Saturday, January 30, 2010

Return to Pintail Point

Somehow we drove a pheasant right into the woods. It was a one way trip for the bird.
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As part of The Big Hunting Weekend, we decided to purchase some "shooting insurance," meaning some guaranteed meat in the freezer and shots on live birds if our "real" hunting didn't work out. We scheduled an upland shoot over the sorghum fields at Pintail Point Plantation. Both Tug and Nutty came up from VA and my hunting buddy Rich joined us. We "purchased" 15 chukar and 15 pheasant, so we thought we'd have some fun shooting, and we were right.

Tug and our guide walk through the sorghum and millet plot.
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In Maryland, the "preserve shoot" season lasts longer - I believe October to March - because the birds are domesticated, fat, happy, and not migrating anywhere. Still, by this point in the winter, the cold rains and the snow cover have usually put a pretty big dent in the available cover for any upland birds - domesticated or not. While the larger pheasants may be able to stick it out through the winter, I have a hard time believing that the quail and chukar can do the same. Regardless, we were there to shoot, and that's what we did.

Our guide Max and his dog, Sam, bringing the aforementioned pheasant rooster back out of the woods after Rich connected with a crushing shot on the bird in trees, brambles, and heavy cover.
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On this trip, I felt a little more comfort and "reach" with the 20 gauge....once I got settled down a bit. I passed up some long shots and luckily the other fellas reached out with their 12's and made it happen. The Nutty One made some absolutely crushing shots with his full choke 1962 Remington Sportsman autoloader...one was right at 40-45 yards....awesome to watch! On my last trip to Pintail with Tug, I made hits on birds at 30+ yards with the 20 gauge but failed to bring them down, so my goal was to try and adjust my shooting, rather than blame it on the gun and start switching loads (I was using Winchester Heavy Quail) and chokes (Briley Extended Modified).
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Our guide, Max, was a younger guy and was pretty laid back. His style of hunting and working the dog was a little different from John Turner's. He was also pretty quick to improvise and switch tactics, and it worked out often enough that it made him look like a very smart hunter. Just like our last trip to Pintail, there was no stress and no pressure, which was perfect for a cloudy sunday afternoon in January. The final harvest? I think we pushed up 27 of our 30 possible birds and killed 23 of them - an improvement over our last shoot, but still leaving plenty of room for improvement.....next season.
Nutty and Rich stalk a chukar on the run

Thursday, January 28, 2010

"Almost" Doesn't Count

No wind and lots of sun = tough hunting on Maryland's Eastern Shore
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As Tug prepared to end his 30 day hitch on the boat, and our (I guess, now annual) hunting spree approached, we talked quite a bit about how excited we were, and how the weather seemed to have spared us from a bird-less weekend, since previously frigid air temperatures (lasting from roughly December 20 to January 15) had crept back up into the 30s and 40s, keeping a lot of wintering birds in place here in Maryland. We had a lot of expectations for the weekend, but what we really got was a whole set of lessons in lowered expectations, as the old MadTV skit goes.
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After some last minute shuffling, we left my house with a truck full gear early friday morning. Light snow, dense cloud cover, and temperatures in the mid-30s were predicted for the entire day, so we weren't in much of a hurry. The weather would have birds feeding all day. We arrived at my duck club around 730am, and a few geese were already flying. We set up quickly in a goose pit - no one else was hunting on the entire farm. By about 10am, the sun came out, the wind died, and while the geese were still flying, we were only able to attract pairs and triples to our spread of roughly 60 silhouette decoys and 10 or so fullbody decoys. The geese were cautious, and flying high, giving them numerous opportunities to look for any "problems" before they came within shooting range. It was a little frustrating, but we were banking on the afternoon hunt anyway, so we weren't deterred.
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In the afternoon, the owner of the duck club invited Tug and I to hunt with us at the club's island blind, which basically is on a 60 acre roost for about 1,000 geese (see pic above). By this time, there were no clouds and no wind, and in addition, we had seen no geese fly since about 11:30am. No geese flew until birds returned to the roost.....about 40 minutes after shooting time. It was an amazing display of nature, with all those birds returning to the roost all at the same time, but yet again, a disappointing hunt. And at least it wasn't "just us." The landowner has been hunting that spot successfully for over 30 years.
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The next morning held great promise and much anticipation, especially given our failure to kill any game so far. We planned to hunt geese and ducks from layout blinds, in corn stubble, next to the farm pond. We ended up with over 100 decoys set up and witnessed the greatest display of "almost" in history. We were not aided by some old/lazy duck club members, who showed up around 9am and set up for a goose hunt at the goose pit nearest to the blind, about 150' up on the hill from our position. We also weren't helped by the weather - sunny and not the slightest breeze in the air. And the resulting 300 geese who put down 300' from the pond - out in the waveless river.
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Dozens of groups and flocks of geese looked closely at our setup and flared away at the last minute. A few (very few) were killed by coming too close, but no birds landed in the spread, or even tried. Here we were, at the epicenter of the Atlantic Flyway's goose wintering grounds, and having trouble finishing off geese, despite having literally hundreds of geese take good, long looks at our setup.
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It's hard to explain the level of frustration I had because it was really nuanced. First, let's get real - it's hunting, and these are (relatively) smart birds who have already endured a 1,500 mile trek through the hunting grounds of the Northeast. It's also near the end of the latest seasons on the east coast....January 23 with a late end date of January 30. The geese have seen an awwwwwwful lot even since arriving in Maryland in late November.
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Add onto that the fact that relatively few geese were hatched this summer in eastern Canada. There was late snow cover, and reproduction was poor, so let's consider the fact that most of the geese in Maryland had survived a previous hunting season in Maryland (or several seasons), possibly on the same river, around the same farms (with the same goose pits and duck blinds).
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And let's not forget the fact that other hunters are having the same issues this year...the yo-yo'ing weather conditions, combined with smart, older birds...it's as hard as it's been in recent years. Everybody, from the first-timers to the professional guides-were feeling the pain in Maryland this year.
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So as much as I'd like to complain about having three (basically) unproductive hunts in two days, I think I'll pass. I'm looking forward to a goose hunt in the snow on closing day, and during the off-season, I'll day dream about those days in mid-January when we almost got them.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Biding My Time

Slight change in priorities this duck season...Hank and I on a saturday morning, under clouds, rain, and sub-freezing temperatures, in duck season...couldn't be happier!
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The new week begins with some anticipation of some good hunts. Both of my brothers are coming up this week to take part in a series of hunts I've set up - 4 hunts in 3 days, to be precise, and I think everybody's excited. The preparation will be a little complicated, but of course, I started to prepare about 10 days ago. The weather in the Mid-Atlantic has gone through some crazy cycles so far this winter, and in the end, it seems to have settled on "normal." Most nights are below freezing and most days are in the mid to upper 30's (F). That means that food is generally available to waterfowl, and while more migratory birds might not come to our area in the last two weeks of the season, we should still be able to hold the light/moderate numbers of ducks and moderate/slightly heavy numbers of geese who have hung in there through the cold snap.
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Before the season, I knew that my hunting would be less than in previous years. We normally have a 50 or 60 day waterfowl season, and in the past 3 years I've probably been out 20-25 days per season. I was hoping for 10-12 this year. It turned out to be even less than I predicted, with Henry in the mix. We have two weeks left, so I should hit 10...barely. Interestingly, it hasn't bothered me at all, except on maybe one or two snowy, windy days when I know my buddies are having a great time out on the marsh, and I'm babysitting (just being honest). It hasn't bothered me for a couple of interesting reasons. First, I am exhausted. And I stay exhausted. Henry is growing quickly, which sometimes means a solid night of sleep. And sometimes means a solid night of thrashing, tossing, turning, eating, pooping, and crying. After one of those nights, I would gladly pass up a hunt Or five hunts. I take sleep anywhere I can get it.
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Second, my calculated gamble of paying for my sanity actually worked. I paid for a membership at a remote and low-key hunting/fishing club on Maryland's eastern shore, and for the money, I got my mid-duck season sanity back (instead of worrying about getting to the public spot first, waiting at boat ramps, is the game warden coming?, etc). I know that I can go hunting on my schedule, especially on weekdays when most of the club's distant members are unlikely to be hunting.
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Third, even when Henry is at his most crazy level, I'm happy to hang out with him if it helps the Wifey. After 10 years of marriage, I am pretty confident that every day spent changing diapers is another future day stalking turkeys, riding waves, chasing fish, or calling ducks. It all has seemed to work out over the years, and I am happy to do my part. I find myself thinking back to scenes from an April, 2008 turkey hunt, a January, 2008 duck hunt, and an April, 2009 surfing day.
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And I have to admit, sometimes I do sit there and imagine the next warm day of surfing, the first day of turkey season, or the last day of goose season. All things in moderation...more days afield are coming! And in the long term, it's nice to think that I won't have to choose between time spent with Hank, and time spent in the salt water.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

"Alone in the Wild" - TV Worth Watching

Scottish outdoorsman Ed Wardle films himself on "Alone in the Wild"
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I will admit, I am a sucker for real (not "reality") wilderness survival shows, namely Survivorman and Man vs. Wild. And I admit it, I prefer the slicker, slightly less authentic Man vs. Wild. Both shows, if you're not familiar, feature a survival expert trying to survive in various wilderness locales for anywhere from 3 to I guess 7 days. Which is plenty long, when you start with no food, water, gun, or lighter/matches.
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So, the other night, I was fascinated by a 1-hour summary of "Alone in the Wild" on the National Geographic Channel. "AITW" is the story of Scotsman Ed Wardle's planning and execution of a summer solo trip to the north Yukon Peninsula, where he intended to survive, alone, for 90 days. The show makes an important point in stating that Wardle, an "extreme adventurer" and life-long hunter and trapper, is "a skilled outdoorsman, but not a survival expert." This got my attention. "Hey," I thought, "I guess that's kind of like me." Between my biological training and my outdoor interests, I'd like to think I'm "skilled." Yes, Wardle has summited Mt. Everest....twice. But still, if you spend the time afield that I do, you would like to think that you could actually survive out there if you had to, right? I would. Until I saw this show.
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Like Survivorman, "AITW" is filmed by Wardle alone, not like Bear Grylls and his film crew of awesomeness (which again, admittedly, makes for better cinematography and better TV). It's this fact that makes Survivorman a "little more authentic and gritty"; and it's this fact, combined with Ed's 90-day survival goal, that make "AITW" impossible to stop watching.


Wardle starts his journey just like the other guys - he's dropped in a remote location (albeit, with more tools, including a kettle, an axe, a fishing rod, a sleeping bag, a tarp, and an extended mag shotgun). If you're like me, you're thinking, "Man, I could easily survive with THAT gear!" Keep reading. The first thing to note is that this is the Yukon in July. That means that both Grizzly and Black Bears are on their way down from the mountains, trying to intercept the salmon spawn. Wardle spends an enormous amount of physical, mental, and emotional energy trying to stay aware of the threat of bear attack 24 hours a day. The second notable fact is that (from what I gather), Wardle was told by the provincial government that he could not kill big game or waterfowl out of season. The third notable fact is that Wardle's journey is set to take 90 days...not 3, not 5, not 7. 90 days. Alone. None of those three things are insignificant.
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Like the other shows, Wardle films himself having varying degrees of success hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering (plant) food. By itself, those things are the standard fare for these survival shows. What's gripping is his pursuit of food, given the three notes above - bear attack, alone for 90 days, can't kill moose, deer, ducks. As the viewer quickly sees, it's hard to actually accumulate enough calories every day to live on. When the "short term guys" are doing it, you can certainly survive on roots and berries and bugs for 3, 5, or 7 days. Around that time, the human body starts to tear itself apart to survive. Somehow, I forgot about that. "Survival" is cool and all, until you have to start thinking about kidney failure, etc. Wardle begins to lose weight and muscle after just a few days in the wilderness.
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What I'll remember about this show (second to just one thing, which is next) is that despite the hours and hours of fishing and catching and cooking, once Wardle's body starts weakening, he's not able to keep pursuing food that many hours per day. So he continues to get progressively weaker, because he's picking/killing fewer and fewer calories of food per day.
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What will stay with me for the longest is the video documentation of Wardle's mental and emotional breakdown. He hangs in there with pretty good spirits for about 25 days, and then he starts to hit some road bumps. At 40 days, the viewer is treated to maniacal screams, insane rambling about how people "aren't meant to live alone like this," and how Wardle wishes he could just see or touch another person. Wardle's hair is falling out, and while he started his adventure in great physical condition, he has probably lost 50 pounds at this point.
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At 50 days, the filming shows Wardle in a near-lunatic stumble through the woods, and he makes the decision to activate his Spot GPS and have the rescue seaplane come in from 250 miles away and extract him that day. He looks and acts humbled by the experience. At this point, anyone watching it who has real outdoor experience would be struck by the realization that the difficulty of all this survival stuff isn't just the conquest for food and shelter - which are challenging enough, but the human need for companionship. I have to admit, when I have considered the usual variety of post-apocolyptic scenarios that might require me to employ my outdoors and survival skills.........it never occurred that the hardest part would be doing it alone.
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Ed Wardle's summary of the trip can be found over here.



Wednesday, January 6, 2010

On 15 Years as a Wetland Technician & Biologist: Part 1

My Danner Mountain Light IIs - freshly waxed and currently awaiting a new pair of laces (at least the fifth or sixth set). They've easily walked over a thousand miles in a dozen+ states in the 10 years since I bought them.
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It's been quite a ride since my first gig as an environmental technician for the USAF in 1994. Since then I've paid tuition to at least four universities, finished three degrees, quit on a fourth, lived in three states, and worked in at least sixteen more states. So let's go back a ways.
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I always wanted to be a scientist. I literally took every science class that was offered at my high school. My senior year of high school had me applying for programs as disparate as William & Mary Geology; Virginia Tech Biology, and U of Delaware Agriculture. I just wanted to get muddy and learn stuff about things that lived in the mud and salt water. I am forever a little boy in that regard. I ultimately chose Virginia Tech, and to make a long story short, I learned that most Biology majors are just pre-med majors have no intention of going to Med School, or finishing a biology degree, for that matter. I really was not in tune with (read: not smart enough to excel in) all of the human anatomy and toxicology coursework, and (to my parents' initial dismay), I transferred to the Virginia Tech College of Forestry and Wildlife (now, the College of Natural Resources).
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The change of focus I encountered - from laboratory research in the biology department, to field and GIS research in the Wildlife Department, would solidify my path as a biologist concerned with on-the-ground applications to theory and policy. At the time (1994), amphibian studies (herpetology) were starting to emerge as an important sub-field of wildlife conservation. I studied quite a bit about amphibians, which meant that I had to learn a lot about their habitat....wetlands. Thank God for that. At this point, my career goal was to become the manager of a National Forest or National Wildlife Refuge. I thought "that's what everybody does." I certainly didn't envision having to deal with travel, budgets, and politics. I was going to be a scientist!
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One of the first "real lessons" that I learned about land management was that land management goals are never ideal - there are always competing uses and self-interest (namely politics, money and laws) to deal with...and how did I learn this?
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In 1994, the focus of habitat management work at Va Tech was largely dictated by the "multiple use doctrine." Basically - we can't manage wildlife for just wildlife's sake. For instance, an average project wasn't just "how can we best manage the land for the black-bellied salamander," but "how can we best manage the land for the black-bellied salamander, while still managing the property for timber harvests." I later figured out that this was because the Department's primary benefactor was Georgia Pacific, possibly the largest timber broker in the eastern United States. In fact, Va Tech and GP actually shared a president. I love the South!
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And so, I was off. As a newly christened "wildlife science major," job opportunities (the unpaid and low-paying variety) opened up quickly. I worked as a technician for the USAF in 1994, a park ranger for the state of VA in 1995, and a consultant technician in 1996 and 1997, and I finally received my BS in Wildlife Science and my BA in Geography in Remote Sensing. I had learned a lot of great theory in school, and sadly, one of the other key lessons I learned is that theory is rarely properly applied to practice; however, many poor practices are explicitly carried out in the name of the science that spawned them.
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My last gig as a consultant technician was at an Army base in Virginia. Talk about "multiple use!" Any habitat work we planned had to be able to withstand artillery practice and being caught on fire from machine gun practice! I'm totally serious. It was a fun gig - I lived & worked on base. We did a lot of fun stuff, I learned a lot, and I learned some important lessons, especially when my buddy quit because he "got an awesome job as a state biologist, camping in the brush and doing quail surveys...it pays $8.00 an hour!" That settled it - I was going to go to grad school - somewhere, somehow. My other key lessons from that period:

1. No job requiring a college education is so "awesome" that you should get paid $7.25/hour for doing it.

2. The most successful land managers are those who can communicate their goals to those in power, in a way that makes people comfortable. Whether they are great ecologists is a secondary consideration.

3. The happiest professionals are those who have breathing room to make mistakes, take responsibility, and try again without fear of automatically being fired

4. Success has a thousand fathers, and failure has...well, you know the rest. 15 years into my career, this one still surprises me occasionally. I'll discuss this in one of my next posts (Part 2).
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In the fall of 1997, I was offered an assistantship (but no tuition waiver) to the Geography Department at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, studying satellite imagery applications to forestry and wildlife management. I guess it didn't dawn on me that $12.75/hour x 20 hours/week did not add up to a lot of money, but I rented a mountainside basement apartment and moved my stuff from VA to NC one hot weekend.
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I really enjoyed my time at Boone (take a sec to check out the area's best photo blog - Blue Ridge Blog) - it was the first time I was truly surrounded by other people who were obsessed - almost possessed - with the outdoors. It was great! There was the guy who only drank bourbon and fly-fished. There was the guy who was training to be a professional ice climber, but he needed more GIS training to keep his regular job. There was the gal who just wanted to hike the Pisgah Wilderness Area and smoke a little reefer. We studied hard and spent all of our free time outdoors. That was one of the best things about being in graduate school - being surrounded by smart, like-minded people. Ironically, one of the worst things about being in graduate school is that everybody is SO FREAKING SMART. I mean, they will not hesitate to tell you just how smart they are. And if it's in public, in front of your friends or professors, well so much the better. In grad school, I learned that

1. nobody will ever look out for me the way that I can look out for myself

2. if I produce results, people will notice. I don't have to advertise. This is the "up side" of working among very competitive people. They notice when you succeed, also.

3. Patience wins the day. Politically it is so important to be patient and "allow things to develop." More on this in Part 2, as well.
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In May 1998, I took a job as a wetland technician for the Nature Conservancy at their Barrier Island Station on the eastern shore of Virginia. I didn't know that as I drove east on I-40, through Winston-Salem, Raleigh, and up to South Hill, VA, Suffolk, VA, and stumbled back into my "stomping grounds" of southeastern Virginia, that this job, that summer, and the months that followed, would change my entire life. To be 24 again! And to be continued.