Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Whole Lotta Nesting Going On

The migration is fairly well over in western North Carolina. There have been a few tardy travelers passing through our yard in recent days; blackpoll and yellow-rumped warblers in particular, but for the most part, the remaining birds are here to stay throughout the nesting season.

Some of them, like the neighborhood wood thrush and red-eyed vireo, are just getting started. Others, like American robins, Carolina wrens and mourning doves, have already fledged their first broods and started in on their seconds.

Our first indication the 2011 nesting season was underway happened back in late March when a pair of Carolina chickadees started carrying mouthfuls of moss and lint into the nest box I had erected in the front yard last summer.

After completing their nest, the female set to incubating and before long, Sue and I were sitting on the porch watching the adult chickadees ferrying inchworms and caterpillars to their growing family.

Long after we figured the babies would finally emerge from their cozy womb, the chickadees left the nest box for the environs surrounding the house. Unfortunately, in the two weeks since, the only chickadees Sue and I have seen have been the adults and they aren't behaving like they are feeding fledglings. In fact, it appears they've gone straight to courtship behavior, leading me to the sad conclusion that the fledglings perished shortly after their maiden flight.

That would not be unusual. Fledgling mortality in songbirds is extraordinarily high for many species. For those that conduct long-distance migrations (Carolina chickadees do not), mortality can be as high as 70 percent before the end of the first year.

What happened to our nestlings? It's impossible to say. Maybe they emerged from the nest box just hours, or even minutes, before we were hit by one of those strong spring thunderstorms that have been rolling through. It's also quite possible they fell easy prey to one of the feral cats that roam the neighborhood.

One thing is certain, those little chickadees had a great life before their ultimate demise. I opened the nest box last week to clean it out in preparation of a second nesting attempt and had a chance to examine the elegant little structure the adult chickadees had built for their first go-round.
Swedish memory foam.
A thick base layer of the finest green moss, followed by a bed of dryer lint, dog hair and pine needles - where do I sign up?

A good tree for blue jays.
The chickadees have failed for now, but that hasn't been the case for some of the other breeding species around Black Mountain. The yard is filled with the sounds of begging fledglings. At least two broods of song sparrows are using our backyard as their base of operations. The Carolina wrens have also pulled off a successful attempt and I often hear the adults scolding a real or perceived threat that wanders too close to one of the youngsters.

Blue jay nest
Sue has been telling me for a week that she thinks there is a blue jay nest somewhere nearby, but it wasn't until a couple of days ago that we discovered how close it actually was. I as sat one morning at this computer, I heard strange sounds emanating from the pine tree outside the window. I snuck out the front door and over to the base of the tree, where I peered up through the branches and spotted one of the adult jays sitting on a stick nest. I don't think I've ever seen a blue jay nest before, so it will be fun to follow this one's progress.

The hummingbird feeders started to get some action last week and now, weeks after the first wave of male ruby-throateds passed through on their way north, we have representation from both sexes, indicating the breeding season for eastern North America's tiniest bird is about to begin.

May they all have great success and raise babies that are swift and strong.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Mid-May Ramble

Our intention was camping, but Sue's hectic work schedule and a dicey weather forecast in the days leading up to the weekend led us to amend our plans. While I've spent much of the spring chasing wild turkeys around our property in Cleveland County, Sue hadn't been since the first week of April, so that's where we went on Sunday.

We got there around noon and had a picnic down by the creek. While we ate leftover spaghetti and chocolate truffles, we kept our ears open and ticked off the birds singing in the riparian zone: Acadian flycatcher - check, ovenbird - check, summer tanager - check, yellow-throated vireo - check, black-throated green warbler - check.

After lunch, we walked back to the old logging road that the timber company built to access the property some 10 years ago and started up the valley. I must admit, after spending so much time and effort trying to kill a tom turkey during the past two months, it was a welcome relief to just putz around and take in all of the other wild things that live there.

Bugs were the first things we noticed. The butterflies along the road fluttered all around us; beautiful, pale blue spring azures, common buckeyes, silver-spotted skippers, fritillaries of undetermined species and tiger swallowtails.
Love is in the air. Copulating tiger swallowtails (light and dark morph).
Eastern comma
As a casual fan of lepidoptera, I am particularly fond of the group known as anglewings. In our area, these are typically medium-sized butterflies that tend to inhabit shady, wooded areas, though they often come out into openings to sip salt and mineral deposits from the sand or clay. While Sue was off looking at plants, I managed to get a few pictures of a particularly accommodating eastern comma - named for its rather inconspicuous punctuation on it's underwing.

Further down the trail, we came across a couple of bizarre caterpillars, looking menacing and poisonous with a thicket of sinister dorsal spines. Although I fancy myself a serviceable identifier of butterflies in their adult forms (thanks in no small part to Jeffery Glassberg's fantastic guide, Butterflies Through Binoculars: The East), I know virtually nothing about making sense of their larval stage. I took a few photos and hoped for some guidance from David Wagner's very cool book, Caterpillars of Eastern North America. To date, I've had little success keying out the caterpillars in my life with this book, though I suspect it has a lot to do with the variability in their life stages rather than the inefficiencies of the book. This time, however, I think I can confidently say the creepy-crawlies we found were another anglewing type - the question mark. (No, it's not a joke. Similar to the eastern comma, the adult question mark sports the punctuation of it's namesake on it's underwing.)
Question mark caterpillars (???)
Black-shouldered spiny leg - I think.
There were also a few dragonflies buzzing around. If anything, I like dragonflies even more than I do butterflies. Maybe it's their huge eyes and ability to move their heads independently of their bodies that make dragonflies seem intelligent, for lack of a better word. Maybe it's their impossible powers of flight, or the fact that many species undertake long-distance migrations in the fall. Maybe it's the spectacular diversity that changes with every habitat. Likely it's the fact that dragonflies are hell on mosquitoes and other biting insects that like to suck my blood. For all those reasons, I like the heck out of dragonflies and like my interest in butterflies, I find great knowledge in a layman's book by Sidney Dunkle called (shockingly enough) Dragonflies Through Binoculars.

As we hiked up away from the creek and through the regenerating forest the logging company had cut around the turn of the century, the bird song reflected the change in habitat. Yellow- breasted chat - check, prairie warbler - check, field sparrow - check, indigo bunting - check, broad-winged hawk - check.

The mountain wetland hangs on.
Sue took a detour to measure our success in restoring a tiny wetland area that had been filled in when they built the road and choked out by encroaching upland vegetation. Last fall, we spent a day clearing out sweet gum and tulip poplar saplings in an effort to free up the few cattails, sedges and alders that remain. So far, the wetland species seem to have responded favorably to the increased sunlight and available water, but we must remain vigilant for exotic invasives like Japanese honeysuckle. When we have the time and money, our first habitat management project will be to fully restore the wetland. It's going to take a bulldozer to remove the culvert from under the road and the berms where the loggers deposited their excess dirt, but it will be worth it to see the native plants and animals return.

Royal fern?
The spring that feeds the wetland lies on the other side of the road and runs through the aforementioned culvert. There, Sue spied a giant fern that we somehow had never noticed before. Standing more than 5 feet tall, I'm guessing it must be a royal fern - the only one we've found on the property during our five years of rambling.

Our visit wasn't completely benign. Over the winter, Sue had discovered and identified a large princess tree growing at the edge of a clearing. Despite my protests that the tree would make for a perfect place to hang a deer stand, Sue was adamant the non-native and highly-invasive intruder had to die. We stopped at the truck to gather our instruments of death and then hiked on up to the tree. It was certainly a picture of health - filled with seed pods waiting to become a virtual forest of princess trees. Through her research, Sue chose the manner and timing of execution. May is the best time of year for the "slash and squirt" tree killing technique, so I girdled the tree with a hatchet (sighing heavily as I did it in sight of so many deer trails) and Sue followed with a generous squirt of herbicide to every cut. Now we'll wait and see what happens.
Princess tree - a picture of health.
Slash and squirt - dead meat.

On our way back down the hill, we stumbled into a brightly marked box turtle crawling across the trail. Box turtles seem to be well-represented in our little part of the world, but they are in trouble throughout their range. Populations of these long-lived, terrestrial turtles are in decline due to a number of factors, especially habitat destruction and roadway mortality. An adult male, like the one we encountered, can be as old as 40 years to 120 or more - something to think about the next time you see one struggling across a busy highway. For the time being, this one is safe as long as he stays on our side of the valley - and we intend to keep him and all the other wild things on the property that way, for as long as we are able.
eastern box turtle

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Down To The Swamp

The wedding was beautiful. Our friends, Mark and Dana got married last weekend in Charleston, S.C. and it couldn't have been more perfect. The outdoor ceremony took place in an open glade amid the majestic live oaks, draped in Spanish moss as the sun set gently over the low country. As the bride and groom said their vows, Mississippi kites and anhingas soared overhead. It was enough to take your breath away.

Sue and I were so enamored by the setting (Magnolia Plantation), we decided we would return the next day to celebrate the start of Sue's birthday with our good friends, Jenny and Warren, by walking the grounds at a leisurely stroll and soaking in all of South Carolina's natural goodness.

After we woke and polished off a spectacular breakfast at the Sweetwater Cafe on James Island (a joint that has earned The Bumbling Bushman's highest rating), the four of us drove back over to the plantation and paid the $8-a-head fee to enter the Audubon Swamp Garden trail and boardwalk. Lest ye be confused the swamp garden is a wildlife sanctuary with Audubon oversight, it is not. It is a revenue-generating attraction maintained by Magnolia Plantation, but the entrance fee seems to keep much of the touristy riff-raff out and buys you a chance to see some pretty amazing wildlife and scenery.

Great egrets on the nest.
The 1.25-mile trail and boardwalk first led us through the wading bird colony, where great blue herons, little blue herons, anhingas, cattle, snowy and great egrets have built a communal rookery for raising their young.

The sights and sounds of the rookery are interesting and entertaining enough for the most casual naturalist, but the girl I married happens to have been, at one time, the lead waterbird biologist for the state of North Carolina, and she was in heaven. In her hundreds, if not thousands, of hours censusing and studying heron rookeries, Sue admitted she had never experienced anything quite like what we saw at the swamp garden. With a steady flow of visitors, the birds there are impossibly acclimated to human intrusions during the most vulnerable stage of their life cycle. Everywhere we looked, anhinga chicks begged their parents for food, little blue herons incubated their eggs and cattle egrets gathered nest materials.
Cattle egret
Of course, it being a swamp in the South and all, there were reptiles to be seen as well. It took us a little while, but eventually we spotted our first alligator, a young specimen of perhaps 36 inches. Then Warren was lucky enough to see a much, much larger gator, maybe 10 feet, have a half-hearted go at a female wood duck. The gator missed out, but it was plenty obvious none of the swamp's big lizards was going to go hungry anytime soon. The place was a veritable smorgasbord of gator food; with half-a-dozen broods of wood duck ducklings paddling around, an ever-present possibility of heron or egret chicks falling out of their nests and a turtle population that approaches biblical proportions.
Gator snack. Jenny calls them "turtle popcorn."

As we made our way around the swamp garden, the neotropical songbird population was in full song as the breeding season approaches full swing in the South. Prothonotary warblers, northern parulas, summer tanagers, white-eyed vireos, blue-gray gnatcatchers and great-crested flycatchers belted out a background symphony, with amphibian and insect soloists that merely hinted at the unseen riot of life around us.

We would have stayed all day, but duties back home in the mountains for Sue and I, and the North Carolina coast for Jenny and Warren, beckoned and it was time to hit the road again. On the drive home, Sue and I couldn't help but plot our next trip to the low country. Maybe this fall we can squeeze in a weekend on one of the undeveloped barrier islands South Carolina is so lucky to have - I sure hope so.
Whatcha lookin at guys?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Gear Review: The Original Muck Boot Company, Woody EX Pro

After my hunting license, my gun and ammunition, the most important piece of gear in my arsenal is footwear. A good pair of boots, be they hiking, snow or knee, is practically essential to my success in the field. I'm not alone in this opinion. Take a look at the next outdoors catalog that arrives in your mailbox. Chances are, that big section in the middle will be devoted to boots, boots and more boots. Imelda Marcos would be impressed.

I started hunting right around the time the scent management craze hit the industry. If you weren't wearing some sort of carbon-infused fiber to "eliminate" your natural and unavoidable stink, you were wasting your time. Tennis shoes were right out.

After shelling out for a rifle, camo clothing, fanny back and all sorts of "essential" deer hunting equipment, I didn't have the funds for a pair of state-of-the-art hunting boots. I went with what I thought was the next best thing; some uninsulated rubber knee boots off the bargain rack and a pair of thick socks.

I'm sure some folks can sit in a tree stand for hours on end in such an outfit and never get cold toes, but I quickly found out after one miserable deer season that I cannot.

The next year, I received a pair of Lacrosse Lite 7.0 Alphas under the Christmas tree and I never looked back. For hunting the flat and temperate Coastal Plain of North Carolina, the neoprene/foam hunting boot was the way to go, except...

I'm hard on boots. Had I just stuck to tree stand hunting in my new boots, I'm sure I would have been satisfied with their superior warmth and comfort to the nameless, Spartan rubber jobs I had upgraded from. I couldn't leave well enough alone. I wore them rabbit hunting. I stalked wild turkeys in them. I donned them when I chased wild hogs in the Florida orange groves. In less than 12 months, the Alphas were falling apart.

Perhaps my expectations were too high for that pair of $80 knee boots, but I was disappointed. I kept wearing the Alphas despite the tears and the worn soles for the better part of 5 years. There always seemed to be something more pressing, sexier, to add to the arsenal than shelling out the big bucks for a better pair of boots.

My friends, I'm here to tell you that if you are like I was - trudging through life with inferior knee boots - you need to consider making a change.

Earlier this year, through my affiliation with the Outdoor Blogger Network, I was selected to receive and review a pair of Woody EX Pro knee boots from The Original Muck Boot Company.

I take this responsibility seriously. I can't give an accurate review of a pair of hunting boots by simply slipping them on and walking around the block a few times. I decided to wait to do this write-up until I had a real chance to put them through their paces during the toughest, prolonged test I could think of; the spring wild turkey season in the Appalachian foothills.

First, the specs:
Woody EX Pro 

All the standard MUCK BOOT™ features plus:
  • Stretch-fit topline binding snugs calf to keep warmth in and cold out
  • Anti-microbial treatment prevents growth of odor causing bacteria
  • Inscentible® scent masking for improved concealment when hunting
  • 5mm CR flex-foam bootie with four-way stretch Spandura®, 100% waterproof, lightweight and flexible
  • Natural rubber upper reinforcement for added durability
  • MS-1 molded outsole is rugged, aggressive and durable for maximum protection and stability
  • Additional achilles overlay for added protection
  • 2mm thermal foam underlay added to the instep area for additional warmth
  • EVA molded midsole with contoured footbed
  • Reinforced toe
  • Added toe protection with a wrap-up bumper
  • Reinforced shinguard
  • New Mossy Oak Break-Up® Camo
  • Comfort range of -40ºF to 60ºF 
I gave the Woody EX Pros a warm-up during a 2-day wild hog hunting trip to the South Carolina Low Country back in March. The boots are comfortable, there's no denying that. When I first put them on and walked around a bit, I was concerned by the stiffness of the midsole. For the first day or so, it felt like I was wearing a pair of downhill ski boots, forcing me to walk heel-to-toe. After a half-mile or so, however, the midsole loosened up and the boots became much more flexible. They have as much foot and ankle support as anyone can expect from a knee boot (far better than my old pair of Lacrosse), but riding around the marsh in a skiff and sitting in a tree stand was not the kind of test I was looking for.

Enter turkey season; scouting and hunting. The patch of land I hunted is hilly, and when I say hilly, I mean steep. Extended up and down hiking is the name of the game. Ripping, tearing wild blackberries and briars are everywhere. To be honest, knee boots are not suitable for it. Hiking boots are safer and more practical, but I wanted to see the Woody EX Pro perform and perform they did.

With just a pair of lightweight tube socks separating me from my boots, the Woody EX Pros were far more comfortable than I thought was possible for a knee boot to be in that type of terrain. Each boot weighs 1230 grams (I weighed them), which is a full 100 grams lighter than the Lacrosse Alphas. Despite the weight difference, the Woody EX Pro seems far sturdier than the rival boot. In fact, they have so far proven to be, dare I say, indestructible.

The rubber uppers protect the cushy foam booty from thorns and sharp sticks. I have no doubt some of the briar tangles I waded through would have torn my Lacrosse Alphas to ribbons. The Woody EX Pros remain unscathed.

As I stated earlier, knee boots are not my first choice for hiking up and down steep slopes in the western Carolina springtime. With all the miles I logged in these boots (I'd guess 12 over the course of eight hunting trips) it was not surprising to me that I developed blisters on my heels. There were certainly times when I wished for lighter footwear - the kind only found in high end hiking boots - but overall I was amazed at how comfortable it was to hunt in the Woody EX Pros. After three straight days of hunting hard, you would think my feet would be screaming as I put my boots back on in the pre-dawn darkness, but it wasn't so. I always started the day in complete comfort.

As for warmth and waterproofing, The Original Muck Boot Company does not overreach in its performance claims, though I would have been sorely surprised if it did. Knee boots are supposed to be waterproof and should remain so for as long as the uppers stay intact. It seems after my experience, these are particularly durable, well-built boots that should provide many years of dry-footed service. The temperature during my hunting season ranged between 40 - 80 degrees, hardly a test for the Woody EX Pro claim of comfort from -40 to 60. That assessment will have to wait for winter, though I doubt any boot on this earth would keep my feet warm at -40. I can say that even at 80 degrees, my feet remained dry. 
As for claims of anti-microbial treatment and scent-masking technology, I cannot measure. Regardless, I feel these would be a great boot for tree stand hunters in terms of comfort and durability. 

Who should own a pair of these boots? If you still-hunt whitetails and/or wild turkeys in the mid-Atlantic coastal plain, or anywhere with mildly rolling or flat terrain, the Woody EX Pro is a superlative choice. If you walk-in short to medium distances to hunt from a tree stand, this boot is a great choice.

Now, what about the cost? With an MSRP of nearly $220, the Woody EX Pro is hardly an entry-level knee boot. They are priced nearly three times more than my old Lacrosse boots. They outperform them by that and then some.

The takeaway: When it comes to knee boots, at least in the case of The Original Muck Boot Company's Woody EX Pro, you get what you pay for. If you've got the money, I for one, have absolutely no reservations in giving my wholehearted endorsement to them.

Happy hunting.

Disclaimer: This review is an honest portrayal of my experience with the product. I received the Woody EX Pro boots from The Original Muck Boot Company free of charge in exchange for the above review. I am in no other way affiliated to, or have received any form of payment from The Original Muck Boot Company. If the boots sucked, I would tell you so. ~ The Bumbling Bushman

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On Flaccid Decoys And Empty Chambers: A Hunting Story

The calendar says there are five days left in the 2011 wild turkey season in North Carolina, but I'm done and not in the good way.

All the pre-season scouting trips back in March; all the 4:30 a.m. wake-up calls; all the miles trudged up and down those Appalachian foothills have come to naught. I am turkeyless ... again.

Remember that post I wrote two months ago? I do. I boasted, "There in the thick pine stand roosts the tom turkey I intend to kill on opening day." I hedged my bets when I also wrote, "I've been at this game long enough to realize the myriad things that can and probably will go wrong ..." I was mistaken on both counts. I did not kill that tom turkey on opening day, or any other day for that matter, and I had no idea of the colorful new ways this season I'd find to screw up a turkey hunt.

I'll spare you the descriptive minutia of every trip I made into the woods; the dozen or so times I worked gobblers that responded to my calls and, for whatever reason, did not commit. I'll just tell you about these:

April 13 - Opening Week
A close encounter with two toms a couple of days prior had me thinking I could set up above the roost, set out a decoy on an old logging road and patiently wait out the bird that would finally break my 3-year slump. I climbed three quarters of the way up the hill, found a clearing in the thick pines and unrolled my inflatable hen turkey decoy.

After I made myself comfortable, I put out a series of yelps with my trusty box call and waited. Ten minutes later, I threw out another sequence and one of the toms down the hill responded, starting a game of Marco Polo that went on for the next half hour or so, with me trying to convince him to come up the hill and him trying to convince me to come down. Finally, the gobbler went quiet and I got ready. A responsive tom turkey that suddenly stops gobbling usually means one of two things; either a real hen has come to the party and taken him away, or he's on the move and closing the distance.

It was the latter. After five minutes or so, the tom gobbled just downhill from me. He was searching for that hen who was playing hard to get. I shouldered my shotgun and pointed it in the opening I thought he'd appear. The gobbler fired off again, a little to the left and facing away. A minute later, he gobbled again, further to the left and further away. Reluctantly, I lowered the gun and picked up my box call. I stroked out some soft, sweet yelps and he cut me off with a thunderous gobble. He was coming in hot.

A minute later, I spotted him coming over the rise, right where I expected him to. He stopped for a second, picked up his head and saw the decoy for the first time. He was 25 yards away. I could have shot him right there, but I held off as he went into a half-strut and gobbled again at the decoy. This was game and set. He'd seen the decoy and was moving into position to find some room to do some strutting. I followed him with the bead at the end of the barrel as he orbited the decoy. I was going to let him walk right up on it and then I was going to clobber him.

Little did I know ...

The old tom circled 90 degrees around the decoy, never stopping or presenting a shot. When he got downhill of my itchy trigger finger, he made an unexpected left turn and kept on going down the slope, never to be seen or heard from again. What the ...?

The headless decoy.
I waited a little while, then called a bit, then called a little louder, and then louder still. He was gone alright.

I looked around my ambush. Something spooked him. Was my white tube sock showing above my boot? Had my roll of orange flagging tape (I never go hunting without it) fallen out of my pocket? Nope. I was clean. I stood up and looked down the hill. Wait a minute, the decoy didn't look right. I walked over to my inflatable turkey sex toy and realized the valve had come open and deflated any chance I had of killing that bird. Foiled by a flaccid decoy.

April 28 - Week 3, in the company of the Florida Cracker Contingent
I was excited to host three of my great hunting buddies from the state of Florida, who, over the last four years, have given up their expertise and access to vast orange groves outside Tampa to me and several of my North Carolina compadres to hunt wild pigs. Shooting hogs isn't terribly exciting for them, but they do love to hunt turkeys and I was thrilled by the opportunity to repay their generosity.

We split into two teams. Stephen and I started midway up a ridge and heard a distant gobbler above us right before 7 o'clock. We worked that bird for an hour, but I'm not sure it ever even heard me calling to it. Eventually, the tom went quiet and we made a big move to the top of a ridge at the head of the valley.

Plenty of scratching here. Let's give it a try.
Stephen and I expected to hear something once we got to the top, but it was all quiet. We didn't want to give up after busting our tails in climbing the ridge, so we walked along, looking for a spot to sit and call. There was plenty of turkey scratching up there, so we decided to sit 30 yards apart on either side of the ridge and do a little calling.

I had my back against a fallen log and a great view of the slope below. The only way a turkey was going to sneak up on me was if it came in from behind or slipped in from above on the opposite side of the ridge. That would be fine because that was where Stephen was sitting. I got to calling every five minutes or so, but to be honest, I was doing as much basking in the Carolina sunshine as I was paying attention to the woods around me. Every once in awhile Stephen would call with his slate. He sounded great. Life was good. Maybe I could just close my eyes a little bit and take a nap.

I must have moved my head a little bit right before I heard that all too familiar alarm putt of a male turkey at close range. My eyes snapped open and I spotted a jake on full alert, on the ridge above me, just 20 yards away. He'd busted me but he wasn't quite sure what he should do about it. As he started fast-walking across my area of influence, I brought up the shotgun and followed his head. If he stopped, it was going to be all over. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spied another bird, closer, standing stock still behind a large pine. He hadn't seen me yet for the tree between us, so I swung over to him and waited. A moment later, the second jake stepped out into the open. It was a 15-yard shot. I admired his feathers, all bronzy and green in the sunshine, his stubby little beard sticking out of the middle of his chest, his vibrant red head, and I squeezed the trigger. The long wait was finally over. Click. The turkey looked at me and started running down the hill after his partner, then they both took off and sailed down the valley.

I looked at my gun in disbelief, and then the wave of dread washed over me. I worked the pump and opened the chamber - no shells. I slipped my hand into my right pants pocket and felt the three rounds that were supposed to be in my gun. Oh no. No, no, no, no, no. I didn't do that did I?

There are many sins in the woods. Not loading one's gun before the hunt is perhaps the stupidest and most inexcusable and I now count myself among those unfortunate fools who have committed it.

Yes folks, it's been a long season. I didn't get my turkey, but I certainly made things happen. I am sated and take comfort in the knowledge those birds will be there next spring, a little older, a little wiser, and I can only hope that I will be too.