Thursday, April 28, 2016

Best Laid Plans



The slate squawks out another series of hopeful yelps, not much like the ones I'd heard earlier this morning sadly. I plead with the call a few more times, but to no avail. A phrase runs through my mind as I sit in the blind-”The best laid plans of mice and men go awry.” I believe it comes from a poem by Robert Burns- “To a Mouse.” The furry little rodents had nothing to do with how my morning was ending this day.

I set out on another series of trailing off yelps from the slate. Nothing.

At the crack of five-ish with sprinkling clouds overhead, I made my way through the dark to my turkey hunting spot-sunrise would be a late today I thought. Perfect, a few extra minutes to set decoys and hunker down before daylight. Hopefully I'd not bust any birds in the roost as well. After crossing a cut cornfield to the edge of a thin strip of woods and cover and about to take that first quiet step to the blind, I startlingly hear it. The unmistakeable haphazard beating of wings and feathers bashing branches from the tree directly above me. Then another, taking flight, crashing twigs and trunks in the opposite direction. So much for a quiet entry. The echoes of their flydown only stopped when they hit the ground a short ways off. I'd been busted, or I busted them-either way, not ideal. I wondered how long they'd watched my dark shape tip toe across the field heading their direction?

With a shrug I went about my business of setting up the deeks and getting comfortable-nothing I could do about those hens now, besides, maybe I could pull them back with some calling if they were in search of each other. Potentially, it could work in my favor if they brought a tom with them? I'm trying to be optimistic here. I contemplate that idealistic strategy in the dark, sipping the first of a tiny thermos cup of coffee and digging out a call to place on my knee. The waiting game was on.
***
He remained quiet, did his tango silently, just as he had when he moved in an hour earlier. It most likely was him I'd heard gobble far off in the early dawn, and I'd like to think my calling brought him in, covering maybe 40 acres. It seemed as though he'd answer my plea from time to time, but on final approach, he didn't make a peep and he remained that way now. It was pointless to call now, he knew the “hen” was there.

My eyes started to water as they stared unblinkingly at the jet black spot between two trees 60 yards away. The dark daub would seem to move, turn directions, then disappear. Red and white exchanged places with the blotch in that sliver of space between two maples, then a flash of ochre would peek out and then back to black. I could hear the “thump” of a fan being unfurled by the big mature gobbler, being careful to remain half hidden at all times. Eyes strained to see him, but he was winning at this game of peek-a-boo.

Moving a bit closer, but not much, he paraded back and forth displaying and making a spectacle of himself for the plastic decoys he could just see in the field. I wondered why he didn't improve his vantage point, which would put my quarry in range. Nope. His head and neck would stretch high when deflating his posture to confirm the “hen” was still there. “She” was, and he'd start his promenade again in the leaf litter.

Tens of minutes clicked off, I started to hate this bird. Back and forth, back and forth he'd waltz, never closing the gap an inch. Hate maybe to strong a word, for this is hunting, and no animal can frustrate more than a pea size brained turkey it seems. This singular focus on one strutting bird 50 yards away was getting the best of me. He would-not-budge, I wouldn't shoot, just wasn't comfortable with a long shot, so I remained as patient as possible.



The weathered 870 laid coldly across my lap, slate and striker tucked in a pocket. My stare burrowed into that feathered spot making me crosseyed. As his head turned and extended upward, I caught a movement, dark shapes- off to the side. An agonizingly slow turn of gaze revealed 3 confused jakes 10 yards away skirting the decoys. With red heads and pretend tufts of beards, they were bewildered as to what these fake birds were. Understandably, they noiselessly appeared on scene while all my attention focused on the tom. Maybe at the same moment, the mature bird also noticed them-perfect, I mused, he'll charge in and defend “his mate,” offering an opportunity finally. Not exactly.

If one could only figure out what these animals would do every time, in every situation, I guess it wouldn't be a challenge-at this particular moment however, I'd take less of a contest. For whatever reason, he stayed put-not how it's supposed to work. The gobbler showed his best strut, slow walking back and forth provoking the youngsters. Instead of my well thought out harvest plan, they defied me and walked toward the big bird, false yelping and cluck-putting along the way. The woods exploded with some loud gobbles from the tom-he'd show who was boss here, his silent treatment apparently expired. He charged at the juveniles-excellent, “come on back and join them” I think , ever hopeful.

The flapping, jumping and chasing continued but crept further an further away-did they not know my well thought out strategy? Steadily moving away, I got on the call, just to remind them their lady friend was still motionless waiting at the edge of the field. Apparently, it didn't matter-no amount of calling would distract them from marching deliberately elsewhere...together. The 10” bearded gobbler joined the 3 teenagers and made their way...away. Thanks for nothing.

The rain returned and kicked in a bit heavier and brought out the scent of the season of the woods. I wish they could bottle that fragrance, sans the strong garlic smell of the ramps I'd stepped on coming in. The incense of this landscape, along with the spring sounds, are the best part of being out here. But again, I was here to try and outsmart a bird.

The four turkeys had long since wandered off after reappearing a second time for a possible return bout. There had been a lot of downtime after the jakes initially “stole” my tom, but gradually, they'd worked their way north, then east and back near enough that I could hear and see them again. This time, they'd keep their distance and I suspect maybe they'd picked up a real hen along the way. I'd call softly and get a reply, and even thought I saw some interest in their reappearance. I even went so far as to eye up some potential shooting lanes if they got closer.

The first bird in line had a long swaying beard-”that's the one!” I thought. At 80 paces, and plenty of brush and trees between us, I'd have to be patient. I am. Another muted call from the slate and the birds froze, trying to pin down my location. Potential? I tied a few more reserved yelps to coax them nearer.

With eyes strained again, I looked at every opening, searched for any movement, for something...as quickly as the birds had arrived, they disappeared. What started out so promising, just petered out-the turkeys vanishing, off again dang it. I think their return was just to tick me off. It worked, in as much as these things do, but I remind myself it's about being out here, although some wild turkey in the freezer would be good too.

Rain continued and I'm sure by now the hens I'd rousted from the roost are long gone, perhaps joining up with my gang of bachelors. Maybe that stubborn hung up tom finally tracked them down, preferring the real thing over plastic-who knows. It's the last day of my season and I'll just relinquish the battle to the birds. They won this round-next time perhaps my game plan, my strategy on hunting them will pan out differently. Maybe not.




Friday, April 22, 2016

The Halls


Paddlers call it an otter slide. It's a cool (I must admit) showy entrance into the water. Tuck yourself into the kayak on dry land, get situated and rock back and forth nudging the boat forward until sliding off a bank and burying the nose underwater and popping up. Mine may have been called a Muskrat slip-about a 1' drop, kerploosh, into the drink. It's as cool as I can get right now.

The put in is just below the Trow Lake hydro dam south east of Merrillan Wisconsin. Halls Creek, which runs through the upstream town, dumps into two small flowages, Oakwood Lake, alongside State hiways 12/27 and 95, and Trow Lake a few miles downstream. Halls is another one of the small creek gems within the Black River basin. It shares some similarities with Wedges Creek to the north and Robinsons and Morrison further south. Of all of these, Halls maybe is the showiest-not so much in water, but in the grandeur of some of the high sandstone walls, which creates an almost canyon like feel in places.

Dan, my paddling partner, jokes about locals having nothing to do in this part of the state-they are clueless about these rivers right in their backyard. I admit, though I spend every second I can outdoors, I had no idea how great the waterways are nearby. Once one drops a boat into these rivers and creeks, it's like another world from the surrounding countryside. Halls, keeps that tradition just like the other bodies we've paddled lately.

Water levels are crucial on Halls Creek (also known as Stockwell, upstream from Merrillian) if one is to avoid a scrapy trip. The nearby Black River sometimes is a poor indicator of water levels for these smaller creeks. A visual cue is a large rock upstream from the hi-way E bridge, if it's half exposed, water is too low. Our tour down the Halls saw enough water-with some scrapes and bumps, but passible. You could body english yourself across the drops and most of the riffles had enough flow.

This would be my first run down the creek, while Dan had paddled it several times. Again, he kept his opinion of the Halls to himself, and let me enthusiastically discover it's beauty- “I knew you'd like this one.” he later commented.

Indeed, Halls brings a scenic richness that I hadn't expected. Much of it flows through county forest, and what is private, has limited development, with few structures. The first section to Garage Road is a bit more understated, much like Wedges Creek, with mostly easy riffles, good water flow and a subtle shoreline. This four mile stretch would be easy for novice paddlers.

From Garage Road to the confluence with the Black River, the creek (to me anyway) changes character. Water generally flows faster, with more rapids (class I & II) to interrupt the serpentine path of the creek and shorelines reach higher and higher with sandstone walls. In a word, more dramatic in complexion.

There are drops along the way to the Black, 2-5 footers, that I, as a rookie, managed to slide and scrape my way across. At higher levels, the water may very well increase the pucker level. An old dam near an abandoned YMCA camp really starts things off after a few minor rapids upstream. Dan had told me about this and I wasn't sure, but wanted to give it a go.

Delapidated Camp Bradfield lies overhead and as far as anyone knows, the cement dam blocking Halls Creek here was constructed to provide a swimming hole for visitors. Perhaps it's older-maybe a remnant form the logging era, when logs cut in the pinery to the north were held in Trow lake, then floated down Halls to the Black during springtime flooding. Hard to imagine the difficulty in that process now days. A small chute, cut or worn in the dam at river left, provides the only safe passage through the obstacle. Cement and iron pilings protrude across the rest of the dam and are potential for serious injury. I hope at some point, this eye sore is removed to provide a free flow through to the rest of the creek.

Riffles and class I rapids lie downstream from the old dam, and the before mentioned drops. With Dan leading over the river features, I just avoided places he'd get stuck-that, and hit the drops with speed to hopefully slide through the rocks. They were fun and a little sense of accomplishment for myself as I (hopefully) continue to improve my paddling.

What really stands out (literally) are the high layered sandstone walls on almost every outside corner of this pretty little creek. As we travel downstream, they seem to get higher and higher (they actually do) and more impressive. Some appear to be squishing the layers of rock below after thousands of years of pressure. Different gradients of color, from gold to blue and green and every shade of ochre in between. Tiny plant life, mosses, miniature ferns and lichens, cling to any fissure the stone allows. Water seeps from the rock, and in places ice walls still clung to shady faces. (Ice climbing next winter?)

The last couple big bends before county hi-way E are awe-inspiring. We lingered a while, taking some photos and drifting beneath the rock outcroppings-almost baby sea caves in a way. Current is fairly strong here, so the boats still need to be tended to even while we admired the scenery.

Drifting below the high bridge, a few rock gardens greet us, but current slows considerably-it's a pick-your-way-through kinda section. Some scrapy bottoms and a couple twists of the creek push us toward the much larger Black River ahead. A few remaining walls line the shallow sandy terminus of the Halls with a high tiny waterfall on river right as the last sensatory treat before we hit the DNR landing around the corner. The swift strong current of the Black, a stark contrast to the last mile we'd paddled, swirls around the canoe launch, making one last challenge for a “dry exit” from the kayak.

Like many of the smaller creeks and rivers in the Black River country, the characteristic of the water can change dramatically throughout the year-hit the level just right, and they can provide a whitewater delight, at lower levels, a tamer cruise. I appreciate that these different watercourses also provide such a variety of visual experiences for the paddler. Each has a distinct flavor, and Halls Creek is one essence I'll have to try again.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Fake Jake


He's staring back at me. Two little beady eyes-plastic. A fake jake decoy balanced a bit off-kilter on a wood stake. Perhaps he's thinking it's been a bit boring this week during the hunt. Maybe.

The other two decoys, a fanned out “Pretty Boy” tom and feeding hen, pose silently, wiggling slightly in the cool morning wind. Unfortunately, that breeze is from the south, driving with it the fresh scent of recently spread manure, the smell, almost overwhelming. The decoys wonder why I'm not calling more. I've learned years ago that it can be overdone and any tom wandering in search of love nearby would have taken note if in earshot. So far in this week of hunting, they must be strolling around somewhere else.

Five hens fed here yesterday and as my logic works, where there are hens, there will be gobblers. That theory hasn't proven true to date this season, but I'll stick with it. Turkey hunting can change in a second-many hours spent glassy eyed staring at an empty field or dead oak leaf carpet in the woods can change instantly. I'm waiting..... Not a sign, seen or heard of my quarry these past few days. If just one single gobble would sound off, it would change this game directly, that's how this sport is and why I come back.

My slate call rings out another semi-accurate yelp, increasing in volume and echoing off the nearby tree trunk filled hillside. The decoys hardly notice. Nothing, no reply like I'd hoped from unseen male birds.

Arriving at the very first glow of the morning, I checked in earlier than my opening day, when I accidentally slept in and had to scoot out to the blind in broad daylight it seemed. Today was textbook-set up decoys in the pitch black darkness, hunker down quietly with a thermost of hot coffee and watch the orange east horizon grow brighter. From my vantage point the sunrise glows through parallel lines of trees with a gentle curve of a hilltop cutting them in half. Three or four deer trotted along the crest, silhouetted in the pre-dawn light. They'd exited a farm field and would soon end up in my lap, the wind against them this morning.

By 6:00, it seemed like I'd been here forever, but it hasn't-just impatient for daylight if not for some gobbling to keep up my interest. That's not to say it's boring.

At some predetermined time, mother nature sets off an alarm clock because the woods seem to come alive with every imaginable spring sound. In just a one or two minute time span (literally) I tallied the harmony of calls from an array of wildlife. A “boss” robin loudly defending her turf, bluebirds, coopers hawk, a pair of geese overhead, cranes rattle calling, squealing of wood ducks, squirrels chattering, barred owns dueling behind me. Crows started in with blue jays and a flicker. Cows, roosters and even a donkey, over a mile away, joined in the chorus. The turkey woods can be incredibly noisy for a brief time. I've listened to this ensemble many times before, sometimes even with turkey yelps, putts and gobbles tossed in the mix.

I scrape the wood dowel across the round slate surface again at the plastic jakes insistence. No reply.

The forest creatures seem to quiet down somewhat as the sun continues upward. I've noted that before too. Maybe the brightness of the day doesn't need all that sound or I can't distinguish the individual pieces and parts of the melody any longer.

The remaining coffee in my cup needs to be warmed up-I can't stand it luke warm. Steam drifts up as it's poured and warms my hands. It's supposed to get to 75 today, the warmest all spring, but it's starting out at 40 and cool. Long johns and stocking cap required.

The coopers hawks had constructed a stick nest high in the crotch of a tall oak tree nearby. I'd become aware when approaching too close and they sounded the grating “cak-cak-cak” of an alarm call. I tried to stay clear on my return trips through the woods. Most of the morning a game of harassment was played between the pair of hawks and some crows. Sometimes it's the crows dive bombing the perched accipiter, and other times it's the cooper on the big black birds tail, like a fighter through the close quarters of the trees. The game continues till one or the other tire. I suspect the crows move on to something else to amuse themselves.

The three acre field is now fully lit. One hen managed to wander out, scratching the manure for some breakfast (yes, I do think about what they eat). I call just for fun, and she glances in the direction of the
phony birds. I took it as her saying she wasn't interested in joining the trio. That thought was confirmed as she pecked her way back off the field and back into the brush. At least it was a turkey I muse.

The hi-way is a couple miles away, but the drone of vehicles seems to get louder-I hear few animals now. Everything seems to settle into the day with each passing morning minute. The only movement is from the deeks who wiggle back and forth (looking quite real I might add) but no game sees them. A raven lands in the field, inspects something, flips it up and flies off leaving me with no further entertainment.

I can't in good conscience leave-I call again, a series of louder then training off yelps. No answer. Another hour passes. The warming southern wind is picking up, ushering in the mid seventy degree day-much to warm for me to enjoy camo clad turkey hunting. Another spring sport will take hunting turkey's place today.

It's mid morning, half a day since I woke and walked out here and my tenacity is waining. Most of the forest animals have moved on and found better things to do. The coffee is gone. Tomorrow, when it's cooler, I'll repeat this whole process again with maybe better luck. The fake jake agrees I think. I pluck him and his partners from their wood stakes and they catch a ride under my arm back to the blind. Yep, tomorrow (and the next day-and the next?) we'll play this game again and watch the day wake.



Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Robinsons


Kelly Road Drop
“No, you need to do this.” Dan insisted glancing my direction. ”I know I should have decided this a long time ago.” He added. “I'll feel worse if I don't run this than if I wreck my boat.” I shook my helmeted head. “I don't need to make up my mind. “ I answered. “You can make this!” He urged again. “I know, but I'm just not ready.” I shrugged. With a back bladed stroke, I let the current swing me around and then paddled toward shore. The roar of the 4 foot drop was just downstream at the Kelly Road bridge and drowned out any other remaining discussion (as far as I was concerned). I know Dan well and he would have to run this pitch, a noisy full cross channel drop adjacent to remnants of an old grist mill. Scouting it before we started the days paddle, I knew it wasn't for me at this point.

The conversation started as we rounded the final bend in Robinson Creek before the take out just south of Paquette and Dodge road in Jackson County. Since I'm fairly new to kayaking whitewater and still getting a feel for the new boat, doing just the upper section of Robinsons with numerous riffles and class I rapids, was fine for me. Dan, an experienced whitewater paddler, would have loved to continue to the lower part, with class II and III rapids, some 4-5' ledges (including “Polly Falls”) and plenty of pushy water. I'll get there, but for now, a less challenging route was good enough.

Jackson County, in south central Wisconsin, is home to some of the most underrated rivers and creeks for boaters in the state. Most are unknown. Except for a few in paddlers (and trout fishermen), they go unnoticed, as folks make bigger bodies of water, like Lake Wazee, Arbutus and the Black River, their destinations. The Morrison and Robinson, along with Halls and Wedges in Clark County to the north, were familiar with me, but I'd not slipped a boat into them before this cold spring. I'd missed a lot by not doing so sooner.

It would be hard to pick any one of these as the best-they all have some unique facet to them as far as the water and surrounding terrain. Robinson Creek, which feeds into the Black River 8 miles below Black River Falls, piqued my interest earlier this winter while crossing it several times during wolf tracking surveys. From the limited vantage point of the remote township roads, it appeared to be a gem-to say this is a beautiful body of water, would be an understatement.

Dan had paddled it a couple times already this “spring” in his ongoing quest to wet his kayak and homemade cedar strip canoe as many dozen times as possible before his work season kicks in. “I'm never concerned about weather,” he'd say. Rain, snow, ice (which has been more than common) didn't phase him, nor me as I'l learning. The only reason to look at the forecast was to see if water would be up or down on rivers and creeks. I even remarked to him while paddling last week-”I'm in a dilemma now.” “Oh no, why?” he asked. “Because I don't know if I want it to rain now or not-it kinda stinks for mountain biking, but makes it so much better for kayaking!” I answered. “That's why I'm just prepared for all of it.” he snarkily replied. And he is right, his Dodge pickup racks are loaded for bear with every outdoor toy you could imagine...at all times. People literally take photos of the black truck with bikes, canoes, kayaks and skis all somehow finding a place attached to his rig.

We generally change into paddling gear at the take out spot before shuttling to the put in. With temps in the low 30's and snow and rain spitting, dry suits were the dress of the day. I purchased one days after bringing my new crossover boat home, knowing if I wanted to paddle now (which I did) it would be required. Neoprene boots and gloves (and insulating layers under everything) along with a helmet, would make this a comfortable outing.

Robinson starts near Millston Wisconsin and the very upper part, is within the Robinson Creek Pines state natural area. The creek is narrow here (but scenic) but most paddlers opt to begin at Old Cty. I. There is a steep embankment down to the water and a good starting point for our 6+ mile trip. We'd been told the creek is runnable most of the year, but was down some from Dan's previous jaunts. We bumped a couple rocks directly under the bridge, but soon had smooth sailing with what seemed like endless riffles and good water flow. In exactly zero seconds, we were transported into an almost magical place. The remnants of fog hanging between the towering white pine canopy and high carved sandstone banks, reminded me of some kind fairytale illustration. It's hard to believe the scenery down in the creek bed we paddled for it's so different from the dry sandy jack pine and oak terrain of the surrounding county forest. Dan just chuckled-he knew I'd love this place.

With only a few cabins along the way, Robinsons feels remote and other worldly. No thought was put into paddling-it seemed to happen by itself, I was too busy taking it all in. Dans well used cedar whitewater canoe lapped riffles noisily at times behind-a good sign to know his whereabouts when waves and current increased. Sections of the creek are constant class I, one after another and you can't help but smile the whole time. Deep outside corner pools counter small sand bars inside, which the creek builds and erodes away constantly. One is always maneuvering the boat to set up for the next bend (and there are a lot!).

A few miles in, the flow slowed and we made our way through log jams which the local “Friends of the Black River” judiciously cut through each year. A roar from angry water was ahead and I asked Dan if there was a beaver dam- “No, man made dam.” he replied. Hmmm, unexpected as there is so little development here. A large concrete structure loomed ahead and we made for the right shore. Apparently, Robinsons is dammed here to divert water for the adjacent cranberry marsh. We portaged around and slid back into the water below the frothing spillway. Overflow water snuck past the dam through the woods to rejoin a short distance downstream. From this point on the water slowed, was bendier and we met jams more frequently, a change from upstream. Another mile or so and the flavor of Robinsons returned-speedier flow and taller forest on both sides.

Keeping a small creek free flowing is a constant job. Dan had lashed a small stihl beneath a cane seat in his boat to address a couple white pines that had dropped into the water making passage impossible. In shallower places, he could wade out in his drysuit and cut his way through, while others, the work had to be done while balancing inside the canoe and being showered with water and wood chips. It was good work and paddlers who follow, will appreciate it.

This section finishes with a couple moderate (okay, easy) drops and rapids and the banks increasing in height. It's as if the creek is preparing the paddler for the bigger water (class II and III) below Kelly to Fall Hall Road.

Dan decided (as I knew he would) to run the drop beneath the bridge. It was his way of properly putting the river section to bed. I'd watch from downstream. The pitch is the base for an old dam which powered the Dodge gris mill built by Daniel Mills in the 1800s. All that remains is crumbling concrete and field stone foundations high along the south bank. Taking a position with camera in hand below the drop, I watched Dan set up and bring the canoe around for the line he wanted to take. The shutter snapped a few photos off as the boat nosed over the ledge in a nonchalant manner, barely splashing water inside. I was impressed. “You made it look easy” I shouted. “Well, I don't have to fix my boat at least” he casually replied. I doubted the canoe would come to harm-Dan remarked how well the design handles and he's skilled at paddling it.

After loading boats and stowing gear, we visited the drops near Fall Hall Glen. The cascading ledges here looked intimidating to me, but I was assured by Dan they were not that bad and are straightforward to get through-the weekend before he and others had made multiple runs here. I'll work up to that test at some point I guess. As it was, Robinsons couldn't have been a better trip for a cold spring day and I can't wait to slip a boat in here again. The seasons will surely flavor the trip differently, but I know it'll be a great experience. I can't wait to return paddle in hand.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Buena Vista 'P Chickens

I should have known better, for this “spring” has been anything but predictable. We were teased with 50s and 60's a couple weeks ago and I'd even donned shorts a day or two, but Mother Nature is fickle this year. My feet were beginning to thaw as the truck heater poured out warming air through the floor vent. I busied myself in the meantime transferring hand written notes to a data recording sheet to be dropped off before I left these tall grasslands east of Wisconsin Rapids.

Hours earlier, I met my guide, Peggy Farrell, the Prairie Chicken Viewing Project Coordinator, at the Buena Vista Grasslands Wildlife Area. Peggy is also the Director of the North American/Wisconsin BOW (Becoming an Outdoors Woman) from UW Stevens Point. Although I'd have to hit the road at 3:15 a.m. to make our 4:30 meeting time, I was excited to experience my first greater prairie chicken (Tympanachus cupido) booming grounds.

As one of four grouse species here, prairie chicken range historically was in the native grasslands of the southern third of the Wisconsin. By the end of the logging boom in the late 1800s they inhabited every corner of the the state. Market hunting and land fragmentation eventually collapsed the population and relegated the birds to state and federally protected status in small habitat clusters in central Wisconsin.

Buena Vista Wildlife Area comprises several adjacent WDNR grassland Natural Areas, including the BV quarry prairie and the BV Prairie Chicken Meadow, where I'd hunker down with camera and clipboard for a few hours. This 12,700 acre property was once dominated by a tamarack and black spruce marsh, and at one time was drained for agriculture. Now it's managed as grassland habitat and is one of the biggest blocks east of the Mississippi and home to the largest population of native greater prairie chickens in the state. Rotational grazing, prescribed burns and control of woody vegetation and evasives constitute some of the management practices on the property. Besides prairie chickens, the area also is home to many grassland bird species and is designated an “Important Bird Area” (IBA), which provides essential habitat for breeding and non-breeding birds.

Several photographer friends have made the trek to Buena Vista and were rewarded with amazing images. The 'p chicken is one bird I've never observed, so an opportunity to reserve a spot in one of the blinds located there was something I didn't want to miss. Reservations can be made through UWSP and contacting Peggy at 715 -346-4681. Blinds are available from April 1st to the 30th and accommodate four people each. Participants are asked to observe and record activity at each lek (booming grounds) to aid in the annual population census.

Peggy guided me to a roadside trail which led into one of the leks-it was a straightforward short hike through the frost covered prairie, following the beam of the flashlight. At 20 degrees and clear brilliant star covered sky overhead, the pre-dawn darkness was (literally) breathtaking. Blinds are squat rectangular wood boxes, with benches inside and small covered viewing ports. I'd hauled a tripod and camera gear and extra clothes (very much needed) and tried to be as quiet as possible as I settled in. Every bump of the wood sidewalls or frame seemed magnified on this perfectly still morning. The hour and a half wait inside the blind passed fairly quickly. I'd checked each port to be sure they were not frozen shut (some were) so as not to spook birds later.

As sunrise approached, the grassland started to wake. Mallard wings whistled overhead and lit nearby in an unseen black pothole. A pair geese broke out from the frozen fog of the eastern horizon and settled in a short distance away. A few sandhill cranes far off sounded their double rattle calls. As the darkness relented, a squawking, chuckling sound commenced from the lek outside the blind. Carefully lowering the wood port cover, I was happy to see a cock prairie chicken dancing around searching and calling for an invisible hen. Soon, another male landed, which immediately set off a loud booming competition between the pair to vie for their piece of breeding territory. False charges, leaps into the air and stomping feet were all quite entertaining. About the same time, echoes of other booming birds at distant leks seem to surround the blind from every direction.

Trying to photograph at this time of day proved difficult, just not enough light to get sharp images. No worry, the sun would be up and illuminate the grounds soon enough...or so I hoped. With no hens to impress with their mock battles, the second male lost interest and flew off south in search of a mate. The remaining bird continued to boom and put on a good show for the non-existent hens he'd hoped to
attract, until he too, flew off. As quickly as the performances started, they ended. Although “my” lek remained silent with no additional visitors, the distinct and constant low pitched 'whoo whoo whoa' continued from all corners of the grassland. An impressive chorus to tune into for the remaining time on the grounds.

The breeding activity is relatively brief in the April mornings and by 7:30, the booming tapered off. Good thing, as my feet had started to become numb and the hot thermos of coffee sounded pretty appealing after such an early start to the day. Besides, my observation notes, although thin, needed to be transposed to a data sheet, and I may as well be start warming up while writing.

Although the PC activity had all but ended for the day, a hor frost morning in early light is not to be missed. Earlier, Peggy had suggested a drive around the grassland after leaving the blind and take in some of the other wildlife. I explored some of the frozen muddied dirt side roads within the property and managed to nab a few photographs of sandhill cranes, kestrels and waterfowl.

After circumnavigating much of the grassland acreage, I'd finally warmed up and put a decent dent in the hot coffee. I've grown to really appreciate and become fond of tall grass prairies, so the Buena Vista landscape is a place I'll be back to again. It'll be interesting to follow the transformation here throughout the year, so I'm sure my return trip will not be too far off.

For more information on Wisconsin's greater prairie chicken, checkout the DNRs page on the species here.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

New Years Eve Birdless


The four wheel drive came in handy as the truck bounced through hedgerow snowdrifts after the hunt. I felt like the black lab sitting behind me I think-disappointed on this last day of the pheasant season. It's never discouraging not shooting a bird, on this day it was about it being...the last day. Molly, who is usually always able to roust up a couple birds found none. The deep snow was a challenge to be sure, but also offered a chance to track any roosters that were around. We saw zero.

Maybe that was the toughest part-no sign, no birdyness from the dog, no excitement, just cold stinging- your-face wind and tired legs trudging through drifts.

It was New Years Eve day and my last push to get the dog out on pheasant. Sure, I'd maybe try for grouse yet, but we like chasin those big gaudy colored birds the most. Fall had been busier than I liked. In my mind, autumn would be filled with endless days afield hunting. It didn't turn out that way, although a gallant effort was made. State DNR land and nearby private land held roosters, so as often as time would allow, the black lab, a double barrel 20 and bird vest were all tossed in the truck and we were off.

The corn stubble farm land here is surrounded by a huge swamp grass lowland with a couple drainage canals and usually we find birds all over. The dog always goes a bit tail wag crazy when she hits a scent cone. I figured the wind blown snow may make it easier, limiting birds to some select cover near the plowed field. Surely I could hone in on those triangle pheasant tracks to make things simpler. Nope, nada, nothing but mice and ermine prints...everywhere.

Perhaps turning the dog into the breeze would help, but all it did was drive colder than the tempurture wind through my orange bird vest. I tightened down the hat further below my ears and tried to ignore my burning cheeks and nose. More than enough winter blast to remind me what time of year it was, forgetting the sweltering gold days two months ago.

Although most snow cover had been sheared off the bare field, tall grass acted as a snow fence and piled drifts a couple feet high. I'd thought of bringing snowshoes, but they remained useless back in the pickup. We beat our way through, at times Molly cheating by following in my tracks. I'd “shussh” her ahead and she'd go back to her bird dog business-but to no avail.

After an hour and nothing encouraging happening, the sad descision was made to call it a day- a season. It'd be a slow trudge across the vast field to the truck. Molly followed alongside, venturing to and fro only occasionally to investigate some random crow track or scattered corn cob.

It was hard to just be done, so before breaking open and casing the shotgun, I wandered over to some prickly cover near the railroad right of way. Thick berry brush tangles flank the tracks and maybe there would be a “last chance bird” in there. The dog dove in and worked the thicket-I stayed alongside and hoped something would flush, but again, nothing. “Alright, we're good I guess,” - not really wanting to throw in the towel.

The pick-up retraced the truck tracks back out through the deep snow along the field. I wouldn't be back here for 10 months I suppose. Minutes earlier the tinking of the brass bell finally went silent as I removed it from Molly's collar and stowed it in the game bag. Returning home, the over and under bores were cleaned and a spritz of gun oil wiped across everything before tucking it away. Like the bell, the gun, the game bag, and the sleeping lab, it'll be too long a wait for me until the next time we afield. Somehow maybe having a final day like this is good-it'll make the anticipation all the greater next season when we're bouncing along the same field, dog whining with excitement ready to flush birds again.

Friday, January 1, 2016

2015-The Favorites.

New years day, 2016. My annual look back at the year through images almost slipped my mind.  As a photographer, I think reflecting on work that has been produced by my cameras, my eye and more importantly my vision, is important.  So how did I almost miss it?  Not to make excuses (which means what follows will be an excuse of some form), but this has been a very different year for me.  After having the same yearly schedule for 50 years, 2015 saw a change.  No longer would a classroom be the center of calendar- as a student when I was younger or as a teacher.  The September to June annual itinerary would now change forever.  Retirement from education would open a new chapter.  What's this have to do with photographs?

They say after retirement you get busier-yeah, right, except it's true.  I had 7 days of "retirement" after the end of school, then quickly jumped into a new job as a wildlife technician for the Ho-Chunk Nation DNR.   I love the job.  For the first time in many years, I was working in the summer and yes, it did cut into photography time, yet also offered some opportunities as well.  It seemed that working now pushed me to use days off to their fullest and sadly (for now) making pictures took a back seat. I think that will change as I get more used to this new role and set some priorities.  There never is enough time.

I always call this post "Favorites" rather than "best of."  'Best' can conjure up some abstract judging criteria and I just don't want to go there-it has a place, but not for these.  A good friend said photographs come down to what you like-what speaks to you.  What follows is my year in images, more or less chronological, and mostly something from each month.  Some are what I'd consider good photographs, others less so, but are here because they speak to me or are important.

This is always one of my favorite posts-maybe because I enjoy just sharing my pictures with the hope someone else will also like them.  Some have commentary-others not as much.  They are shot with my DSLR (Canon 50D) some with an iphone or Canon point and shoot-whatever was handy.  Enjoy.
Wedges Creek Ice Flows

A strange image to start with? Perhaps.  This was takes on Wedges Creek in Clark County during one of several snowshoe treks on the frozen water.  There are high banks and rock outcroppings along this remote location in the county forest and discovering these little gems was a treat.  The tannin in the rock and soil colored the ice and reminded me of  a cathedral Antoni Goudi would have designed.

Homage to Mark-Burr Oak, Agusta Wisconsin

Of course my interests lie with the outdoors and wildlife and I happened upon this burr oak tree while traveling to and from a wolf ecology class near Fall Creek.  My photographer (and biker) friend Mark Hirsch set on a journey a couple years ago photographing a burr oak tree near Plattville Wisconsin every day for a year-with an iphone.  It's an amazing beautiful project.  This tree jumped off the corn field every day I saw it and I could not-not make a picture of it, for Mark.

Sweaty Yeti

The Sweaty Yeti is a fatbike race our club has put on for the last several years-a fun day on awesome trails and it brings much needed money in for the trail system.  Once the gun goes off, I have 3 hours to relax before the finish, and I love getting out with camera in hand to shoot some pictures.

Arndt Road Crane
It's nice to live in the country and have animals so close-if not wandering through the yard or woods, then just down the road. I'm spoiled.  Pairs of Sandhill Cranes show up each year as soon as the last snow fades away.  This shot was a bit later after green-up.  The pair of cranes this guy was a partner in successfully raised a colt to maturity.

Lake Michigan-The Corkscrew
I'd never grown up with great lakes fishing, but I'm learning to love it-something about those big deep blue waters and the fish they contain.  It's not fishing as much as hunting, and my captain, Kris, is skilled at it.  Kris is a cycling friend from way back and now owns a charter boat out of Kenosha-Northfork Sport Fishing.  He really turned me on to spring coho fishing and I jump at any chance to get down there.  My good Friend John, who knows fishing as well, would rather be on a boat than anywhere else and this morning ride out from the harbor was full of anticipation.

Fisher Ave Drainage
I've driven by this little county forest drainage, now flooded by beavers, a thousand times.  In order to get to Black River Falls for work, I'd drive past this early morning each day.  I enjoyed how this exact place changed though the year and my truck would pull over numerous times to record it. A simple quiet place.

Homage to Douglas Beasley-Crow Feather
Doug Beasley is a photographer who I had the pleasure of meeting while at a class of his years ago.  I still remember a photo assignment to do a "self portrait." Recalling an image of his of a hand holding an object, this maybe subconsciously was my self portrait-on this particular day.  I don't know why, it just is.  I like crows and ravens so I couldn't pass by picking this up and making a picture.

Last Day Eve-32 Years
The final week of teaching had me scurrying to clean the room, pack up a career of art and photography stuff and realizing I would not be in front of young kids again.  Every class I had those final couple days (18 in all) I'd take a picture of my kids and their art teacher. A serious one and a fun one.  I miss the kids the most-not all of them mind you, but there are some real gems that I looked forward to each day.  The teachers reward.

Last Day
Last day of school is "field day," just try to keep the lids on-there won't be much learning involved.  A fun day and my last chance to say good bye, get hugs and for me, to record the faces of kids I'd had the privilege to teach.

Mornings-Townline Flowage
The new job required watching the sun come up a lot-I love it.  I'd go to work in the state forest even earlier than I needed (well, in a way, I "needed" to be out there for this) just to have time to shoot.  Townline Flowage in the BR State Forest was home to a pair of swans this summer and some cygnets.  I'd see them from time to time and assume they made it to fall migration.  I stopped here many mornings on my way to the elk pen, make a few pictures and then continue to "elk sit" for the day.

Dike 17 Elk Pasture
Not really a "pasture," but just some fields the WDNR planted for the elk when they were released.  We'd do 12 hour shifts during quarantine to be sure they were doing okay.  I liked the daybreak moments like this-no people, no sound except the day waking up.

BAAP-Prarie Restoration
The Ho-Chunk Nation acquired-ahem, had their land returned to them, at the site of the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant south of Devils Lake SP.  I'd drive past it quite a few times back in the day while it was still open.  Now almost all of the buildings are gone and nature is reclaiming it.  The HCN is actively managing it for prairie- a monumental task, seeing how invasives have overrun the place.  It's my favorite property to visit and work at.

Linda
I was fortunate enough to be selected as head coach for athletics (track and field) for Special Olympics USA world games in LA this past summer.  It can be a demanding job, but one I cherish.  Linda on paper way back at the training camp the previous fall, looked like a difficult athlete for such a trip.  The reports (in her application) on her behavior had my coaching staff...concerned.  As it turned out, she was one of the most loving and hardworking athletes on the team.  She was always a hoot to be around.  I couldn't have been prouder when she earned a bronze medal in the 100 meter dash.

Fisher Ave Drainage-August
Another stop on Fisher Avenue-heading toward autumn and my favorite time of year anywhere outdoors.

County K-Black River State Forest-Lone Pine
That tree, well, that ex-tree perhaps, is one my eye would catch on my drive each day.  I made maybe 20 images of this spot at different times through the summer and fall-this one had an amazing angry sunrise.

Aspen-Wildcat Road
Fall colors can explode, be obnoxiously brilliant like the creator turned up the saturation, but they can also be like this.  Softer, quieter.  This one little patch of aspen with a forest floor of green and sentinels standing straight and tall, are also part of the season-the subtle side.

The Pastel Glow-Townline Flowage
 I need a small kayak to explore this body of water, or at least that is a great excuse to add another boat to my fleet.  One of many pictures I made here.  Sometimes the placidness of of mornings in the marsh are the perfect way to begin a new day.

Sidewinder in Fall
Hardly a great photo, but it's here because so much of my life has been invested on this trail.  Every inch of it I know intimately.  This was a day to ride by myself, to soak as much in as I could, to stop, to just enjoy the ride.

Abandoned in Lehr North Dakota
 We've been going to North Dakota for many years and it's a place I think I could spend a whole lot of time photographing.  It's worlds away from what visually we have in Wisconsin.  We hunt ducks and upland birds here, which always requires vast amounts of walking.  When I stumble upon some old farmstead ruins, I wonder what the history was.  What hardships it must have been a 100 years ago to survive.  Even now, it's tough living with wide expanses between towns or even other people.  The dominate tree, if there even can be such a thing, are cottonwoods-planted decades ago as windbreaks or maybe a lucky survivor seed blown across the prairie to lite and begin a tenuous life.  This little grove have all been dead for unknown years, but clinging to the shore of a pothole as guardians of the land.  (oh boy-maybe a bit mellow dramatic steve.... )

Fire Sky over "USA Pond"
North Dakota can have some brilliant sunsets, in part because they are so huge!  Over the years I probably have 100s of sunset/ sunrises and I haven't tired of them yet.  Everyone has seen the pretty  colors of them, so it's just a guilty pleasure that my camera keeps shooting and I just had to include one here.  It was a long hike across a tall grass prairie when this was made.  Decoy bag bumping and banging over my shoulder, the plastic deeks anything but quiet.  The 1187 slung heavily over the other arm.  Molly trotted alongside knowing her day was done.  The trucks waited on the horizon and I was motivated by a cold beer waiting.  It would be a long walk, but this view was worth it.

The Frozen Terrarium
It's always the little things.  Some so small we just walk by.  A quick glace at the ground and for some reason I stopped.  I was hiking out of the woods with a muzzloader on my shoulder ready for some hot coffee after a morning hunt.  I'm a sucker for shapes, forms, color contrast and natures abstract ways.  This little place was worth a pause.

Transition
Townline Flowage again.  Fall was giving way- the water surrendering it's warmth and the pedals of cone flowers long since dropped on the shore.  Small wild birds soon enough would flit from stem to stem pulling out the seed cones.

Oxbo Pond-Super Moon
There was a big deal about "the super moon" this fall.  (or maybe it was an eclipse?) Anyway, I kinda saw it and it was still high in the sky at daybreak in the western sky.  Oxbo pond is a little back water of Morrison Creek, cut off from the flow of water when the river changed direction many years ago.  The steam was leaving on this cold morning, I remember it was 23 degrees-chilly for October.  It's a tranquil little spot.  I had this printed by my friend Ras and he made maybe there best complement I've gotten on a photograph-he didn't have to do anything to this...it stood on it's own.

Mortuum Corvis
Pretty, no.  Intriguing? To me, yeah.  Crows are some of the smartest animals alive, so I wonder what the story is here in it's death.  Another bird, a predator, a disease? I dunno.  It's already returning to the earth in natures way.

A Silent Stand-Wildcat Road
The subtle color of this niche in the forest this fall is now buried beneath the ice and skim of snow.  The steadfast trunks remain standing guard again and I have no doubt I'll be back to make a stark white snowscape picture here.  It's that kind of place.

Solis Ortus
Sunrise, and I break some rules which can be broken.  Centered composition-shoot straight into the sun, squarish format.  It's a journey to look back over a year in pictures-some get better with age, some don't.  This one surprised me, another from Townline Flowage.  It aged well for me.  It seemed fitting to put this last, which makes no sense considering it's a sunrise, but without a compass, it could be a sunset.  As it's now just 10 degrees outside I feel the warmth of this image and look forward to setting a tripod up again on this shore-maybe in the spring next year as things are waking up.

As I look forward I've determined I need to feed my photography more-not in equipment or gear (although maybe a move to mirrorless down the road?) but in time and effort.  I think I need a little project, a 365, a 90 day assignment, something along those lines to sharpen the eye and fuel the creativity and vision.  I never know but look forward to what will find me.