Kings, Pawns and Jesters in the Game of Grouse

Published in the East Oregonian, September 19th, 2020

“King of the woods”. Otherwise known as the ruffed grouse. I won’t go so far as to agree with those who believe ruffs are the king of all upland birds, yet I am yielding to this “king of the woods” business.

There’s an old saying about hunting chukar that goes something like “at first you hunt them for fun, then you hunt for revenge”. I have found with chukar that I hold no hate strong enough to chase them down (or up) the cliffs and scree slopes and plummet-to-your-death, inhospitable hell holes where I have never before seen so many birds in my life. It’s just not worth it. But I will say that I am wholly undecided on it being passion, challenge, or vengeance that calls me back to the grouse covers.

My setters and I have secured a comfortable routine hunting prairie birds across the west, and my desire to run the dogs earlier in the season is what drove me to the grouse covers. And nowhere have I been more frequently frustrated to the point of maniacal laughter like in the dark tangles of the Blue Mountains.

In the literal thick of things when a grouse blows my socks off, my brain short-circuits, fumbling gun mount and lead timing. The 3.2 nanosecond shot opportunity a ruff leaves in its wake, screaming through pinholes in impenetrable vegetated walls sufficient to challenging a Jedi Interceptor require far quicker reflexes.

My oldest Llewellin, Finn, searches a wetland for ole ruff.

If you’ve ever hunted timber of the ruff’s preferred stem density, you know precisely the dodgy, Mach-speed flight these birds are capable of. Instinctual shooting is a must. The kind of target acquisition born nowhere short of a lifetime in the grouse woods. Thinking is not an option. Not even a blackberry thicket quail covert requires so much anticipation and keen attention to the flush.

But there is something more to success on roughed grouse than snappy, savvy handling of walnut and steel. A good grouse cover is like the Bermuda Triangle. Grouse appear and vanish like apparitions. Pointing dogs lock up staunch, then suddenly peel off, only to be stymied by the explosion of a bird behind them. A bird they assumed was never there at all.

The fall of 2019 was my best grouse year on record if you count finds and flushes. About average if you figure I never managed to squeeze off a shot. Having three legitimate opportunities among a dozen flushes, I succumbed to panic.

My last hunt of December placed my middle pup Yuba and I in scraggly ninebark flanking a young red alder stand. The slick, greenish tinge of the alder shone a brilliant contrast to the dark timber along the Tucannon River. Candy-apple red rose hips shone radiantly like Christmas lights amid the dim forest. And Yuba, a stocky tri-color Llewellin setter, stood firm, etched into the fabric of the forest.

Thinking it a “grousey” spot, I circled around for the flush only to see Yuba reconsider and peel off to continue her search.

“There has got to be a bird in there.” I thought as I stood atop a small mound, staring daggers into the shrubbery maze.

 At once, a glorious male ruff rose from the crisp, ocher leaf litter with three swift wingbeats. Either the savage gleam in my eye spooked him or he was never actually there, but for the first time that season, both barrels of my L.C. Smith 12-gauge covered the bird immediately. Tracking as closely as a fighter jet target lock, I swung with the bird. I have never taken a male ruff, and still haven’t to this day.

My youngest Llewellin, Zeta, takes a break on a September hunt.

Shocked by its lazy escape and the unbelief that the bird even existed or that my superstar Yuba betrayed her own instincts, I stared down the barrels at the coal-black neck ruff, finger poised on the trigger, begging to energize the modified-choke barrel. The handsome gent evaporated into dense fir, my finger still pressuring the trigger. Befuddled, my cognitive ability failed to disengage the safety. Yuba and I shared a look of bewilderment and called it good on a season of lessons.

Nearly a year hence, having practiced my mount and prepared mentally for the grouse game, we set out to discover new covers. Running my oldest and youngest, Finn and Zeta, we traversed a creekside snarl of cottonwood and young fir flanked by thick hawthorn and serviceberry. I could sense the bird, clutching my 20-gauge CZ Bobwhite (The Bob) as Zeta encircled a fir on the edge of a clearing.

The ruff made a 10-foot leap, coming down quickly between the dog and I. Darting between trees, scrambling for a clear shot, the bird came up again, a big male, and The Bob was on it with alacrity. To my delight, I pulled off the shot in a fraction of a second, then stood mystified, gazing into the riparian jumble as another male ruff slipped into the safety of distance. Reaching into my vest, I retrieved the two high-velocity #7 loads that I recalled with certainty closing tightly in the action upon exiting the truck.

Years of frustrations. Screw-ups. Shoddy bird numbers. Ghost birds. Dog blunders. All for the sake of a bird that commands respect only to offend at will. Feeling at times like the peasant among royalty, begging for a meager chance to gaze upon the delightful plumage of the elusive ruffed grouse. My girls and I made a mockery of an upland team.

King of the Woods or Lord of the Louts? Perhaps both.

My middle Llewellin, Yuba, with one of the occasional grouse to grace our game bag.

Upland Pursuits – Animals Survive, Adapt and Thrive in Winter

Published February 20th, 2021

Here we are again, on the far side of the winter solstice, hunkered beneath a blanket of freezing fog and snow. Our latitude offers approximately eight hours of daylight early in the calendar year. And, while most humans seek winter shelter in our heated homes and celebrate holiday feasts, wildlife experience a greater challenge, making due with what Mother Nature provides (or doesn’t), and relying on innate strategies to see the winter through.

Animals are keenly attuned to environmental cues like photo period (day length) which drive their responses to the changes in seasons. Similar to putting on your winter coat, mammals like squirrels, bear, deer and elk grow a coat of insulating fur and seek to fatten up, devoting more time and attention to foraging. Bears go into hibernation while elk and mule deer, and songbirds make winter migrations to warmer climes and more abundant food sources.

Nut-bearing trees in our local communities feed populations of non-native eastern fox squirrels. Glancing around town, you will likely notice these orange, bushy-tailed tree rats scurrying, digging and burying all fall. Squirrels can stash up to 10,000 nuts for winter forage, creating caches in hollow trees and other convenient hiding spots, like your home attic.

Songbirds that overwinter locally feed tirelessly throughout our short winter days. Weed seeds, nuts and berries are typical wild food sources, supplemented by our home bird feeders. High-energy foods like sunflower seeds are a staple in their daily diets.

Songbirds reduce their body temperature at night to avoid excessive energy expense to keep warm. As the sun rises, a flush of activity occurs for several hours as they feed. Midday usually brings reduced activity and short periods that will have you wondering if the birds have simply vanished, but the afternoon rush will soon hit with another flurry of wings.

A western chickadee forages among deciduous shrubs.

Critters like reptiles that cannot regulate body temperature seek winter shelter in burrows or covered in mud where the ground temperature is warmer than the air. They don’t require food, but must avoid freezing. Some frogs even create their own “anti-freeze” to avoid cell damage.

Beavers stash food below the water surface in case a freeze prevents them from foraging, and their tails store fat for the lean times. Chipmunks cache food in their burrows and remain below ground when the weather is exceptionally rough.

The snowshoe hare may use a burrow as well, and feed on plants and twigs that they dig or find protruding from deep snow. Their large feet allow them to move across the snow surface without sinking in, reducing energy expense for foraging and providing efficient predator avoidance.

While the hardships of winter are evidenced by wildlife adaptations for survival, these adaptations allow species to thrive through freezing temperature and deep snow, like the snowshoe hare, which lives right here in the Blues.

One of the most abundant and well-distributed mammals in North America, hares rarely starve. Research suggests they maintain consistent body mass throughout the year. Their large feet, white winter coats, and efficient digestive system allow hares to prosper on minimal, and at times, poor-quality food sources over the northern latitude winter.

A snowshoe hare spends its day hidden beneath snow-covered vegetation. Photo by the National Park Service.

Ravens are another local example of an animal that has adapted well to winter living. During the warmer months, ravens are active predators, as well as feeding generalists. But when winter pickings become slim, ravens turn largely to carrion. Ravens have been documented following wolf packs, feasting socially alongside them. Ravens are highly intelligent and wary of novel food sources, but trust the prey of wolves, swooping in almost immediately as the pack makes a successful kill.

Scientist and author, Bernd Heinrich, published a book titled “Ravens in Winter”, presenting a surprisingly captivating study on raven feeding and social behaviors in New England. Heinrich found that ravens cash carrion when in abundant supply and communicate openly with fellow ravens, leading them to new food sources.

The common raven. Photo by Christopher Bruno.

While viewing the winter world from the comfort of our heated homes, it appears an inhospitable place. It’s easy to anthropomorphize the plight of wildlife from our understanding of discomfort and hardship. Yet, animals have the gig nailed, surviving, adapting and thriving with typical grace and beauty. Take a snowy day walk in the forest or even around town this winter. Stop, look and listen to the feathered and furred lives busy at work. And take inspiration from their resilience and resourcefulness, making the most of what is provided every single day.