Ok, guys, this one actually stumped me when I found it! I will be very impressed with anyone who can get it right!… and check out the Friday post for the answer and a new puzzle!
The day of the hunt dawned clear and crisp… just kidding! In fact, it was cool, windy, and threatening rain. If it actually had been raining, I might not have been able to pull myself out of bed at 3:45 am, but as it was coming out into the ugly morning made me want to go right back, anyway! A friend had come up to help me call in turkeys, and he said, perhaps with a hint, perhaps to make me feel better, “Sometimes when it’s like this, I just don’t go out – maybe the weather will be better this afternoon.” I was having none of that, though – I was already suited up and out in the cold, and didn’t see any reason to go back to bed at that point (though the rational observer might note that I could still have gotten a few good hours of sleep before work)!
The evening before, we had gone to the spots where I had been scouting, and worked out our set-up for the morning. We got there before dawn, but the
sky got gradually lighter as we set up the blind and arranged ourselves in it. A cold drizzle also started to fall. As it turned out, we never actually saw the sun that morning, but the time passed when it was supposed to have risen, and shooting was legal. J sounded a tentative yelping whine with his box call. Birds sang sporadically around us, and we heard a gobble far off in the distance. Ten minutes or so later, J called again, a bit louder, this time with the diaphragm (or mouth) call. He got out his slate call and let out a few purrs. He explained that he was calling a bit louder than usual, because the rain would make things harder for the turkeys to hear. It certainly made it difficult for us to hear, as the rain drummed on the plastic blind and dripped past the windows.
After about an hour and a half, having heard no actual turkeys, I risked leaving the blind to attend to nature’s call, and realized that there were in fact still birds singing quietly outside, and that the drizzle was much lighter than what it sounded like inside the blind. Going back inside, I hushed our whispered conversation and re-focused on the possibility of a turkey. Meanwhile, the humidity had gotten to the slate call and J couldn’t get a decent sound out of it, and the box call was requiring more and more chalk. The water resistance of the blind finally gave way, and drips began to appear on the walls and ceiling around us. We found ourselves whispering a conversation that didn’t have much to do with the task at hand, and as the volume of the rain increased, so did our voices. By the timewe were talking in normal speaking voices, we finally accepted the fact that we weren’t being very serious about our hunting, and that if we were just going to chat, we could do that over a hot breakfast and bottomless coffee at the local diner! We packed up and headed in to get a bite to eat before reporting to work.
We went out again that afternoon, after the rain had cleared and the sun came out. We tried a different spot, where I had previously seen turkeys at that time of day. Since it was so close to sunset, and we weren’t sure how the rain had affected road conditions, we decided to park and walk in along an old logging road, alert for birds along the way. We walked down the narrow, rutted trail towards a small clearing above a creek. There was a nearly mature red pine plantation on our left, relatively recently thinned and quite open with some rolling terrain. On our right was a very young pine plantation, the short and bushy trees about 5 years old. Close to the road, those pines mixed with and eventually gave way to young aspen, then opened into the dog-hair landscape of a recent timber harvest. As we came through the tightest part of that road, we saw some hen tracks in the new mud and fresh scat on the sandy road. As we came out into a more open area, we saw a couple hens ahead of us, almost around the corner and beyond some brush. We hurried into the young pines and aspen on our right, hoping that they hadn’t seen us.
Those hens startled a bit, but it didn’t seem that they had run off entirely. I sat stock-still, while J sounded a soft clucking call. There was no sign from down at the clearing, and after J snuck around to check out whether they were still there, he beckoned me back to the road. We hurried down there and set ourselves up, leaning against young aspen and camouflaging ourselves as best we could with the surrounding brush and hummocks of bracken. I had a view down the trail in both directions, and we set up the decoy to draw gobblers in before they had a chance to spot us. At J’s first loud yelp, we heard a sound in the distance that J was sure was a gobble. As J called every fifteen minutes or so, I basked in the warm sun that had been so conspicuously absent that morning. As the end of the day neared, bird songs increased, and I lost myself in trying to remember if the sweet and spiraling call that we heard repeatedly was a Wood Thrush or Hermit Thrush. There was no further evidence of turkey, and as the afternoon progressed I decided that the “gobble” we’d heard an hour or so earlier was in fact the rumble of something loosely-tied going over a small bridge out on the highway a couple miles away. We left shortly before sunset, and hiked out, debating the thrush question.
At the end of this long day with no confirmed turkey activity, that lack of action was rubbed in our faces – within a quarter mile of my house, we spotted a flock of nearly 25 turkeys in a small field, including four or five gobblers. We stopped to watch them, take a couple hasty pictures, and discuss the morality of shooting a turkey next to your car in a zone that you don’t have a permit for. Moral or not, we decided that it was at least no fun, and went home to get organized for the next morning. Taking the dog out for a walk a few minutes later, I heard a sweet song in a young aspen stand at the end of the road and knew that it was a Wood Thrush we had been hearing all along. On the way back to the house, I heard the call of a woodcock, and looked up to see him in his spiraling flight above my head. He stuck with me for a little ways down the road, until his warbles were replaced by the croaks and peeps of frogs in the saturated ground next to the shoulder. A pair of mallards flapped in their constrained pond in a roadside ditch, too small and shallow to swim in. Even if I don’t get a turkey tomorrow, I thought, it’s been fun and exciting becoming so immersed in the world of the northwoods birds!
I had one great, and correct guess on this week’s Mystery Photo. The answer is indeed Larix laricina, alternately called the American Larch, Hackmatack, or, most commonly here in Wisconsin, the Tamarack. In writing this post, I just found out that “tamarack” is an Algonquin word meaning “wood for snowshoes.”
The most interesting thing about the Tamarack is that it is a deciduous conifer – it looses its needles each fall and replaces them in the spring. What you saw in Tuesday’s photo in an example of a twig “leafing out” this spring. These early trees are easy to identify, because of the way they seem to glow in the sunlight with their tiny, light-green clumps of needles. Looking closely, you’ll see that they even sprout needles from the trunk! Once summer hits,however, the tamarack’s color does not stand out quite as sharply from the other species around it.
It is still relatively easy to identify then, though, primarily because it grows in fairly specific areas. While the tamarack is capable of growing in many soil types and in extremely (to moderately) cold regions, it is usually found in fairly moist, even wet areas. If you find yourself in a bog and there is one lone tree, there is a decent chance that it is a tamarack. It may also be a black spruce, but the two are not difficult to tell apart. Tamaracks are among the first species to invade an open area – they help to initiate the succession of an open grassland to forest, and thus could be termed an “early-successional species.” As such, they do not do well at all in shade, will not germinate in their own shade, and are rarely found in stands of other trees, other than on the very edge. Because they tend to grow in more open areas, and don’t grow their needles until part-way through the spring, they also usually have healthy undergrowth around them – a great place to look for pitcher plants and other exciting bog species! In the autumn, their needles turn a consistent yellow color, and they stand out sharply against the vareigated maples, aspens, and oaks around them, adding to the rainbow of “fall colors.”
If you see a tamarack, consider yourself lucky – it means you’re in a special place!
The next day’s scouting turned out much more productive, from an “actually finding what I was looking for” standpoint. I parked my car up on a ridge just before sunrise, rolled down the windows, and tried to avoid the spitting rain that fell onto my lap, glad that it was at least relatively warm out for an early spring morning. Before too long, the birds began to sing, and I heard a gobble in the distance. It was eventually echoed by another one to the northeast of me, and as I waited for them to start moving, I took in the other wonders of the early morning. The cranes stayed farther away this time, but I could hear their occasional calls, along with a pair of geese that flew overhead. Robins darted, flew, and called out their sweet-and-sour songs. In a dead birch next to me, a bird warbled out a complicated song that I couldn’t identify but that intrigued me. The clouds flew by overhead – a precursor to the windy day ahead – and as the storm clouds alternately gave way to light clearings and the sun began to rise, the changes in light and clouds was fascinating.
I began to hear the gobbling again, this time more enthusiastically, and I pinpointed their location as just across the small lake from my perch. It sounded like they were coming up the brushy hillside from the lake, toward the road – the spot where I had parked my car the week before, and seen all the turkey tracks in the dust. I was pleased to see them following a similar pattern – if they were in a different place every day, it would be hard to find them on the day of my hunt. Soon I saw a dark spot moving on the road, and I pulled out my binoculars to see a good-sized tom begin moving up out of the brush. Before long, I could see some hens, too, and possibly another male. They gobbled constantly, and danced their display for the ladies, and moved on up the road. After they were out of my field of view, I stayed in the car for a few more minutes, beginning to shiver as the wind picked up, and then drove out past where I’d seen the birds. As I reached the top of the hill, a startled a couple of hens, who went scuttling off to the east – right into the spot I’d hoped to set up when the day came!
As the day wore on, the wind blew harder, and when I left the office to walk out to the shop around noon, I was startled by the chill in the air. The rain turned to snow, and light white flakes floated around our lot in the gusts. I couldn’t help feeling a little cheated – it’s not unusual for us to get snow in mid-April, but it is a little disappointing, after a March with bare ground and temperatures closer to 100°F than 32! I began to re-plan my attire for the big day, and considered whether I should drive into town that night to pick up a warmer camo outer layer than what I already had.
By the time I got off of work, the precipitation had stopped, but it was overcast, and very cold and windy. I drove down to the south end of the property again, and saw a tom and two hens cross an old logging road between two pine plantations. I stopped and watched them from the car, and they turned and walked farther down that road, not sure that they should stick around my idling car too long. I drove on, and pulled into the next logging road, which I was pretty sure formed a loop with the first. I parked in a little clearing at the end that was full of turkey poop, and walked down the hill to the creek, away from where I expected the birds to be coming from. I climbed up the steep hill on the other side, through a recent timber harvest and aspen that was only a few years old. Summiting the ridge, I could see quite a ways in every direction, back to my car, out to the pine plantation closest to the river, and down to the next plantation to the west, beyond which I had seen the wolves the day before. I shivered in the wind, though, and kept moving, heading east so that I could make a big loop around the birds I’d seen before. I went over a few smaller hills, then headed back north towards the small creek I’d crossed. I hopped over it again, and beat my way up through slightly older (and denser!) aspen towards he pine plantation above me. To my surprise, I found myself already on the road that I had been hoping to hit a little farther down. I walked quietly down it, and suddenly saw the turkeys ahead of me. I darted back quickly and crouched in the brush, but they had seen me. The tom folded up his wings, the hens stopped playing “hard to get,” and they all hustled off in to the brushy aspen, down the hill to the creek where I’d come from. I thought that I might get lucky and they would follow the creek until the clearing I had parked in, or climb the hill across from it so that I could see them on the way, so I dallied on the trail, looking for more turkey sign. I saw a little scat here and there, but also got to see some plants coming up and even starting to bloom. The prize was a couple little white flowers on Trailing Arbutus, barely discernible from the snow flakes on the stiff green leaves!
I got back to where I’d left my vehicle, and since it wasn’t dark yet, decided to continue on in the other direction, still hoping to catch another glimpse of the turkeys and find out their route. I headed into the recently harvested area along what I thought might be a game trail, and was rewarded in seeing turkey poop in ever small clearing along the way. I walked about halfway to the next plantation, that marked the border between State and County property, and decided not to hike all the way over there. As I stood on the edge of a hill in the wind and rain, I saw a dark shape moving under some small pines on the opposite slope, and though that it looked like a tom strutting! As I watched, though, it became apparent that it was less like “strutting” and more like “waddling.” For a moment I thought that it might be a small bear, common out here among the cherries and blueberries in the summertime, but as it emerged from under the trees I could see that it was light brown in color, and definitely neither a bear nor a turkey! I watched the large porcupine make his way out from under the trees, across the slope, and down through some small trees, back out into the open. Here on the northeastern bracken grasslands, or “barrens,” it is common to see “frost pockets” on the landscape. They are depressions in the ground where cold air settles, creating frost even in mid-summer, and nothing but the eponymous “bracken” grows in the bottom of them. The porcupine was headed down into a very large frost pocket, that was possibly even wet at the bottom, because he came out in what looked from a distance like a mono-culture of Leatherleaf (side note: leatherleaf is not a very exciting-looking plant, except when it’s blooming, but is has a beautiful scientific name: Chamaedaphne calyculata). The bottom was almost perfectly round, and two game trails crossed nearly in the center, creating the appearance of a helicopter landing pad. About then, I climbed up on a stump to try to get a better view, and the porkie decided to get out of the open space where he was more vulnerable, climbing up into the brush on the far slope. I shivered, remembering the wind, and went back, again checking out the plants along the way. There was still no sign of the turkeys, and the sun was starting to think about setting somewhere behind the thick clouds, so I hopped in my car and headed out, turning left at the highway towards town so that I could pick up a few last-minute supplies for the big hunt before heading home to get my beauty rest.
Here in Wisconsin, the spring turkey season lasts from early April through late May, but an individual permit is for one designated week (Wednesday to Tuesday) in one designated Zone (1-7). I had Period B, Zone 5, which put me in northeast Wisconsin in the third week in April. Applying for that season (applications are due in December) can be a bit dicey – we often have snow on the ground or falling from the sky that time of year up here – but it’s also a beautiful time to be out in the woods. Plus, a lot of people don’t like being cold so there’s a better chance of getting that week, and since I had never applied for a permit before I wanted to improve my odds. I don’t like being cold, either, of course, but I have plenty of cool weather clothing!
I started scouting about a week before my season started. Around here, there are a lot of birds in agricultural fields that border woods. I work on public lands, though, so I wanted to hunt in one of the areas where we’ve worked to improve turkey habitat. It’s a prettier spot, but also more challenging because they don’t necessarily follow the rigid patterns that develop in farmlands where they have consistent food sources and less danger from predators.
My first morning scouting, I chose an area that I had heard had good turkey activity. I parked my car and walked around a firebreak and up an old trail. It looked “ideal” for turkey, but I only scared up a few deer in a small draw next to an oaky ridge. I saw some canid scat that was too old for me to be able to tell coyote from wolf, but not much else. The songbirds were nice to listen to, but I didn’t hear a single gobble, and a pair of Sandhill Cranes soon drowned out the other sounds. They sounded like they were down in an open bog to the south of me, then I heard them in the air, then again to the west, and then they flew again. Their resounding trumpets echoed off the hills. The turkeys were probably just as annoyed as I was with the din, and had moved on to a place where they could call to their potential mates and actually be heard! I continued walking down and up the hills, overlooking a couple small lakes, though it was well past dawn and I hadn’t seen any sign, just to enjoy the morning off of work. As I walked back up the road to my car, I saw my first black bear tracks of the spring in the soft surface. Continuing on up the hill, I saw several turkey tracks in the sandy surface, including thin lines where the strutting toms had dragged their wings to attract the hens. They must not have been gobbling, or else I had arrived too late to see them and missed their tracks on the drive in. I would have to come back to this spot.
The next time I went out, it was already light, and threatening to rain, but I thought that I might look around for some tracks anyway, or hope to hear a gobble in the distance. I was on a different part of the same property, a couple miles away – over the river and through the woods, you could say. At first, I didn’t see much other than a few wolf tracks, but when I turned off onto a narrow, rarely-traveled road that is sandwiched between denser woods, not only did the wolf sign increase, but I began to see turkey scat and tracks in the hardened mud. Turkey signsare interesting, because you can tell males from females without being an accomplished biologist or DNA-analyst. On female turkeys (hens), all three toes are approximately the same length. On males (toms-adults, or jakes-juveniles), the middle one is noticeably longer. Hens poop comes out in a spiral shape, whereas males poop out
a long segment. I saw a little of each on the trail, and got my hopes up.
When the trail opened up again, my turkey tracks faded out – not sure if it was because they moved off the path, or because the grass growing on it obscured indentations. I continued on, mostly because I love that area and enjoyed being far enough back off the road that I knew I wouldn’t encounter any other people. I thought I might walk all the way down to the river, as I’d never quite gotten there from this direction before. I scared up a couple small groups of white-tailed deer along the way, although they all stared at me for a long time before running away, as though they hadn’t seen people since last fall. I veered off the trail to poke my head into a little wetland area, checking for interesting plants since I had given up on the turkey. As I came back out onto the trail, I heard a rustle behind some bushes that didn’t seem like a deer, and my hopes rose that I might have found a turkey after all. Instead, as I rounded the corner, a round and furry head appeared, tawny yellow and gray and white mixed together, and I found myself face-to-face with a wolf, not 20 yards away. It was as surprised as I was, and bounded back a few paces before stopping to look at me again. I backed up quickly and steadily, keeping my eyes on the bushes that it had come from, and it ran downhill a little farther, also keeping its eyes warily on me, before running across the trail into the brush and towards that little wet area I had come from. A moment later, a second wolf came out of the bush and ran across the road, too. I didn’t see another sign of them, although as I walked back the way I came, I did hear one more quiet commotion in that direction.
As I walked up the hill, my heart was beating and hands shaking as adrenaline pumped through me. I was much more excited than if I had found the turkeys I had started out stalking – I knew that there was a pack of wolves out here somewhere, but I’d never managed to come across one before! They hadn’t been particularly alert when I’d happened along, or they never would have let me see them. The deer must have known they were close by, but hadn’t seemed disturbed, either. Probably they were all enjoying the unusual warmth of this spring, and had enough to eat and drink, and several square miles to roam undisturbed. Fawns haven’t begun to drop yet, so the does don’t need to be worrying about protecting them, and wolves are still cleaning up the carrion from the winter. I felt lucky to have gotten such an uncommon glimpse into the world that these animals inhabit every day.
Ew! What’s that???
You tell me! Register your guesses by Friday and you’ll get to hear about my newest adventure…
… and Kellyann is right! This is a fine example of turkey poop! Tomorrow’s post will explain exactly why I was looking at it in the first place…