Raising Pheasant from the Ground Up

Sustainable farming practices to benefit wildlife is a topic for discussion in grain capitols across the country. To the farmer, the mention of sustainability may trigger consideration of production and bottom line. To the biologist, thoughts of crop rotation and managed fallow lands provide wildlife food, water and shelter. And to the economist, efficiency and bang-for-the-buck in the form of yield versus effort/acreage sewn would likely provoke a back-of-the-napkin chart explaining the benefits.

So how does one actually define sustainable farming? A combination of all of the above. Sustainable farming includes economics, reducing production acreage to focus on the most productive for maximum yield. The less productive ground can be leased into CRP or to an NGO like Pheasants Forever to manage for wildlife.

To take it one step further, habitat-minded agriculture may provide a mix of no-till planting and forage and cover crops built into rotation schedules. This permits soil replenishment and works to combat invasive species by providing different plant competitors, insects, and invasive plant treatment options. Forage or cover crops can be sewn alongside winter cover like cattails and other wetland habitats to reduce energy expense and vulnerability critters may experience when seeking food and cover in winter. Pollinators benefit as well.

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Sounds great, right, but are the benefits actually attainable? Absolutely. Case-studies have proven the benefits to the farmer and wildlife through these sustainable practices. Midwest farms have shown production of preserve-scale wild pheasant through habitat-minded farming practices while maintaining or increasing their bottom line. And who out there would argue that they don’t enjoy wildlife like upland birds? If you answered “no one”, we couldn’t agree more!

If you find this encouraging from any perspective, reach out to your local Pheasants Forever or Quail Forever Chapter. In southeast Washington/northeast Oregon area, contact us at bmpf@bmpf258.com for more information.

Mason Bees Promote Food Security and Conservation

What’s your first thought when someone mentions pollination or pollinators? Is it flowers? Bees? Honey? Allergies? A gambling man would put money on it being honey and honey bees (why wouldn’t it bee, right?). While none of us could fathom a life without honey, bee pollination is critical for the success of native plant reproduction and diversity, and food crop and fruit production.

Introduced worldwide, honey bees are a vital part of our ecosystem, and because of their succulent honey, they are most commonly recognized for pollination and conservation efforts. Commercial apiaries rent pollination services that benefit crop production and provide the apiary a honey crop. But when it comes to pollination effectiveness, honey bees will forever live in the shadow of our solitary natives.

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Mason bee visiting a flower

North America boasts approximately 4,000 native bee species, ranging in size and shape from bumble bees to sweat bees, none of which build hives. Bumble bees comprise about 40 species and are quite obvious, yet the lesser known are easily confused with other less desirable flies. The mason bees.

Mason bees are aptly named for their reproductive habits. The female mason bee often occupies holes in wood with larvae secured behind mud plugs for safe development. Mason bees don’t excavate holes, rather they clean debris from suitable spaces, pack them with pollen that they carry in on their belly, and seal in an egg. The eggs of female offspring are deposited first, at the back of the space for protection from predators while male eggs are stacked in front. Eggs are laid in May, and larvae hatch and feed on the pollen until the following spring, when they emerge to complete their lifecycle.

A few common species like the blue orchard bee (Osmia lignaria) frequent our gardens and orchards, as well as our landscaped city blocks and urban homes. While some native species, like the emerald green sweat bee Agapostemon femoratus are obvious, mason bees are nondescript, dark colored or lightly striped, and smaller than honey bees. These are the bees that we see frequently but pay little mind or mistake for something else.

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Blue orchard bee (photo by USGS)

Mason bees are docile and lead solitary lives. Since they only reproduce once each year, they don’t need extensive hives or honey production, but also forfeit the glamour of their extraordinary pollination abilities. A single mason bee can visit up to 2,000 flowers per day and just a few mason bees can pollinate the same number of fruit trees as thousands of honey bees. For this reason, the blue orchard mason bee is prized as one of the few native pollinators managed in agriculture.

Jim Watts, founder of Rent Mason Bees in Woodinville, Washington, knows the value and business of native mason bees. Rent Mason Bees offers a pollination service much like commercial apiaries, but Watts’ crop is not honey. Its more bees. Rent Mason Bees is devoted to making mason bees available for everyone from large-scale pollination needs such as commercial orchards, right down to a studio apartment, and everything in between. And the process begins with you.

At present, with a global pandemic threatening our food production capabilities at the national level, food security has invigorated many worldwide to seek homesteading opportunities. Farm and garden stores and mail order catalogs have seen baby chicks flying out the door, as well as seed sources exhausted by a fresh flush of gardeners eager to fill new beds, prepped while in social isolation, with the hope of eventually sustaining themselves to some degree. And, as those new vegetables and orchards begin to bloom, the pollination of native mason bees can bolster the bounty, simply through their effectiveness at visiting and fertilizing so many flowers.

So, where do you play into all of this? You guessed it. You can rent mason bees from Rent Mason Bees. Watts and his team have developed a precise system for providing healthy mason bees and bee houses to residential and farm owners for their pollination benefits. By providing bees and bee boxes designed to attract mason bees for egg laying, Watts’ team can collect the larvae at the end of the mason bee lifecycle as they lie dormant until the next spring.

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Mason bee box provided to a residence by Rent Mason Bees

A brilliant, seven-minute documentary, The Bee Farmers, by filmmaker Steve Utaski, walks through the Rent Mason Bees process as they deliver bees and boxes for pollination, then collect, clean and store the larvae, which are encased in cocoons that look a little like coffee beans, in preparation for delivery the next year. The bee larvae that come from residential areas are distributed to interested large food crop producers where the bees ensure a healthy crop set to feed you, your family and our nation. As the cocoons are prepared for winter storage, the bee houses are sterilized and prepared for renting again the following season. By participating in the program, anyone has the ability to contribute to their personal and national food security and the success of local farm-to-table operations. And it doesn’t end there.

Watts’ operation propagates over 10 million native bees annually, contributing to the conservation of a desirable, local species that is presently experiencing population pressures from various land and chemical uses. At present, scientists estimate 25% of native bee species are on the brink of extinction. This makes the residential aspect of Watts’ mason bee operation so critical. With over 4,000 renters contributing cocoons, Rent Mason Bees ensures a fresh yield of pollinators each year.

The benefits of mason bee pollination and the logistics of Rent Mason Bees is captivatingly portrayed in The Bee Farmers to include the process of bee pollination and larvae deposition in stunning detail and story-telling. But Utaski’s attention to the ancillary benefit of community outreach and education, which Rent Mason Bees thrives on, is the most compelling aspect of the residential part of the program from, this biologist’s perspective.

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Extracting cocoons from a bee box

Biologist Olivia Shangrow with Rent Mason Bees attends public events, spreading the word and encouraging new renters to take part in the mason bee lifecycle and conservation. Parents can host a bee box and teach their children about the importance of pollination while keeping tabs on when and how the females populate the boxes with eggs. Because mason bees don’t colonize to protect a sole queen, mason bees are non-aggressive and family safe. The program also lends itself well to larger community-based projects, be it a host community garden or a community event where neighbors come together as a team to rent bees for the community.

Utaski’s film portrays the meaning of this program to Seattle residents, yet captures another less apparent, yet critically important detail. Our society at present is strongly self-reliant. In the age of social media, community neighbors are generally less social with one another on a personal level than our grandparents and parents experienced. The development of community-based participation in the Rent Mason Bees program leads to cohesion and cooperation, and collective youth learning and social interaction, away from internet-based platforms, formal education or sports.

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Cleaned cocoons being prepared for winter storage

Now is the time to reach out to Rent Mason Bees, as mason bee activity peaks in May. And like everyone else, Rent Mason Bees is feeling the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic and Washington’s “Stay at Home” order. Watts’ team is unable to conduct outreach and distribute mason bees effectively, but shipping is still an option. Bees need to find homes and farms where they can pollinate and have the opportunity to reproduce where the larvae can be collected. Otherwise, their 2020 offspring will be significantly reduced.

If you are on the fence, take a few moments to enjoy Steve Utaski’s The Bee Farmers, and read up on our native bees. They are a treasure to the nation, encouraging biodiversity and enhancing flower and vegetable gardens and fruit crops. Visit the U.S. Geological Survey, the Xerces Society and Rent Mason Bees to learn more.

Pushing the Limits – Emphasizing the Hunt over Harvest and the Role of Social Media

I got my first lesson in conservation as a boy, the age of four. Well, maybe not my first lesson, but the first I could remember. My grandfather would carry me atop his shoulders in the farmland woodlots of the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, as we hunted squirrels with a .22 caliber rifle. And there was no shortage of squirrels.

The bag limit was six in those days, but we never once killed more than three. When I asked grandpa why we would stop hunting before taking our limit, he replied “We only take what we can eat. Leave a few for the next hunt.”

The harvest is the obvious measure of success, and taking a limit of any game provides a rewarding sense of pride and accomplishment. But should the measure of success be the harvest of game, and should we portray taking a limit as the Holy Grail of a hunt?

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⇑⇑ Lynnhill’s Finnigan with our first ever limit of Washington roosters. ⇑⇑

Poetry in Motion

Sailing across the Palouse, my Llewellin Yuba’s vigorous tail feathering wafted in the breeze, as did her soft, black ears as she bounded. The day was blossoming with the promise of a rare, bluebird morning in late fall. Rich, golden sun rays shown thick across the chilled landscape as if viewed through a Mason jar of honey.

Bounding toward the cusp of the ridgeline, Yuba slowed to a halt, crept up a few feet, and locked into the most beautiful point a setter fanatic could ask for. With tail held high, sunlight streaming through her feathering, her gaze set hard on the short grasses ahead. Approaching the edge, the backdrop was breathtaking. A narrowly carved valley opened up with the dappling of milky green sage and rabbitbrush among the variety of fawn-colored grasses, spent vetches, and basalt outcrops set against the cotton candy pink of the distant horizon with a blue ribbon on top.

Shuffling into Yuba’s fixed gaze, a covey of Huns levitated from the bunchgrass, then bailed over the ridgeline like a cinnamon cloud burst. Mesmerized by the moment, my Fox double trained on the stragglers a little too late. The entire covey floated into the next draw as we looked on from behind, the sun warm against our backs.

Moving on in search of singles and roosters, not a bird one reached my vest that morning. I didn’t care. I got exactly what I went for.

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⇑⇑ Yuba with a bird pinned. This is what every pointing dog owner lives for. The result of the point is mere icing on the cake. ⇑⇑

Sweetening the Pot

In my Uplander Lifestyle blog post, “Anticipate the Flush“, I made a firm statement on the climax of an upland bird hunt.

“Probably the most rewarding experience of bird hunting is approaching for the flush and seeing confidence ablaze in the dog’s eyes. When her whole body is locked and loaded, she glances up at you, then back to the precise location as you approach. Both hunter and pointer anticipating the flush.”

The hunt itself, that poetry in motion cast on a perfect canvas, calls upland hunters more than any other in my experience. And the stats don’t lie here either. Project Upland’s fall 2019 survey elucidated that approximately 75% of ALL uplanders are drawn to the prospect by the dogs. Its more than a game. It’s a partnership between hunter and canine. The search for that moment of purity, perfection and connection can only be found in the uplands.

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⇑⇑ Releasing the dog is to embark on an upland journey together. Each day is new with various challenges, success and failures. Birds are a bonus. ⇑⇑

More often than not (for most bird hunters), the hunt results in bird(s) in the vest. But is a bird in hand really worth two in the bush? I proffer that it merely sweetens the pot. It’s not necessarily the bird that draws us afield, but the orchestration of the hunt. One could argue that the hunt is meaningless without the bird, and with that I agree. But I am not the only uplander who would volunteer with alacrity for a catch-and-release opportunity. To marvel over the bird and a job well done, then simply return it to Mother Nature to be hunted again another day.

Enduring the Social Scene

Social media is a blessing and a curse. The incredible photography is inspiring and evocative, but brilliant displays of the harvest can unintentionally overemphasize the kill. And for upland bird hunters, pushing a limit sets a high bar, particularly for those new to the field.

Hunting wild birds on public land is a challenge in itself. The vast majority of my hunts end with a single bird; the next most common result being bird-less. I rarely take multiple birds or a mixed bag. That’s not to say that my opportunities are really that rare. Wingshooting ability is certainly at play. But an end-of-the-day photo of a dog sitting behind a tailgate stacked with birds is an unlikely outcome on public lands, generally speaking.

Every uplander revels in the moment, cradling in hand the most beautifully plumed species the uplands have to offer, particularly when taken over flawless dog work. But emphasis on harvest can reduce the significance of the hunt itself.

The instant gratification of social media and the desire the be “Instafamous” puts tremendous pressure on performance. What’s more is that for an up-and-comer to the upland realm, social media has the potential to stunt one’s confidence in their young dog, etc. Once new to the upland scene myself, seeing other folks in my area continually posting photos of birds and boasting limits set me back a couple years in having 100% confidence in the ability of my setters. Only after some particularly good hunts in the same season did I understand that when my girls weren’t finding birds, there were no birds to be found.

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⇑⇑ Setters doing setter things. No better reason to take up upland hunting! ⇑⇑

Occupy the Canvas

Worry not of the success of others on social media. The best uplanders out there offer a holistic approach to upland hunting from the significance of carrying an heirloom shotgun, to the memories of grouse camp, hunting with family, and a stylish canine on staunch point.

Utilize social media to seek the inspiration and learning from your upland brethren. Revel in their successes and reach out to expand your knowledge and opportunities.

Never lose sight of the significance of the hunt. Boots on the ground behind your own dog or among your favorite coverts with that particular, familiar scattergun in hand is the setting for any work of upland art.

Push the limits of your body and the terrain (with your dog’s conditioning and health in mind). Cherish the days afield with an empty vest or meager single as much as the truly epic moments. Immerse yourself in the beauty and innocence of Mother Nature’s canvas. Chase the Flush!

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⇑⇑ A picture is worth 1,000 words. Yuba has a rooster pinned here. Her tail feathering was so full of houndstongue seeds that it hurt too bad to present a high flagging tail on point. Her eyes told the whole story, and capturing this image was worth far more than the rooster my buddy bagged over her just moments later! ⇑⇑

Can Hunting Keep us Human?

Paula Young Lee poses the question in the High Country News. If this strikes you as a philosophical diatribe, you may be correct. But in an era where hunting is increasingly despised (read: misunderstood), the deeper meaning behind such ecosystem interaction at the human level of cognizance is indeed ponderous.

Hunting’s broader importance to human existence reconnects the severance between human life-history and the complex society we have developed. Humans operate under the disillusion that humans are superior to the natural ecosystem, having no association with the natural world or ecosystem function. But the hunter views things differently.

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⇑⇑ Above: the author with a cow elk, his first, taken on the Idaho winter range, December 2018. Hard earned and well respected. The tags for this special draw hunt have since been stripped from the public and given to private landowners as depredation tags. ⇑⇑

“It may seem like sophistry to argue that hunting protects wildlife, but the act of hunting encompasses far more than shooting a wild animal, and it neither starts nor ends with a death. The hunt itself is part of a much larger continuum.”

Diving deeper into the meaning of the hunt, Lee discusses the spiritual connection between hunter and prey, and that the hunter views wild game as a blessed gift. Lee reinforces her point of the larger continuum through an economics analogy related to the gift of wild game.

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⇑⇑ Above: A successful valley quail hunt with two hens falling to a pointing dog and swift gun work. This interaction with the canine and upland bird plays a crucial role in spiritual rejuvenation for the hunter, who, in turn, gives back to conservation. ⇑⇑

“In a gift economy, the act of giving compels the person who receives the gift to reciprocate. A gift can be refused, but that refusal has consequences. Hence, ethical hunters reciprocate by protecting the wilderness, giving of themselves to ensure that the forest stays the forest….”

Hunting maintains our connection with and works to conserve our place in the ecosystem, and the ecosystem itself. The preservation of human nature.

Upland Stewardship Begins at Home

What’s the #1 threat to habitat on undeveloped public lands? If you guessed invasive plant species, you get a gold star for the day. Overall, habitat lost to civil development is a critical threat to fish and wildlife, putting tremendous importance on conservation and management of those precious public acres still intact.

Managing public land is important to provide habitat suitable for wildlife species and is accomplished through taxpayer and sportsman’s funds. For federal lands, this means congressional appropriations must be approved for specific geographic areas and funding limits.

While public lands, both state and federal, are at much lower risk of civil development, the economics of habitat management is a major driver in our ability to maintaining high quality habitat, and here is why.

Invasive species are incredibly competitive and successful at overtaking desired native species. With no natural predator controls (i.e. herbivory and parasitism) and an adaptive edge to the climates in which they occur, many species can create monocultures in short order. What’s more is that the increasing cost of invasive species control detracts from government ability to fund general habitat management and enhancement.

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Once established, eradicating an invasive plant is incredibly difficult and extremely costly, in the billions of dollars nationwide, annually. Our ability to control invasive species on public lands can change dramatically with political leadership. And when natural resources budgets are cut, our ability to effectively maintain habitat is hamstrung.

Early Detection and Rapid Response is the normal mode of operation for habitat managers, but budget cuts cause vulnerability in on-the-ground effectiveness. Labor cuts can reduce the number of employees and hours spent afield performing Early Detection monitoring. Supply cuts can reduce the available tools to implement Rapid Response once invasive species are detected, as well as reduce the overall time or acreage that biologists can treat.

High-quality habitat is not just nice to have for an easy, clean hunt. It’s a must for sustainable upland bird species and hunter opportunity. Its easy to assume that habitat management and controlling invasive species lies in the hands of qualified biologists, but make no mistake, quality habitat starts at home with you, the general public.

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⇑⇑ The seat cover in my Tundra harbors a number of invasive species ⇑⇑

As our talented canines careen across the grasslands searching for sharptails or cut through brush following a running grouse trail, their fur picks up invasive weed seeds that can be easily spread to otherwise weed free areas. Tailgate checks and post-hunt spa treatments (for those of us who own long-haired pups like setters and Munsterlanders)  are necessary to remove to potentially harmful grass awns and bur-like seeds.

Most importantly, uplanders that embark on rooster road trips would be remiss if they failed to clean the nooks and crannies of their bird hunting chariot prior to driving half way across the nation. A single germinated seed from a nasty invader like cheat grass (Bromus tectorum) can quickly threaten native species and impact habitat suitability.

Be sure to clean out the truck bed, pet crates and blankets, truck seats and seat covers, spray down floor mats and vacuum the crevasses that can harbor seeds.

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⇑⇑ Cleaning vests, kennels, truck beds, and interiors is critical ⇑⇑

If your truck cap has a carpet liner, inspect it with scrutiny. Your dog will shake in the truck bed, flinging weed seeds onto the ceiling and anywhere else they may attach, simply waiting to be offloaded in an otherwise clean area 1,000 miles from where they were picked up.

And the cleaning spree should not end with the truck and kennels. Our vests and clothing can trap a terrifying number of seeds. When was the last time you check your hunting vest pockets for seeds? Hundreds of grass seeds can gather in vest pockets as we traverse the prairies. Dog vests can capture a number of species as well, like bur chervil (Anthriscus caucalis), which wreaks havoc on native grasses and even competes with yellow starthistle (Centaurea solstitialis) in the arid west.

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⇑⇑ A water bottle pocket of my hunting vest captures many seeds and plant debris ⇑⇑

Conservation and habitat management are influenced by each and every one of us. Its your duty as an uplander to exercise your stewardship abilities and battle the spread of invasive species. The future of our public natural resources and habitat depend on it.

Grass Awns and Gun Dogs

Have you ever stopped to consider the impact upland bird hunting has on your gun dog? Birds hunters are well aware of the physical exertion on ourselves, whether its pounding the prairie for sharptails and pheasant, or pushing through draws of aspen for ruffies. But I often ponder how many hunters really understand the effort a gun dog puts into a hunt, or the stress they endure.

Upland bird hunting is a full-contact sport for a your dog. No, there are no physical altercations with other dogs (generally…), although one of our feathered quarry may be run down and tackled on occasion, but the conditions endured by a gun dog in the field are downright hazardous.

In the grouse coverts, thickets of woody shrubs and aspen, prickly hawthorn, and windfalls stand to challenge your dog’s stamina, but can also poke, pinch, scratch, and gouge. In the southwest quail country, cactus, mesquite, barbed wire, venomous critters, and a hot, dry climate stand to work your dog into the ground. The rolling prairie appears to be the most benign of the common western settings, but are you aware that your hunting companion covers three to seven times the ground you do in a day’s jaunt, not to mention porcupines, badgers, and even grizzly bears on the plains of the Rocky Mountain Front?

Gun dogs are prone to exposure to a variety of habitats in pursuit of upland game across a given season, but among the plethora of potentially harmful phenomena in the field, grass awns stand among the top contenders for most harmful. While there are a number of precautions and post-hunt measures one can take to ensure the well-being of your fur baby, grass awns can go undetected, wreaking havoc on you pup’s health.

Two common, menacing grassesfoxtail barley (left) and cheat grass (right).

Grass awns are responsible for a number of unexplained illnesses, and even deaths among gun dogs annually. But how can a grass seed be so injurious? In the western US, several grass species including cheat grass (Bromus tectorum), foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum), and cereal rye (Secale cereale), which are largely invasive grass species, form barbed tails on their seeds or awns. The awns attach to the dog’s fur, and the sharp point of the awn may work its way into the skin between toes, in ears, eyes, mouth, nose, arm-pits, etc., and the awn barbs continue to work the awn deeper into the tissue until it can enter the interior body cavity or muscle tissue.

The awn may carry bacteria as it enters the dog’s body, and/or it may carry bacteria that are normal inhabitants of one part of the body, usually the mouth, into other parts of the body where it is abnormal, establishing an infection, typically in the form of an abscess.

As we approach and enter upland bird seasons, late summer through fall, grasses dry out and the awns loosen, becoming prone to drop. The best advice? A careful tailgate inspection of your dog before leaving the field may allow removal and avert any illness. But, with awns that have been ingested, odds are that the damage is already done by the time you and your dog leave the field. Routinely check your dog for swellings, particularly at the lower rear sections of the rib-cage, a prime site for abscess development.

What to look for:

  • Hair: Matted hair that may eventually lead to sores against the skin if not removed.
  • Ear canal: The dog shakes the head, scratches or rubs the ears, holds head at a slightly tilted angle.
  • Between the eye/eyelid: The eyes of the dog get inflamed, sometimes including discharge or tears.
  • Nose: The dog sneezes, paws at the nose, and may experience nasal discharge
  • Gums, Tongue, Mouth: If swallowed, grass awns may stick to the back of the throat causing inflammation and swelling.
  • Lungs and Other Organs (inhalation or migration): The dog shows signs of serious sickness, coughing, short breath, and vomiting.
  • Rectum and Anal Glands: dog abnormally licking or scooting on the ground, trying to defecate often or for prolonged periods.

Zeta at the vetZeta at the vet, June 2019, to have cheat grass awns removed from both anal glands.

Learn to recognize hazardous plants, and be watchful where you are hunting, training, or just exercising your dog.  Typically, a simple tailgate inspection post-hunt or run to remove awns before they have the chance to penetrate the skin and begin to migrate will eliminate problem awns, but inspection may not always reveal hidden awns immediately.  A best practice is continued monitoring of your pup’s behavior after hunting through dangerous grasses. Being mindful of the vegetation in your hunting or training areas, coupled with thorough inspections will keep your four-legged partner pointing or flushing long into their upland career.

Pheasant Hunting the Walla Walla Valley Uplands

Published in the Union Bulletin, September 23rd, 2018.

I sat alone in the gray calm of dawn, gazing contently across my food plot. A few wary whitetails snagged a snack on their morning commute. Steam curled up from a hot cup of coffee, tickling the hairs on my face and nose as I sipped in peace. It was early December. Not quite frigid, but the bunchgrasses were frosted and brittle.

My Llewellin setters, Finn and Yuba, and I hunted pheasant hard the prior six weeks and I needed a break. But the girls lay anxiously at my feet, keeping a keen eye on their orange vests and the cased shotgun by the door. They knew it was a hunting day. Any other morning we would be working roost cover along thick reed canary grass in the low swales, or working a creek side brush line at first light. But not today. This day would be different.

As the clock reported 8:30am, I decided to act like a dedicated bird hunter.  The girls had succumbed to pessimism, lying, groaning, sulking. But they cast a suspicious glance as I approached the door. A hand outstretched for my shotgun sparked utter bedlam.

Hunting reliable roost cover early in the day can be productive, but hunting pressure may call for adjustment to keep on the birds as the season progresses. Understanding pheasant behavior provides insight to changing tactics throughout the day, as well as across the season.

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Lowland swales, wetlands, and riparian areas provide prime pheasant roost habitat. When left to their own devices, pheasant rise in the morning and move out to feed soon after sunrise. Early in the season, birds may loaf in or near roost cover, but reacting to hunting pressure, birds will push out incredibly early, at times in the dark on public land. While pheasant may adjust their schedules to hunting pressure and weather patterns across the season, when and where to find them at any given time can be predicted with moderate certainty in the Walla Walla Valley.

Seeds and berries are common pheasant diet components in fall and winter. By mid-morning, birds are foraging on upland slopes and moving toward or into crop fields. Tall wheatgrass (an introduced Eurasian bunchgrass common to southeast Washington), wheat, canola, or other seed-producing crops offer forage throughout the season. Woods rose and blue elderberry provide dual function of food and cover when growing in dense patches. Birds may spend more time in this type of cover in the early morning, particularly in freezing conditions.

Pheasant spend a large part of the day working edge habitats such as the crop field/grassland interface common among farmland enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. Short wheat stubble lacks adequate cover from avian predators, so pheasant typically don’t roam far from secure refuge when browsing cut crop fields.  By late afternoon, birds grab a final snack before flying into roost, within about forty-five minutes of twilight.

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As 9:30am approached, the girls quivered with anticipation alongside my old Fox 16-gauge double, broken open across the tailgate. I released the girls and strode quickly through lowland, waist-high Canada thistle and reed canary grass in route to the uplands. A whistle-blast and hand signal turned the girls to the high ground. We worked into the wind up a long ridge spine toward a wheat field, paralleling a steep slope. Native needle-and-thread grass and bluebunch wheatgrass grew low and lush, hiding pheasant along the slope edge.

Having quickly lost sight of Yuba, I turned toward my last visual of her, but a familiar arrythmia pulsed in my chest as Finn locked up mid-stride. Going in for the flush, the hen held tight enough I nearly left her thinking the bird had escaped on foot. A stellar performance by Finn to kick off our late morning jaunt. Upon release, Finn sailed toward the slope, dropping out of sight. My pace quickened.

Approaching the edge, I spied Yuba standing staunch, tail high, with Finn cautiously backing. Hastily, I circled wide, approaching from the front to pin the bird between us. At ten feet out, Yuba’s penetrating gaze identified a thick round of bunchgrass three paces to my right. Turning to face the unseen bird triggered an eruption of parting bunchgrass with the onset of heavy wing beats. A splendid wild rooster gained altitude over a backdrop of rolling golden wheat and grassland.

My Fox came up smoothly, followed by the girls launching over the edge, their eyes fixed firmly on the prize. At approximately 10:00am, I softly slid our first rooster of a lazy morning into my vest, admiring his emerald green head, long, striped tail, and modest spurs.

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As the season progresses, get creative. Try new territory. Don’t be afraid to get a late start. Play on pheasant feeding behaviors; consider upland food sources over lowland coverts. Relax. Relish every point. Enjoy the hunt!

Haying Best Management Practices for Wildlife

Farming and habitat practices to maintain healthy CRP and alfalfa stands provides significant nesting and brood rearing benefits to upland game birds, fawning areas for deer, and nesting and roosting habitat for wild turkey in the early spring and summer. Long, overhanging grasses provide nesting cover while broad-leaf plants like alfalfa and other native forbs provide insect forage for fledgling broods and hens. These stands draw and hold birds but have been called “ecological traps” in areas where haying regularly occurs.

The term ecological trap refers to a beneficial condition that attracts wildlife, but results in additive mortality, affecting the population overall. Quality CRP and alfalfa stands fit the scenario well where haying normally occurs during nesting season.

As haying equipment approaches, a hen pheasant may not vacate eggs or chicks, rather hunker down and use her camouflage for protection as a tractor passes by. This leaves birds vulnerable to the following mower which may be offset from the tractor. Likewise, small mammals and deer fawns use similar camouflage techniques and experience similar vulnerabilities to upland birds.

Best Management Practices

To minimize the potential hazardous effects of haying on wildlife, the Natural Resource Conservation Service has developed a few simple best management practices.

1) Defer haying. Apply and maintain at least two of the following management actions specifically for improving or protecting grassland functions for target wildlife species.

  • Do not cut hay on at least 1/3 of the hay acres each year. Idle strips or blocks must be at least 30 feet wide.
  • For at least 1/3 of the hay acreage, hay cutting must be either before and/or after the primary nesting or fawning seasons based on state established dates for the targeted species.
  • Increase forage heights after mowing to state specified minimum heights for the targeted species on all hayed acres.

2) For all haying during the nesting/fawning season implement at least two of the following to flush wildlife from hay fields during the mowing operation:

  • A flush bar attachment will be required on the mower (see figure below).
  • All mowing will be done during daylight hours.
  • Haying pattern:
    • Begin on one end of the field and work back and forth across the field, OR;
    • Begin in the center of the field and work outward.

Following these simple practices can greatly reduce unintentional wildlife mortality, further increasing the benefits of environmentally friendly farming.

flushing bar

Image from the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

 

Upland Review

I developed a magazine with the idea of showcasing the annual activities and accomplishments of Blue Mountains Pheasants Forever, Chapter 258, through photo essay. I also included a couple additional hunting articles.

I retain the magazine as an independent publication with a plan of developing it into a free online magazine to showcase fledgling outdoor writers and photographers, and the beauty of upland bird hunting.

Give it a read at Upland Review.

Migratory Bird Treaty Act: 100 Years of Federal Protection

2018 marks the 100th year of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (Act); one of the most influential laws in history that is critically important for protecting the variety of songbirds and raptors that we enjoy in North America. The Act prohibits take (killing), possession, import, export, transport, sale, purchase, barter, or offer for sale, purchase, or barter, any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird except under the terms of a valid permit issued by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. What this means, is that no one can lawfully kill (intentionally or accidentally), or even reach down and collect a shed feather or take an abandoned nest from a non-game, migratory bird species.

Songbird species like cardinals, finches, juncos, and warblers typically come to mind as protected under the Act, but the Act actually protects about 1,000 species.

The Act came to be in response to the popularity of colorful bird feathers adorning hats and clothing dating back to the 1800s. The feather trade was tremendous and unregulated, and at the end of the century, several waterfowl species were hunted into extinction. Soon to follow were species like the passenger pigeon (photo below by James St. John), which was once the most abundant bird in North America, and possibly the world, with migratory flocks consisting of possibly billions of birds.

Ectopistes_migratorius_(passenger_pigeon) by James St John

The first legislation protecting migratory birds, the Lacey Act, was passed in 1900, and still stands today. The Lacey Act prohibits the sale of poached game across state boundaries. The Weeks-McLean Migratory Bird Act was passed in 1913 protecting migratory birds from being hunted during their spring migration; however, this act was soon ruled unconstitutional. In 1916, The United States entered into a treaty with Great Britain in which the two countries agreed to stop all hunting of insectivorous birds and to establish specific hunting seasons for game birds. Then in 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed as a means to implement the treaty with Great Britain.

The next major milestones following the creation of the Act came in 1970 when US courts began prosecuting oil, timber, mining, and utility companies for “take”. Though not directly targeting wildlife, these industries incidentally cause millions of bird deaths (“incidental take”) each year that could have been avoided with simple infrastructure modifications, according to the US Department of Justice (Audubon Society). Then, in 2001, President Clinton ordered all relevant federal agencies to consider migratory bird conservation as part of their regular decision making.

As one of the oldest federal wildlife regulations, the Act has saved millions, if not billions of birds, according the Audubon Society. One of the most obvious successes is the snowy egret (photo below by Frank Schulenburg), which was hunted to near extinction, but has rebounded splendidly. Over time, however, the Act has been tweaked here and there. In its final term, the Obama administration issued a legal opinion stating that the Act applied to the incidental killing of birds. Incidental take includes scenarios such as birds striking power lines or wind turbines and falling into open oil storage containers, but on a more literal note, a person unintentionally hitting a bird with a car. However, the Trump Administration has suspended that opinion, according to NPR.

snowy egret by Frank Schulenburg

So, what does this mean? It means that industry may no longer be held liable for the accidental death of a bird due to energy extraction such as timber harvest, or mountaintop removal mining. This also means it is no longer a crime to accidentally kill a bird while driving to work. While incidental take is nearly impossible to avoid or completely enforce, there are potential consequences to repealing industrial liability.

The Audubon Society cites the US Fish and Wildlife Services estimates of power lines killing up to 175 million birds a year, communications towers rack up to 50 million kills, and uncovered oil waste pits account for up to another 500,000 to 1 million. Data on wind turbines are harder to come by, but current estimates hover at about 300,000 bird fatalities a year. It is reasonable that the Trump Administration finds incidental take to be government overreach, but without potential repercussions for industry-related migratory bird deaths, entities may be less likely to implement costly best management practices that could reduce incidental take resulting from daily operations.

Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, was cited saying the Obama Administration interpretation of the Act was too sweeping, while the Trump Administration interpretation is far too narrow. Although the future of the Act and its application is uncertain regarding incidental take, the Act has survived a passel of presidential administrations. Barring the abolishment of the Act entirely, the basis of the act, prohibiting intentional take, remains intact and is certain to provide continued protection for migratory birds.

For more information, keep an eye out on the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Audubon Society websites.

US Fish and Wildlife Service

Audubon Society

Energy Development Act Meets Habitat Conservation (Maybe)

I am a fish and wildlife biologist. I get my kicks (and earn a living) assessing environmental impacts on, and managing and restoring fish and wildlife habitat. I track tightly within my lane of technical, scientific expertise, and typically leave the politics to folks with a desire to argue and decipher that sort of thing. However, in 2017, a bill was introduced that the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) brought to my attention.

The Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act (HR 825) is a bill that establishes two main authorities; 1) continued authorization of the Geothermal Steam Act of 1970; and 2) the authority of the subject act.

HR 825 sounds dangerous, because it is. While “renewable energy” typically includes sources such as timber, hydro, solar, wind, and geothermal power, developing energy-harnessing opportunities on public resources has potential impacts to public use and fish and wildlife. It is prudent to point out that Section 4 of HR 825 includes a clause stating that potential development areas identified by the Secretary of the Interior must be coordinated with appropriate State, Tribal, and local governments to “…avoid or minimize conflict with habitat for animals and plants, recreation, and other uses…”

I don’t intend to hang up on possible impacts here, but I want to draw attention the benefits of the bill. Section 7 of HR 825 (Disposition of Revenues) is aimed directly at habitat conservation. A Treasury fund for this Act will be established to deposit any fees or revenues from energy production that may be used for “restoring and protecting…fish and wildlife habitat for affected species; fish and wildlife corridors for affected species; and water resources in areas affected…” (Section 7(c)(2)(a)). My interpretation: In other words, revenue from energy production is authorized to be used for impact mitigation.

Section 7(c)(3) states that “The Secretary [of the Interior] may enter into cooperative agreements (a flexible, federal government work agreement) with State and Tribal agencies, nonprofit organizations, and other appropriate entities to carry out the activities described in [Section 7(c)(2)].”

So, what does this all mean? Well, as you can glean from my synopsis, HR 825 is a renewable energy development bill that makes my hackles prickle. Every bill aiming to develop public lands has the potential to harm precious public natural resources, either directly or indirectly. The federal government is mandated to follow the National Environmental Policy Act to identify impacts and evaluate alternatives for all federal actions, including developing energy sources or issuing permits for such activities, but impacts generally occur to some degree.

On the flip-side, the bill proactively authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to use allocated revenue to mitigate any impacts efficiently and effectively through cooperation with States, Tribes, and nonprofit organization. As far as public land energy development goes, this is a good deal. The TRCP blog post by Julia Peebles couches HR 825 as a “rare win-win scenario for fish and wildlife” and I trust her more politically savvy perspective. You can find that blog post at TRCP.org.

If you have not already, I encourage you to venture over to the TRCP and read their blogs to see what the organization is about. It’s a great resource for keeping tabs on Capitol Hill and our precious public resources.