Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bear With Me

I suppose it was inevitable that they'd find me here. I just wish they wouldn't break my stuff.
The black bear and I have a long history that doesn't seem as though it's going to end any time soon. We went from living in North Carolina's Coastal Plain, where bears are numerous and grow big, to the Appalachian Mountains, where bears are just as common if not more so, and in many cities and towns, they have become habituated to humans.
Claw marks on the tree.
The tree in relation to the back deck
I got to experience the local bear scene early last week, when an unseen visitor came through the backyard at night, climbed a tree that I'd hung a suet feeder out for birds, grabbed the feeder and squashed the wire field fence that's stapled to our split rail on its way out. It's my fault, I know. Putting a brick of solidified animal fat, chock full of peanuts, sunflower seeds and dried fruit, is just asking for trouble. Mountain black bears are busy trying to gain as much weight as they can put on before winter sets in and food sources dry up. It's not unusual for these bears to hibernate for several weeks and even months during the harshest periods - so they need plenty of fat to get them through their long nap. Our town of Black Mountain has a growing bear problem. As people move here and the community expands, the chances of human/bear contact increases. Add the fact that many people (me included) like to attract wildlife to their yards with bird seed, and you have a recipe for disaster. It's not just bird feeders. On our street, the garbage pick-up is Wednesday morning at 7 a.m. It would be nice to take the trash out Tuesday evening instead of trying to remember to drag it out first thing in the morning, but the bears won't allow it. Since we've moved here in June, our neighborhood bruin has dined on the trash of over-eager neighbors twice - and trashed the street in the process. We're going to have to learn to live with bears, or else it's going to end badly for both the bears and us. Some folks have the twisted notion to feed bears on purpose. The practice only habituates the animals to the point where they lose their fear of humans. That track eventually leads to aggressive behavior or an attack - which can end in human fatality and always ends with a dead bear.
I've had even more direct contact with a bear since moving to western NC. While driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway between Asheville and Weaverville, I hit one with my Volkswagen Jetta. It wasn't a big deal - just a love tap really. I was driving the speed limit (35 mph I think) and a young black bear just rolled out onto the road in front of me like a boulder coming down the mountain. I hit the brakes, but I couldn't avoid the collision. By the time I stopped and got out to look for it (a yearling - maybe 60-80 pounds), the bear was gone. I searched for blood, but there was none. The only evidence it happened was the handful of black hairs I collected from the front bumper.
Hey buddy, got anything to eat?
It's just another chapter in my ongoing love/hate relationship with bears. There are the bears that live in sanctuary at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge that come running at the sound of a gunshot as though it were a dinner bell. Every year, bears steal deer killed by hunters who have been selected by permit drawing to help cull the herd there. It's happened to  my friend, Brian, twice - most recently when he was following a blood trail on his hands and knees through thick pocosin, only to come face-to-face with the biggest bear he'd ever seen, feasting on the entrails of the doe he'd shot just minutes before. Brian thought about sending a warning shot over the bear's brow, but wisely decided against it. More often than not, we see more bears than we do deer during these two-day hunts. A lot of times it seems like they're just hanging around the tree stand, waiting for me to shoot something.
And then of course, there's my best bear story of all time. I was working as a field technician on a breeding bird study in Minnesota. After a morning of censusing birds along a three-mile transect across the spruce/fir forest, I was enjoying the sunshine and scenery during the hike out. All of a sudden, there was a thunderous crashing in the trees overhead. I didn't even have a chance to look up when there was a falling black blur and a heavy thump just to my right. From out of nowhere, a black bear had fallen from the sky next to me. I know everyone says not to panic when faced with a bear, but that's exactly what I did. I ran like hell, away from the crashing, thrashing bear. But the noise behind me was going the other way. I looked over my shoulder and saw the bear was doing exactly the same thing I was - running away. So I stopped. And so did he. And we looked cautiously at one another for a long time. The distance was 30 yards. I stood as motionless as possible and sized up my bear. It was a small one - less than 100 pounds for sure - and it seemed curious now that the excitement had passed. As best I could tell, the bear just happened to fall out of a tree as I was passing by. There was no ill intent toward me, just fear, and now, intrigue. The bear took a few steps forward, sniffed the air, and took a few more. In short order, the yearling had closed the distance to an uncomfortable 15 yards and shrinking. I started looking around for trees to climb - they were all too skinny. I looked for a fallen limb to swing or a rock to throw as a weapon, but there was nothing - just me and the bear, 10 yards now. I thought about how ridiculous it was going to be to be killed by this tiny bear. It was hardly a cub really. It was going to have to chew on me for quite awhile with those tiny teeth before I finally gave up the ghost. This was going to be painful - like death by a thousand paper cuts.
I decided at that moment that I wanted to live, so I did the only thing that was left to defend myself - I bluffed him. I spread my arms out wide and puffed my chest out. The bear stopped. "Alright you bear, you're really starting to scare me now. Go away!" I bellowed. The bear rose up on its hind legs and for a split second I thought I was a gonner. But the youngster turned tail and ran the other way like a bat out of hell.
Yes friends, now I've been around some bears. Looks like that's never going to change. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Due Diligence

Contrary to what some non-hunters may believe (and maybe even a few hunters), there's a lot more to putting a deer in the freezer than sitting on an overturned bucket in the middle of the woods on opening day. To hunt with consistent success, you have to know the land and how the animals that live there use it. Scouting is the only way to achieve the level of familiarity that will put you in the right place at the right time. Either you put your time in during the off-season or you put your faith in pure, dumb luck.
Where do deer live here? I haven't got a clue.
With that in mind and the specter of North Carolina's Western Region gun opener set to start in five weeks, I headed down to the family land Sue and I bought into with my parents three years ago. A significant portion of the 125 acres in northwestern Cleveland County had been logged five years before we acquired it, but the property has a pretty mountain stream, beautiful ridge and bottomland forest that has not been cut in decades, and it abuts South Mountain Gamelands on two sides. In other words, it's the place Sue and I will one day build a house and live for the rest of our days.
I hope those days will include some deer hunting. There's no denying deer live on the property. We see their tracks and places they've nibbled on things. Once in awhile we get to see an actual deer - always running in terror as it flees the advance of our two dogs, Sadie and Piper. To be sure, the deer population in the South Mountains and the rest of the western part of the state isn't like what I'm used to. Unlike the Coastal Plain, where deer are plentiful to the point of being a nuisance, North Carolina's mountains are marginal deer habitat. That means scouting before the hunting season is even more critical if I hope to be successful here.
I met my pal Mark, who drove up from Charlotte, at the property and we started the process of trying to understand the who, what, when and why.
The first step was finding out what the deer are eating. It has been an incredible year for hard mast across much of the state. Oaks of all species have been dropping acorns for more than a month and Cleveland County is no exception. Two weeks ago when I visited, the deer were focused on the chestnut oaks, but this time, Mark and I noted that the herd has shifted over to white oaks, even though the chestnut oaks are still dropping. How do we know? When deer are targeting acorns, the ground under the trees of choice is turned up with the passage of many hooves. The deer usually crack the acorns in half, leaving telltale shells behind. We located several mature white oaks and each of them showed evidence of regular visitation by hungry deer. There were sparse game trails here and there, but nothing I'd consider a regular highway for movement. No matter; we'd found what they like to eat and that is a major step in the right direction.
As for the "who," most of the tracks we found were on the modest to small size. I don't know why, but it seems the property is a magnet for undersized does and their fawns. We did find some scat (poo) that looked like it had come out the back end of a buck. It is my dim understanding that buck scat is different than the individual, pellet poos that does produce. When bucks defecate, they leave a "log" of compressed pellets. (TMI? Moving on ...) We also found a small rub where a buck had thrashed a pine sapling with his antlers. Male deer do this for a couple of reasons. First; they need to rub off the velvet that covers their antlers during the growing period, second; they take out some of the pent up aggression they have leading up to the breeding season, known as the rut, on poor defenseless trees, and third; they use these rubs to leave scent markers to other bucks in the neighborhood to keep out. Male deer also make "scrapes" which are places on the ground that they turn over with their hooves and urinate in. These also serve as signposts to other deer, letting them know that a buck is in the area and he's ready to breed or fight, depending on your gender. Mark and I didn't find any scrapes, but they're sure to start popping up as the rut gets cranked up.
As for the "when" the deer are participating in these activities, we still don't know. Typically, deer are mostly nocturnal animals that have a few periods during daylight hours when they're out and about. A motion or heat sensing game camera, set up in the areas with the most sign would help us decipher when the deer of South Mountains are active, but my one such device is on the fritz, so we'll just have to go with blind luck on that count.
Another reason for our visit was to get our slug barrels sighted in for our upcoming special permit hunt at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Each fall, the refuge partners with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission to host a series of weekend hunts meant to cull the burgeoning deer herd back to sustainable levels. For the last five years, I have put my name up and been selected for the hunt, along with some of my closest buddies. Our weekend deer camp at Pocosin Lakes NWR has become an annual tradition that I look forward to most during the hunting calendar. Because as many as 200 hunters feel the same way, the refuge restricts hunters to use short-ranging shotguns and muzzleloaders, hence our need for slug gun practice.
Unfortunately, my shotgun was at the gunsmith having a new scope mounted and bore sighted. Mark, on the other hand, just went and bought himself a mount, scope and rings and cobbled everything together right there in the field with an Allen wrench. In 10 minutes, he was ready to shoot. We crossed the creek to the spot we use for camping. There's a picnic table there that served as our shooting bench and I quickly worked up a serviceable target for Mark to shoot at. We pinned it to a dead tree 30 yards away and got to work. Honestly, I didn't think Mark would hit the paper, let alone the piggy, with his first box of shells. Getting a telescopic sight adjusted properly is a tricky business and I had no confidence in his gunsmithing skills. This was going to take awhile. To my utter amazement, the first shot punched a nickel-sized hole just under the pig's chinny chin chin - four inches from being dead-on. A quick adjustment and Mark put the next three rounds into a beautiful group that was perfect for the yardage on the Y axis and three inches left of center - incredible. Then reality crashed down and Mark realized the scope was starting to creep around with the recoil of each shot. The scope rings were not high enough and the tube was in contact with the receiver - that's not good. So, our shooting session came to an inglorious end and Mark headed back to the gun shop.
So, what did we learn in six hours? South Mountain deer prefer white oak acorns to chestnut oaks and Mark needs taller scope rings - baby steps, baby steps.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Venison Recipe

Sue returned Sunday from her second 2-week deployment to the Gulf of Mexico since the Deep Water Horizon tragedy. It goes without saying it's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it. This time around she was stuck in an office 14 hours a day instead of out in the field where her heart is. There wasn't much hope for a regular eating schedule and I know that makes my girl cranky. Pile on the depression that comes with 42 restaurant/convenience store meals in a row over 13 days and I knew she'd be needing some comfort food by the time she got home. Of course I was thinking wild game, and when it comes to game recipes, there's nothing Sue is more fond of than a dish I call simply venison masala.
Venison masala has its origins in an Indian lamb preparation called Saang Goshth, or "lamb with spinach." When I first started bringing deer home, I searched through cuisines the world over for preparations of meat that I could substitute venison. Through trial and error, I found I was looking at the problem backwards. It's not the similarities between proteins that matters (super-lean venison just doesn't cook like anything you can buy in the supermarket), it's the method in which you cook it. Venison wants to be cooked really fast - like pan seared backstrap medallions - or really slowly - like braising ... like venison masala.
You'll need ...
  • 1 tsp minced ginger root
  • 1 tsp minced garlic
  • 1-1/2 tsp chili powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 3 Tbsp cooking oil
  • 2 medium onions, sliced
  • 1-1/2 to 2 pounds venison (or lamb, or beef, or goat, or sloth, or orangutan)
  • 3 cups stock (any stock will do)
  • 16 oz. spinach or Swiss chard (or any toothsome green)
  • 1 large red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 1 to 3 green chili peppers (depends how hot they are and hot you like your food), diced
  • handful of cilantro, chopped (optional)
  • a slice of lemon for each serving, to be squeezed over the bowl before eating
 (A word before I go any further. Garam masala is an Indian spice mixture, the ingredients of which vary depending on who's mixing it. I haven't had any store-bought version I didn't like, but I urge you to buy your spices in small amounts so you'll use them before they get old. Old spices lose just about everything they have to recommend them after a few months. This is true of garam masala as well. Keep your spices in airtight containers, away from light and heat - a pantry is good.)
Meat properly spaced and browned
Okay. Cube the meat into 1-1/2 inch squares. Slice the onions into 1/8-inch rings and mix the ginger, garlic, chili powder, garam masala and salt together in a separate bowl. At medium heat, add enough oil in a Dutch oven to coat the bottom and add the meat to brown when the oil just starts to smoke. Do NOT crowd the meat. Give the pieces plenty of room so they'll brown properly instead of steaming. This means it's going to take a few rounds to get all of the meat browned - do not try to rush this. A nice, brown crust on two or three sides of the meat makes a huge difference in the final result. In fact, it makes a huge difference in the way just about any braise will turn out. When the pieces of meat are browned, take them out and set them aside in separate dish. Add more oil if necessary and then dump in the onions. Cook the onions for 10 minutes or so, until they become translucent and soft. Add the venison back into the Dutch oven with the onions and then tip in the spice mixture, stirring to coat everything evenly. Cook for about 1 minute and then add the stock. Bring the pot to a boil, then cover it with a tight lid and put it into a 300 degree oven on the middle rack. Let it go on its merry way for three hours, more or less. At the 2-hour mark, you should start checking the meat for doneness and the corresponding amount of liquid. Ideally, the liquid will have reduced by more than half by the time the meat is ready. Add more liquid during the braising process if you need to. The meat is done when it's fork-tender.
Mmmmm ... fork tender
Okay, the braising is done. Now you have two options: Ideally, you have planned ahead and won't be eating this until tomorrow. For mysterious reasons, just about all braised dishes improve with a day or two in the fridge. The cooling time allows the flavors to blend. If that's the case, let the Dutch oven cool to room temperature or close to it (this may take hours). If you put the piping hot cast iron directly into the icebox, your refrigerator will cry and your electric bill will slap you in the face. If, however, you are making this for dinner tonight, proceed to the final steps.
Green stuff
Remove the lid from the Dutch oven and place on the stove top on low heat. Blanch your greens in boiling water for a minute or two, drain them thoroughly, and ad them to the braised venison. Continue to stir and reduce the pot for 10 minutes, or until the liquid has almost evaporated, leaving you with a dark brown, delicious-looking sludge of pulverized onions and spices. Now add your chopped red pepper and diced jalapenos and mix around for another 4 minutes or so until the large pepper pieces are starting to soften. Remove the Dutch oven from the heat and serve the venison masala in bowls over steamed white rice or maybe some mashed potatoes. While the serving bowls rest a minute or two (no sense burning the roof of your mouth with the first bite) add a sprinkle of chopped cilantro and squeeze a lemon wedge over the top.
How does it taste? Like beef stew on steroids - not as homey or rich, but spicy and exotic. The al dente peppers add sweetness and crunch to the rib-sticking goodness of the braise. The perfect dish for turning a cranky girl into a pussycat. It's Sue's favorite. What else can I say?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Birding 101

The beautiful women of Bird Watching 101
On Sunday, I completed the last session of a 5-week course I designed and taught for the Black Mountain Parks and Recreation Department. I called it "Bird Watching 101" and invited everyone with an interest in birds and their behavior to join the class. Including late-comers, there were 11 participants, all from the Black Mountain/Asheville area.
Since most of the participants were novices, we focused on topics like; selecting and using binoculars, field guides and how to use them, attracting birds to the backyard and learning to identify the common species of western North Carolina.
It's not the first time I've presented the joys of birding. As a reporter for the Tideland News in Swansboro, NC, I wrote a weekly birding column for nearly six years. The upshot of "Bird Wise" was I became the resident "birdman" and as such, accepted dozens of speaking engagements to local garden clubs, school groups and rotary clubs. This time was a little different.
During this period of, ummmm, professional inactivity in my life, I am trying to prepare myself for a future in environmental education. Happily, the state of North Carolina has the NC Environmental Education Certification Program to which I have applied. I found the teaching techniques I've learned so far in this process greatly improved the learning experience for my students. I used to be a guy who stood up in front of the group and lectured, usually with the help of some visual aids - but, no more. Environmental education is about participation and getting outside.
One of the assignments I've had to complete for my EE certification, was to read a stack of articles on the subject. One of them, David Sobel's "Beyond Ecophobia," discusses this need for actual time in nature. He writes, "Most environmentalists attributed their commitment (to nature) to a combination of two sources: 'many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi-wild place in childhood or adolescence, and an adult who taught respect for nature.' Not one of the conservationists surveyed explained his or her dedication as a reaction against exposure to an ugly environment."
I think about my own childhood experience and it fits Sobel's observation to a tea. I started bird watching with my father when I was around 6 years old. When we weren't birding, we were fishing. I can remember finding an underground nest of smooth green snakes and filling a sack with them, which I brought home and opened in front of my mom in the kitchen. She didn't bat an eye - just heard my account of the adventure with rapt attention, then gently suggested that I return the snakes to where I had found them. Thinking about this memory gives me a new-found respect for my mom. How she remained calm in the face of the potential accidental release of a dozen or so snakes into her house is remarkable, but it had a direct affect on my development into adulthood.
I don't know the background stories of everyone who took "Bird Watching 101" with me over the last month, but I'll bet they spent a lot of time outside during their youth. Watching birds is just a natural extension of environmental awareness. No other group of animals surrounds us so completely and colorfully as birds do. Perhaps they are the gateway drug to conservationism. If that's the case, consider me your pusher.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, here are the crib notes on the topics we covered in Bird Watching 101:
  • Don't go for the binoculars with the highest magnification (like 10X). They are also the heaviest (or cheapest), and least-stable (because they're hard to hold up to your eyes for long periods of time) and they often have a narrow field of view. Stick with models in the 7X to 8.5X range and you'll have all the magnification you need for 95% of the time you use them. Don't buy binoculars you haven't actually tested yourself. Different models from different manufacturers vary wildly in ergonomics, weight distribution and quality. You get what you pay for. $1,000 binoculars will last a lifetime and bring a new dimension to your outdoor experiences. $50 binoculars are good for paperweights. Many companies are making very good optics in the $250-500 range.
  • For birders East of the Mississippi, it's hard to think of a better field guide than Roger Tory Peterson's classic "Eastern Birds." For birders anywhere else in North America, my favorite guide for beginners to intermediates is National Geographic Society's "Field Guide to the Birds of North America." For more advanced birders, there is no substitute for "The Sibley Guide to Birds," by David Sibley. Just be sure you're comfortable with less text and more illustrations.
  • Birders focusing their efforts in western North Carolina should pick up a copy of the NC Wildlife Resources Commission's "The North Carolina Birding Trail; Mountain Trail Guide." I would be lost without mine.
  • On attracting birds to the backyard: Plant native plants that provide food and cover. Read the ingredients on your bags of mixed seeds. If milo is one of the top three, find something else. Milo is a cheap filler. Birds hardly ever eat it (except perhaps mourning doves, and they'll only eat it after everything else is gone). A bird bath is good (provided you are diligent about changing the water when it gets icky), and bird bath with an automated drip system is way better. 
As I used to end my "Bird Wise" columns back in the day: That's all for now. Keep looking up.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

My Deer Hunting Philosophy

This is not one of those pictures. Enjoy.
Warning: This post includes images of dead animals. I've kept them on the small size, but they are there nonetheless. I promise not to do this very often, but I feel in this case that the photos illustrate my thoughts ~ The Bushman.

What? You mean you don't have a deer hunting philosophy?
Those of you who hunt will probably understand the gist of this post from the title alone. For readers who don't, it may be mildly interesting to know that deer hunting isn't just about outwitting a deer and bringing it home. For many, it has to be the right deer before they pull the trigger or release and arrow.
But first, a step back to look into the history of the whitetail deer in North America. Suburban neighborhoods weren't always overrun by pesky deer, eating through flowerbeds, raiding gardens and stepping into traffic. A century ago, a deer in the eastern half of the United States was a rare creature indeed.
Native Americans utilized the whitetail deer throughout its range, but it wasn't as though the land was abundant with them. With so much of the continent covered in old growth forests, the deer population was a fraction of what it is today. Whitetails prefer a mixture of habitats, including regenerating forests. The first population boom came after European settlers started moving across the land, cutting down trees and planting crops along the way. The resulting landscape was a diverse mosaic of habitat that benefited whitetails as much as white men. By the late 1800s, the whitetail deer was common everywhere humans had disturbed the land. But then, human exploitation started to outstrip the benefits. Commercial hunting, along with unregulated harvest for personal consumption started taking a toll. The deforestation of the country continued at a furious pace and whitetails were left with little cover to conceal themselves. By 1890, there were approximately 200 deer in the state of New Jersey (I know. Ask someone from Jersey what they think of deer now.) and the animal had been extirpated in Connecticut and Rhode Island. In 1930, at its lowest point, the country's deer population was estimated at around 300,000.People - hunters in particular - were starting to get worried the whitetail deer was on its way out.
Their concern led to perhaps the greatest (or most ill-conceived, depending on where you stand) wildlife management success story of all time. Commercial hunting for whitetails became illegal and sportsmen were held to regulated hunting seasons and bag limits. Federal and state agencies started managing public lands to benefit deer again, with small scale logging to open up the forests and wildlife plantings. Along with changes in agricultural practices that created an endless supply of food, the result was a perfect storm for the deer explosion in North America that continues today. Recent estimates put the population at around 30 million animals, inhabiting all or parts of every state in the continental U.S. By all accounts, the number of deer will probably never be higher than it is today.
But there are well-known costs for this success story. In many areas, the deer population is far over the healthy carrying capacity of the land. Remember when NJ had 200 whitetails total? In 2006, the township of Watchung, NJ was suffering under an astonishing deer density of more than 80 animals per square mile! An overpopulation of deer results in overgrazing. Forests cannot regenerate. Rare native plants are depredated. Crops are damaged. Too many deer also leads to high incidents of vehicular collisions (with both material and human costs) and Lyme disease transmission.
So here we are, victims of our own success drowning in a sea of whitetail deer. But what to do about it?
The most effective tool wildlife managers have to control the deer population is the hunting public, but as the number of hunters declines (thank you Internet and XBox) the focus changes. Many of the older deer hunters still remember the days when just seeing a deer was something to tell about. As management goals have shifted from protecting and preserving the resource to population control, these guys are having a hard time adjusting. Here in North Carolina, my $40 annual license allows me to harvest up to six deer, only four of which can be males. This restriction is a nod to the new management philosophy which promotes the harvest of does as much as, or more than, the harvest of bucks. Old timers consider this a recipe for disaster. Protect the does and you protect the breeding stock for the future. Many of them still refuse to shoot anything but male deer.
Does this deer make me a trophy hunter? Nope, just stupid lucky.
The current leader in the quest for a healthy and sustainable deer herd is called Quality Deer Management and it refutes this old way of thinking. In order to manage the deer herd, hunters should be encouraged to shoot as many or more does than bucks. You see, all the years of "bucks only" mentality have resulted in overpopulation and a sex ratio that's out of whack. There are places where does outnumber bucks by 15 to 1. That's good for male college students. Not good for healthy deer behavior and overpopulation. QDM does not come without its legitimate concerns. Much of the plan revolves around creating the perfect habitat mix for deer to exist and thrive. That doesn't do much for controlling populations does it? There is also an underlying suspicion that the philosophy is geared toward so-called "trophy hunting." Trophy hunters are those who have chosen to pursue large, mature bucks exclusively, and they have a bad reputation among the non-hunting public.
Does this spike make me a "bucks only" guy?
For some folks - meat hunters of the highest caliber - a deer is a deer is a deer. If it's brown, it's down. You can't eat the antlers. (And whatever other crude sayings that are out there.) The point is, whether they know it, or care, dedicated meat hunters are probably the most-effective solution to the current deer problem. They see 'em, they shoot 'em, they eat 'em. (Damn, there I go again.). Then there are those who have come up in or been influenced by the era when does were taboo. These hunters want to eat venison, they're just not convinced that shooting anything but a male deer is a good idea and they're not willing to jeopardize the deer herd just so they can make some jerky with doe meat. These hunters hold their fire until they see the first glimpse of antler.
And then there are the rest of us somewhere in between. When I started hunting, QDM was thought to be the answer to all our problems. As a biologist, I got the part about reducing the population to healthy levels, but I also wanted to have the opportunity to see and maybe even kill a "trophy" buck. To do this, I bought into the philosophy of letting young bucks "walk" so they could grow to one day become big bucks. In the meantime, I'd shoot every doe I could to do my part toward population control and keeping the freezer full of venison. This was all well and good. I lived in an area with a lot of deer, so letting younger bucks go and concentrating on does was not a problem. If a giant deer happened to step out into one of my shooting lanes, I'd take him. That two-year period was perhaps my most self-righteous and embarrassing. I actually looked down on my fellow hunters who harvested young bucks. "What a shame." I thought when I saw someone with such a deer. "Imagine what he could have been if he'd had a chance to grow another year or two." There are shades of the trophy hunting mentality there. It didn't get any better when I stumbled into the deer of my dreams during a hunt in the South Carolina low country. It was just my third hunting season and I didn't do anything to kill that buck other than sit where the guide told me to sit and watch the pile of corn that had been put out to lure deer in. The only thing I did was shoot straight, but you'd have thought I'd become a great trophy hunter if you'd just met me. I was racking up the doe kills during those years, but "Big Boy" was the only buck I'd ever shot - and the only one I cared to unless his big brother happened to step out of the forest. And then real life happened.
7-point - on purpose.
Button buck - on purpose.
I shot my first button buck (a yearling male with tiny, hair-covered bumps that serve as the base of the antlers he'll grow in the coming years) later the same season. It was an accident. I thought it was a doe, but I was crushed. The meat from that animal, however, was superb. Two seasons after that, I mistook another button buck for a doe, and then a smallish-racked 7-point went down. It was time to amend my philosophy or be guilty of casting stones. I decided it was okay to shoot any legal deer, depending my need for meat (or, more honestly, my blood lust) at the time. My philosophy has become more flexible, both for myself and others. I tend to think a deer, is a deer, is a deer these days, but I'd still rather hunt does and let the young bucks go. That doesn't mean I won't harvest one if the desire arises. Just last season, I watched yet another button buck feed in a soy bean field for the better part of an hour. He was well within my range and I had him lined in the scope for countless "imaginary" kill shots. I eventually decided that, if this little buck came within 50 yards of my blind and offered a perfect opportunity for a clean shot, I'd take it and not think twice about it. He walked in to 40 yards and ended up in the freezer.
Given a choice, this is the deer I want - a nice fat doe.
Now I've moved to the other end of the state, where deer are not nearly so numerous and my opportunities will be fewer and farther between. What will my philosophy be this season? What if a young forkhorn is the first deer I see? Will I shoot him, or will I wait to see if there's a doe with him? I don't know. I'm leaning toward the "brown it's down" mantra, at least until I get the first one. Hunting these mountains is going to be a challenge to my skills as a woodsman, but not my whitetail philosophy. I've finally learned to be flexible on that count.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Return of the King

I knew something was up when I counted 20 big, orange and black butterflies crossing Route 9 in as long as it took to fill up the gas tank the other day. The number swelled into the hundreds as I made the 7-mile drive east on Hwy 40 to Old Fort. The monarchs were on the move, and they were, to a bug, heading south.
The fact that monarchs migrate in the fall, much like birds, is common knowledge among amateur naturalists. Through tagging studies, scientists have found that monarchs, which weigh less than a paper clip, can fly more than 200 miles a day with favorable wind. Other insects, green darner dragonflies for instance, also head south to escape the killing frosts of winter. Monarchs, however, are the most-easily recognized and beloved of the migratory arthropods. Everyone knows these showy bugs at a glance. They look like they're dressed for Halloween. And most kids with a slant toward being outside learn the life cycle of the monarch: The adult females lay eggs on milkweed, which serves as the food plant for the caterpillars. The caterpillars metabolize the toxins within the milkweed, becoming rather distasteful themselves to predators. The monarch chrysalis, or cocoon, is perhaps one of the most-elegant structures in nature - like emerald rain drops inlaid with gold. The adults emerge from the chrysalis and carry forth.
If you paid attention in your high school biology class, you might also recall the popular teaching example of Batesian mimicry, in which monarchs play a key role. While monarch butterflies are boldly patterned, presumably to pronounce their unpalatable flavor to predators, the slightly smaller and unrelated viceroy butterfly is quite delicious. Natural selection, however, has bestowed the viceroy with a color pattern so similar to monarchs, that they are able to avoid predation by mimicking their larger benifactors.
Yes, the scientific community has known about monarchs for quite some time, including their need to fly south in the fall, but the distance and ultimate destination of the annual exodus of the eastern population wasn't discovered until 1976. The great wintering encampment is relegated to just a handful of sites at over 10,000 feet above sea level in Mexico's Sierra Madre mountains. Within these protected oyamel fir forests, the micro-climate allows the butterflies to survive the winter in various states of torpor. Similarly, in the West, a smaller number of monarchs fly south in the fall and winter along the Pacific coast near Santa Cruz and San Diego. Recently, researchers have become alarmed by record low numbers of wintering monarchs at the traditional spots in the Sierra Madre. An unfortunate convergence of storm damage and illegal logging has reduced the suitable micro-climate to an area about the size of two football fields. There has been some discussion of the potential extinction of the eastern monarch migration.
Happily, those fears have been set aside, at least for the short term, with the astounding number of butterflies heading south this fall. Experts are pointing to the perfect breeding conditions in the East that the monarchs enjoyed this summer for the population explosion.

The hundreds monarchs I've been seen flying along the Blue Ridge over past three weeks are but a tiny portion of the massive migration that took place along the East Coast during September. Cape May, NJ, the most-venerated site to witness fall migration of both birds and butterflies in North America, experienced a monarch flight of epic proportions. At the peak (Sept. 19), Mark Garland, Cape May resident, butterfly and bird expert, author, and most-especially to me, an old friend, estimated the flight at over 1 million. He called it indescribable - and Mark's been doing monarch research for more than 20 years.
Here in western North Carolina, we didn't see anything like the spectacle shown in the video, but, if you were paying attention, you were a witness to one of the last great mass migrations left on Earth.
The Butterfly upon the Sky, by Emily Dickinson
The Butterfly upon the Sky,
That doesn't know its Name
And hasn't any tax to pay
And hasn't any Home
Is just as high as you and I,
And higher, I believe,
So soar away and never sigh
And that's the way to grieve --