Squirrel Hunt '10

The tradition of Eastern gray squirrel hunting, like most hunting traditions, most likely arose out of necessity. Also, it seems, it arose out of frustration. According an Appalachian history blog I stumbled upon, two men camped in Dickenson County, VA to hunt big game, but had no luck so they went after squirrels. They mockingly named the area "Squirrel Camp," a name which it is still referred to this day.

In these modern times, hunting for sustenance has largely been replaced for hunting for a trophy such as antlers. Additionally, not hunting out of necessity has help lead to the rise of the ethical sportsman. The ethical sportsman sees hunting as a way to connect and as a to establish a relationship with the land. The ethical sportsman is not hunting just for food. Indeed, if one is hunting to fulfill such a basic need as survival, one would probably, in this desperate state, resort to tactics we could not consider ethical. For me, the main qualifier of an ethical sportsman is a sincere attempt to understand and respect the interconnected wilderness where he hunts. The ethical sportsman researches his prey, and by doing so, sees the beauty in the animal. The ethical sportsman is essentially an amateur biologist, exploring and questioning what he sees around him.

Since squirrels do not make good trophies, I propose that, for the most part, it takes an ethical sportsman to hunt this noble rodent. (Really, I think that the previous paragraph was a way to justify why I went Eastern gray squirrel hunting up in the North Georgia mountains. At least it helps me feel better.)

Also, it's pretty dang fun! My buddy has a Parnell's Carolina cur, which is a breed of dog from the mountains of North Carolina that has squirrel hunting in his blood, and I have never seen a dog with more energy than ol' Blaze. Even when this dog is asleep you can see him experiencing REM in which his large eyes search back and forth underneath his eyelids, and periodically his body tenses up as he lets out a low growl at the undoubtedly terrified imaginary rodent.

The basic strategy is simple. Let Blaze loose (equipped with a radio collar in case you have trouble relocating him) within a legal hunting area, such as a national forest, and when you hear him talking,  hurry to that tree and look for a squirrel. Unfortunately, the day I went, the weather was poor, the squirrels weren't moving, there was some bad alignment of the planets, and we saw no squirrels. Blaze treed a couple times, and I know that his nose was not lying. I blame our poor human senses to the inability to find our prey, and I know it pissed Blaze off.

I know that some folks will laugh at our inability to find this common creature that populates most neighborhoods and college campuses is unnervingly large numbers, and I laugh with them, but have they ever tried it? It's not as easy as it sounds. Trekking up and down steep hillsides trying to keep up with Blaze was exhausting, but it was a fun experience, and I hope to do it again.

Plus, I got to see Hutch's Museum of Natural History, which is what I have decided to call his impressive display of specimens including a wood duck, fox squirrels, and a woodcock in his small, smokey apartment.

He also owns a variety of beautifully handcrafted handmade turkey calls, one of which is engraved with a Red-cockaded Woodpecker.  This type of call is a wing bone call.  The larger bone of the call is the humerus of a turkey hen, and the smaller bone is made from the ulna.  There are different variations, and one of Hutch's wing bone calls actually uses a deer antler as partial replacement for the humerus.  Another replacement could be the hollowed out brass tube from a shotgun shell.

The other calls include a box call and a friction call.  The box call is a wooden box with a pivoting lid on top. When the wood of the lid rubs against the rest of the box, it produces the noise of a hen.  The friction call, which may be the most common, consists of a round pad made from slate, aluminum, or even glass where one rubs it with a "striker."  Each of these calls are used to imitate a hen for the purpose of luring in a gobbler (male turkey) within range.

All in all it was a great weekend trip, and probably the last hunting trip I make until Turkey season, so those of you who think my blog is becoming too redneck can rest assured that I will be returning to birding posts soon enough.


View from the tree stand

It all happened so fast...sort of.

I had been sitting in the deer stand for two and a half hours, and I had already seen a fawn and two yearling "spike" bucks, which are young bucks with only two small spikes for antlers.  They were certainly fun to watch and one of the spike bucks got so close that, if I were inclined, I could have dramatically lept from my tree stand, jumped on his back, and ridden him back to the house.  But I decided against that.

There is a big controversy surrounding spike bucks.  Some believe that yearlings with spikes are genetically inferior compared to yearlings with three or more total antler points, and if this is the case, then it may be argued that these bucks should be culled in order to prevent them from passing on their genes to the rest of the herd.  However, a study conducted on wild bucks in South Texas indicates that bucks having spikes their first year may be more a result of environmental conditions than genetic conditions, and, if allowed to mature, spike bucks can have just as high quality antlers as higher point yearlings.  In fact, in another study, the majority of yearlings in the study area were spike bucks one year.  Thus, if a manager adopts an aggressive spike culling policy, they could wipe out many individuals that could have been high quality deer given another year or two to mature.

But I digress...as a steady drizzle started, a doe came splashing though the bottomland hardwood forest.  I was able to field identify her as a doe based on longer nose and larger size compared to a fawn.  This is an important distinction so late in the season as the fawns are getting older and have lost their identifiable speckled coat (great for non-mobile fawns) for a more solid-color adult coat better at camouflaging today's deer on the go.  She was by herself, so if she had given birth to fawns the past breeding season, they were now independent.  Since she was in such a hurry, I decided to wait a while to see if a buck was following her in hot pursuit.

So I waited, and waited, and waited until the doe walked within 10 yards of my stand and then about 35 yards out opposite the direction in which she came.  It was becoming apparent that I was not going to see a buck and that this doe, a beautiful looking whitetail, may be my only chance, and that's when the adrenaline started flowing.  I knew I could not take the shot free handed in my excited state, and I knew that if I hesitated too much longer, she might smell me and take off.  So I quickly knelt on the floor of the homemade stand, propped my left shoulder on wooden board I had been sitting on, propped my rifle on the board that made up one of the walls of the stand, and took the shot.  She stumbled for about 3 seconds, then laid still.

It was one of the strangest feelings I have felt, and as I write, my fingers begin to tremble with memory.  I imagine it is close to the feeling a cowboy out in Wyoming bar explained to me.  He traveled with the herd, and told my friend and I stories of individual cows like someone may tell you funny stories of their domestic pets or young children.  He loved his cows, and his fond recollection was a testament to this.  After one particular story that made him laugh uncontrollably, his demeanor grew solemn.  He said, "But they're gone now.  That is why I am in town: to sell these cows."  He loved his cows, but he knew he was raising them to their death so that he can make a living that literally satisfies the appetites of others.  I don't think anyone, especially myself, has such a connection to the origins of their food.

It is only natural that in this age of specialization, we have lost this connection to our source of nutrition.  Even those of us who don't eat meat, like I did for 5 years, most likely consume genetically modified plants laced with chemicals, and planted in monoculture field devoid of native flora and fauna.  But in that moment, I truly knew where at least a portion of my life sustaining nutrition was coming from in its purist, most organic form.

Some people have the stupid idea that killing a deer "makes you more of man" as if killing an animal proves mankind's ability and right to dominate all other life on the planet because our opposable thumbs have created tools that can blast away anything that stands in our way.  I can truthfully say I have no idea where this notion comes from.  It is true that killing that doe was exciting, but it was also extremely humbling, and as I drug the 105-pound deer through the soggy hardwood forest, I had never had more love and respect for my food and the environment that sustains it.


Bachman's Sparrow netting

I’ve been meaning to write about my experience with netting Bachman’s Sparrows  as part of a long term research program developed at Tall Timbers Research Station for some time, but as the field season wound down, the data analysis season wound up.  Now, as the threat of snow looms over horrified Georgians, I long for those humid summer days in the field.

On the morning before I left Tall Timbers for the season I had the opportunity to tag along for mist netting as I have never seen before.  The morning was unseasonably cool (and by cool I mean only mid 80s) as we bounced along the Redland dirt roads in an ATV, golf cart, and truck hybrid known as “the gator.”  When we arrived at our predetermined destination, we cut off the gas and pumped up some Bachman’s Sparrow jams in the hopes of tricking a jealous male into responding.  After a couple of unsuccessful tries, we finally heard the wispy call of an angry male responding to our playback.

That is when we sprang into action.  Since I had never done this before I obediently awaited my orders.  Luckily, those were to “stay put for now.”  I watched as my friends assembled two 20ft mist nets in less than 30secs in front of the singing bird.  Then they ran a big circle wide enough not to scare the bird, and slowly started to approach our undeniably confused feathered friend from behind.  To escape a threat, Bachman’s Sparrows will leap up, fly just above the understory in a longleaf pine forest, and fall back down.  In a long leaf pine forest, most of the plant diversity is found within 4ft of the ground, and in places that have not been recently burned.  This can be like wading though a prickly, shrubby ocean.  This is especially hard for ill-adapted humans, but great cover for a highly evolved Bachman’s Sparrow.  Despite this, the crew was successful many times in rounding up these often heard, rarely seen gems.

 I have trouble with identifying sparrows.  Most sparrows in Georgia are here in the winter and do not sing, making identification by sound practically impossible.  This combined with the fact that most of the time I only seem to get a 1/8 of a second chance to look at one before it lifts it’s middle feather up in the air and shouts “screw you!” makes sparrows especially frustrating to me and many other birders. 

But this opportunity to see a Bachman’s Sparrow up close redeemed the sparrow clan in my eyes.  In one feather I could see an earth tone rainbow of colors impossible to perceive though binoculars or a scope.  This is certainly the reason why sparrows are able to hide themselves so well from predators and well-intended birders alike.  Golden amber fades into yellow, fades into steel blue, and fades into white all within less than half a square inch of space. 

Before, I appreciated these birds for their rarity.  They are rare because long leaf pine forests are rare.  They evolved with burning forests, and when people suppressed forest fires, their habitat declined.  But now, with managed forests like those around Tall Timbers research station, they luckily have a place to live.

Now, after I have seen one in the hand, I appreciate them for their beauty.  It’s the type of beauty that I imagine would make more people become advocates for Long Leaf restoration, but that’s the idealist in me talking, not the rationalist.