the center of another clump of alders, and was an easy find. I saw it before Lily did, but waited for her to come around and track it down. It had hit the ground dead—when I opened it I found that a pellet had gone right through the heart. Lily came up to the bird and sniffed at it, mouthed it a bit. Our dogs haven’t been trained to retrieve, and don’t seem to take to it naturally. I gave her a chance to bring it to me, but didn’t insist. I picked up the bird and put it in my vest with warm words of praise for my dog. First bird of 2011, first bird in two years.

We had another successful outing a couple of days later, the closing day of woodcock season, although we saw no woodcock. At the small hunting ground near Bide-A-Wee where Lily had had her turn-around day, we finally

started to see some grouse. I walked up one bird that Lily had run past, and missed my shot. Farther back in a mature woods with a boggy section I knew grouse frequented, Lily started to get “birdy”—that is, she broke out of her broad crossing runs and began working a smaller area in more detail, her nose close to the ground, her tail going like an airplane propeller. I turned to the left, she turned to the right—my instincts were better, and the grouse flushed in front of me. I took one errant shot before the bird curved out of view in a stand of pine. Lily came barreling back my way, and I told her “Whoa!” She didn’t seem to hear. I told her again, but it still didn’t sink in. Three times is too many times to have to tell a bird dog to freakin’ WHOA! Once I did get her attention, we had another of those “chats.” She promised she would try to do better, and almost immediately, she did.

Not two minutes later, in this same open area of mature oak, elm, and maple, she went on point again. Woods like this are not supposed to be good grouse habitat, but the grouse in these parts apparently didn’t know that (we have the same sort of joke about trout that don’t seem to know that they shouldn’t exist outside of “designated trout streams”). In dry years, and also in mid-winter, I think they seek out the spring seeps in this area for water and for the little green things growing there. This time Lily went on point along a big deadfall, an oak that had tipped over pulling its roots right out of the boggy ground. I came up near that tall root clump; Lily was on point around mid-tree. The grouse flushed, and flew straight away from me barely over head-high. I had to make a quick sidestep to clear the tree, get the gun up, and I would only have a single shot.

I took it; the bird did not drop, but it seemed to dip. I was pretty sure I had hit it. I stopped and quickly replaced the shell I had spent, then started walking briskly in the direction the grouse had gone. Lily passed me and I asked her if maybe it was possible there was a bird on the ground around here. Her answer was immediate: she went into tracking mode; she had found the scent of the running bird, and was following it avidly.

It didn’t take long to find the wing-shot bird. Lily subdued it, I came and took it from her, I broke its neck—not something I relish doing, but we who eat meat have to accept the fact that animals die for our pleasure; this was just a particularly intimate illustration of that fact.

Overall, in terms of the pointing, the adjustment, the shot, the tracking, that was one of the more remarkable bits of dog-and-hunter work I’ve been involved with in my brief hunting career. We had a quiet celebration over the bird that had given its life to make it possible, and made our way back to the car.

A lot of hunters wouldn’t see two birds in two outings as much to write home about. In spite of hopes and anticipation, my woodcock season ended with a single bird in the bag, an appetizer for two. But for me those

outings marked the beginning of my new hunting life with my “new” dog, Lily. It’s tough to leave Annabel behind—but it’s even tougher to hunt with her. I worry constantly that she’ll wander off in the woods, and with her deafness not hear us to find her way back. I worry that when her enthusiasm overcomes her physical limitations, as it always does, she’ll injure herself without even knowing she has done it. More than that, we’ve had a good run together. She brought me into this world which I find as compelling and challenging as anything I’ve ever done. It’s Lily’s turn now, and the education continues.

Next time, bird cookery at Bide-A-Wee.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw


cjh said...

This is a terrific piece of writing about an ineffable pleasure. Thanks!

Ryan said...

Great story! There are few things that I enjoy more in life than getting out in the woods in fall. Northern Wisconsin grouse hunting is the epitome of this. Thank you for sharing your experience.

Martha said...

I loved this part:
But again we were SO HAPPY! Finding and missing woodcock is the best game EVER!

Frustrated Farmer Rick said...

I have never hunted timberdoodles but I may have to give it a go next fall after reading about your hunt.

WeekendFarmer said...

What a beautiful post. I walked with you as you hunted : ) I wish I could go hunting as well. Maybe...next life. Can't wait to see what you did with the birds. Happy Thanksgiving!

Trout Caviar said...

cjh, Ryan, thanks! Hope you've had some enjoyable outings this year, and I also hope the deep snow holds off for a while.

Thanks, Martha, I liked that bit, too. With dogs you must always ac-cen-tuate the positive.

Rick, I imagine you'd have a lot of fun hunting and cooking with woodcock. Problem is, with our warmer and warmer autumns, the woodcock season is effectively shortened, closing as it does the first week of November, while plenty of birds are still moving through.

WF, thanks very much. It has taken me quite a while to approach the topic of hunting in my writing--a very complex subject.


Thomas Venney said...


Thomas Venney said...

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