Sky Dance

Photo from USFWS

Spring is just around the corner and it brings on a lot of change in nature. Flowers bloom. Fields and grasses turn green. And for those of us connected to the outdoors it also means breeding season for most wildlife. That’s why the turkey season is in Spring. The gobblers are out there strutting and fanning try to attract hens to breed. So they are more suceptible to our flawed yelps and clucks from our box calls.

A video I saw recently on the internet brought back memories of a natural observation from over twelve years ago.  I got to go out one evening with members of the Ruffed Grouse Society staff near Pittsburgh, PA to observe the mating ritual of the American woodcock. First, a little background about this diminutive game bird.


The woodcock is biologically classified as a shorebird, but it inhabits wood and aspen thickets in lowlands around streams where it can use its long beak to probe for its favorite food, earthworms. It is a migratory bird, in the Spring and Summer inhabiting northern climes for breeding and nesting and then being pushed south by the cold weather of winter. North Carolina does have a woodcock season and occasionally hunters will flush a “flight bird” while out grouse or quail hunting. The eastern flyway takes them through the piedmont and coastal region of NC. Like many of our game birds, the woodcock is declining in numbers primarily due to loss of habitat through development and poor land management.

While visiting RGS headquarters, one of the staff members said he knew a place about one mile from the headquarters building that was a woodcock mating and breeding area, commonly referred to as “singing grounds” (which you will understand after the description of the ritual). So after pizza and a video about the woodcock, several staff members with their spouses and children headed out right before dusk hoping to catch them in the mating mood. It can be a hit or miss proposition. Our expectations were exceeded.

Mating Ritual

As we stood silently on the gravel trail, we could hear the repeated bleating sound made by the male woodcock to attract the attention of female listeners sitting quietly in the area. We counted at least four different birds. After listening to these for a few minutes the interesting part of the mating ritual started.

The Woodcock Sky Dance

At some point the male decides it is time to show off. So he takes off making a “peeping” sound, flying straight up in a corkscrew pattern, gyrating back and forth, to a height of about 200 – 400 feet before descending in that same corkscrewing gyration pattern while cupping his wings. The cupped wings cause the air to make a “singing” sound as he descends back to the same spot from which he took off. I mean the exact same spot within feet. The little male resumes his bleating and sky dance until he attracts a willing female. On a moonlit night, this ritual and sky dance will continue all night if needed to attract a mate. So for about thirty minutes we stood silently listening to their calling and watching these birds do their love dance. We left a little after eight when it got too dark to watch the little birds corkscrew up into the sky, and they were still going strong.

So what’s my point? There are several. First, the staff member said when he first started this there were at least four of these mating grounds within a mile of the headquarters building. This is the only one remaining. All the others have been consumed by development. As human development destroys wildlife habitat, we have a responsibility to provide habitat where we can though proper land management techniques.

Why This is Important

My son and I on a North Carolina woodcock hunt

Secondly, as we travel outside of our home range, we should always look for opportunities to hunt, fish, or even observe wildlife behavior that we may never see at home. That’s one of the neat things about enjoying the outdoors; it is always a learning experience. Sure, I’ve hunted woodcock here in North Carolina, but they typically don’t mate as far south as North Carolina. A friend and avid woodcock hunter at Stoneybrook Outfitters sees a few near his home in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Had I not been “where I was, when I was” the unique and intriguing sky dance of the timberdoodle is something I might never have experienced.

And lastly, watching this ritual reminded me that no matter where it occurs in this animal kingdom of ours, winged, furred or human, the male will always go through wild gyrations and make a fool of himself to attract a mate. Sorry. Just couldn’t pass that up.

Ruffed Grouse – The Figures Don’t Lie

Went on my first grouse hunt last week in my home state of North Carolina. Or as we call it: Walking through the woods behind a dog with a gun on your shoulder. Yep, on a short hunt of just under two hours I flushed zero grouse. After experiencing a flush rate of over two birds an hour in New Hampshire earlier in the month it got me thinking about what the status of grouse is in our home state. So I contacted the upland biologist for the WRC and asked for charts from the Avid Grouse Hunter survey in which I participate. Besides the fact that chasing grouse is my chosen pursuit, we need to know why grouse are important.

Ruffed grouse are what wildlife biologist call an indicator species. What is that? Many wildlife species can adapt to changes in the ecosystem. A couple of local examples are bear and turkey. If food and protective habitat are not available in one location they simply move to another. Populations of both species continue to flourish in the mountains. Not so with grouse. Their habitat needs for breeding, protection and food are very specific. Thus if their habitat decreases so will the population. In our region the the variable that can most likely affect them other than habitat is weather during the hatching season. Therefore ruffed grouse populations are an indicator of the health of an ecosystem. Another reason they are an indicator species is because meeting their habitat needs also has a positive impact on other wildlife needing similar habitat.

The WRC has been conducting an Avid Grouse Hunter Survey since 1984. Participating hunters record data for each trip to the forests including date, location by county and private/public land, hours hunted, and birds flushed and harvested. At the end of each season the records are mailed to the WRC. The purpose of this study is to establish long term trends for the health of the grouse population. I’m no scientist, but I did have to take a statistics class in college (that was no fun). Individual data are important, but trend is more so. The trend doesn’t bode well for grouse in North Carolina. Let’s start out by looking at some of these data related to individual hunter success.

Chart from NC WRC

It’s best to start with a simple number, average number of grouse flushed per hunting trip. That’s what it’s all about anyway, right? As the first chart shows, in its inaugural year study participants averaged just under 4.5 grouse flushed per trip to the field. That number peaked between 1988 – 1990 to around 6.2 grouse per trip. Either one of those figures is great compared to today. In the last reported survey year that number had dropped to about 1.8 flushes per trip. But it’s not just the numbers that are important. Scientists like to look at trends. If you look at the line chart since the peak in 1990 the trend is downward. You can infer that with all other factors being equal hunters are seeing fewer grouse.

Chart from NC WRC

Now let’s look at some data to correlate to hunter success, percentage of hunts with no grouse flushed. In the first year of the study only about 10% of trips resulted in no grouse flushes per trip. That number has climbed dramatically over the past thirty years to about 48% of the trips resulting in no grouse flushed. It doesn’t show in either of these charts, but the average length of a hunting trip has not changed much, from 4.2 hours in 1984 to 3.7 hours in 2017.  So while hunters are spending about as much time in the field, their grouse contact success rate has significantly decreased. Basically, on every other four hour trip to the woods for grouse, you will have no bird contacts.

Now let’s look at a comparison of private and public land success rates, and further how that relates to timber harvests on public land.

Chart from NC WRC

First, let’s break down the flush rate by land type. The first chart here from the WRC graphically portrays that difference. Neither of them is positive. Private land is the top line and public the bottom. Despite a significant upward spike in 2011, both are trending downward since data collection started in 1989. In the most resent season, 2017, the rate hit its lowest point with about .25 (1/4) grouse flushed per hour on public land. Private land was slightly better but still below the trend at about .75 birds flushed per hour. Compare that to the better than two per hour we experienced in New Hampshire, and the better than one bird per hour when the data were first collected. This is not good news for either hunters or as an indicator of forest health.

Now let’s further look at the public land issue. And when you talk about public land in Western NC it’s pretty much the Pisgah/Nantahala National Forests. State managed Game Lands in the mountains account for only about 10% of the total public lands here. Mac McConnell lays it out in a May 2016 article comparing data from both the USFS and WRC.

Chart by Mac McConnell

As this chart shows, in 1992 the USFS was creating nearly five thousand acres of wildlife habitat through forest management, primarily timber harvests. At that time the average grouse flush rate recorded by the WRC survey was about 1.5 birds per hour. Moving to 2016, the USFS was only creating about 500 acres of habitat and the flush rate dropped to under .5 per hour. Again, the trend is important here versus individual points. Tying these two separate data together shows a direct correlation between timber harvests on public land and grouse populations. There is no denying the science.

So why is the grouse important? As the data show, as an indicator species it points to an overall unhealthy forest; at least for most wildlife. Another non-game species in decline that needs young forest growth is the Golden-Winged Warbler. Young forest growth also provides low browse for other animal like deer.

So OK, the forest is unhealthy for wildlife. Why is this important to hunting? Hunter numbers are declining. Two key factors in hunter recruitment and retention are access and opportunity. I’d say we’ve got the access part pretty well covered with over 1 million acres of public land in the mountains. But if game populations are low you don’t have opportunity. Imagine trying to introduce a new hunter to the sport of grouse hunting. They get all fired up, practice shooting, enjoy watching dogs work. But then they get to the field and every other trip to the woods there are no bird contacts. Just how long will they stick with the sport? Grouse hunting is tough and requires commitment. They won’t stay with it long.

So whether you are a hunter who wants to see more game on our National Forests or someone who enjoys nature and likes seeing a lot of wildlife when you visit public land, this science supports the need for more active management in the upcoming Pisgah/Nantahala long range plan. Let’s remember, we are visitors to our public lands; wildlife live there. And right now living there is tough.

Tuning Up for Next Season

Skeet & Trap can get you tuned up for next season!

Whether you just finished your first upland season or fortieth, you probably thought while cleaning your shotgun after it was over, “Man, I really need to get is some practice in the off season.” We’ve all had that thought. I do every year. Let’s look at some options to hone those wing shooting skills for next season, starting out with skeet and trap. Most hunters are fortunate to have one or both within reasonable driving range. Up front I’ll tell you this isn’t my preferred shotgun sport (more on that in the next post).

As a shotgun instructor I’ll have students say, “I’ve shot skeet before.  My dad, brother and I took a hand thrower out by grandpa’s barn and shot skeet.” Well, no. You shot clay targets. Skeet and trap both have a set format on a defined course. So can skeet and trap shooting get you ready for next season? Both games were started to prepare hunters for the field so the answer is “Yes” with a “But”. Let’s quickly look at what skeet and trap are.

Skeet range layout

Skeet started in 1920 in Andover, Massachusetts and a name familiar to grouse hunters was a founder. Yep, William Harnden Foster and a couple of friends wanted a shotgun sport that would simulate various shots at game birds. Their original design has evolved into today’s skeet course. It now has a high house on the left and low house on the right with a trap machine in each house. The course has eight shooting stations arranged in a semi-circle (see diagram). You start at station one under the high house shooting both singles and doubles at 1,2,6, and 7 and singles at 3,4,5 and 8 for a total of 24 rounds (somebody check my math). The 25th round is your optional round on any station after a miss. The course is designed to throw targets on a constant trajectory and constant speed. With movement from station to station this provides the greatest number of target angles you might experience in the grouse woods.

Trap courses are different in that there is only one trap machine in a bunker style house. The trap rotates on both vertical and horizontal axes throwing targets within a 90 degree horizontal arch away from the shooters. There are five shooting stations in a curved arc behind the trap house starting at 16 yards and radiating out to 27 yards (see diagram). A round of trap is 5 targets from each of the 5 stations for 25. Again, you have known target speed and a defined arch for the target to fly. Trap more simulates flushing birds but doesn’t provide the variety of angles of skeet.

Trap range design

So how can shooting either of these in the off-season improve my game? Here’s where the “but” comes in. They will help improve your shooting BUT you must approach them with a plan of action. Don’t just go out and shoot. The old adage “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got” comes to mind. Know what you want to accomplish. Because of their constants, both games are great for working on your fundamentals: body position, gun mount, and movement. A miss in the field is usually because we had a flaw in one of those. Both skeet and trap can help. Did you have problems with crossing birds? Go to a skeet range and work on stations 3 through 5. Stations 6 and 7 best replicate rising game. With trap, focus on your body position and keeping your cheek on the stock. You get the idea. Every time you go to the range you should have a plan on certain skills you want to work on. Now let me throw in two additional thoughts.

First, a shameless plug. A lesson with an instructor is worth the money. I’m not talking about one of your hunting buddies standing there saying, “You’re shooting behind it”. That doesn’t help. The question is, “Why am I shooting behind?” An instructor will help answer that “why” and get you on the path to improvement. After instruction, keep shooting to build on those improvements. It is money well spent.

Time with an instructor will help identify any shooting problems

Secondly, you’ll see pretty much all skeet and trap shooters shooting with a pre-mounted gun; standard for American skeet and trap. With your focus on fundamentals that’s OK. At some point in your practice you need to shoot with what is called “low gun”; moving the stock down below the shoulder before calling for the target. Why?

You don’t walk through the woods or fields with a pre-mounted gun, do you? Wouldn’t it be great if grouse flushed on command after our gun mount? Remember the goal is to improve our wing shooting. After you’ve worked out any kinks in your fundamentals and are breaking targets consistently (notice I didn’t say all of them) try shooting low gun. By the way, International Skeet requires a low gun with the butt even with the waist. You may get some strange looks but stay focused on your purpose. We are preparing to shoot wild game!

So does shooting skeet and trap in the off-season prepare you for upland hunting? I’m a lifelong bird hunter and admittedly terrible with a shotgun in my early years. Later in life while in the Army in Korea our Rod and Gun Club shot at a Korean skeet range. I guess seeing my shooting and feeling sorry for me, a former Korean Olympic skeet shooter took me under his wing. He helped me focus on the fundamentals of shotgun shooting in repetitive rounds of International Skeet. The result? When I returned to the United States I took my first limit of dove with two boxes of shells.

Yes it works if done with purpose. Next time we’ll up the challenge and talk about how sporting clays takes it to the next level.

Why I Hunt

It’s been so much a part of my life I’ve never stopped to ask the question: Why do I hunt? But then spending time in self-reflection is not my cup of tea. I don’t remember the first bird I shot. But I do remember when I knew I was a bird hunter. As a burr headed boy of about 12 I was walking with Uncle Jim along a field edge in Alabama hunting rabbits behind a couple of beagles. The sudden eruption of a covey of quail not only startled my nerves, but drew something up from deep within that said, “This is who you are.” I’ve now been a bird hunter for fifty plus years.

Want to know how serious that makes me? Growing up in Alabama, a state with a three month deer season with one deer a day, I never went deer hunting. Never killed one, never had the desire. But give me a cut corn field in September for dove, or a soybean or cornfield edge for quail and I was in heaven. Unfortunately my early quail hunting opportunities were limited until I got out on my own and the Army sent me to some pretty good places for quail hunting: Forts Campbell, Benning, and Bragg, come to mind. And of course bird hunting means bird dogs and they’ve been there with me through the decades. It’s true: I wouldn’t do it without the dogs.

And then I was introduced to the King of Gamebirds, the lordly ruffed grouse. After leaving the Army we moved to the mountains of western North Carolina. I went to a local sporting goods store and asked where to go quail hunting. The guy behind the counter said, “None around here. If you’re a bird hunter you’ll have to hunt grouse.” And so it began. I don’t remember the where and when of my first grouse flush. But do remember the look on my setter Belle’s face when it broke cover. That look of wonderment as if to say, “Hey, these birds don’t play fair. What’s this about not holding for my point?”

So here I find myself, with grey in my beard and in the winter of my years my thoughts turn to why I hunt birds. What is so captivating about that brown blur to draw me back to the forests and fields every year? For me it is the un-measureable. It’s something to not put a number on. Yeah, we count flushes of grouse or quail in the bag. But those are long forgotten when the memories hold our mind:The setter corkscrewing into a point; my hunting buddy dropping the hammer on an empty chamber on a straightaway grouse; field lunches on a truck tailgail with friends. You just can’t measure those.

Bird hunting releases me from a life full of metrics to simply experience the my connection with nature. Like many others, my everyday life is full of numbers:  sales goals, profit/loss statements, survey results, and counting the number of Twitter and Facebook followers. Yes, I know some folks keep a gunning log recording flushes, birds in the bag, where they hunted and the weather. More power to them.  I’m sure for them that’s part of the hunting experience.

I don’t, simply because it is an experience I don’t want to put a number on. How do you measure the look your 12 year old son gives you when he shoots his first quail? Tell me how to put a number on the anticipation when the sound of a dog bell goes silent in a Wisconsin aspen thicket? Where is the spreadsheet column to record the smiling eyes of my setter when he passes in front of me on an Appalachian mountain ridge on a crisp Autumn morning? Somebody please tell me how to transfer to numbers the laughter that follows your hunting buddy muffing a straightaway on a grouse down a logging road . . . with both barrels. At the end of the day, whether there are birds to clean or not, and the flush counter on my whistle lanyard is reset, the memories will always be there. That is why I hunt.

I guess David Petersen in his book A Hunter’s Heart says it about as well as any: ” To learn the lessons, about nature and myself, that only hunting can teach. Fore the glimpse in offers into a wildness we can hardly imagine. Because it provides the closest thing I’ve known to a spiritual experience. I hunt because it enriches my life and because I can’t help myself . . .because I have a hunter’s heart.”

The Invisible Bird Hunter

Earlier this year I posted a blog  “We’ve Met the Enemy . . .” talking about hunter apathy in supporting conservation efforts. When we owned a gun shop I’d get into over the counter conversations with hunters about anti-hunting groups trying to stop legal hunting and environmentalists thwarting wildlife habitat efforts. The typical response was a shoulder shrug and something along the lines of, “Aw, that can’t happen here.”

For too long sportsmen have put their trust in government agencies to protect the land and their hunting privileges. We’ve lapsed into a false sense of security by letting those agencies be our voice and do the right thing for us. In many cases they still do. It still amazes me that hunters still don’t get it when it comes to active participation in conservation efforts, especially with certain upland game birds in decline (grouse, woodcock, quail). Now we have more information to support the concept that yes, bird hunters are invisible in supporting their sport.

Ultimate Upland recently released a report on upland hunter participation in conservation organizations for the bird they hunt. Results are both disappointing and appalling. Based on a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 2011 survey on hunter participation there are nearly 1.5 million pheasant hunters in the country. That’s the good news. The bad? Only 8.5 percent of them belong to Pheasants Forever or like-minded groups. Grouse hunters? Of the over 800,000 who said they hunt grouse only 1% belongs to Ruffed Grouse Society. Quail hunters are just a little above grouse with 2.5% supporting conservation groups.

Courtesy Ultimate Upland

Conversely, Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl boast nearly 50 percent of waterfowlers among their ranks. So does that higher membership percentage make a difference? Numbers indicate it does. While wetland habitat needed by waterfowl has increased by nearly 35% over the last forty years, habitat for upland species has significantly declined between 20 and 40 percent (chart below).

Let me say this: there is no panacea or silver bullet solution. The decline in game bird populations and habitat has been a long-term trend and can’t be corrected overnight. But there are steps we can take as individual upland hunters to reverse the trend. One of the ideas being floated is an Upland Stamp similar to the Federal Waterfowl Stamp where funds are used for wetlands habitat. I’m OK with that as a partial measure. The problem for me is it’s a continuation of an existing problem: we put our reliance on government agencies. For a nation build on individual rights and responsibilities we must take action at the grass roots level.

Courtesy Ultimate Upland

Here’s some ideas we can ALL do:

  1. Step one: Join up! If you hunt an upland species join the conservation group that supports habitat work for that bird. That is what all of them are about. Yeah, membership is primarily hunters but the work they do is to improve habitat. While you’re at it, encourage your hunting buddies to join also. We’re talking annual membership of $30-40 a year. It’s not going to break the bank.
  2. Once you’ve joined, get active. All the conservation groups host fundraising events one or two times a year, usually anchored by a Sportsman’s banquet. Don’t just go to the banquet, buy raffle tickets and bid on auction items. Much of that money goes to habitat work at both the local and national level. A lot of local chapter do muddy boot habitat projects where members can get involved.
  3. The other part of getting active is answering Call-for-Action notices from the group. If they need you to go to a Forest Service meeting to support a planned habitat project, show up with some of your friends. Out west attend public meeting hosted by BLM to support grasslands management. It’s true: 80 percent of life is just showing up.

For nearly 100 years sportsmen have been willing to sacrifice to make sure wildlife species thrive. We have paid license fees, self-imposed bag limits, and paid Pittman-Robertson excise taxes all in the name of wildlife conservation. But those are all government driven. It will require support at the grassroots level if we want to continue our upland hunting traditions. We all need to be involved.