Friday, December 30, 2011

Headin' Down South to the Land of the Pines

Please pardon me as I take a few days with my family to hunt quail, ducks, geese, and swan outside of the Great Dismal Swamp on the Virginia-North Carolina border. It's been a fabulous year at River Mud.  I've enjoyed writing for and chatting with all of you in 2011, and I am looking forward to an even better 2012!  Now go outside! 

Oh, in case you're not familiar with the post title, enjoy a wonderful song:

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

When (and Why) Waterfowl Don't Migrate South

These geese, while spooky to hunters (and piling up next to public roads
since they expect blinds or pits to be in the middle of the field), were
still compelled to migrate south into this area (Maryland's eastern shore,
January 2011) because of deep snow in New York and Pennsylvania. 
It's almost January.  The waterfowl seasons in most states are at least half over.  This year, a situation has emerged that's actually not surprising, given that it's happened for probably 8 out of the last 12 years.  That situation: significant numbers of ducks and geese have not flown south for the winter.

Here in Maryland, the state DNR is reporting roughly 10% of the typical flock and "one of the worst seasons on record." News releases from other mid-latitude states show the same thing.   What's most surprising is that hunters seem aghast and totally confused that this is happening.  I'm here to tell you: it's pretty simple.

Many bird species are driven to migrate.  It is part of their internal programming.  There are two major parts of this programming - route and movement.  Route, for many species, is basically pre-determined.  For timing of movement, they often need prompting - a cue.  Sometimes it's as simple as the first full moon after a hard frost.  Or the first day that water temperatures rise above 60 degrees.    Speaking in huge generalities here, the spring migration tends to be more dominated by these cues than the fall migration.  And since hunting regulations are specifically structured to guard the safety of the spring migration, it's the fall migration with which hunters concern themselves.

So why do waterfowl migrate south in the fall? Again, sometimes a combination of internal programming and external cues cause a massive flight to occur.  But in the case of several species, and notably the Atlantic Flyway, migration is largely driven by necessity.  Specifically, the necessity of each living bird to maintain their own caloric balance.    With the exception of mating behavior, waterfowl are largely energy conservative species.  What does that mean?

To put it bluntly, it means that if 100,000 geese are doing the backstroke in 55 degree water in Lake Ontario, and eating corn off of the ground every night, why would they ever migrate south......even if it's December? Sound like an exaggeration?

That's right.  It's almost January, and there is almost no ice on the Great Lakes.  Which means there's little snow in the areas around the Lakes (we'll get back to that).  Many duck and goose species travel through the Great Lakes on their way to wintering spots in the Mid-Atlantic.  Does 50 degrees sound like really cold water?  According to Cornell University, water temperatures of 50-70 degrees are ideal (thermally neutral) for ducks, and it's widely written that large birds (ducks, geese, etc) are "heat neutral" down to about 55 degrees (air temperature).    So, sure, the birds are comfortably in this balmy early winter weather we seem to have most years anymore, but how does that impact migration?

You see, birds use 35-50% of their food intake solely for body temperature regulation.   As it gets colder, water bodies freeze, and snow cover starts to eliminate local feeding habitat, each bird must still somehow find 35-50% of their "summer ration" of calories, just to keep warm enough to survive until the next day.......or very likely die if they fail to eat enough calories.   What did I just say about snow?  Snow cover.  If there is a 3' layer of snow across all of New York state, very few birds will be spending the winter in New York state (and many who stay will die before spring).    Birds are hard pressed to try and find food in more than 1-2" of snow.  Let's look at a snow cover map - from a year (2010) when a hard freeze in mid-December forced a huge (though delayed) migration on the east coast, and from a year (2011) when no such freeze occurred, and the fall migration is still pending.
Christmas 2010 saw snow cover down to northern Arkansas.  Same date, 2011? New York, Pennsylvania, and most of the Great Lakes states are snow and ice free.  Are you still wondering why the birds aren't in North Carolina?

In a world without industrialized, large scale agriculture, birds could be forced south as they eat themselves out of their natural wetland habitat in a stopping point. But the eastern half of the United States is now filled with giant farms with waste grain laying about,  farms with green, delicious winter cover growing on them, and natural food sources (such as they are) available in wetlands and open water.   Until weather (ice, snow, cold air) changes the equation, there is no food shortage for North American waterfowl, except for those dependent on aquatic grasses (largely banged up by water pollution).  This is not to say there's no habitat shortage.
A flock of snow geese eating (destroying) a soil erosion cover crop.  The geese will stay until either the grass is gone,
hunting pressure is applied repeatedly, or snow cover makes it unavailable to the geese.  Migration south could take place after that point.   Photo:

The bottom line is this.  Many (though not all) species of waterfowl tend to be energy-conservative.  As long as the breeding grounds, or any flyway area between the breeding grounds and your hunting grounds, contain accessible waterfowl food, ice-free water, and relatively mild night temperatures, you should be pleasantly surprised by any birds that do arrive.  Especially in the Atlantic Flyway.  This frustrating and recurring phenomenon seems to be happening almost annually, and is very interesting to me as a biologist, and very frustrating to me as a hunter.

It leads me to three questions that I don't have the answers for yet:

1.  This is clearly a climatologic pattern that is impacting our 100-year old knowledge of migration dates.  Is it part of a short (5-10 years), medium (10-50 years), or long term climatic shift?

2. Assuming that any of those are true, what are wildlife managers to do with hunting season dates?  Earlier dates are becoming fruitless for migratory birds (although local birds are often around in ample numbers to fill up a few straps).  Yet, later season end dates (February and beyond) would be very likely to impact the sensitive spring migration.   For many species in many states, bag limits are becoming ridiculously liberal...and few hunters in the Atlantic Flyway can fill a bag limit consistently throughout the season.  25 snow geese? 6, 7, 8 ducks per day?  16 doves?  Many hunters have a spot they can go once or twice a season and achieve this kind of harvest - but not with any regularity.

3.  While the bulk of Atlantic Flyway birds are produced in the Great Lakes region and eastern Canadian provinces, not all of them are.  Pintails largely arrive from the prairies.   Scaup largely hail from the Boreal Forest in western Canada.  Weather that forces those species to migrate south and east may never even touch  the Mississippi/Central flyways or the Atlantic Flyways.  In short - will we start to see a different composition of wintering waterfowl in the AF? Are we already?  

As the Atlantic Flyway harvest numbers come in for the 2011-2012 season, we'll be taking a more detailed look at all of this.   Are land management practices, long thought to be strong drivers of waterfowl migration, being supplanted by climatic trends as the primary force in predicting seasonal bird movement?  We'll also take a look at the stunning 2009 report by Audubon that says, at least for waterfowl, "yes."

Plan on joining us for it!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas from River Mud

Yes, this is my child. 
It's that time of year again.  A time of conflicts.  Of bold proclamations what season "is for," and who and what it's supposed to commemorate.   Negativity.  There's too much commercialism.  The sales aren't good enough.  What about Jesus?  (and okay, for the record, I do recognize that Jesus' actual birthday was likely in September, and moved to December for dubious purposes, but the modern Christian church holds the December date in honor of his birthday). Doesn't make it any less Christian.  Or any less commercial, for that matter.

This season, I hope you and yours get time to focus on what's really important.  And unlike a lot of people in the media and the blogosphere, I'm not here to tell you what that is.  Just please focus on what you're doing.  Be present.  Use your time well.  As I (on December 23rd) am finishing up this blog post, and my next posts for the 27th and 30th, I thought for a moment, "Wow, my lack of posting will cause my web traffic to take a hit! I should finish some more of my old, pending posts!"   And that's when I knew that I actually shouldn't do that.

Woah, I feel better already!

My December has already been filled with far too many work deadlines (for both jobs), poor weather for hunting and fishing, and not enough family time, so it's time to take a week, realign my priorities, and cool my heels.  No more of this for the holidays:
A typical December commute home on I-95

Enough of all that.  I'm coming up on three days with my wife, son, and wife's family; three days alone with my son, and then three days hunting with my brothers on the Virginia-North Carolina border.   And so I hope that you're able to rid your mind of all things that look and feel like that picture above, and enjoy some simple moments, both outdoors and with the people for whom you care most.  I promise to do the same.  Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 23, 2011

What's the Sunday Hunting Ban Really About? (Part II - Supporters of the Ban)

Note: I originally wrote this piece for Tim Borkert's blog - The Unlucky Hunter. Pay Tim a visit. 

Sunday hunting. To some, it conjures up memories of days afield with kids who have a once-a-week reprieve from school and sports. To others, it is yet another signal that America is moving away from being a society that encourages us to spend time at church and at home on Sunday. 

From a purely logical standpoint, the Sunday hunting ban no longer holds much merit because other activities involving willful animal harvest – including commercial and recreational fishing, crabbing, lobstering, clamming, and shrimping…to say nothing of commercial slaughtering ….are permitted on Sunday in every state, and indeed, opponents of Sunday hunting participate in these activities. So now you know my opinion. 

In Part I of this series, we took a basic look at the historical (and hysterical) premise of the sunday hunting ban, as well as a basic look at the groups of people most aligned with continuing this ban in the 9 states where it still fully exists, and the types of groups most actively trying to have the ban repealed, thus, allowing sunday hunting where it is currently not allowed.  In this post, we'll take a very detailed look at the groups most prominently opposed to Sunday hunting.  Buckle your seatbelts. 

1.  Group: Animal Rights Activists and Anti-Hunters

Organizations: HSUS, other local groups

Why they oppose sunday hunting:  Any increase in hunting opportunities is a setback for the cause of anti-hunters and animal rights activists, because the potential for animals to be killed is inherently increased, at least by a tiny margin.  The long-term goal of most of these organizations is to abolish all animal hunting, all fishing, and all slaughtering of livestock.   Their publicly stated reasoning is composed of two main topics: 1) Hunting is on the decline, while wildlife watching is increasing in popularity; and 2) Sunday hunting means that non-hunters will get killed while walking their dog. 

What merit does that reasoning have? I have to say that out of all of these groups, this is one that is based on a genuine ideology.   While I totally disagree with it, I'm compelled to respect it.  They hate hunting.  Repealing the sunday hunting ban would increase hunting, at least slightly.   Unfortunately, the honesty ends there.   These organizations routinely make claims like "36% of Americans participate in wildlife viewing but only 10% are hunters," so therefore hunting on sundays should never occur.

 First of all, I'd guarantee that the 36% of wildlife viewers includes the 10% of hunters.  Even if we ignore that, the assumption that 100 million Americans are actively, truly engaged in watching wildlife other than from their porch or kitchen window is sadly.......just laughable.  In fact, extensive USFWS data indicates that 2/3 of Americans identifying themselves as "wildlife watchers" do not ever leave their house to watch wildlife.   So the number is really: "wildlife watchers away from home, including hunters: 12%; hunters: 10%."   I can't say for a fact that data means that real, traveling non-hunting wildlife watchers are 2% (12%-10%) of the population (not 36%, as advertised), but if I were an anti-hunter, I'd boldly make that claim and not think twice about it.   Suffice to say, that claim and many of their claims are dubious at best.

The USFWS data also indicates another critical trend that the anti-hunters don't want you to know about - while everyone knows that participation in hunting is on the decline, USFWS data also shows a parallel 20-year decline in Americans' participation in wildlife watching away from home, aka "non-consumptive wildlife tourism."   So that group of wildlife watchers that anti-hunters are soooo worried about?  They are disappearing as fast as hunters.  Their numbers are, in fact, NOT increasing. Or even staying stable. 

On the second topic (safety), I actually crunched the numbers on how sunday hunting might impact hunting accident statistics.   The answer: None or not much.   It's safe to go outside during hunting season! Bottom line.  And with most states having 7 days per week of hunting all season long, with millions of non-hunters afield all season long, it's unusual for a state to report more than 1 non-hunter fatality.  Of course, the anti-hunters like to bring up bizarre "what-if's" like, "What if I get lost in the forest, and I'm trespassing, and I'm wearing all brown fur clothes, and there's a poacher in a tree, and he's drunk and a racist........"  Come on now.  

As always, the anti-hunters and animal rights activists have compelling emotion and compassion on their side.  But as usual, members of their organizations are quick to misrepresent facts or boldly lie just to convince people to support them.  That's a shame, because it prevents us all from having any type of adult conversation on the topic (and many other important conservation topics).

2.  Group: Religious conservatives

Organizations:  Mostly just "concerned individuals"

Why they oppose sunday hunting:  For at least the last 130 years, Sunday has been observed as a day of rest and/or worship in popular American culture.    These individuals are concerned that the advent of sunday hunting would impact our nation's spirituality as a whole, and is symbolic of our culture's downward spiral away from traditional Christian values. 

What merit does that reasoning have? Well, basically, none whatsoever.  According to a long list of studies including one by Gallup, the 20 states reporting highest church attendance all have some form of sunday hunting.  Meanwhile, five of the six  states reporting the lowest church attendance all have a total sunday hunting ban in place.   If I were a reporter on Fox News or MSNBC, I'd be compelled to report to you that "Gallup Poll shows that Sunday hunting is Good for Church Attendance," but of course, that's not fair to say.  It is fair to say that there is absolutely no statistical relationship between sunday hunting and church attendance.

Now let's step away from "church" and talk "spirituality," since we can all likely agree that the two are not the same.   These same Christians believe that it is just distasteful or disrespectful to God to be out in the woods, looking to kill a deer or a duck on a sunday evening.  That's their belief and I respect it.  However, how many of these ideologues take their kids or grandkids fishing on sunday afternoon, after church?  Answer: a whole lot of them.  Spiritually and logically, this just doesn't line up, unless you have some kind of crazy spirituality that stipulates that killing a duck at 4:45pm on sunday is not the moral equivalent of killing a catfish or trout at 5pm on sunday.   I have yet to find a religion stipulating such values, so I feel comfortable in dismissing the spiritual argument.  Killing animals is killing animals - whether by hook or by bullet.   And if Sunday is too holy for hunting, it's too holy for fishing, football, video games, NASCAR, and most significantly, beer.  

3. Group: Farm Lobbies

Organizations:  Virginia Farm Bureau, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, others

Why they oppose sunday hunting:  Not at all clear, but the bottom line is that the individual county farm bureaus within individual state farm bureaus continue to vote to support the sunday hunting ban - meaning that at least a significant group of  farm bureau members (farmers or farm owners) continue to oppose Sunday hunting.  

What merit does that reasoning have?  It's hard to tell, without knowing what Farm Bureau reps are telling their member farmers about sunday hunting and its possible risks and benefits.   While claims have been made that the Bureau has provided misleading information about sunday hunting issues, I certainly can't verify those reports first-hand, so I won't even link to them.  

Nonetheless, the bottom line of "we listen to our members" remains pretty damn valid......or rather it did, until  the Virginia Farm Bureau recently released this bizarre  policy statement that gives some amazing insight about how they frame their discussion on sunday hunting.  It's a piece of work, if you enjoy train wrecks.

The policy statement includes claims, among other hilarious and ridiculous things, that sunday hunting would be fruitless for hunters,  because "wildlife learn habits of hunters and avoid them."     While there is such a thing as "hunting pressure," millions of ducks, geese, doves, deer, squirrels, and rabbits were killed on Sundays across the United States last year.  They certainly didn't "learn the habits of hunters."

If I had to bet, I'd wager that the Farm Bureau state offices in the 41 states with (some form of) sunday hunting would argue that they support sunday hunting in their own state, if only because they support landowner rights.  How the VAFB and PAFB don't back that philosophy, I don't know, but their members continue to oppose sunday hunting in democratic votes.  So there you have it.  

Still, there's hope for change on this front.  The Ohio Farm Bureau recently (2002) voted to endorse sunday hunting after the state promised to strengthen poaching and trespassing laws.  This will be an important model for Pennsylvania to look at, as many landowners and farmers are highly concerned about any impact that sunday hunting may have on the already ridiculous problem of private land poaching by trespassers.  As the former vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau said, "I believe farmers feared change more than the issue itself."  Bottom line though - until members of the individual Farm Bureaus feel comfortable that Sunday hunting won't impact them negatively, they won't vote to stop supporting the ban.

4. Group: Deer Hunters who chase with dogs

Organizations:  Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance, among others.

Why they oppose sunday hunting?  VHDA's position paper on the topic says that the first and foremost reason is that God wants us to keep sunday holy.  Second, these groups have lately been admitting more openly that hunting - especially hunting with dogs (I've only heard one representative of one group publicly state that part) - may be more likely to come under scrutiny from anti-hunters if sunday hunting is allowed.   They theorize that hunting, especially with dogs, could be severely curtailed or banned as a result of increased conflicts with non-hunters on sundays. 

What merit does that reasoning have?

Okay.  On the first reason - that God wants us to keep sunday holy.    If Sunday's holy, it's holy, right?  It's not only holy for deer.  It's not only holy for sunday morning until you get out of church.  If the sabbath is holy, it's holy.  No loopholes.   No hunting. No fishing.  No football. No NASCAR.  No beer. Holy. 

On the second reason - not fueling the anti-hunting fire (towards hunting in general) -  I actually understand what they fear.  But like the anti-hunters and Farm Bureau supporters, I believe that their fear is not based in fact.   Many "Yankee" states have sunday hunting.  And since sunday hunting was added, those states have not moved to ban any stretch of the imagination.   As I've documented above, non-hunters have not been pushed out of public properties, hunting accidents have not increased, I mean, it certainly seems like nothing negative happens when the sunday hunting ban is lifted. 

There's another part of this, though - and that's the "hunting with dogs" part.   Recently these guys have been more openly admitting that they fear the loss of their own quality hunting, and possibly their heritage, if sunday hunting becomes legal.  First, deer hounds are typically run on saturdays, and rested on sundays.  This means that even if sunday hunting were legal, most quality hounds would be taking a day off.  Let me rephrase that.  It means that other people would be hunting deer on days that chase dog owners are not hunting deer.  "Their" deer.  And nobody's gonna go out there on sundays and kill their deer. 

Finally, the heritage of deer hounds.   Having grown up in Tidewater, Virginia, and having had "enough" hunts ruined by packs of dogs running miles ahead of their owners (and across dozens of property lines), I think I can speak on this topic.  The deer hound culture, in 2011, strongly looks like this:

Amazingly, these guys are finally realizing that "maybe" this presents an image problem, in a world full of the internet, animal rights freaks, and a general public that is occasionally scared of hunters of any kind.  As a result, they are becoming highly sensitive to public opposition to deer hound antics and I believe are starting to do a slightly better job of policing their own culture.   For instance, here's the picture featured on their main web page:

I commend them for their marketing effort - sincerely.  While it's true that fox chasing is LEGAL on sundays (ironic!), that clean, regal imagery certainly appeals to the general public more than this fairly typical imagery of chase dog ownership:


Ultimately, the deer hound folks are going to have to fully realize that the future of their hunting tradition will not swing on the approval of sunday hunting, but more likely, the general public's negative perception of guys who sit on the tailgate of a pickup truck waiting for the dogs to chase a deer out of the woods so it can be shot.   How they use that knowledge to save their particular style of hunting and heritage? I don't know.  But I think it can be done.  Probably not from a truck's tailgate, though.

Overall, sunday hunting doesn't appear to be the menace that any of these groups fear that it might be.  Sunday hunting could mean a shorter hunting season.  And that the spiritually inclined will still go to church and get to choose whether they should hunt on sunday evening.  And that landowners will still have the same protections - and problems - that they already do regarding public access, trespassing, and poaching. And that the general public is still safe in the woods, even during hunting season.  And that anti-hunters are no closer to their goal of stopping recreational hunting in the United States.

But if everything stays the same, what does that mean for the proponents of sunday hunting, who predict increases in license sales, a boom in the number of new and youth hunters, and a huge economic swing in tourism income for states like Virginia and Pennsylvania?  Well, the folks who loved this write-up might just hate that one......and it's coming next.

Thanks for stopping by!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Looking for Tips: Keeping Active Kids Warm in Winter

Planting Atlantic White Cedars
Look, I don't know if it's ever gonna get cold this winter.  The deer are lazy, the ducks are still up in the Arctic Circle, and the hot rain keeps muddying up the trout streams and causing algae blooms in bass ponds.

What I do know is that the Hankster is almost two and a half years old, and he is a firecracker roman candle.  And while the thermometer is slowly dipping and the days are about as short as they can be (I think winter solstice is today?), there is zero possibility of us not taking Hank outside.

Since he's sort of old enough to understand our basic instructions like "don't lay in the ice water," we are still trying to get him outside.  That doesn't mean that he is cooperative re: his own well-being.  In the picture to the left, he joined me on a volunteer (that's right, VOLUNTEER) wetland planting last weekend.  It was 41 degrees, and he waded into the wetland several times, and refused to wear a hat.  At least he wore gloves.  But given his lack of boots (oh, we'll get to that), after two hours, he was frozen like a popsicle. Happy and eating cookies (yay, volunteer events!), but still frozen.  And yes, of course I had a change of socks and shoes for him, right in the truck.

In the picture below, I had him outside on a sunday morning in our yard. It was 34 degrees.  That day, he was  willing to wear the hat, but kept pulling his fingers out of the gloves for some reason.  Also, I let him wear his rubber boots, but the problem with those is that he puts them on and takes them off repeatedly, and sometimes throws them as far as he can, which basically means his socks get muddy, wet, and cold.  That outing lasted about 40 minutes.

So what am I supposed to do with this Toddler Disaster?  Just keep patient and keep on plugging? Or is there some way to get Hank more interested in dressing appropriately (and keeping his clothes in) in the cold weather?

Hank loves to walk across the ice in the bog garden.  Oh wait, that's a bad habit to start.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Bowhunting...and the Inevitable Fall of the Overconfident

I like this spot.  And during my first bow hunt here, I ended up with a half-dozen or more deer within 10 yards of me toward the end of legal shooting time.  Of course, I screwed it up by drawing my bow as one of them was pretty much staring at me, but it was an amazing hunt nonetheless.  You can read more about it here and here.

So obviously I went back.  But my attitude was totally different the second time.  During the first hunt, I was in the woods by 2:30pm, and the deer didn't move out of the woods until 4:15pm.  So on the second try, I brought my climbing tree stand, didn't arrive until 4:10pm, and wasn't set up in the tree until nearly 4:30pm (sunset at 4:45pm).  What the heck was I thinking? That was my first mistake, and it probably impacted the outcome of the hunt.  Keep reading - maybe that's not a bad thing, in this case.

Second mistake - I also ignored the weather.  My first hunt was on a crisp (about 42 degrees), clear day that followed two days of horrendous downpours.  The deer were hungry and on the move.  Second hunt?  Sunny and 55 degrees, the day after a warm, full moon where (I imagine) the deer fed all night in safety.

Third mistake, as I mentioned, I brought my climbing stand, which I hadn't used in 4 years.  At least give me credit for checking it out a few days before hand and noticing that a cotter pin was missing (a dubious replacement was procured from the Home Despot).   I was in a hurry and out of practice - a bad combination. I simply wasn't comfortable in the stand, and once I was physically ready to shoot, I didn't feel 110% confident that the stand wouldn't give way if I had to lean against it to take a tough shot.

I don't know what I would have done if a big deer would have walked under the stand.  Honestly, I probably wouldn't have taken a shot, because a poorly shot deer in this area means that you will be retrieving that animal from someone's multi-million dollar waterfront  lawn, as they are sitting down to dinner that night.

So, what went right? Gosh, not much.  The deer never moved out of the marsh.  Even if I had spooked them, I would expect to see a few of them moving out of the marsh, far out on my flank to the east or west.  As the sun began to set, the swamp filled up with songbirds - mourning doves, cardinals, and juncos - all hungry and just getting into town, I suppose.  But no deer.  No squirrels. No rabbits.  Nothing furry at all!

At the end of the hunt, I was left staring into the dark and with a feeling that I used to know well, but have drifted apart from as I've become a more competent outdoorsman over the past 10 years.  A sense of not knowing whether the evening's failure was a result of natural "things," or whether I created the failure myself. 

Looking back on it, I realize that I made a choice after the first hunt - the choice to be overconfident.  I should have operated from the standpoint of, "Everything went right last time except the shot - let's do it exactly the same next time."  Instead, I let my overconfidence push me simultaneously in the directions of laziness (arriving late in the afternoon) and ironically, "unneeded challenge" (dusting off my climbing stand with no recent practice).

I plan to try it again.  I will hunt from the ground, as I did the first time.  I will pick an ideal weather day, as I did the first time.   I will arrive early, as I did the first time.  I won't try to utilize new (or old and recently untested) gear to "make it more interesting."  Let's see what the outcome is!  I may not harvest a deer, but at least I'll have an open mind to learn something new for the next hunt after that.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Who Was Your First? Blogger Feedback...that is.

This blog needs Super Fan Suits ASAP.  Wonder if they
should be in Max-4D Camo, or Turtlegrass Bonefish camo?
I recently saw a post over at Troutrageous! where Mike highlighted his first commenter (and corporate sponsor???) Fish Creek Spinners, from back in December 2007.  Well, since River Mud also dates back to 2007, I thought for sure that I'd have a record of feedback from readers or other bloggers that pre-dated Mike's first comment.

Turns out, well, sort of.

I have a pretty good (though slim) record of blog comments throughout the first several months of River Mud's existence, but interestingly, none of those blogs are updated anymore.  None of them.

Apparently, the odds of you starting a blog in 2007 and maintaining it until 2011 are pretty darn low.   The oldest comment from a still-running blog was dated July 9, 2008.....on a January 2008 duck hunting post.

The author? None other than that portrait of stability known as Maine's Rabid Outdoorsman.

The Rabid Outdoorsman said...
Nice! If you haven't already seen it check out my friends and I hunting Eiders last season.

Let the count down begin!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Attack of the East Coast Outdoor Blogs!

You know how it be.  You're searching for outdoor information on your local east coast destination, or for your next trip that's predictably up or down I-95, and as you make the outdoor blog rounds, what you find instead is some outstanding information on fishing for Gila Trout in the New Mexico desert, primitive weapons hunting for moose in Alaska, and some dude's killer hike through Santa Cruz.    For reasons unbeknownst to me, there are not a lot of "heavy traffic" outdoor blogs based on the east coast.  Great Lakes? Yup. Texas? Yup. Fly fishing and upland bird hunting blogs across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains? Plenty of 'em.  West Coast blogs? Duh.  I guess I would be showing a small amount of bias if I hypothesized that there are fewer east coast outdoor blogs because we actually have to work for a living out here, unlike you hippy software engineers in California who haven't worked on a project in 6 years, but are still billing at $300/hour there's just something about the "average outdoorsperson" out east, or our lifestyle, that just isn't the same as in other regions.

So consider this ground "broken" - here's your list of ACTIVE (as of November, 2011) east coast outdoor blogs, roughly in order from north to south.  Pay 'em a visit!  And of course, thanks to the Outdoor Blogger Network for some of these links to great blogs - I wouldn't have found them otherwise!

Downeast Duck Hunter (2006) (ME)

Maine Outdoorsman (2007) (ME)

Maine Matters (2009) (ME) (found via Outdoor Blogger Network)

Backwoods Plaid (2011) (ME) (found via Outdoor Blogger Network)

Live Free and Hike (2010) (NH) (found via Outdoor Blogger Network)

Whitetail Woods  (2008) (CT)

New York Bowhunter (??) (NY)

Fishing and Hunting Oswego, NY (2008) (NY)

Adirondack Family Time (2009) (NY) (found via Outdoor Blogger Network)

Lehigh Valley Limestoner (2011) (PA)

Troutrageous (2007) (PA)

Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer (2007) (PA)

River Mud (2007) (MD, VA)

Bow Hunting Maryland (2011) MD)

Eastern Shore Outdoors (2010) (MD)

Fly Fishing and Tying Obsessed (2010) (MD)

Hunting Dogs and Hunting Gals (2011) (MD)

Bullets and Biscuits (2010) (DE)

Massanutten Game Trails (2010) (VA)

Jody White's Fishing (2009) (VA)

Angling Addict (2008) (VA)

Fishing Fanatic (2010) (VA)

Blue Ridge Woodland Journal (2010) (VA)

Kachung Outdoors (2011) (VA) - found via Outdoor Blogger Network

The Unlucky Hunter (2011) (VA)

Tha Rivah (2010) (NC)

Bill Howard's Outdoors (2010) (NC)

Moose Droppings (2005) (NC)

Mike's Gone Fishing (2009) (NC)

Western NC Women on the Fly (2009) (NC) (found via Outdoor Blogger Network)

Hunt Like You're Hungry (2010) (NC)

(Note: I love the South Carolina Outdoors!!! Where are your blogs???)

(postscript:) Wingshot Blog (2011) (SC)

Brave Eagles Hunt with Antique Brownings (2010) (GA)

Life Outside My Door (2011) (GA)

Finding Cross Creek (2011) (FL) (found via Outdoor Blogger Network)

Bass 2 Bucks (2011) (FL) (found via Outdoor Blogger Network)

Florida Photography from a Canoe (2009) (FL)

Florida Duck Days (2006) (FL)

The Flying Kayak (2010) (FL)

The Wild Life (2009) (FL)

West Virginia Blogs (Honorary Mention)

Foggy Mountain Meanderings (2010) (WV)

Is your east coast outdoors blog missing? Let me know!!!

East Coast Weather - Not for the Soft, Dogg!

Monday, December 12, 2011

An Amazing Bow Hunt in 300 Words or More

Awesome spot for hiding. Horrible spot for shooting.
(visit here if you'd like the photo-condensed version!)

Click. "Add." Click. "Complete." Click.  Status: Submitted. With that, my day's work was done. A big proposal out the door.  It was 2:06pm, and I knew exactly what I needed to do. I politely excused myself from the office and headed out to the truck.  My bibs, boots, and coat were all in the bed, doing a little airing out.  I gave them all the once-over and headed down the road, listening to "The Crusher" by the Cramps.

Luckily I only had a few miles to go, but it really didn't matter. I had singular focus. A single task for the afternoon - to get up close on some deer - and not just one.  Multiple deer.  Since I hadn't bow hunted in three years, and had never hunted this new swamp, I had no illusion that I'd just pop in, drop a 10-pointer, and be done with it in 2 hours.  Nope.  Time to put in my dues.

When I was recently invited to hunt the swamp it was cold, rainy, and silent as I stood there and glassed over it.  This time was much different.  As I exchanged my button-up shirt for a camo hoodie (sorry), Walls down jacket, and Walls camo bibs, I heard so much...just...noise...going on around me.  A dredging project offshore.  Roofing contractors about a quarter mile away.  Birds and squirrels all over the swamp.  A few labradors playing and barking at a nearby marina.  Yup.  This was going to take some concentration and attention to detail.  I took my time getting ready, hoping to see the first of the does or fawns on the move.  That didn't happen. A little after 3pm, I decided to get out of the lone "stand" on the property and get wet and dirty instead.

Looking east from the "stump blind"
I knew that most of the deer would be coming out of the Phragmites marsh on the south of the swampy property, so with a southwest wind (and sun setting hard in the southwest), I set up in the shadow of a big tree, on the ground, just 5 yards outside the marsh and inside the forested swamp.  Around 330pm, the first deer came through, right behind me.  Slowly but deliberately.  She got to the edge of the marsh, then (from what I could hear) walked backwards back into the swamp.  That's not good.  As I pondered what to do, another doe came through the same path and cut southwest, into the landowner's waterfront yard.  Damn.  Well she wasn't spooked.  Both animals had moved cautiously enough that I was pretty sure that the herd wouldn't willfully walk past me, giving me a shot at one of them.   When I was sure there were no deer immediately around, I quickly moved out of there, and deeper into the wooded swamp to the north, where the landowner told me the herd would end up after dark.

The second spot, seen in both of the pictures above, was money.  Well sort of money, I mean like the old Turkish lira, which could be exchanged for US dollars at like 4 million to one.  Anyway, if hunting was done in 2-D, it would have been real money, or, at least the current Turkish lira (trading at 0.5 : 1 US dollar).   If that confuses you, then keep reading.

The spot I picked, which I noticed on my way off the property after my first visit, was an upturned Swamp White Oak tree.  The roots were all still intact, sitting about five feet up in the air, and eight feet across.  The root mat created an amazing shadow immediately to its north, so that's where I sat.  It was still only 4pm, and while the deer were totally refusing to move, the swamp was alive with birds.  Namely pileated woodpeckers.  I felt like I was in some kind of dinosaur movie, with those things, probably mating season males, swooping from tree to tree with their crazy cackle.  Don't know it?

Now you do!  As the clocked passed 4:15, and 4:30, I started to get nervous, with a 4:44pm sunset looming.  The squirrels eventually battened down the hatches as the shadows started to streeeetttttccccccch off of the lanky stems of the swamp's red maples, persimmons, and musclewoods.    Around 4:35pm.......movement.

Six small does or yearlings (at this age, I hate to call them fawns) moved silently out of the marsh's high reeds, right past my initial position, and bore straight north, ending up 80 yards east of my "stump blind."   The natural and human noises around didn't seem to spook them as they kicked and rooted about for acorns and skunk cabbage roots,  but their heads were definitely on a swivel.   Eventually, like the last doe, they turned back south toward the marsh and waterfront, and headed into the waterfront mowed yard.  At this point, I already felt like the hunt was a success, because I knew where to set up next time - in the shadow of a tree (or the house) near the waterfront.   I put my bow down, and took a few quick pictures of some of my neat surroundings (see those photos here).   I figured it was done.

But that wasn't the herd. At about 4:40pm, about a dozen big does crunched through the edge of the marsh, headed to the same position where the six smaller deer had just been, had a solid look around, and then immediately walked in a single file line to within about 10 yards of me.  I couldn't believe it.   And as much as I wanted to drop one of them in that swamp with 90 seconds of legal daylight left (I'll get back to that), I felt like I didn't know it well enough to track a deer in the dark to where it finally laid down.
This was "before" the herd got close.  If you can believe that!
The herd scattered into feeding positions covering 180 degrees around me at short range.  And they smelled me.  They definitely smelled a person, and they stared right at my position, as I stood frozen......with no bow in my hand.  The staring contest continued.  They didn't see me.  With time running out, I made a slight move for my bow.  Two does saw my head or arm move, hissed at me, and jumped back a dozen yards into heavy cover.  The others also retreated with just a few bounds.  I guess that's one bonus of suburban deer.  They were more aggravated at me for disturbing them, than they were afraid of me.  I waited for the rest of the light to leave the swamp, and then I walked out.   The does didn't spook at all.  Funny.

What wasn't funny (in addition to the fact that I think I lost my expensive sunglasses in the swamp) was that I later looked up the legal shooting hours for deer, which unlike game bird hours, DO NOT END AT SUNSET.  That's right.  I had another half-hour to try to get those deer with their heads looking the other way.  I mean, always good to err on the conservative side, but man, do I wish I would have checked that ahead of time.  It should be obvious that I'm more of a bird hunter than a deer hunter.  What an idiot move!

As I was driving out of the property, I saw some bigger deer moving around in the woods.  And I saw the swamp's 10-pointer.  That's right.  I couldn't see the brow tines, so I don't actually know that they measure as points, but I saw 8 points not including the brow tines.  You might think I'm just making this all up.  Lucky for me, I took a picture.  Or a dozen.

That's a big old boy.  And he may be a hot-tempered feller himself, which probably has something to do with the fact that he had three big does right around him.  Once I had a solid picture of him, I felt like the hunt was complete - sure, I would have loved to have been field dressing a deer at that moment instead of taking pictures, but what an awesome afternoon!  I saw the property's biggest buck - the landowner had feared that poachers had killed him; I had two handfuls of legal deer well within range of my bow; and just the adrenaline rush of having those wary animals work so close to me was invigorating.  I was still excited the next day!

I'll be going again soon.  Really soon.  This time, with my tree stand (a 2004 Gorilla climber with a seat that's too small) and a little better scent control.  Doesn't mean I'll notch a tag.  Or even get a shot.  But now I know a little more about how wildlife use this swamp.  And I'll be ready.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Too Warm to Hunt - It's Outdoor Toddler Time!

Hank runs wild at Irvine Nature Center's back 40 ? 60? 110?  It's a big field - wish they'd restore it as habitat!

You wouldn't think this is about 8 miles outside of Baltimore's city limits

Hank was ecstatic to find (and he found it himself) a "dwagon toof", which he talked about
for the next day and a half. 
The "dragon tooth" in question (fox jaw)
Hank pretty much runs as fast as possible, all the time.   One benefit of having no large
predators out here (yet) is that he's totally safe running ahead like that. 

Irvine Nature Center won an award and some certifications for the Outdoor Play Space
they built for city and suburban kids to actually play with stumps, boulders, loose soil, etc. 
Hank takes on the physical challenges of the natural play space a lot more thoughtfully
than he does at a regular playground.  At the natural play space, he often yells, "I did it!"
when he feels like he successfully did something.  Yes, he probably got dirty.

As a dad, here's one of your (my) measures of success when it comes to planning
activities for the kids.

Friday, December 9, 2011

An Amazing Bow Hunt in 300 Words or Less

I'm outdoors a lot. Maybe two or three days a week.  It's pretty rare, maybe once or twice a year, that I have an outdoors experience that strikes me deeply enough that I can't blog about it with a nifty combination of text and photos and move on to the next adventure.

I recently had one of those days.  My first bow hunt in three years. One of those beautiful days that starts off fall and ends up winter, after four days of cold, soaking rains. I only spent a few hours outside, but I was....struck....

And while Erin Block's recent thoughts on the continuing demise of storytelling continue to percolate through my brain and impress upon me the necessity of high quality writing (I've read the piece three times now), I was moved to silence in the woods on this day.   Oh, there was a hunt for deer, and it got serious.  I'll tell that story soon.   But for now, enjoy the pictures, the silence, the solitude of a cool December day afield.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A New Hunting Spot...Paid for in Friendship and Respect

My new bowhunting spot - complete with unhunted herd!
Out of nowhere, I landed a new local hunting spot recently.  It's full of big deer and no hunters - I don't know which is more exciting. The invitation came during a conversation about trying to protect a nice wooded swamp (that one on the left) from development and simultaneously keep the landowner from going bankrupt.

To even get the conversation to that point required me to chew up my own free time, call on personal relationships at various agencies and non-profits, and burn the midnight oil (for free, of course) to see if a good outcome can be reached here.

And then it came. I started peeling off my mud boots in the driving rain, struggling to get my truck unlocked, already looking forward to a sip of the mug of coffee in the truck's cupholder.  Then something hit me in the head, and fell with a clink into my boot. What the..???  And the landowner said, "There's the gate keys.  I want you to have a crack at that 10-pointer.  He's still here.  It would just mean a ton to us if you were the one to bring him down."  I always remember moments like this.

In 37 years of living, I've learned that there are certain things you can't beg for, plead for, or least of all demand out of life or of people, with any expectation of receiving them.  Friendship is one.  Respect is another. Offers of free and open access to private land and water, while not even on the same level of importance, are yet another.  And of course, such offers are inextricably tied to those first two critical ones - friendship and respect.  

You can count some of their friends in, as well - sincerity, clarity of mind and purpose, and an acceptance of the impact of how other people view you, your actions, and your words. Used in our daily lives, these things can bring great opportunities and deep relationships.  When those things are forgotten from day to day, we sometimes wonder, "who are my real friends?" and "are people abandoning me?"  Admit it - you've had that day.  Was it a great day? I bet not.

The swamp drains from north to south, split in a wishbone across a prehistoric dune at the southern end, a dune that just refuses to erode or sink into the swamp.  The does, fawns, and young bucks work their way south, into the swamp through the morning hours, especially on cloudy days, eventually coming to rest on the dune in the south.  The two eight pointers maintain positions in the tall reeds southeast of the swamp nearly all day, finally creeping up the eastern fork of the wishbone, northward into the swamp.  The ten pointer sleeps all day under the cedars on the point, moving long after sunset up the western fork of the swamp, past the old dune, and into the swamp's low, interior belly.  He's still there.  

And if you take care of people, they might just help you go get that big buck.  That Osceola turkey.  That trophy size Gila Trout. Or that business or networking connection you keep falling short on, time after time.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Of Skeet Shooting and Small Miracles

I love my Remington 870, but I only shoot it a few times a year anymore.  I'm more proficient with other guns on sporting clays (Browning Gold, 20ga) and birds (Mossberg 935, 12ga), but the 870 is still an outstanding gun, and worth pulling it out of the safe every so often.

Regardless, we were headed down to southeastern Virginia for my Dad's retirement party.  41 years as a civilian in the Army.  Wow.  To break up the wholesome family fun, we decided to take a few cracks at one of the skeet ranges on one of the area's many military bases.   Brother T and his hunting buddy Kevin tagged along and we definitely had a great time.

I believe I shot 19/25, 21/25, and 18/25 with the 20 gauge.......not horrible for staring directly into the sun on a skeet range I'd never shot before.   Then T asked to borrow the 20 gauge and I suited up the Remington with my favorite choke - an extended Briley in IC.  I've had that choke for a decade, and killed many geese with it. I have a "Dead Zone" mod choke that I used to use for shooting clays with that gun.......don't know what possessed me to screw in the Briley instead. But I did.

I finished the round, and scored really poorly (11/25 or so).  Plus, the gun was kicking like a mule! I had no idea what the problem was until I pulled the old choke out.   You see the results above.  Minor miracle, small blessing, whatever.  Thank God I caught it before it caught me in the face!

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Over 12 years ago, I started this blog. There were very few conservation or outdoor blogs at the time, few websites with fast-breaking con...