Great Delta Day Waterfowl Hunting

While traveling up False River on the Jersey Island Ferry, the sun and ground fog created a great opportunity for an unusual photo.

While traveling up False River on the Jersey Island Ferry, the sun and ground fog created a great opportunity for an unusual photo.

Ducks and geese worked our decoys all day today. Hunting with my son-in-law Brett was about as good as it gets. It was his third waterfowl hunt, but the first time that he had numerous chances.

After a few failed attempts, Brett brought down this spec that set on our goose decoys.

After a few failed attempts, Brett brought down this spec that set on our goose decoys.

Lola made eight good retrieves on specs and pintail.

Brett snapped this photo of Lola up close.

Brett snapped this photo of Lola up close.

Brett knocked down this drake spring on his last shot of the day.

Brett knocked down this drake spring on his last shot of the day.

Habitat Monocultures

A monoculture creates habitat for a few while denying many. Take my yard for example. It’s a 20-year-old garden, neatly manicured and primarily consisting off mature trees and shrubbery. The trees are mostly large red-woods, live oaks and ornamentals. The dominant animal species is  a non-native Eastern tree squirrel.

My wife put out a bird feeder. I’ve seen two species of birds perched on it – often a black phoebe that uses it as a lookout and once an English sparrow. Birds don’t spend time in our yard because it has little to offer them. They’re too busy out in the weed lot where seeds are plentiful instead of our yard which doesn’t have a plant in it that produces seeds.

We have a few insects, but not many. When my wife sees a bug she terminates it. I guess you could say this is Linda habitat.

What creates a monoculture? Single minded people and organizations with a narrow objective.

Who’s the biggest creator of monoculture? Probably agricultural interests and timber companies. Farmers envision row crops as far as the eye can see. Ranchers manage only for plants the cattle can eat. Everybody has an objective and most often it doesn’t include leaving anything behind for wildlife.

And, sometimes government creates monoculture – like the U.S. Forest Service. A few years after a potentially beneficial forest fire, bulldozers remove the remains of old trees and then plant seedlings. After a year or two, when other plant species appear, herbicides are used to kill them. Shrubs, like ceanothus, that could create diversity are not allowed to compete with the success of the new pine forest. A monoculture of trees emerges from the ground. Deer and other wildlife that could have benefited from the fire are denied. Why do we have to be so efficient?

Government lays the groundwork for a monoculture when it passes legislation specifically intended to benefit one  animal species deemed to need special consideration. Efforts to offset carbon emissions can create a monoculture in the form of old growth habitat intended to offset carbon emissions (Cap-And-Trade).

When farmers plant many thousands of acres of corn, a few species benefit and many others disappear. Some game animals benefit from cornfields, because corn produces food. But, when farming becomes super efficient, even game animals lose.  Thousands of acres of rice can benefit ducks and geese, but when the rice farming becomes so efficient that it leaves no residual rice for waterfowl to eat, the rice-farm monoculture fails wildlife completely.

When the government decided to go big with ethanol production, marginal habitat in the corn states was drained to expand corn production. The result, an even larger monoculture of ground unable to support waterfowl nesting. To my eyes, ethanol is a blight.

Natural forces like fire create can monoculture. Sometimes a fire-created monoculture lasts only for a short time. After one season diversity may set in again and wildlife can benefit. On the other hand, when a fire creates a mountain covered only in only cheat grass, which perpetuates itself, the monoculture creates a downward spiral for species that need shrub habitat. This is one of the reasons why wildfire has severely impacted mule deer and sage grouse populations in Nevada.

Because humans have create monocultures they also create wildlife winners and losers. Those who control the land and land management, control habitat on a large-scale and ultimately determine what critters will thrive and which will disappear.

In the habitat world, the antithesis of monoculture  is diversity.

Christmas at Our House

Christmas at our house is much like many others, but the influence of duck season is probably quite a bit more evident. Most of the presents I hand out to the males of the family have a strong tie to  hunting – especially duck hunting as that’s what’s going on.

This year I not only purchased a couple ducks calls to give away, but also dug up a few of my used calls to hand out as well. I’d rather give them to relatives than sell them cheap at a garage sale.

A new hunting vest and a couple hunting books will be handed out as well.

MDF provided an item. I couldn’t afford to give anybody a new rifle, so instead I’m giving out raffle tickets with a  1/100 chance to win a new rifle. Maybe one of my family will win, but they won’t find out until our March 14th fundraiser.

Not only do gifts enter into the equation, but so does duck hunting itself. Although my wife, Linda, is not keen about it, the 26th is a traditional duck day in our family. This year four of the family will be out in the field on the day after Chrismas. My son-in-law is our newest hunter. Brett bagged a blacktail last August, but he’s still looking to bag his first duck or goose.

And, we all are praying for healthy new duck hunter as my daughter, Betsy, is expecting a new hunter to arrive any day.  We know the baby will be a boy and I bet he’ll be a duck hunter.

This is definitely a special Christmas.

 

Three Centuries of Conservation

Yesterday’s hunt with my friend Jeff Kerry was thought-provoking. As is usual when we hunt together, we spent much of our time discussing waterfowl and waterfowl conservation. We are both very concerned about the future of waterfowl and waterfowl hunting.

Jeff and I met because we are both real estate brokers and hunters. Our first interaction was in a real estate transaction where he represented the seller and I represented the buyer of a grasslands duck club. We had so much in common that it was natural for us to become friends.

There is nobody who I know of who is more passionate or knowledgable about duck clubs in California than Jeff. He has the hands-on knowledge of managing habitat and experience dealing with people in both the private and public sector. One thing Jeff and I agree on is that we have spent much of our life trying to make a difference in conservation and we both have the feeling that we have not been able to make a significant difference.

The forces of politics, economy and the human expansion are too overwhelming for most individuals to deal with.

When I looked up Conservation in North American on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservation_in_the_United_States), I came upon some familiar names and some unfamiliar. But I believe that for the purposes of discussion, it is helpful to break conservation in North America into three centuries.

The first century included developing an awareness of the impact of man upon nature.

As a hunter, my view of conservation is slanted towards those who laid groundwork for and development of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. Two of the most prominent individuals in that arena are Aldo Leopold and Theodore Roosevelt.

Among non-hunters two of the most prominent people I have been aware of are Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. Hunters or not, the emphasis on their work is oriented to habitat conservation and environmental health.

The men mentioned above, and many others, established principles that guided the creators of many modern conservation organizations – organizations that helped determine the theme of the second century of Conservation. A few examples of these groups are The Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, The Wildlife Society and The Boone and Crockett Club.  These are some of the organizations that I grew up hearing about.

Legislation that has greatly impacted conservation at the beginning of the third century of  North American conservation is the Endangered Species Act of 1973. (http://www.fws.gov/laws/lawsdigest/esact.html)

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) has become the most powerful wildlife force in modern conservation. The reason it is powerful is because it gives the government teeth so the law can be enforced. Like all legislation that expands the powers of government, the ESA is  like a double-edged sword. It cuts in both positive and negative directions.

The way all this relates to yesterday, is that my discussion with Jeff yesterday often clarified some of the negatives of the ESA and how those negatives  impact waterfowl and the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

As I’ve pointed out before, I believe that one of the crucial weak links in the ESA is that is too strongly protects the life of individual animals. By so strongly defending the “take” of an individual, wildlife managers are ham-strung while managing for all species. This greatly impacts waterfowl managers. For example,  plowing, mowing, predator management and herbicide use are all important aspects of successful waterfowl management. However these activities are most often precluded in areas managed for endangered species such as snakes, frogs and salamanders.

As more and more resources are dedicated to, or impacted by, management of endangered species, waterfowl species are declining. Sometimes this is due to an inability to manage effectively for waterfowl. Marsh intended for but not properly managed for waterfowl has little benefit to the birds.

Another problem is efforts to offset carbon emissions (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/14/california-carbon-offset-cap-and-trade_n_4270248.html), such as the prototype program at Mayberry. Our Mayberry duck club is being managed for carbon offsets (another form of conservation authorized by Cap-and-Trade legislation) and also as a way of preventing subsidence (ground settling due to oxidation of highly organic soils). It is my belief that this prototype is too radical and those who support it are too single-minded. Mayberry was more environmentally sound before it was converted to growing cattail. The duck club was offsetting carbon emissions and subsidence before it was converted and it was also having a tremendous benefit for waterfowl.

Today Mayberry probably produces greater carbon offset and subsidence prevention than it did as a duck club, but it has almost no benefit to waterfowl. Not only is the benefit for migrating waterfowl in winter gone, but the expected benefit to nesting waterfowl in spring has proved to be negligent.

The next phase of the Mayberry prototype is to expand it to other areas. The success of the Mayberry prototype is that it has proved that this type carbon-subsidence project can be better provided by the benefits of traditional waterfowl habitat and this radical program should not continue in its current form.

In this photo from 2010, Rob and Wes are plucking ducks facing the Mayberry Marsh as it was in 2010.

In this photo from 2010, Rob and Wes are plucking ducks facing the Mayberry Marsh as it was in 2010.

In 2011, work began to rebuild to create a permanent marsh designed for carbon offsets and subsidence prevention.

In 2011, work began to rebuild to create a permanent marsh designed for carbon offsets and subsidence prevention.

Mayberry 2012 is a paradise for fish, blackbirds and cattail, but not waterfowl.

Mayberry 2012 is a paradise for fish, blackbirds and cattail, but not waterfowl.

Over time, conservation efforts take dips and turns and not all of our ideas result in a net gain. Before taking actions that penalize one species for the benefit of another, we need to be sure it’s worth it. And, before we go berserk worrying about global warming, we need to carefully evaluate programs like Cap-And-Trade – which will have many unintended and sometimes destructive, consequences.

Hunted a Rice Cub Today

I’m not a big fan of hunting rice ground. Rice makes great duck ponds, but I’ve never experienced a really good duck hunt in a rice paddy. It’s not uncommon to see lots of waterfowl, but typically the birds are passing by overhead and out of range. The club we hunted is located between the Sutter Bypass and Knight’s Landing

Today’s experience was similar to my previous hunts from rice-check blinds, except we didn’t really see a lot of waterfowl, at least nothing exceptional. White-front geese passed over and a few ducks worked the decoys. We fired at a spoony, a greenwing teal, a hen mallard and a pintail. We came home with nothing.The hen mallard sailed down a check away from us, but it got up and flew away when my friend caught up with it. Unfortunately, his follow-up shot missed and then his gun jammed. Bummer.

The club we hunted today has a good reputation for success and blinds are  $3,000 per hole ($9,000 for a three-man blind). A good two-man blind in the grasslands goes for about $7,500. You can kill more geese and mallards in the north, but the teal-oriented grasslands clubs can be very consistent.

Rice ground does  produce some good hunting, but it’s primarily during prime duck-hunting weather – storms, wind or fog. On nice days, like today, rice typically does not hunt well.

One of my hunting partners commented that rice harvesters are so efficient now that very little rice stays in the fields, reducing significantly the attraction for feeding ducks.

We stopped by Mayberry on the way home and one of our group had killed a few ducks this morning, including a couple mallards. Nothing great, but at least they got something.

It was the first time my guest had seen Mayberry since the conversion to permanent marsh. He was a  shocked. Anybody who knows what a good marsh looks like would agree that the new Mayberry, with its cattail mass and deep water, has little to attract waterfowl in winter. My guess is that Mayberry, on average in winter, holds less than one percent of the waterfowl it once did. In other words, when it used to overnight 5,000 birds, it now has less than 50.

Thousands of waterfowl used to pack into our Mayberry duck club, especially at dusk as they moved in for a night of feeding.
Thousands of waterfowl used to pack into our Mayberry duck club,
especially at dusk as they moved in for a night of feeding.

Looks like hunting will be a bit slow during the holidays, but we’ll be out there trying. Sooner or later the hunting generally picks up.

Wednesday Duck Hunt Best Of Year So Far

Took my own advise and got out duck hunting on Wednesday. The ducks cooperated.

Ice around the edge of the ponds was an indication of the temperature and mallards began to lift off the water as I slid my one-man Final Attack duck boat into the pond.

My optimism grew as more mallards took off in front of me. I have a hard time remaining calm when this happens. Duck fever was setting in.

With five decoys in place and Lola on her stool, I pulled on the jerk string and it wasn’t long before birds arrived. A single drake mallard passed by low from right to left. I followed it with my gun barrel and decided to go for it. Down it went into a thick tule patch.

Lola popped off her seat and I got her headed in the right direction. Circling the area where the bird went down, she got wind of it and climbed into the tules. After she found it she stood on top of the pile and refused to bring it to me. With considerable effort I climbed onto the tule hill and grabbed the duck. I had no time to play around. Who knows for sure why dogs do things, but I think she likes to lick the blood that flows from the ducks wounds.

Any way, I probably wouldn’t have retrieved it without her.

And so it went for the next two hours. When it was over I had six greenheads out of the eight I shot at. Not bad.

Most of the shots were close and the birds worked well. They were wary and quite a few refused to come within range. They were in good shape, large bodied and yellow skin – which I consider a sign that they were not yet stressed from the winter weather.

Had the local MDF committee over for barbecued ducks last night and the birds were delicious.

Lola had a good day retrieving - with a couple minor exceptions.

Lola had a good day retrieving – with a couple minor exceptions.

Cold Weather Should Produce Good Waterfowl Opportunity

Received a call from a friend in Klamath Falls, Oregon, yesterday. He said the temp was 20 below. Oregon holds lots of ducks until a big freeze happens. Some years it never happens.

This is good news for duck and goose hunters as waterfowl has to move when the temps drop. I’d imagine that this will be one of the better duck hunting weeks of the season, with new birds moving in from the north.

When new birds move in, it takes them a while to learn safe areas, giving duck hunters a chance to bag some birds before then learn to congregate in protected areas. on Saturday I hunted Webb Tract, primarily for geese and there were plenty of them around. The first couple hours were hectic and I bagged on specklebelly before the action slowed – should have had a couple more, but as is often the case, I muffed a couple chances and missed on a few shots.

As the wind picked up, the birds used their ability to stay just on the edge of range to their advantage and I missed shots and passed up other shots that I should have taken, but that’s waterfowl hunting.

I plan on being out there this week. Don’t miss out on this type of opportunity – it may warm up and leave us wishing we’d been out there while it lasted.

A Different Kind of Deer Hunt – Thanksgiving Whitetails

Any trip is better when it includes some hunting.

That’s an extra reason why I was excited by the idea of visiting my step-daughter, Shannon,  and her husband, Tim, in Virginia for Thanksgiving. They live in Southampton County, an area with plenty of whitetail deer. And they can hunt right behind their house.

The trip itinerary was loaded, deer hunting, Thanksgiving with relatives and a visit to USNA, my college alma mater that I haven’t seen in 42 years. With luck we would even sneak in a quick Washington tour.

Granted the hunting would be limited to a tree stand at the west end of their 15 acre farm, but they are adjacent to a large wooded parcel owned by a paper company, so deer are present.

Our midnight arrival at Dulles International was a rough start. My shotgun remained in SF, not to arrive until the AM on Monday. The temp was below freezing and the wind was howling. It took us about an hour to reach the rental car lot.

I had forgotten about the hazards of navigating around the Washington area. The iPhone GPS was a bit confusing and on the poorly lighted highways we made one wrong turn after another. Add to that the surprise toll road and we had all the ingredients of a travel nightmare.

The 3.8 mile drive to the hotel took about an hour. At 3:30 AM we finally settled in. I nearly blew a gasket the next morning when the United Airlines luggage hotline told me they’d get my missing luggage to me, “in four to six hours.”

By about 11AM, we were finally underway to Annapolis and a quick visit to the “Yard.”

After more than 42 years, I made my return. Things do change, like the addition of a metal detector scan at the gate for all visitors. Had to return to the car to drop off my Swiss Army knife while Linda waited impatiently.

The Navy Yard at Annapolis has changed, but felt about the same as it did when I was a Mid. The gray walls of Bancroft Hall were no more inviting, but the Midshipmen were basically the same and I felt at home walking amongst them.

Snapped this shot of Linda and I at the Tecumsuh statue at USNA

Snapped this shot of Linda and I at the Tecumseh statue at USNA. The statue is a replica of a wooden statue taken from the USS Delaware.

Even picked up a few souvenirs at the Midshipman Store before departing. Linda was more impressed with Annapolis than the Academy. It is very quaint and also very old with lots of history.

By 3:30 PM we were on 95 South (along with everybody else) heading to Southampton County. We arrived at Tim and Shannon’s about 7:30 PM on Monday.

The weather went from cold to wet. Two days of constant rain made my initial efforts to hunt a bit challenging. Since Tim and Shannon are not hunters, I needed to find some VA hunting regulations. A Tuesday trip to Walmart produced. Surprise, no license required for the landowner or immediate family in order to hunt deer on one’s own property. (I took that to include “step” parents.)

I knew in advance that I would be limited to shotgun for hunting deer. That’s the law in Virginia. I used my Beretta O/U with a slug in the upper barrel and turkey load in the lower. Not sure if the turkey loads were important, but that was my choice. Squirrels were also legal and I had several opportunities, but passed on them.

A 5 gallon bucket, purchased at “The Tractor Store” became my interim hunting seat until the tree stand could be erected. On Wednesday morning I was hunting shortly after first light. Although a bit wet, I would not have surprised me if a deer showed up, but none did.

Tim had purchased the stand from amazon.com and chose it based upon Amazon’s rating system. They purchased the Gear-guide 16 foot 2-man strand rated for up to 500 pounds. The instructions suggested that three people raise the stand. It took a couple days and two trips to town but I finally got it up against a suitable tree – by myself – on Friday.

Our Thanksgiving dinner would be traditional. Tim brined a twelve-pound bird, in preparation for the seven-hour smoking process. We sat on buckets and hunted for an hour at first light on Thanksgiving morning. The roosters were crowing, crows cawing and goats bleating. No sign of deer.

Two man tree stand where we hunted.

Two man tree stand where we hunted.

I managed to assemble the tree stand, but not hoist it. Any more hunting was put off until Friday. The turkey, dressing, gravy, salad and apple pie hit the spot. Friday morning I was back on the bucket. Morning temps were in the 20’s, but I had plenty of clothing.

Linda and I took morning walks each day and met a few of the local hunters along the way. We even spotted a few interesting tracks.

Linda on one of our walks

Linda on one of our walks

pivot corn and timberIn the photo above, the cornfield, pivot and thick woods show the reasons why whitetail deer are doing well in Southampton County. A variety of deer foods, water to create habitat and escape cover are essential.

On our walks Linda and I saw evidence of successful hunts.

On our walks Linda and I saw evidence of successful hunts.

It was nice to see the flycatchers, cardinals, king-birds, red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks that were present. The crows were loud. No deer again on Friday. After another trip to Lowe’s, I finally finished the assembly and hoisting of the stand.

Eastern kingbird in Shannon and Tim's front yard.
Flycatcher in Shannon and Tim’s front yard.

On Saturday, Tim and I climbed the ladder and sat patiently. Still no deer. An interesting twist in Virginia deer hunting is the use of hounds. We heard dogs many times while hunting, but we didn’t see any until Saturday.

The technique, turn the hounds loose at one location and let them sniff their way through the thick briars to put any bedded deer in motion. Most of the dogs were beagles, but I also spotted a couple odd looking mutts.

We found this bobcat track along a dirt road. Bobcats, raccoons and deer are three of the primary pursuit game animals in Virginia.

We found this bobcat track along a dirt road. Bobcats, raccoons and deer are three of the primary game animals pursued in Virginia.

I’d spoken with several local hunters that Linda and I met on the roadsides while walking. Several of them were cruising roads searching for their dogs. The dogs were fitted with radio collars and the dog handlers used hand- held and truck-mounted receivers to keep track of the dog’s location. It appeared that the dogs tended to stay out all or at least most of the day.

The hunters were on stand and waiting for the disturbed deer to pass by. We saw the results as occasionally a truck would pass by with a deer in the bed. We got word of some nice bucks being taken.

Hounds, like this Walker hound are used to hunt deer, raccoon and bobcat.

Hounds, like this Walker hound are used to hunt deer, raccoon, rabbit and bobcat.

On Saturday afternoon a pair of beagles walked under my tree stand and headed towards Tim and Shannon’s chickens. As they closed in on the free-ranging chickens I feared that something bad was about to happen.

After failing to catch the beagles and deter a dog-chicken conflict,  I elected to look for somebody more familiar with the problem. When one of the neighbors volunteered to help, we managed to pull a chicken out of the mouth of a beagle. We’re not sure if the chicken survived, but we did find the beagle owner.

Shannon and Tim's small farm with chickens and dairy goats.

Shannon and Tim’s small farm with chickens and dairy goats.

The day ended at sunset and another beagle under our stand. The last one caused no trouble. An interesting law in Virginia closes hunting on Sunday, so Saturday was the last chance to hunt before we left.

Sunday was spent relaxing and visiting Williamsburg. I celebrated the hunt by ordering a game pot pie at a Colonial Inn. The meats included venison, rabbit and duck. It was excellent, in fact, I’m planning to look for the recipe.

Shannon and Tim in front of the  King's Arms Tavern in Williamsburg.

Shannon and Tim in front of the King’s Arms Tavern in Williamsburg.

Monday we drove back to DC and managed to visit the Washington Monument and others  – something Linda had never done.

Snapped this photo in front of the White House.

Snapped this photo in front of the White House.

The trip didn’t produce a whitetail, but it did lay the groundwork or a future opportunity.

I wouldn’t claim to be an expert after a five-day visit, but my impression after a few days of hunting was  positive. In Southampton County, populations of deer, turkey and other game are enhanced by the summer rains and crops that include corn and soy beans. From the hunter’s prospective (in clear contrast to California, where game is spread out) habitat in this Eastern states has  potential to hold game at densities that enhance hunting on small parcels. In addition, land prices appear to be moderate,  making ownership potentially affordable for hunters.