Monday, December 27, 2010

The Blizzard

We thought we were getting out of the mountains for a more temperate holiday experience. We were wrong.
Sue and Sally (her mom) at the height of the storm.

By Wednesday of last week, the meteorologists were hinting at a significant low pressure system to affect the Southeast by Christmas. Right before Sue and I hopped in the car to go to her parents' place on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, I staked up the wire cages around the little fig tree and our gardenia, filled them with dead leaves to ward off the frost and bid them good luck. The forecast was calling for scattered snow showers starting Saturday afternoon. It was wrong.

The day before Christmas, Sue and I did some birdwatching on the ocean side of the peninsula. During my time as an itinerant field biologist, I spent several falls and one spring on the Delmarva. After Sue and I met and she decided my company was tolerable, she joined me for a field season at Kiptopeke State Park, where I was trapping and banding migrating raptors for the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory. She signed on as the official migration counter and, in addition to falling in love with one another, we fell in love with the Eastern Shore that autumn. It's a very roundabout way of explaining to you that we knew where the hell we were going.

I was hoping to see waterfowl and raptors, as the Blue Ridge Mountains are lacking in both departments. At the tiny fishing village of Oyster, we hit the tides wrong so the mudflats in the creek were underwater.

common loon (non-breeding plumage)
High tide at Oyster doesn't leave much to look at. We scanned through the flock of gulls loafing on the waterfront and picked out herring, ring-billed and great black-backeds. These aren't special gulls by any means, but when you haven't seen them for six months, they seem like old friends. At the mouth of the marina, a pair of common loons was diving for lunch.

We took our time driving up the seaside on Hwy 600 - a rural route that wends its way gracefully across the rather ungraceful dichotomy of culture on the Eastern Shore. It's hard to imagine a place where the rich whites and poor blacks live in such close proximity, yet live such distant versions of the human experience. It is a beautiful place though and, much like when we left it for professional opportunities elsewhere, the Delmarva is still a haven for birds in winter.

Along our way, we stopped to admire a male northern harrier coursing over a harvested cornfield. Red-tailed hawks seemed to be everywhere, along with a few red-shouldereds and an immature Cooper's hawk speeding across open ground, just a foot off the deck as it hoped to take some unsuspecting songbird by surprise.

Atlantic brant
The waterfowl I longed for were there as well. I can't remember ever seeing Atlantic brant (or any brant for that matter) feeding away from the shoreline, but Sue and I watched a flock of 40 or so fly in from the seaside and pitch down in the middle of a green field. Later in the day we saw more, though they were in loose association with a couple thousand snow geese doing what snow geese do - eating cover crops.

All in all, it was a very satisfying afternoon of birding for a couple of coastal hearts. Lucky for us, we went before the now infamous storm of the season slammed the East Coast late Christmas Day and took a full 24 hours to pull out.

By noon we were looking at 8 inches on the back deck. Sue's mom, Sally, couldn't keep the feeders filled for all of the blackbirds pillaging the seeds through the middle of the blizzard.

The common grackles, red-winged blackbirds and brown-headed cowbirds monopolized the feeders in the yard, leaving a tiny, suction-cupped window feeder for everyone else. Turns out, American goldfinches are pretty tough customers once they take a stool at the bar - much to the delight of the cats.

By the time it was all over, the house on Church's Creek had 14 inches of snow. When I called back to Asheville, my parents had measured 10 inches in the back yard. So much for escaping winter's icy grip. I have to admit though, with no place to go and the  roads unnavigable, it's been awfully nice to hang around in pajamas, making turkey soup and doing puzzles for the last two days.

Hope your holidays were exactly the way you wanted them. I know mine were.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Partridge In Pear Tree

One... two... three...
Well, not exactly. The Buncombe County Christmas Bird Count would have been a lot more exciting if we had seen a partridge in a pear tree. Still and all, Sue and I had a great time participating in the Audubon Society's 111th attempt at censusing all the birds in North America and points beyond.

How many chickadees was that?
Of course, that's not true either. Such an undertaking would be impossible. The Christmas Bird Count is in fact hundreds of smaller censuses held across the country, with many more in Canada, Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. Each individual census consists of a circle with a 10-mile radius. On the chosen date, regardless of (most) weather conditions, teams of birdwatchers scour the circle and tally up everything they see and hear.The 24-hour counts take place during a 3-week window around Christmas to eliminate the vagaries of migration that could skew the data.

The resulting data are a snapshot of the bird life in the area. Scientifically speaking, comparing two, five, even 10 years of such data has limited value. Number of participants, their level of skill and effort, and weather all have a dramatic affect on the result. When you consider 30, 50, 100 years of censuses, however, you're talking about an invaluable cache of information that shows population trends.

Given the rapidly changing nature of the environment on this continent and others, such trends indicate the health of the ecosystem and allow researchers and conservationists to focus their efforts where they are most-needed. It's citizen science at it's finest.

It's also a wonderful tradition, embraced by thousands of birders with as much enthusiasm as kids on Christmas morning. I've been participating in the Christmas Bird Count since I was 7 or 8 years old. Back in Massachusetts, Dad and I would try to do five or six counts a year. Many of those, like the Quincy count, the Newburyport count and the Nantucket count have been around for decades and come with traditions as cherished as those of any deer camp's. The potluck dinner, roaring fire and dozing birders at the end of the day compilation of the Quincy count is one of my happy places.

Song sparrow
What of the Buncombe count you ask? The weather was damp and cold last Saturday as Sue and I left the house in the semi-darkness. The area we'd been assigned was a long, east/west section of the US 40 corridor between Black Mountain and Asheville. On the surface, the habitat was depressingly urban - strip malls, warehouses and trailer parks, but just behind those lay a hundred little oases where birds can thrive.

We started the day in a RV park next to the highway - a more unlikely looking place you'd be hard-pressed to imagine. But, as would happen time and time again that day, we were amazed at the adaptability of feathered life. The park had been planted in fruiting trees, and so, the fruit eaters were there. Nearly 100 American robins, 65 cedar waxwings and 20 European starlings draped the trees as they shook off the hunger from a cold night. Along the brushy hillside, white-throated and song sparrows, eastern towhees, northern cardinals, Carolina wrens, a brown thrasher and others flitted about.

In the creek next to a ragtag driving range, a great blue heron stalked its prey where a culvert emptied under Hwy 70. A pair of mallards dabbled there, while a mixed feeding flock of tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees and golden-crowned kinglets foraged in the kudzu-covered banks.

Down at the only spot in our territory where we could see the Swannanoa River, Sue and I spotted a pair of pileated woodpeckers, a belted kingfisher, a flock of house finches and a half-a-dozen field sparrows.

The clouds threatened rain but you would have thought we'd seen a double rainbow when we saw an adult red-shouldered hawk on the side of the road. Our species list was growing with every stop - 38 in all by the end of the day. It's not the largest Christmas count list I've put together by any stretch. These mountains are a tough place for birds to live during the winter months and so diversity is nothing like what it would be on the coast. We birded hard though. We covered our area thoroughly and we saw what there was to see. Did some birds get by us? Of course. Two people simply cannot effectively census flying creatures across 38 miles of road and 3 miles hiking. Our tally sheet will be added to those of the other teams that worked Buncombe County that day and there will be another data point to solidify our understanding of bird life and what needs to be done to protect it.

Just as important for Sue and I; we saw our new surroundings in a different light. The Blue Ridge Mountains are rightly known for their beauty and opportunity for those who love the outdoors. When we started the day, I admit I was more than frustrated to be surrounded by such wilderness, yet stuck down in the asphalt desert by a map that highlighted our search boundaries in mocking yellow highlighter. By the end of it though, I was once again reminded of the tenacity of nature. Wildlife finds a way to survive even when the world is not wild, but I worry about how many straws there are before the camel's back finally breaks.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Gear Review: These Slugs Suck

Here it is; the very first Bumbling Bushman gear review.

For non-hunters and hunters who do not use sabot slugs for deer, here's the bottom line of this post, right up front so you can close out and get back to work: Lightfield's 2-3/4 inch Hybred-EXP ammunition sucks. 

After finishing the post mortem on the 2010 deer season (unless I sneak back out there sometime before Christmas for one more try) I have come to the conclusion that I need to make an ammunition change.

A brief background:
I and many of the guys I hunt with take full advantage of North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission's special permit hunting opportunities. Because many of these deer hunts take place in small gamelands areas with maximum hunter densities, the NCWRC requires the use of shotguns and/or muzzleloaders as opposed to rifles, which can send lethal doses of lead a long, long way. In my search for a dedicated permit hunt shotgun, I immediately decided to go for a platform with a rifled barrel that would shoot heavy lead slugs with accuracy. I tried my uncle's Remington 870 slug barrel in 12 gauge with some success over two seasons. Two mature does were felled where they stood at ranges inside 25 yards. A third doe received a flesh wound when I fired at 50 yards and grazed her belly. When that happened, I decided I needed to look into some options that would allow me to shoot 50-75 yards with confidence (and without having to spend hours and $$$ at the range).

In  2008 I borrowed my neighbor's Harrington and Richardson Ultra Slug Hunter in 20 gauge. His experience with the single shot weapon made expressly for deer hunting at farther distances than traditionally acceptable for shotguns was very positive. I can remember one of his kills being a nice 8-point at 110 yards. Needless to say, I was impressed by the story and thrilled to take it into the field. He told me the gun was zeroed at 100 yards with Lightfield Hybred-EXP sabot slugs and would perform flawlessly with that round. I bought a box (about $15 for 5 rounds) and a-hunting I did go. Coming out of the woods at mid-morning on the second day of the hunt, I and two companions blundered into a basket-racked 7-point buck standing off the side of the trail. Since I was the only one ready to shoot (they had their weapons slung over their shoulders) I did. The deer was walking slowly at 30 yards and quartering toward me. I hit him just in front of the shoulder, right where I was aiming. The buck stumbled off and fell 20 yards from where he'd been shot. There was an excellent blood trail to the deer and during the course of quartering him out that night, I recovered the expanded slug lodged in front of the opposite ham. It was a perfect lead mushroom and I was in love.

The following offseason, I bought my youth model H&R Ultra Slug Hunter in 20 gauge. Despite measuring just under 6 feet tall, for some reason I prefer my long guns to have short stocks. The H&R youth model feels like a sidearm to me and I love it for still hunting in heavy cover. I dutifully purchased a couple of boxes of the prescribed Lightfield ammunition, and also a box of Hornady SST slugs on the recommendation of my friend, Brian, who had bought the same gun a year earlier and found it to shoot more accurately with the Hornady ammo (which was also slightly cheaper). After an excruciating session at the gun range, I left with a weapon I was comfortable shooting out to just 50 yards (well under the 100-200 yard ranges both companies boast of) and convinced my shotgun performed better with the Lightfields.

Over the course of the 2009 North Carolina deer season, I fired the gun four times and brought home three kills. Though I initially chalked up the fourth shot as a miss, now as I look at the big picture of my experience with this ammunition, I'm not so sure. Of those three kills, all shots were within 40 yards. One doe dropped in her tracks. Another doe and a spike buck required tracking over a very poor blood trail (the buck did not bleed at all over the course of a 50-60 yard recovery, despite being hit squarely in the shoulder). The Lightfield slug did not pass through any of them (which is why the blood trails were so sparse) and fragmented in every situation (broke apart into many smaller pieces inside the deer). The "miss" occurred at 15 yards on a big-bodied buck. I shot at an awkward angle, but was absolutely confident I'd hit him either in the the shoulder or right behind it. The deer reacted as if it had been hit hard, but I could not find a speck of blood or a follicle of hair in more than an hour of searching on my hands and knees.

Nonetheless, I brought the H&R Ultra Slug Hunter (outfitted with a better scope) and Lightfield ammo with me to the first permit hunt of this year, around the Halloween weekend. Again, I had trouble sighting the gun in in the days leading up to the trip and felt confident out to just 30 yards with it - no more. On the first afternoon of the hunt, I stalked to 20 yards of a grazing button buck and dropped the hammer on him. The deer was standing broadside and I aimed right behind its shoulder. The slug went where it was supposed to and the deer dropped in its tracks. Despite the close range and frail body of the tiny buck (35 pounds on the hoof!) the Lightfield slug did not hold together and a fragment broke off and ripped through the stomach and intestines. The resulting mess meant that I had to throw away some tainted meat (including the tenderloins) that should not have been affected had the slug performed the way it should have.

Two weeks later, I traveled back east for another permit hunt and stopped at the gun range on the way out to see if I couldn't at least solve my distance accuracy issues. I tweaked the rig and the gun was shooting acceptably at 50 yards again. I also bought another box of Hornday SSTs just to see how they'd do a second time around, as my frustration was mounting with the Lightfields. To my surprise, the Hornady ammo shot just as well as the Lightfield, so I tucked three rounds into my fanny pack, just in case.

On the second evening of my hunt, I shot a doe and her yearling doe at 40 yards with the Lightfield slugs. The doe was hit behind the shoulder and died 40 yards from the spot she was hit. The blood trail was good, but again, the slug fragmented and there was no pass-through. The yearling was gut shot and went some 200 yards with scant blood. That one was my fault. I cannot complain about Lightfield's accuracy once it's been sighted in. The slugs have always gone where I aimed them.

I had finally had enough. The next afternoon, I loaded up with a Hornady SST and clobbered a 115-pound 7-point through the shoulder at 30 yards. The buck didn't go 20 yards on his death run and I heard him fall over, but unbelievably, I later found that even the Hornady slug fragmented and did not pass-through the deer's body. The blood trail was sparse and hard to follow. I am now at my wits end, though I have more confidence the Hornady's will prove to be a quality round in the future, as Brian has had great performance on five out of six deer he's shot with them so far.

As for Lightfield, I'm done. I'm convinced their ammunition is inferior - certainly not up to the performance I expect for the cost and not worthy of being loaded into any of my guns.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Surprise: No Deer!

I must say I've had an astonishing run of good luck. Having only put in six days in the woods, (here, here and here) there are five deer of varying size, butchered and conveniently packaged into roasts and portions of sausage, ground and stew meat, in my stand-up freezer out in the garage. In my wildest expectations coming into the 2010 North Carolina deer season, I could not have dreamed of such bounty with so little effort.

Last fall I managed five as well, but it took the better part of North Carolina's generous Eastern Region gun season (from Oct. 13 thru Jan. 1) to turn the trick. There's still time to tag out (you can harvest six deer in NC) and I find myself in a most-enjoyable position; I can pick and choose the very best conditions to hunt and I can try high-risk tactics that I never would have considered if my situation were less fortunate.

(How I'm going to fit another deer in the remaining freezer space remains to be seen. In the meantime, I'm playing a lot of Tetris in preparation of that potential conundrum.) 

One thing I'd like to try is still-hunting through known bedding areas and trying to catch a whitetail snoozing. For non-hunters, still-hunting is a misnomer describing the act of slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y creeping through the woods in search of game. Entering a bedding area is generally considered taboo because, once disturbed from their beds, it often takes deer weeks to return. It's often a one and done deal. If it doesn't work, you're sort of screwed. If you time it right, however, hunting a bedding area can be highly effective (or so I've read). The key is to wait for a nasty, windy day so the deer will be holed up and have trouble hearing your approach. So that's what I'm doing - waiting for an ugly day that any sane person would spend drinking hot chocolate next to a warm, cozy fireplace.

Even more exciting than the prospect of an up-close and personal experience with my quarry, I recently received a gracious invitation to hunt some private land just 20 minutes south of our home in Black Mountain. Unlike our property in Cleveland County, this is real mountain hunting, complete with high, narrow ridges, steep slopes and thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendron.

On Saturday, I had a chance to tour the area with the landowner, who showed me the boundaries of the property and a quick run through places he thinks might be good for hunting. Yesterday, I went in for the first time by myself with a rifle in hand. I needed to see more to work up a solid game plan, but the weather was right for the deer to take a mid-morning stroll. I didn't think I'd see anything, but I was going to go in as focused as I could and try to learn more. 

With overnight temps in the teens, I figured I'd wait for the sun to come up and warm the south facing slopes to get the deer moving. I parked at the front of the property and made my way to the top of a ridge that would take me farther back. I moved slowly and deliberately, trying to minimize noise and stopping every few feet to scan the forest through my binoculars. I paid special attention to areas with brush piles and fallen logs and those thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendron, as those are the places mountain deer feel safe and secure. It took more than an hour to get just below the crest of the next ridge - probably less than a third of a mile. All the while I was looking and listening, in close and out far ahead - you just can't do this kind of hunting too slowly.

Yep, I picked it up and I squeezed it.
As I hiked up and over the ridge, being careful not to silhouette myself for any longer than necessary, I noticed a disturbance in the endless monotony of leaf litter that covered the landscape. It looked like maybe, just maybe, there was a trail where some of the leaves were "fluffed up." I don't know how else to describe it, but just as I started to follow this barely-perceptible track, I found a solid clue that my prey was close by.

Note No. 1 - Mountain deer travel on ridges

I looked out ahead of me as the ridge started to descend into the valley that serves as the mid-line of the property and my heart skipped a beat. No, it wasn't a deer, but it was the next best thing - the thickest rhododendron thicket I'd seen so far. This was a bedding area, no doubt about it. Just before I entered the stand, I passed through what can only be described as a deer lavatory. It seemed every deer relieved itself in that spot before retiring to bed. I was more than amped. A silent approach was impossible. There were too many fallen branches and windfalls leftover from one of last winter's ice storms, the leaf litter was far too deep. I went in anyway, knowing that if a deer were to show itself, it would either be holding tight and blow up under my feet or be sneaking out of the thicket way down the ridge line. Neither potentiality happened. All was quiet except for each and every excruciatingly loud footstep I had to take. At the end of the thicket I stopped and watched over a likely looking valley for 30 minutes or so.
My rifle stock may as well be hot pink in these winter woods.

It was getting past lunch and I hadn't brought anything to snack on. I eased down the hill to the bottom and followed the holler out to where it opened into a beautiful black walnut flat next to the stream that bisects the property. With a hunter's eye I sized up the area and picked out two perfect trees for my climbing stand - one for a morning hunt and one for an afternoon session. From each of them I can watch over the flat and the hillsides above.

Note No. 2 - Mountain hunting will require vertical awareness.

By the time I made it back to the truck, my stomach was growling and my enthusiasm had waned. I may not make it back to this spot before the end of the season, but you can be sure I will have it thoroughly scouted before opening day next year. It's a beautiful place, unlike any I've ever had the chance to hunt and I am grateful for the opportunity that has been given me. Places to hunt are like deer in the freezer - you can never have too many.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Southern Appalachian Brook Trout: A Quest

Southern Appalachian Brook Trout photo from
I love fish. I love to catch them and I love to eat them. Heading into the mountains on a frigid winter day just to see if I could find a trout to take a picture of for this post doesn't seem too strange to me.

Unfortunately, the trout were not at home in the pools spaced along the Little Slaty Branch where Sue and I had seen them a couple of weeks ago while hiking above the town of Montreat. It would seem the Southern Appalachian Brook Trout is not so keen on 20-degree air temps and God-only-knows how cold the water is. I don't know what fish do under such conditions. Truth be told, the stuff I don't know about trout, and North Carolina's only native char, would fill volumes. They were there last month. They weren't there today. There's a lot to learn.

It wasn't so long ago folks considered brook trout to be brook trout throughout their substantial range across northeastern North America. As I mentioned before, brookies are actually members of the char family, which look like and act like true trout, but are not. The Southern Appalachian Brook Trout is recently known to be genetically distinct from other brookies, making it a very special fish indeed. Sadly, its requirement for clean, free-flowing, cold water streams puts it on the fast track toward extinction as the human population grows here in western North Carolina and other parts of the mountainous South where the fish have thrived for eons. Trout waters are easily ruined by sedimentation and pollution. Non-native trout, introduced for recreational angling opportunities often out-compete the little brookies for precious resources. Add climate change and the woolly adelgid infestation that is ravaging the eastern hemlocks across the region and it's not hard to imagine an aquatic environment in the near future that will not sustain Southern Appalachian Brook Trout.

This is a little fish (a 10-incher would be considered a lunker around here), however, with a lot of fans. The Southern Appalachian Brook Trout became North Carolina's official state freshwater fish in 2004. More significantly, there are several state, federal and non-profit agencies that consider its conservation a high priority. Preservation of native brook trout habitat is often cited as one of the key factors in land acquisition by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the handful of active land conservancies working so diligently here in the western part of the state. There are literally hundreds of tiny creeks across the Blue Ridge Mountains where native brook trout still exist. Most of the time they are looking for something to eat and, from what I'm told, are relatively unconcerned with whether it's a bug or an angler's fly.

All I wanted to do was take its picture, but the trout would not cooperate. The Little Slaty is running at half speed these days, thanks to an unseasonable cold spell that has gripped much of the East for the last week. Up here at 2,400 feet above sea level, the daytime temps haven't gotten past the mid-30s in four days and the overnight lows are in the teens. It's been snowing almost non-stop for 48 hours. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to find my "secret" trout spot looking like this.

Still and all, it was a beautiful morning to bundle up and go for a hike. The cold kept others indoors. Poor bastards, they probably have jobs to go to. Some day, soon hopefully, I join them again, but for now, I shall endeavor to get out and experience as much as I can about these mountains and the creatures that live here, including those beautiful little trout ... er ... char.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Decking The Halls

It seemed appropriate for Sue and I to head over to the property last weekend in search of seasonal greenery. In Sue's mind, there's no reason to spend hard-earned dollars on boughs of holly, garlands of evergreen sprigs and bunches of pine cones when we grow surpluses of our own.

It was a beautiful day in North Carolina's foothills. The temperature was around 55 degrees, the wind was calm and the sun was shining. Just about all of the deciduous foliage has dropped in the past few weeks, leaving the land exposed to critical consideration. She showed me a spot that might be the one to build a house on. We're calling this one Home Site 1C and it might just be the best one yet. It's about a third of the way up a southwest facing slope, with an open view of No Business Mountain across the way and clear shots up and down the valley. Having the house closer to the bottom of the hill will also alleviate some of the erosion concerns that will crop up if we decide to go higher.

I think we're both starting to realize winter may turn out to be our favorite season here. Sure it's going to get cold, and we'll probably have an ice storm or two before March, but the now barren landscape shows off the topography of the region in a way you can't appreciate when the leaves are on the trees. There's also a growing sense of community. The summer tourists and fall leaf peepers are gone, leaving the locals the time and space they need to prepare for the coming season. "We're all in this together," is a look I recognize as I pass by neighbors who raise a hand in greeting as they stack firewood and burn off the last leaf piles of autumn.

Our greenery gathering expedition could not have been more bountiful. While I looked for deer trails and buck rubs (predictable, no?), Sue filled her bucket with twigs from holly trees, loblolly pines and rhododendron bushes, which she plans to turn into decorative centerpieces and garlands for the mantle place. She even clipped some fern leaves, which grow in abundance down by the creek, to include in her arrangements.

My contribution consisted of a little consulting work and required muscle when it came to cutting down our Christmas tree. I'm not going to lie to you; it's going to be a bit "Charlie Brown," but it came from our land and we couldn't be more pleased with the 7-year-old shortleaf pine that stuck waaaay out the back of the truck on the drive home. I wonder what all those people coming the opposite way from the cut-your-own joints in the mountains, with picture-perfect trees neatly wrapped and tied down to the roof of their cars, thought of us as we crossed paths heading back up to Black Mountain. In my beat-up little Toyota, laden with wild shrubbery and a scraggly looking pine sapling, perhaps they pitied us as victims of the recession, trying to scrape together a little cheer on the cheap for the holidays. 

There might be some minor truths to that imagined assessment, but also the undeniable feeling that, as we drove west late that afternoon, Sue and I felt like two of the luckiest people on Earth.