Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Big Birds



       I am amazed at the great increase in the number of ‘large-species’ birds.  Back in the fall there were thousands of huge white pelicans in the Ozarks.  Most likely there are ten times as many pelicans today as there were a hundred years ago.  I could write a whole column about pelicans, a fascinating bird I have observed in both northwest Canada and the Gulf of Mexico, and in the Ozarks.

       One evening I was duck hunting with old friend Rich Abdoler on a western tributary of Truman Lake, picking up decoys as the sun dipped below the horizon, and we watched a long string of low flying pelicans fly from the southern sky northward, several thousand of them, passing over within shotgun range for fifteen minutes.  It was about that time we begin seeing great numbers of cormorants on Truman, and today they are everywhere on that lake, thousands of them, feasting on shad, as overpopulated as anything in the Midwest.They are ugly and dirty and worthless, and neophyte hunters often think they are geese.  But if you shoot one it is a federal offense with a big fine.  What are the fish and wildlife people thinking?  There should be a bounty on them, but even that won’t reduce their numbers.

       Beginning nature photographers will get photos of one bird above all others, and that is the great blue heron.  They have likely quadrupled their numbers in the past 20 years, as nests along waterways are abundant, sometimes a dozen or more nests in one large sycamore tree, and fledgling birds making the darndest racket you can imagine.  As if game fish in our rivers don’t have enough problems.   In the pool hall back home ol’ Bill said he shot every great blue heron that he found within range of whatever gun he was carrying at the time.  Doc Dykes asked him why.  Bill said they were terrible bass killers… said he saw one once that had a flopping 2-pound bass held down in shallow water with one foot and the tail of a bigger one “hangin’ out of his jaws”!

       Eagles, which were so rarely seen along the Piney when I was a boy, need no protection today.  There are nine different eagle nests along the rivers and lakes that I know of within 10 miles or so of my ridge top as the crow flies. Quite often I will see six or eight eagles together eating the remains of a dead deer along some river after deer season.  If you have a camera and get tired of photographing herons, then you can find a bunch of eagles that aren’t all that wild.

       Last week in a big harvested cornfield there was a flock of Canada geese and near them, six big trumpeter swans. The swans aren’t over populated but the geese are, likely at a high number that hasn’t been seen for decades.  In the day of my boyhood, there was never an Ozark farm pond with nesting Canada geese. If we had seen wild geese in any appreciable numbers during the depression days folks in our region would have eaten better.
 
       Likely the most overpopulated big birds now are snow geese, so great in number that biologists fear they are doing irreparable damage to their breeding grounds in the arctic region of Canada.  When they start to appear by the thousands in March, on northern migrations through parts of western Missouri and eastern Kansas, hunters have, for many years, killed them by the hundreds. It doesn’t seem to make much of a difference in their numbers.

       There are problems on the horizon for Missouri, with a big worthless and destructive bird known as the black vulture.  I have seen what a problem they have become in north Arkansas.  Along the White River some boat docks have obtained permission to kill all of them, but to do it legally you have to pay 100 for a depredation permit. These birds, like so many which are now overpopulated, are protected by federal migratory bird laws.
 
       Here is some of what has been printed about them in north Arkansas  “Black vultures sometimes peck and damage rubber seals and windshield wipers on parked vehicles, canvas awnings and seating on boats, and rubber or vinyl materials on rooftops. Black vultures leave characteristic evidence of their depredation. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports black vultures can inflict gruesome damage to livestock. They pluck eyes and eat tongues of newborns, down, or sick livestock; disembowel young livestock; kill and feed on domestic fowl; and leave scars on those animals which survive.”

       I’ve seen them coming into Missouri more and more over the last five years as poultry farms provide thousands of dead chickens and turkeys in southern counties for them to feed on.  There is no telling how far into the state they will move.  In the east they have moved as far north as New England.

       Black vultures are a little smaller than what we know as ‘turkey buzzards’ in the Ozarks, and they have no color on their heads.  They have completely black skin.  To see a picture of one which I photographed on the White River, and other photos, go to my blogspot…larrydablemontoutdoors.blogspot.com.
 
       Amongst hawks and owls, populations are above the healthy level; most being just as high in numbers as I ever remember seeing them. But there is one large bird in the Ozarks which is not overpopulated… the wild turkey.  I have seen alarming declines in wild turkeys over the past eight to ten years and they have reached low numbers I have not seen in at least 40 years.  More about that in a column to come, and I will tell you what should be done, but won’t be done, by our conservation departments to help stop the declining populations of wild gobblers that is now about one-third of what it was 20 years ago.

Write to me at Box 22, Bolivar, Mo 65613 or email lightninridge47@gmail.com

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Better Than Filay-Miggnon



       I don’t know how many times I have sat down in these woods on my neighbor’s farm. Most of those times I have been here hunting deer or wild turkey. A time or two I have carried only my camera. 
        
       But it is a good place to be, leaning up against a big oak, relaxing in a place of calm and quiet and peace, far away from the daily chaos of offices and traffic and too many people.

       I have my squirrel gun across my lap, a Savage over and under, .22 rifle on top, the bottom barrel a 20-gauge. On one side of it there is an engraving of a fox, and a flying turkey on the other. I remember my dad using it back in the 1960’s to hunt squirrels and rabbits. I am about to use it to get a pair of squirrels for supper. I am plumb tired of eating lobster and shrimp and that filay-miggnon us outdoor writers are use to! I intend to fry myself a squirrel or two. But first I have to get one. And I didn’t bring any shotgun shells, so I will have to get one with the .22 rifle barrel, like squirrel hunters ought to. I didn’t do much of that as a boy. I had an old single-shot 16 gauge Iver Johnson shotgun and if the squirrel didn’t run, I didn’t miss. But with a .22 rifle, I seldom got one.

       What wonderful times those were, riding my bicycle down to the Tweed bottoms along the river, with that shotgun tied across the handlebars and five or six shells in my pocket.  I could buy a few shells at a time at Mr. Duff’s Western Auto Store for 8 cents apiece. Jess Wolf, one of the pool hall’s front bench regulars would give me 25 cents for gray squirrels, 35 cents for fox squirrels, and he’d often buy two, leaving me 2 or 3 for supper. Mom knew how to make them with a pressure cooker and dumplings. And I had to leave the heads on when I cleaned them, cause dad and grandpa liked to crack the skull open to eat the brains. Yuck! I never did that… and grandpa would shake his head and say he didn’t know what was happening to this younger generation!

It seems silly to be hunting squirrels two miles from my home up on lightnin’ ridge when there are about 20 grays and a half-dozen fox squirrels within a few feet of my back porch. But I am not hungry enough to eat anything that feeds at my corn feeder, including the deer or turkey.
 
The deer still come to my back yard, and ten years ago there were seven gobblers that would come there to fatten up for spring gobbling. Today there are none. And in these sprawling hundreds of acres of timber on my neighbor’s lands, there are darn few now, where once there were so many. If the MDC biologists know what is happening to our wild turkeys, they do not act like it. City-born biologists spend too much time in their offices analyzing studies and not near enough time in the woods. Right now we need some drastic changes in seasons and limits on wild turkeys. In most areas of the Ozarks they are really, really declining.

As I walked in to that little valley where my resting place is, I shot at 3 gray squirrels and missed each, difficult targets on the move through branches and vines. Age has weakened my shooting ability. Why, twenty years ago I could flush grasshoppers and pick them off before they could land!!

Now leaning up against my tree looking down into a small draw where red oak acorns are still fairly plentiful, I can see one nice fox squirrel rummaging around, as another, up in the high branches of a shagbark hickory, is squawking a warning that every outdoorsman has heard a thousand times, meaning he has seen me, or perhaps a hawk.

For some reason the one on the ground pays little attention to him, hearing problems perhaps. Must be an old squirrel. Moving up the slope, sitting on the side of a big oak, the fox squirrel presents a fairly easy target at 30 yards. I only missed him twice. But not a third time!

It is a good idea when hunting squirrels to have a good sharp knife and plastic bag, and to clean a squirrel immediately after killing it. I had neither, so carrying him by the back legs, I headed for home. I felt a little bit bad about killing the squirrel, but I have good use for it. When I was a kid I never felt that kind of regret about baggin’ a squirrel or rabbit. Squirrels don’t live very long anyway and none die easy. A .22 bullet is as merciful as any demise they might face. What I like to do is marinate a squirrel in something, then cook it on a grill. But frying it and eating it with white gravy isn’t too bad when you are tired of steak and lobster… like us outdoor writers get at times. Or did I already mention that?
 
We live pretty high on the hog up here in the woods on my ridge top. Might have a wild mallard or two soon, or a rabbit maybe, with canned poke-salet greens with sassafras tea. Doesn’t just thinking about a meal like that make you hungry?

       I know that many of you have read some of my books.  There is a new one out now, entitled, “Recollections of an Old-Fashioned Angler.” If you can’t find one, just call our office and we will tell you how to get an autographed copy.  The number is 417-777-5227. You can email me at lightninridge47@gmail.com or write to me at Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65613. 


Friday, January 3, 2020

A Winter Walk—

EAGLE WORKING ON EXPANDING A NEST... "THIS OUGHTA BE A GOOD LIMB FOR IT!"


There is a remote little gravel bar along the river where I love to camp, quite a walk from the road. I wanted to see it in the dead of winter.

I saw a very clear bobcat track in soft sandy soil. On such ground it is easy for anyone to tell a cat track. Those bottoms below rocky bluffs and crags have a great population of bobcats. There’s no shortage of them in the remote areas of the Ozarks. There are more of them now than I ever remember. It may be that they have a lot to do with the alarming decrease in wild turkey over the past few years.  Rising numbers of great horned owls are also part of that problem.

There will be young great horned owls hatched and bobcats born very soon, long before the fawns are born. In the Ozarks, there are squirrels being born in late February and bobcats begin having young in February as well. But Ozark bobcats may bear young any time from December on. But most are born in February and early March. Think of that… we are already nearing the time of reproduction. In the White River in Arkansas, brown trout are beginning to spawn.

I happened across a terrapin shell, this one very old because only the white undershell was there. Terrapins have an outer and under shell, and Ozark boys in my grandpa’s generation often carved their initials and dates in the outer shell. When I was just a boy, I found terrapins with initials and dates, and it caused me to realize how long they lived.  I suspect a terrapin might live forty or fifty years if he is lucky enough to stay upright. 
 
They are unusual in that they are capable of living a long time and yet producing a lot of young. Most all wild things are good at one or the other… not both. A species has high ‘biotic potential’, the ability to survive well and live long, or high ‘reproductive potential’, the ability to produce high number of offspring during a season. The predators have few babies in one year, and live long and survive well.  A rabbit or a woodrat has a short life span because of predation and a weakness to disease and parasites. But all small ground mammals are like rabbits; they raise lots of young to ensure survival of their species, and to feed the predators. 
 
       The bobcat and fox has a lot to do with the survival of terrapins, not because they eat them, but because young foxes and young bobcats just can’t pass up a terrapin without chewing on it, slapping at it, and curiously examining it. Young raccoons, so adept with their “hands” do the same thing. In doing so, they sometimes leave the terrapin on its back, which is often a death sentence for it.

       It isn’t pleasant to think about, the time it might take a terrapin to die in such a situation.  It has caused me to wonder if the Great Creator didn’t make a mistake or two, giving us snakes and subjecting the terrapin to such a rough end at times.  He pretty much insured the terrapin would never be an easy meal, but if it was me, maybe I’d rather outrun a young bobcat that spend several days trying to regain my feet after becoming his plaything.

There is another flaw in the design of the terrapin. Very often, in mating, a male terrapin becomes unbalanced and ends up on his back.  The cottontail has no option for the terrapin’s long life, but by golly, during the mating season, worn out as he may become, he never winds up on his back.  If you have never seen mating rabbits cavorting in the moonlight, you have missed something.

       At this point, it makes me wonder what I was thinking when I started this column… Oh yeah, now I remember. I was down along the river admiring the ice sculpture on the bluff across the river, when two ospreys came upstream and saw me. Immediately they began to perform acrobatics above me, a sight to behold and impossible to describe. It was as if they wanted to put on a show for me. All the while they were chirping at me in a trilling voice typical of those ‘fish-hawks’ during the mating season. And yes, their mating season is at hand.

I have written before of all the eagle nests I know of in the Ozarks, but I really can’t pinpoint the osprey nest. Their nest is usually along a rock ledge, and not easy to see. They have feet adapted to clinging to small fish, and in diving after fish; they can penetrate the water easier and deeper than an eagle can. 
 
       The old eagle I saw working on her nest last week on another river is not a fish eater at all right now, because they aren’t available where she is. Eagles on the larger lakes in the northern Ozarks are feeding a little better because of the winter shad die-offs. Eagles are also pretty good at finding crippled ducks and coots, and other things to eat when fish aren’t easy to get. I saw two eagles in the fall sharing a dead deer with some buzzards. Eagles are big time carrion eaters.  I’ve never seen an osprey eating carrion.

       I wish I could answer all the letters and e-mails I get from you folks out there who read this column each week, but I just can’t. But I read them all. To contact me write to Box 22, Bolivar, Mo 65613. I do not live there, but that is where I pick up my mail. Or you can email me at lightninridge47@gmail.com.