Phantom of the Uplands

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I must admit I am my mother’s son, and apparently that of her mother as well. Both enjoy collecting beautiful things to display, as well as practical materials that may be of use at some unknown (and inexplicable) point in time. I am not a collector, per se, but I am guilty of keeping things like useless wood scraps and old nails and bolts. And I just can’t bring myself to discard antlers, handsome game hides or upland bird plumage.

Art is a recurring theme among my tales and reflections of venturing into our natural world. Whether wielding a fly-rod or chasing my setters across the autumn bunchgrass, the poetry of interaction with our ecosystem, and the brilliance of the autumn canvas, upland bird plumage and the rich colors of high mountain trout always provide fodder for my pen. I find the beauty in these things so significant that I feel responsible for somehow preserving the memories of fin and feather through practical application and admiration.

 While I enjoy crafting varied upland bird displays and shadow boxes to perpetually capture experiences, a friend of mine takes the artistic side of the uplands to a new level.

I met Janet Marshman during my graduate school days at James Madison University’s Edith J. Carrier Arboretum. I was a staff arborist and Janet arrived as a welcome volunteer. And it wasn’t long before her talents turned up in our visitor center.

Channeling her creative side, Janet decided once upon a time to make a drama-style mask as a birthday present for her sister-in-law, an art teacher. Clearly impressed, she encouraged Janet to sell her masks. Running with the idea, Janet sold her first lot to an art gallery in Charlottesville, Virginia. That was 1983.

Mask 3

Upon learning of my hunting and fishing hobbies, Janet asked if I had anything furred or feathered that I could part with. And, given my tendency to hang on to such items, I returned with a variety of material from whitetail and mountain goat hide to eastern fox squirrel tails and thought nothing more of it. Until the day Janet presented me with a shadow box containing a mask made largely of moose hide, tree bark, shelf fungi and lichens. Its natural beauty was so striking, the shadow box was one of the few “natural displays” that made the living room wall after I got married.

When asked why she appreciates natural items like fungi, Janet replied “There is so much beauty in natural materials.”

Fungi and lichens are among the common “fauna” I have noticed in Janet’s masks over the years. But what draws her to these materials so readily?

“I love fungi, lichens, moss, and textures of bark. The colors are often muted and blend well with colors of feathers, but provide variation in texture to the mask.”

While Janet’s affinity to use natural materials has always spoken to me, her tastes and innovation dive far deeper and include mechanical and electronic items like sprockets, wires and mother boards, even digital camera parts used for her husband, Frank, who once owned a camera repair service. Abstract, eclectic, organic.

Trumbo - Phantom Uplands (3)

She never took it full-time, but has sold at shows across the eastern U.S. from New Orleans to Philadelphia, and regularly donates to charitable causes. Interestingly, somewhere in there she took a 20-year hiatus to raise her family. An experience that she claims brought her “…visual maturity and creativity into bloom” and contributed to the depth and intricacy of her later pieces.

Janet has collaborated costume design with the James Madison University dance theater. Her masks have been on display in various galleries and restaurants, as well as the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. She has even won a Halloween contest or two. But she doesn’t stop there, keeping her fingers in photography, sculpture and mixed-media.

“I believe a true artist continues to grow in their art and see things differently. I don’t believe in finding a niche and staying there.” Janet says.

This past winter I sent Janet a few pheasant capes, only to unexpectedly have them partially returned in March, stunningly crafted in dramatic whimsy. Her use of lichens, rooster tail and body feathers, corn husks, dried brome, and river birch bark delivered multiple complex layers of the environment in such a way to compliment themselves to their utmost potential.

Trumbo - Phantom Uplands (2)

Clearly, I feel a bond with Janet’s masks; her tie of my passions to true artistic talent and conception. She captures my eternal desire to immortalize the memory of those who have blessed my home and table.

Additionally, Janet’s creativity exemplifies the beauty and elegance of our natural world, cast in the glow of perfect complement between flora and fauna. Her masks emphasize the intrinsic value of the natural world to human existence and emotion, portrayed through the eyes of an esteemed artist and her theatrical design.

In Pursuit of the Eurasian Collared Dove

Published at Duck Camp Co June 23, 2020.

“If there were ever a time to doubt Wikipedia, you can count the claim that ‘The collared dove is not wary…’ a busted myth on rural farms and public lands… A perfect opportunity to introduce a young hunter to wingshooting or soothe the gripping withdrawal mid-way between the end of the prior and beginning of the next upland season.”

Read more at Duck Camp Co

Status and Conservation of Oregon’s Mountain Quail

Collapsing my tenkara rod, I reflected on the brilliant California golden trout I had just released back into the trickle of a mountain stream dropping from a series of high lakes in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. The September sun shone golden and warm against my back as dappled light streamed through the forest canopy. That fish put a bow on one of the most memorable weeks of my fly-fishing career, traipsing through the scenic Sierra Nevada Range in search of a trout I had dreamed about for decades.

Descending from 10,000 feet, the trail meandered through various cover types including old-growth pine and small pockets of yellowing aspen. Approaching a unique knob around 8,500 feet was a minute stand of sagebrush, appearing entirely out of place and displaced from the lowland scrub and chapparal. The faint scuffling and whistling of a quail covey piqued my interest.

Climbing the knob, the covey scurried across the trail ahead and levitated above the sage, sailing elegantly into the safety of a nearby snarl. Mountain quail. That first encounter left me mesmerized and wishing to exchange my fly rod for a setter and double gun, and added another hunt to my bucket list. Researching mountain quail habitat and their distribution across the west, I was pleasantly surprised to learn of Oregon’s populations and conservation efforts.

Mountain quail are a North America native, distributed throughout the Oregon Cascades and California’s Sierra Nevada, with a sprinkling in Nevada, Mexico and Washington. Southeast Washington, eastern Oregon and western Idaho historically were home to mountain quail, but over time, their habitat and populations dwindled. In Oregon, mountain quail were once found in every county. Since about 1950, land use practices and fire suppression have contributed to their decline.

Photo Credit – US Fish and Wildlife Service

Mountain quail are the largest native quail in North America. They are uniquely monomorphic, meaning both sexes are virtually identical in size and appearance, each boasting their most peculiar feature, a black, needle-like “top knot” growing over an inch long from the top of the head.

Preferred habitat consists of dense brush, such as manzanita thickets, chapparal and scrub, in wooded foothills and mountains. Features like burns and clear-cuts are important for providing the appropriate balance of cover and food sources, and water within about one mile. Riparian habitats with an adjacent brushy, upland slope are favorable.

The mountain quail diet consists mainly of vegetation during spring and summer, seeds and berries during fall and winter. Insects are important for spring and summer brood rearing. Mountain quail also exhibit a robust reproductive strategy. Females lay seven to fifteen eggs in two separate nests within about 600 feet of each other. Both adults incubate clutches independently, males typically having greater hatch success.

In 1996, Oregon State University (OSU) began a study to compare life history characteristics between the larger, stable lower Cascades population, and that of a remnant population in Hells Canyon. Additionally, quail were translocated from the Cascades to Hells Canyon to compare life histories of the separate groups in the same habitat.

The OSU study results informed a sixteen-year follow-on translocation study to reintroduce mountain quail to historic eastern Oregon habitats. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) teamed up with OSU and the U.S. Forest Service beginning in 2001, translocating and radio-tracking birds in the Freemont, Deschutes and Malheur National Forests and the Steens Mountain Wilderness.

A total of 2,574 birds were translocated across years. Forty-five percent (1,156) were radio-tracked to obtain habitat selection, survival and nesting success information. Overall, nesting and brooding was successful across sites and years. Survival ranged from approximately sixteen percent to nearly sixty percent, depending upon year and release site. Survival rates and trends observed were similar to those of the Cascades population from which birds were translocated.

Photo Credit- US Fish and Wildlife Service

Concluding the study in 2017, it appears the translocation efforts were at least marginally successful. Mountain quail appear to be maintaining small populations where translocated and are considered an “occasional” species in Wallowa and Union Counties while the lower Cascades population remains strong. Detailed annual reports of the translocation study are available from ODFW online.

Oregon offers hunting opportunity with the eastern Oregon season running October 10th through January 31st this year, including California quail and overlapping the forest grouse season. The lower Cascades season opens September 1st.

Mountain quail are a peculiar and secretive species, and a treasure to the State of Oregon. There is something magical about their presence on the landscape. The memory of flushing a covey over manzanita or juniper scrub will remain etched in your cache of extraordinary upland experiences. Whether pursuing with dog and scatter gun or hiking stick and camera, the marvel of this distinctive native quail and their habitat that we are blessed to have on our public lands is reason enough to seek adventure in the high desert.

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.

Fresh Snow, Blaze Orange and Opening Day Roosters

Turning down Lewis Gulch, I spied a beautiful draw curling into the wheat fields, free of human track. A sight for sore eyes on the eastern Washington pheasant opener. Whipping the Tundra to the shoulder and throwing her in “park”, we finally had something to look forward to.

Deciding to try something new this year, I quickly re-learned that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We had left home at 5:00am. Four hours hence, we had yet to put boots on the ground for lack of room in the bird covers.

Releasing Finn and Zeta and wading the waist-high grasses, we took delight in our first snow romp of the season as about an inch had fallen above 2,500 feet in the wind farm. The girls and I climbed steadily through the white fluff with the anticipation of pushing roosters to the end of the draw began building. My gut tied in knots with visions of the red-faced, cackling prairie clowns erupting at field’s edge. I knew birds were there. The variety of thick and thin shrubs and grasses was too good to be void.

Zeta inspects the field edge, pretending to find a wily rooster.

It was risky running Zeta the only hour we would hunt this opening morning, but she needed the exposure and the exercise. Half way up the draw, the grasses began to shorten and the cover narrowed to a teardrop point in a ridge-top saddle. Exactly where a running rooster hesitates briefly at the open field before bursting airborne as the dog creeps onto point. And bursting pheasant is precisely what Zeta had in mind.

Shifting my grip on my 20-gauge double for a quick mount, I spied Finn trotting back toward me, eyes on the wheat field. She then stopped cold, turned and came at a run. The gig was up. Finn always returns when a dog bumps the birds. Sitting at my feet with a sheepish gaze, her wide eyes tattled on young Zeta, who was ranging out of sight in utter merriment, according to my GPS locator.

Finn and I crested the hill to find Zeta frolicking in the snow and leaping grass tufts as she does at home, double-checking the brush in the ditch after blowing through at the speed of sound to scatter in terror the birds, cats, chickens, deer and anything else that cares to run. She lives for the chase.

Disappointedly laughing it off, we circled the draw, coming off the far side, and marveling at the splendid winter view. Every visible piece of habitat simultaneously under dissection by hunters, revealed by the specks of blaze orange sprinkled across the landscape.

Descending from the ridge crest, my mind escaped from the hunt into a state of winter stroll. Finn scented below hillside pines while Zeta plowed beneath piles of tumbleweed and thick reed canary grass. At the truck, I emptied snow balls from the front of their jackets and turned the rig toward home.

Finn boasting her snowball collection tucked neatly in her vest. Best laid plans for revenge on Zeta’s follies.

The sun was already warm and rich back on the homestead and Yuba was due a hunt. It had been two months since her second hip surgery to correct dysplasia. She lives to hunt pheasant and her pride was bruised over not loading up with the others this morning. Grabbing the gun and vest from the back seat, I kicked open the paddock gate and smiled as “wobble dog” disappeared behind the barn into the golden, waist-high wheatgrass.

Rounding the barn, I spied Yuba on point, statuesque, her tail-feathers wafting gently in the breeze as the afternoon sun streamed through the long strands of white hair. She encircled a path I mowed for watering our golden currant plantings, catching the scent of birds feeding along the path.

Closing in, she broke point to follow the scent and a dozen pheasant erupted 20-yards to my right, silhouetted against the sun. The occasional down-feather drifted behind them, lit up like orbs and boasting a starburst edge as sun rays streamed through them. Swinging through and squeezing both barrels, the birds vanished unharmed. I had once again delivered a stellar lesson as a professional wildlife educator.

Whistling Yuba back, I sent her into the hillside weed hummocks where the birds had flushed. We entered nearly side-by-side when she slammed onto point simultaneous with a single rooster rocketing from beneath my feet. Sufficiently startled, I whiffed with the right barrel, but as the bird made the 30-yard mark, the left barrel connected perfectly, securing our first bird of the year.

“Wobble Dog” Yuba with her first rooster of the season.

Racing as fast as two unsteady hind legs can carry pup buzzing on the rich aroma of roosters, the black and white flash claimed her bird, mouthing it gleefully as I approached.  Admiring the bright plumage of the young wild rooster and the curiously long, banded tail feathers flanking the two longest in the middle, the success was just a bit sweeter coming from the homeplace where we work the land to serve the birds, and take just one when the numbers are high.

Prancing to the house with our prize in hand, Yuba’s exuberance defined the highlight of her fall. Reveling in the sweet opening day success on the homestead, a dozen birds, no competition and a tight-holding rooster set the bar abundantly high for hunts to come.

Upland Pursuits – Pursuit and Conservation of Greater Sage Grouse

Published in the East Oregonian, November 21st, 2020

An icon of the western U.S., the wary, spike-tailed adult males of this species boast the endearing nickname “bombers” due to their large size and lumbering liftoff. An obligate Inhabitant of the high sagebrush, greater sage grouse are as quintessential to the range as pronghorn and mule deer.

A spectacle to behold, my first encounter was in southern Idaho on a late September elk hunt. Riding an abysmally rough BLM road back to camp, I spotted “geese” in the sagebrush off to my right. “Why are geese out here in the sagebrush?” I asked myself. It seemed plausible to find geese along the Pahsimeroi River, but not in the shrub-steppe.

“Those aren’t geese, genius. They’re sage grouse!” I blurted out in elation. A half-dozen robust, feather-legged fowl eyeballed me warily as I bounced past, ensuring they need not unnecessarily expend the energy of lift-off.

A male sage grouse displaying for the ladies. Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Sage grouse once numbered around 16 million across western North America, pre-settlement. Presently, estimates of approximately 200,000 birds remain range wide, their significant decline attributed largely to habitat loss. Following their decline, the species was proposed for listing as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act until a 2015 status review identified that listing was not warranted.

The decision was made partially due to the efforts of the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI), which began in 2010, pushing to conserve precious sagebrush habitat across the sage grouse range. Sage grouse and the SGI are both captivating in their own right; the birds for their size and behaviors, and the SGI for its incredible cooperative nature among landowners, non-profits and government agencies.

Presently, there are four protected, fragmented populations in Washington. A much larger area of southern Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, and southeast Oregon throughout the Steens, Malheur and Owyhee public lands support these curious prairie grouse, permitting regulated hunting seasons.

Sage grouse are known for their dramatic “lekking” behavior. A lek is a common area where males gather in spring to perform courtship displays for females and fiercely defend their territory on the lek, which may only be a few yards in size.

The sage grouse courtship dance is something to behold. Males have spiked tail fans and snow-white breast feathers with two yellow air sacs that they inflate during the ritual. The Cornell University bird laboratory explains the courtship behavior as follows.

“Standing tall, with inflated chest held high, the male sweeps his wings across his white breast, creating a swishing noise. He tilts his head back, rapidly inflating, bouncing, and deflating the yellow, balloon-like pouches on his chest. The outward popping of these bare pouches creates a series of echoing pops. These displays are performed almost continuously, and up to 10 times per minute, for several hours in the early morning.”

Cornell University Bird Laboratory

Ensuring the persistence of this iconic species of the western sagebrush habitats, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) helped found the SGI, leveraging Farm Bill funds and volunteer landowner cooperation to conserve the largest intact tracts of sagebrush with the largest sage grouse populations. To date, the SGI has cooperated with 1,856 ranchers to conserve more than 7 million acres across 11 western states (California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming).

The SGI includes NRCS partnerships with myriad local, state and federal governments and non-governmental organizations like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Oregon Hunters Association, Pheasants Forever and the Ruffed Grouse Society. While the NRCS channels funding through the Farm Bill, success is only possible through partners that leverage funds, shoulder work, and tackle policies beyond the authority of the NRCS.

Sage grouse amid their spring mating rituals on the lek. Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The success of the SGI equates to uplanders like me continuing to have opportunities to hunt sage grouse where their remaining populations are strong. But wildfire and invasive species like cheat grass continue to threaten sage grouse habitat. As fire danger and smokey air from the Cascades region settled over eastern Washington and Oregon this past September, I cancelled my bucket list hunt for which I had drawn an Oregon permit.  

Smoke settled thick, oozing through the window cracks on the homestead like pancake batter late on September 11th. Burning tear ducts awakened me, urging me to tape off windows and doors. Burns, Oregon was slated for the same air quality. I can only imagine how uncomfortably stuffy a camper, sealed tight, encapsulating myself and two setters might have been.

Historic sagebrush-steppe fires burned slow and cool, beneficial to the ecosystem. But cheatgrass encroachments have changed fire cycles to more frequent and hotter, roasting mature plants and damaging sagebrush regeneration. Additionally, sagebrush communities are slow-growing, requiring invasive species management and possibly replanting to reestablish decimated communities.             

Fortunately, wildlife is resilient and persistent. Habitat and hunting opportunity to be restored through the efforts of dedicated partnerships like the SGI. And the 2021 prospects are looking good.

I can see the covey nestled among the buttery autumn grasses and milky sage. A setter tail wafts gently in the auburn glow of the sun peeking over the Owyhee; the location of the covey betrayed. Circling in for the flush, the covey materializes from the sagebrush sea. Heavy wingbeats trigger a swift mount. The bead aligns with my right eye as double barrels swing through. Next year…  

Pa’tridge in a Fir Tree

With the holidays upon us, the sights and sounds of Christmas surround the Waitsburg community. From glittering street decorations to themed music taking over our favorite radio stations, the magic of December can be neither escaped or denied.

Of the many celebratory songs, I am willing to place a wager on literally everyone knowing the “Twelve Days of Christmas”. It’s a timeless standard. And, love it or hate it, it shall be heard again this year. And what do we all expect on he first of the twelve days of Christmas? You guessed it. A “partridge in a pear tree”. But have you ever wondered exactly what the phrase means, aside from the literal sense of a bird in a fruit tree? Possibly not, but being a biologist and upland bird fanatic, I had to dive in a bit deeper.

According to the reliable sources of the internet, the phrase “partridge in a pear tree” is meant to symbolize Jesus, as apparently the mother partridge is the only upland bird willing to sacrifice itself for its young.  A meaningful verse and analogy, but the phrase also begs the specifics of the partridge itself.

If you’ve read any of the myriad literature devoted to the pursuit of ruffed grouse, you likely recall them referenced as partridge, or pa’tridge, as Burton Spiller liked to say, expressing emphasis of a New England accent. But do grouse qualify as true partridge?

To be completely accurate, only a handful of upland birds native to Europe and Eurasia are actually partridge. Encyclopedia Britannica describes them as small game birds native to the Old World and of the pheasant family. References to quail and grouse of the New World are regarded as erroneous.

Two common partridges in our area of Washington are the Hungarian (Huns) or gray partridge and chukar. These two are quite distinct from one another in appearance and habitat, yet both are stunningly beautiful.

Hungarian or Gray Partridge boasting characteristic cinnamon bands. Photo from public domain.

Huns are a favorite of mine and most common among the wheat farms and foothills. Their range extends largely across the northern U.S. and southern Canada. Short grass and crop fields are prime habitat with birds seeking high ground atop a ridge spine or the head of a draw. Their explosive, chirping flush is a welcomed treat and quite startling as an ancillary find in my bird hunting endeavors. A soft gray body rises in a flurry of cinnamon head and tail fans as cream-barred wings evacuate over the nearest terrain and quickly out of shot opportunity.

Conversely, the chukar, otherwise known as the “devil bird”, boasts deep crimson legs and beak, an intriguing mask across the eyes and down the neck, and intricate barring across the flanking, beige breast feathers. Their devil reputation comes from the steep and rocky habitats in which they thrive, yet some inhabit gentler sage brush mountain tops and plateaus of Hells Canyon and the upper Columbia Basin. Their maniacal “chuk-chuk-chuk” call from the cliffs was seemingly designed to taunt the predator while slinking away, a defeated fool.

Chukar partridge identified by the crimson legs and beak, face mask, and banded flank feathers. Photo from public domain.

With our partridge properly identified, it seems only the Hun is likely to be found in a pear tree around local farmland. Of the erroneous pa’tridge, a ruffed grouse is likely to select similar habitat and food sources near or among timbered ridges and creek bottoms. But what if you vison a white Christmas among the mountaintop evergreens?

The blue grouse is our native highland cousin to the ruffed grouse, seeking evergreen timber, mountain meadows and rugged, rocky slopes over 2,000 feet in elevation. While ruffs and blues can share common habitat, the greatest difference between the two is the blue grouse behavior of seeking higher elevation as winter snows pile up. During periods of deep snow, blue grouse prefer to hang out in Douglas fir, feeding exclusively on the small needles.

Blue grouse males (below left) are a humble blue-gray in color and are larger than ruffed grouse. Males boast a nearly black tail and contrasting white neck feathers similar to the black ruff of the ruffed grouse. Females are a less conspicuous mottled brown (below right). While the ruffed grouse is known for its wary personality and dodginess, blue grouse are less likely to flush early or too far distant when approached, often jumping onto an overhead tree branch when spooked.

Male blue grouse in mating display (left). Hen blue grouse in a high-mountain meadow (right). Photos by the National Parks Service.

Regardless of their predator avoidance tactics, our native grouse species are a seemingly fit pa’tridge for the for the Twelve Days of Christmas in these parts. And, while a partridge in a pear tree sounds nice, visions of a blue pa’tridge in a fir tree, blanketed in shimmering snow crystals and contrasted against a bluebird morning sky paints a wonderful picture of a peaceful Blue Mountain Christmas. With the “partridge in a pear tree” conundrum solved, may you and your family have a Merry Christmas, or any December holiday you choose to celebrate! (Partridge optional).

Outsmarting River Bottom Roosters

December 15, 2020 – Outsmarting River Bottom Roosters | Harvesting Nature

Picture an expansive river bar with a variety of cover and vegetation types, and terrain ranging from flat bottomland to steep and brushy slopes topped by shallow soils over basalt formations. Riparian cottonwood and willow present with sparse, brilliant canary yellow and amber foliage, shedding gently into a light breeze. Golden waves of wheatgrass and other bunches flank wealthy corn, canola and sorghum food plots separating the riparian from the uplands. And a rooster cackles as you unclip your pointing dog for a morning match of wits.

This well-loved public parcel sees a wealth of upland hunters and canine breeds over the course of the bird season, my setters and I included. The pheasant are wily, highly educated, stretched tighter than a banjo hide, and easily qualify for the Olympic 400-meter sprint. Pinched birds are prone to startle the hunter into cardiac arrest as they rarely sit for a staunch point and flush from behind at every opportunity.

Finn hunts the high ground on our favorite river-bottom public land.

Humans succumb to routine, of which hunting method fall victim. The parking area and access points are low on the property and lead to the tempting food plots and thicker riparian cover. Walking the road or hunting the lowlands right out of the gate is a natural tendency, yet ensures an early day, and not due to a limit of birds.

Pheasant naturally emerge from thick roosting covers before sunrise and head to the high ground and crop fields for breakfast. Pushing through the roosting cover often produces a productive point or two, but if you step aside to observe bird behavior beyond the range of your pointing dog, you may notice birds escaping far ahead, possibly beyond the public boundaries. And once these birds decide to go, they generally waste no time.

A simple solution is to hunt the high ground immediately. Birds heading out from roost are more likely to hunker down or flush back toward roost cover. Making a high pass and circling low for the return lap ensures a few more birds are occupying good transition covers and may be less sure of themselves as you approach from a different direction than most others.

Kea locks in beneath a hillside hawthorn.

Hunting large tracts with birds possibly scattered throughout is best accomplished with partners and multiple dogs. Beware of the company you keep, however. Pheasant are highly attuned to sight and sound. I have witnessed birds escape an onslaught more than a quarter-mile ahead as whistles, beeper collars and voices echoed, alerting all life to the presence of the orange-clad cavalry.

Instead, keep quiet, collars silent, and leave the whistle in the truck, if possible. Use hand signals to communicate with your buddies and canines, and spread across the terrain with a couple of good working dogs to catch the birds as they try to duck between and around the mammalian search party.

Another consideration is the severity of disturbance the birds experience. A similar but much smaller creek bottom property I visit has relinquished several roosters to my girls and I over the years, some coming directly on the heels of other hunters. When pheasant are gently pushed out, even speeding ahead of an errant shot wad, they may only travel a short distance into more challenging terrain if not further pursued.

Recently, at the conclusion of significant rainfall, I made the creek bottom for the final hour of daylight, only to pass parting hunters on the road. Not 10 minutes prior did they deposit spent shells and boot tracks in the bottomland mud. 

Upon spying the aftermath, my youngest setter, Zeta, and I turned up the adjacent draws, traversing the hillside bunchgrass, flanking the edge of a wheat field a mere couple hundred yards off the creek. Because the property is so small, other hunters rarely venture up the grassy draws. Pheasant that flush to the extent of the cover and experience no further pressure over time are largely content to sit tight, waiting for the typical brush-busters to push through and vacate.

Zeta with her rain-soaked late evening rooster from the top of the draw.

This particular evening, Zeta put us on a couple pheasant that sat beautifully for her rare and stylish point. She needs a cure for her addiction to putting birds on the wing and careening madly in their wake. Yet, as we surprised these birds, she did her job well, and the flush presented an easy shot.

Hunting pressured public land pheasant can be challenging, particularly coming into the late season, but alternative approaches playing on pheasant behavior and property boundaries can be surprisingly productive. Keep quiet, always anticipate the flush, and trust your pup’s instinct. It may take some time to pin a bird, but when the point is true, circle in, ready for action, and savor the hard-won success of an educated public land bird.     

Upland Pursuits – Short Hunts for Sunset Roosters

Published December 19th, 2020 in the East Oregonian

The sun rested against the crest of the horizon, a massive sphere radiating vibrant magenta. Wind turbines stood solemnly shadowed in the foreground while a rich golden hue settled across the bunchgrass sea laid out beautifully across the hills and swales before us. Yuba trembled in anticipation as the GPS collar chimed and vest straps clicked securely. 

Leadership training taught me the most valuable lessons of putting “first things first” and “taking care of myself and others” to maximize effectiveness as an employee and satisfaction with life in general. Therefore, as the clock struck 2:30pm on this gorgeous afternoon, a run on the Palouse rose to the top of my priority list like the cream materializing in a freshly squeezed jug of milk. Silently, I dropped from my conference call, tossed Yuba in the back seat and made haste for the wind farm.

Hitting the ground running, Yuba bee-lined to the east. But the faint whisp of wind suggested another approach. Whistling her back, we continued south into the swale. The plan was to cross the swale, ascend the far hill, hunt the ridge line east, then circle back to the north in a pattern reverse of how many hunt the property. Roosters up feeding would be preparing to drop into the swale to roost and I wanted to catch them on flanks before they hit the thick cover.

Llewellin setter, Kea, works a ridge line as the shadows settle upon the Palouse.

Dense reed canary grass envelopes the swale, providing superb roosting cover from predators and cold temperature. It also prevents a pup with bad hips from hunting efficiently, sapping stamina. Hence, I waded quickly through and across the mattress of bent, swishing grasses with Yuba in tow to keep her from expending too much energy in the impossible cover.

Emerging at the toe of the hill, a few colossal tufts of Great Basin wild rye stood clustered along the outskirts of the reed canary tangle. Strolling past, Yuba encircled a cluster of bunches and failed to reappear. Peering around a nearby tuft, Yuba’s breathtaking point offered an eyeblink’s notice before the rooster exploded nearly under my right foot.

Amid the startling heart palpitations, my practice of quick target acquisition instinctually kicked in, securing the roost with an instantaneous burst from the cylinder-choked barrel. Most upland birds begin entering roost covers approximately one hour before dark, and this guy was just on the edge, about to dive in for the night.

Yuba rushed in, securing her prize and whining excitedly as we marveled over the bronze, bared tail and brilliant iridescence of the overall plumage. The Palouse landscape against a gorgeous fall sunset presents a stunning watercolor painting. Throw in the varied tones and flashes of setter and rooster to orchestrate a unique masterpiece worthy of marvel and never to be seen quite the same again.

The author and Yuba revel in the success of an evening hunt.

While those clear, crisp evenings along thick drainage cover are ideal, draw-bottom grasses on higher ground can serve as sufficient roost cover as well.

One rainy Friday evening, my youngest pup, Zeta, ran the high ground below a perched wheat field. The shallow draw opened slightly into a beautiful bowl below the abrupt field edge. The kind of area you would expect to glass a bedded mule deer. While the flanking grasses were little over ankle-high, the draw bottom grasses were knee to thigh high, enough to swallow little zeta as she quartered through the cover like a trick bicyclist in the half-pipe, zooming through the bottom and up the side hill to the rim, then back down again.

Circling down from the left rim, Zeta bumped a covey of Hungarian partridge. A great disappointment as Huns are a rare find for us and I hate to miss possibly the only opportunity of the season. Unlike quail, I have never seen any stragglers. The entire covey goes at once. Yet, hope springs eternal, so I hustled closer in preparation for a second flush, which failed to materialize.

Approached the top of the draw, Zeta became birdy and began working frantically up and down the thick grasses. Simultaneously, Zeta flashed on point, prompting a rooster to rocket from the cover, presenting a beautiful crossing shot. My 20-gauge double rose quickly, depositing the bird in the short grasses. Numerous roosts and scat piles were strewn about. An identical scene presented in the adjacent draw where we pushed up a hen.

While morning and mid-day hunts appear to be a standard for may uplanders, the magic hour before dusk can be nothing short of spectacular for both scenery and locating birds that may sit just a little tighter than typical. If the season is slipping away to other priorities, try putting first things first by squeezing in a short evening hunt. The minimum reward is a run with your pup beneath a painted autumn sunset, and you might even swing a bead over a bird or two.

Upland Pursuits – Seeking the Elusive ‘Devil Bird’ in Eastern Oregon

Published January 16th, 2021

Carefully picking myself up from the edge of a jagged, ice-covered, granite face, I grimaced at the sharp pain in my right hip. My setter, Finn, was entangled between intense interest in a lone sagebrush in which a brace of chukar had just departed, and passing sidelong glances of puzzlement at me as I stretched, groaned, cursed, and struggled to remain upright. Although furious and frustrated, I gazed in awe at the high bluffs above the Columbia River, covered in a fresh blanket of light snow. The water was glass-slick reflecting perfectly the contours of the shoreline.

Wincing again, I recovered the new Browning pump that my wife recently purchased as her upland bird gun. I decided I would “break it in”, and did a fine job by the looks of the fresh and excruciatingly deep gouges in the sleek walnut stock. The chukar pair young Finn had busted were the cause of the fall. Reacting in panic as they careened across canyon, my footing failed on the iced-over, near-vertical slope. “The fall didn’t kill me, but Ali might.” I explained to Finn as she wagged, blissfully ignorant. “I am done with chukar!” was my next utterance.

Like most of the prairie birds we upland hunters are so fond of, chukar are not native to the U.S., initially introduced from Pakistan in 1893. Wild populations presently thrive in 10 western states (California, Idaho, Nevada, Washington, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming), and British Columbia, Canada.

Chukar can also be found on the main Hawaiian Islands. If you’ve ever been to Kauai, ponder running the rim of Waimea Canyon as the chukar bail over the edge, laughing heartily. Would you shoot? I am far too excited about hunting again tomorrow to even consider recovering a bird in such exaggerated, death-defying terrain. For the record, I never saw or heard chukar in Waimea Canyon (the habitat is all wrong).

In my early upland days, I remained in the dark about areas like the Owyhee and Steens where birds can be found along rimrock and out in the sagebrush. Rather, I traveled to the upper Columbia, scrambling up scree and clinging to the faces. The “Chukar Palace” was a place my buddy Chas introduced me to. Dog-less, he climbs the slopes, taking limits, and never returning with less than a couple birds a day. With or without a dog, I have never even gotten a shot at chukar while hunting the crags with Chas. Holding true to my word, I haven’t returned to the Chukar Palace.

The “Chukar Palace”

Chas’s dog-less success comes from knowing the habitat and reading the bird sign. And I am not convinced that a strong element of luck doesn’t factor into the equation. Sagebrush and cheatgrass are important food sources and water is critical in the early part of the season. Fresh snow holds the birds a little tighter; their tracks betraying their presence. Even without snow, Chas traverses the rolling sagebrush beyond the cliffs, inspecting the recency of scat, and slowing to a halt when its fresh. Remaining still unnerves birds that may be holding nearby. I’ve seen it work time and again. The covey’s thunderous flush like a timebomb exploding at an unknown moment. Remaining calm on the flush is key to drawing an accurate bead.

We have had some good days in the rolling sage. The place literally crawling with birds. A large sagebrush-steppe slope with a few deep crevasses rolls along the western edge of the central Washington scablands, much like the eastern Oregon landscape. I recall a day running Finn with Chas and having a ball. Coveys dappled the terrain, flushing wild and valiantly fleeing into the cliffs where they would “chuk” manically, tempting the foolish predator. At long last, a covey held tight and two came to the vest once our barrels were empty.

A hard-won chukar of the sage-brush steppe.

With the season ending January 31st, only a few weeks remain to seek the elusive “devil bird” in eastern Oregon. The grasslands west of the Blues are usually a good, relatively local area, but chukar numbers seem a bit lower than usual this year, which is interestingly consistent with central Washington. Puzzling is the conversely exceptional Hun year about an hour north near Walla Walla.

Regardless of bird numbers, you should take a hike. Your scatter gun and bird dog, if you have one, would appreciate the exercise. And cabin fever looms, compounded by another nine months before the 2021 chukar season.

A Pointing Dog Reborn

My wife and I feared hip dysplasia would curse her hunting career and quality of life. But Yuba was born anew… Unrivaled drive and skill appeared with the death of distraction and relentless pain once both hips were repaired.

A young setter with a burning desire to hunt pheasant for the gun found a new lease on life, once free of the torturous chains of bilateral hip dysplasia.

Read the story at A Pointing Dog Reborn | Harvesting Nature.

Regret, Relief and Reflection at Season’s End

Published March 20th, 2021 in the East Oregonian.

The rich aromas of a moist, finely blended pipe tobacco drifted from the crooked briarwood clenched between my teeth. Taking a slow pull, I puzzled over the two spent 20-gauge shells lying before me, signaling a close to the 2020 upland bird season. Each season brings new and unique experiences, and lessons learned, and re-learned.

Unique experiences of 2020 included a road trip to north-central Montana for sharp-tailed grouse, and making a new hunting buddy from Almira, Washington, on the basalt-channeled scablands chasing quail and pheasant. Both experiences offered complete surprise and education.

A tip from some Helena residents led me to the Conrad area of Montana, only to find it a complete bust. Having hunted sharp-tails in far eastern Montana and finding coveys thick as starlings, I was confident in my setter’s ability to find birds. Map scouting for large grasslands and sagebrush tracts had me a bit concerned, but I identified a few areas that looked good among the patchwork of cropland.

Upon arrival, I found a single tract in 50 square miles with semblance of the native prairie I sought. Over the course of a few days, my setters never once got birdy. We saw not a single game bird along farm roads or public access. Thoroughly disappointed, we packed it in early, headed for Flathead Lake, and camped in a beautiful lakeside state park for a pick-me-up.

Finn running the Rocky Mountain Front.

On the contrary, in December I met a social media acquaintance near Grand Coulee, expecting prospective covers to resemble our local bird numbers. Darren McCall and his daughter Kinzie were gracious enough to show me some of their best covers, while I ran my best dogs. Wading into the first field of the day, dappled in Great Basin wild rye and other choice grasses, a scene reminiscent of the Dakotas erupted as waves of pheasant took to wing hundreds of yards ahead of us and the dog.

Moving on to the quintessential quail cover of the scablands, every grassy pocket held pheasant, but we put up not one quail covey. The sagebrush and bunchgrasses were cloaked in ice and the landscape a glimmering prism, punctuated by the milky green of sage and chocolate basalt outcrops. Darren claimed a single rooster, and we enjoyed an exhilarating hunt behind Yuba as she taught a clinic on pinning hens.

The common lesson relearned from both Montana and Grand Coulee was that quality habitat produces birds. The Montana habitat was abhorrent, while the scablands were characterized largely by native vegetation.

Yuba pinning a hen pheasant on the channeled scablands.

Also noteworthy, the western wildfires may have kept me from the Oregon sage grouse season, but exceptional mourning dove flights on my homestead amidst the smoke were a fair consolation. Finn and Yuba hunted at peak performance, Yuba in particular. Following a second surgery in August to correct hip dysplasia, she now has no hip sockets. I feared her stamina and stability would prove a challenge over the fall, but being freed of crippling arthritis, her exuberance, determination and skill were redefined.

Yuba’s pheasant savvy comes as a result of passion and drive that have helped hone her skills over the years. I lost count of her finds this past season, and the tenacity in which she pursued downed birds was an inspiring spectacle.

Taking another pull, the sweet aroma triggered further memories. The time has past to hang up the vest, stow the side-by-side, and box the pipe for another grueling nine months of anticipation. And, as always, it was done with a pang of regret, yet a sigh of relief.

Season’s end signals a close to the crack-of-dawn, frozen finger mornings, and cutting, combing and plucking a thousand invasive weed burrs from the notoriously tangly setter coats. It also brings halt to the sight of high-tailed points beneath the golden rays of the crepuscular hours, and the rush of wings against crackling grasses and shrub limbs.

My girls and I are getting no younger. The same can be said for my upland brethren. And to me, a picture is worth 1,000 birds. It’s going to be a long wait for September. May the memories of the stellar days afield, and time spent toting the scattergun with friends and family, simply following the dogs and admiring the splendor of the uplands, see us through to the early 2021 grouse season.

An exceptional performance by Yuba landed a couple well-earned roosters in the bag.