RECOVERING INVISIBLE BIRDS
Words & Photography by SCOTT FRASIER
Schwump, schwump, schwump my truck's wipers bark in a failed attempt to keep the windshield clear. The mid-October rain is heavy and cold. I am watching a lecture for my graduate program while Rachelle is driving us towards a piece of public land we've nicknamed 'The Woodcock Spot'. With us are three dogs, including a young Spinone, Fiona, who is with us for a month or so for her first try at wild bird hunting.
The location was named after one particularly good day when Rupert, my Wirehaired Pointing Griffon, and I bagged a limit of woodcock in under thirty minutes. From the parking lot, the view of the property is blocked by one-hundred-foot tall conifers. If you were to see me, tailgate down, dog waiting impatiently as I secure a bell and GPS collar around its neck, you would probably think I was as green as the trees. There is not a single clue that this piece of land holds birds. At the end of the parking lot is an overgrown foot trail that leads toward the centre of the property. Walking down the track the elevation declines along with the age of the forest. The ground becomes wet and mushy until it turns into a stream. The winding creek splits the property in half and provides an ideal spot for migrating woodcock to spend a day or two.
I hunt in ruffed grouse country. Ruffed grouse are notoriously hard birds for a pointing dog to figure out. They run on the ground, hide in the treetops, flush with the slightest of pressure, and have the uncanny ability to use large trees to block their flight path. Woodcock on the hand offer a respite, especially for an inexperienced dog. They tend to hold, even if a pointing dog pushes in that extra bit. Woodcock are a smaller game bird, and on the forest floor they are nearly invisible; they hold because they trust that camouflage.
The rain has slowed to a steady pace. As usual, the hunt starts with a mumbled, "OK. Hunt 'em up," followed by the ringing of a bell slowly getting more distant before coming close again. While it is true that woodcock are easier for a dog to find compared to ruffed grouse, it is not true that woodcock are easier birds to hunt. They prefer forest environments with dense, sharp cover and ground that is mucky and soft. The type of land where one misstep will have you stuck up to your thighs in the mud.
We start on the north side of the property working the creek south. The orange on Rachelle's hat comes in and out of view as we walk in parallel. She is on the right, and I am on the left side of the creek. Fiona works between us crisscrossing the stream through invisible openings in the tangled cover. When I can spot her, I watch Fiona's body language. I look at the position of her head, the way her body snakes through the cover and the tempo of her tail. When out of sight I listen to the bell waiting for abrupt changes in direction or pace. I notice that Fiona's forward pace has slowed while her side-to-side pace has quickened. Her nose is down, and her tail is preparing for takeoff. Fiona lifts her head and starts moving forward. Rachelle and I take notice and start manoeuvring through, around and over the cover to get nearer. When Fiona comes back into view, she is motionless, on point. A sudden very rapid peep, peep, peep, and the bird comes into view just over the cover. I make a quick shot, and the bird falls in between the thorny brambles to the forest floor about twenty yards in front of me.
The excitement of Fiona's first wild bird takes over as I start to congratulate her. I move toward the bird encouraging Fiona to make the retrieve. As I push through the brambles, I come to realise that I didn't mark the bird very well. What's worse is that Fiona was in a worse place to mark the bird. It would take an experienced dog to estimate the fall, then search, and ultimately locate the bird. Fiona lacked this experience, and we were going to have to help. Rachelle and I mentally divide the forest into a grid and start walking in concentric circles. Ten minutes pass without any luck, and the discussion turns into a question. How successful are upland hunters at the recovery of game birds if they don't have a dog? As we continue to walk in circles, it becomes clear that an ethical hunter could easily spend more time looking for fallen birds than birds to flush. All told, we circled over thirty minutes before finding the bird and showing Fiona her prize.
"Hey, let's go left at the end of this trail, I don't think I have ever gone back there," I explain to Rachelle. It's the last hunt where Fiona will be joining us and the last day of the Wisconsin woodcock season. We work further into the forest and Fiona is now showing the telltale signs of a dog with hunting experience. She is staying out at a good range, checking likely cover and using the wind to her advantage. As the wind hits my face, I notice that Fiona is ranging out past her usual distance. I can only catch flashes of her moving through the forest, and I rely on the bell to tell me where she is. I can hear the bell; it's just within earshot about eighty yards in front us. When the sound disappears, I am unsure if she has pushed out further or stopped. As I go to grab the GPS, it begins to chirp and vibrate indicating a dog on point.
As Rachelle and I approach Fiona, we make it to within fifteen yards of her when the bird, another woodcock, flushes ten yards in front of Fiona. By the time I mount my shotgun and fire the right barrel, the bird is on the very edge of the gun's range. I can see the pattern of my shot moving through the thick cover widening as it approaches the bird, and ultimately making contact and bringing the bird down. Given the distance, thick cover and raindrops covering my glasses, I had no chance of accurately marking this bird. Fiona promptly runs to the bird, nearly invisible to the eye and picks it up. We celebrate with Fiona ending her last hunting day with us and marking the end of the woodcock season.
As I reflect on my time spent with Fiona, one of the reasons I prefer hunting with dogs becomes clear. I want to be an ethical hunter. So much so that not recovering downed game will trouble me and ruin my hunt. It feels so disrespectful that I don't think the Pope himself could clear my conscious. Hunting with a well-trained hunting dog provides the game with the best chance of a quick and clean kill. While at the same time assuring the birds make it to my dinner table.
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