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Rabbits, ducks, grouse: there's still a lot of good hunting Backyard feeders should be especially busy this year
Rabbits, ducks, grouse: there's still a lot of good hunting

Bob Balhatchet

"Wack'em and stack'em" is a quote from a hunter whose story ran in the paper. The line doesn't create a poetic image, but does portray what happened in the deer woods this fall. All of the hunters I spoke with either got their deer or had the opportunity to take one but missed or somehow goofed up...an easy accomplishment in the excitement of big game hunting. Hey, guys, let the anti-hunters slurp their salad, while we swallow the savory, lean venison, so sweet with every bite because we got it the hard way. Not only did we enjoy the satisfaction of personal accomplishment, but many of you donated your deer to those who needed the meat.

So you're knocked back in your recliner sighing, "It's all over now." You cleaned your rifle and muzzleloader, stashed your camo (or do you wear it night and day cause it smells good?) and you think maybe you won't leave your chair 'til spring fishing.

Bounce up, guy. Don that camo (if it is safe to approach) and grab your shotgun. Yes, your shotgun is your weapon of choice. There's more good eating running around and flying above if your eye is keen, and your swing is smooth. Behold the bunny. That big-butted snowshoe hare will fill your frypan and make your beagle think he is in hound-heaven. You need to be above 3,000 feet to hunt the big runners, but you're a tough guy.

But if the heights aren't your element, slip along a stream or sneak up on a beaver pond. What do you see out there? Ducks, of course. If you prefer a large target, go for geese. When the lakes and ponds freeze up, the birds will seek moving water that hasn't frozen.

Refuse to recline and float your favorite stream during January when ducks, geese and squirrels are all fair game. Stalking the bank or just waiting in an open space along the river can afford exciting pass shooting. It is something like shooting at a feathered rocket. If you drop a bird in the winter water, better ask your hairy companion to swim out. The alternative is snagging with your spincasting outfit. This takes some doing when the current is strong.

Now for the bestest bird of all...grouse. Better writers than I (well, almost) have rhapsodized about the "brown bomber" of the thickets. Hunters attempting to "walk them up" are always startled by the bird's bombastic whirr of wings and amazing aerial antics. By the time they remember why they are carrying that shotgun, the speedy bird is 30 yards away on the fast fly.

But hunting grouse (or any bird) with a dog that points, that, friends, is one of the most fulfilling and exciting hunting experiences you can enjoy. Fulfilling because you and this canine crony have trained and walked the woods for years as a team. Exciting because when the bird goes up, a flash of brown and black, it may fly left, right or right at your head, and you have about a second or so to mount your gun and fire. Wow! Just writing about it gets me excited.

Here's a typical grouse safari scenario: Your dog is working back and forth about 30 yards out. As he starts to pass a bush heavy with berries, he stops forward motion to wheel hard to his right.

He has turned so quickly his body is still in a curve. His nervous system responded in an instant to the scent he lives to savor, a reaction passed down to him from hundreds of ancestors, an instinct you have honed to near perfection with years of training.

He stands like a statue, neck stretched forward, a front leg raised, his tail rigid. His entire body quivers with the intensity and concentration of the true hunter.

The startling suddenness and completeness of a solid point not only excites your admiration, but sets your pulse pounding. You move past your dog. Your shotgun is at port arms, ready to shoulder. The whirring of wings and suddenness of the flush numbs you momentarily, even over your dog's point.

You shoulder your gun, try to swing past that grouse who now has a flight speed of 30 miles per hour. You fire, but see nofeathers fluttering. Another miss. You're disappointed, but there was the great point. And that's a bird you can both hunt again.

Updated January 19, 1998
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Backyard feeders should be especially busy this year

Scott Shalaway

Blue skies and 60 degree temperatures _ one day the thermometer climbed to 71 degrees on my back porch. It seemed like April or even May. The first week of January was remarkably mild.

It truly felt like spring. The birds sensed it, too. Bluebirds, Carolina wrens, white-throated sparrows and cardinals sang enthusiastically. Chalk it up to the January thaw. It happens most years, but I don't ever remember it being this warm. The forecast calls for a return to more seasonable weather, and I'm glad. I like winter, snow and cold temperatures _ as long as the pipes don't freeze.

One reason I enjoy January is that winter weather pulls birds into the yard like a feather magnet. During mild spells, birds subsist on natural foods _ weed seeds, berries, nuts, insect egg cases and cocoons. They visit feeders occasionally, but they seem to prefer natural foods when they're available. But when temperatures plunge and snow flies, birds flock to my backyard.

This year backyard feeders should be especially busy. It's an invasion year. Evening and pine grosbeaks, purple finches, pine siskins, redpolls, crossbills and red-breasted nuthatches _ birds that typically winter farther north, often in Canada _ have been reported as far south as Virginia. Evening grosbeaks showed up in Wheeling, back in October, and I've had reports of crossbills and red-breasted nuthatches from western Pennsylvania. Purple finches arrived at my house a week before Christmas, and on New Year's Eve I hosted a flock of 30 siskins. Watch for these unusual birds at your feeders all winter long. Seed production by conifers up north was apparently poor this year, so irruptive migrants have wandered south in search of food.

For up-to-date information on irruptive migrants, visit the web page of Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology (http://birdsource.cornell.edu/pfw.htm). You'll find information about Project Feederwatch and maps showing the current extent of the invasion. You can even submit your own observations electronically.

Another reason I like January is that it marks the beginning of the nesting season for birds. It may sound odd that any bird would begin nesting just as winter is getting under way, but the great horned owl does. Pairs have been hooting and courting in the woods since Halloween. Crisp fall nights seem strangely quiet when the local pair wanders out of earshot.

By mid-January, great horned owls have claimed an old crow, heron or red-tailed hawk nest. They don 't bother building their own. Older females may lay eggs by the end of the month, though many probably delay egg-laying until February.

Clutch size averages two to three eggs, and incubation takes about 35 days. The female does most of the incubating. During the nestling period, both parents provide a steady supply of rabbits, rats, mice, opossums and skunks for the owlets. When hunting is good, great horned owls store uneaten food in the nest. If the extra food freezes, great horns thaw it by "incubating" it. Young great horned owls begin climbing branches near the nest at about five weeks of age; they begin to fly at nine to ten weeks.

There are probably two reasons great horned owls nest so early. First, they are big enough to stay warm and find enough food. Second, young owls need as much time as possible to learn to hunt so they can be independent for their first winter. Mastering the art of predation requires lots of time and practice.

Though nature in winter has much to offer, the best part about January is that after three months of ever shorter days, photoperiod begins to lengthen. It's just a minute or two each day, but those minutes add up. Increasing day length is the only absolutely reliable indicator that winter won't last forever.

Yes, I enjoy winter _ perhaps it's because I have no choice. But I'm no fool. January's longer days also hold the promises called April and May.

Updated January 19, 1998
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