Category Archives: Natural History & Conservation

Observations of an Amateur Biologist

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In The Eyes Of A Pigeon

Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan … And the World (Hardcover)

Why do we see pigeons as lowly urban pests and how did they become such common city dwellers? Courtney Humphries traces the natural history of the pigeon, recounting how these shy birds that once made their homes on the sparse cliffs of sea coasts came to dominate our urban public spaces. While detailing this evolution, Humphries introduces us to synanthropy: The concept that animals can become dependent on humans without ceasing to be wild; they can adapt to the cityscape as if it were a field or a forest.

Superdove simultaneously explores the pigeon’s cultural transformation, from its life in the dovecotes of ancient Egypt to its service in the trenches of World War I, to its feats within the pigeon-racing societies of today. While the dove is traditionally recognized as a symbol of peace, the pigeon has long inspired a different sort of fetishistic devotion from breeders, eaters, and artists—and from those who recognized and exploited the pigeon’s astounding abilities. Because of their fecundity, pigeons were symbols of fertility associated with Aphrodite, while their keen ability to find their way home made them ideal messengers and even pilots.

Their usefulness largely forgotten, today’s pigeons have become as ubiquitous and reviled as rats. But Superdove reveals something more surprising: By using pigeons for our own purposes, we humans have changed their evolution. And in doing so, we have helped make pigeons the ideal city dwellers they are today. In the tradition of Rats, the book that made its namesake rodents famous, Superdove is the fascinating story of the pigeon’s journey from the wild to the city—the home they’ll never leave.


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By Michael Patrick McCarty

 

a vintage photo of a boy watching his homing pigeons exercise their wings after being released from their catch pen
Come Home Soon!

A willing and observant person can gather some extraordinary insights about the natural world in the most unlikely places. It can happen in the short time that it takes to blink an eye, no matter if that eye belongs to you, or to something else. Nature abounds with beneficial lessons and the teachers of true meaning are everywhere. I just happen to gain some of my clues from the clear-eyed and attentive stares of my backyard pigeon flock. You can learn a lot from an otherwise ordinary and common creature.

I spend a fair amount of time with this captive audience of one hundred in their outdoor aviary. I am their provider, and their lifeline from the outside lands. I supply them with their daily ration of grains and clean water, irregardless of the weather or the many other duties or time constraints I may have. I fill their pickpots with grit and minerals. I break ice from their bowls in the winter, and suffer the same stinging snows and biting winds of the day. I clean their flypen and pigeon-house, and keep a sharp eye out for the telltale signs of distress or disease. I study them closely, and through it all, they watch me too.

I am a constant in their lives, and a spoke in their wheel of life. I have come to know of them and their world just a little bit, and they of me. It could be said that they would rather prefer that I was not involved at all, but I am a necessary intrusion they must tolerate, at least for a brief time.

Yet, they wait for me each morning and afternoon, the anticipation building as I drive up to the entrance doors. They mill about excitedly as I approach, ready to perform just for me. I touch the door handle, and they begin their wild jig, dancing like ecstatic puppets on hidden strings. They hop about and swirl their wings like crazed whirligigs, or slap their wingtips smartly as they launch from their perch for a short flight across the pen.

They chant their pigeon talk and coo even louder as I step in through the inner doors, to become completely surrounded by frantic birds, eager to fill their crops before the other’s. They push and shoulder for each speck of grain as if their life depended on it. Perhaps they bicker and fight to establish or maintain some imperceptible pigeon pecking order, or maybe just to remind themselves that life can be a struggle. You would think that they would know by now that their will be enough food for all comers, but it is a wild ritual that they simply must abide for reasons known only to the pigeon.

We have repeated this madcap scene a few thousand times and more, the pigeons and I. It has become routine, with little deviation from the usual suspects. That is until yesterday, when our normal interaction abruptly and inexplicably changed.

It was immediately obvious when I pulled up in my truck. The absence of sound or flashing wings struck me first, and what pigeon heads I could see sat on top of outstretched necks, alert, with searching eyes. They crouched in the classic manner of all prey, with feet tucked under their bodies, coiled and ready to spring out and away from impending danger.

A close up photo of a common pigeon with eye

The birds stood frozen and paid me little mind as I entered and searched the ground for an animal intruder. I investigated the pigeon houses and the nest boxes and found nothing. I checked every nook and cranny of their limited world and came up empty. I paused to scratch my head, and ponder this puzzling circumstance.

Hand on chin, I stared at the closest pigeon and wondered, determined to discover just why he would not fly. And then he cocked his head, and I saw his eye focus on something high as he grounded himself more tightly to his perch. At that moment I spied a wide, dark shadow moving across the dirt floor, and smiled. I knew exactly what belonged in that kind of shadow, as did my fine feathered friends. All I had to do was look up, to see just exactly what it was that had struck such all-consuming fear in their hearts.

I had no doubt that the shadow maker was an eater of birds, but there were several possibilities in this category. A red-tailed hawk maybe, or a gleaming eagle from the nearby river. In this case the black shadow belonged to an animal of equal color, with a distinctively naked neck. It was not what I expected to see.

The Turkey Vulture, or Buzzard as it is sometimes called, is quite common to the American West and many parts of North America. A six-foot wingspan casts a long shadow across the land, and he covers a lot of it as he travels. That great red and bald head is immediately recognizable from afar, and known by all. His sentinel like posture and hovering demeanor create and perpetuate his iconic image. It is a form often associated with death, and it is a meaning not entirely lost on my domesticated, but anxious, pigeon flock.

The Vulture is classified as a bird of prey, after all, even though he finds most of his meals by smell after they are already dead. I suppose that it is a distinction utterly lost on the brain of a pigeon.

His generic name is Cathartes, which means “purifier”.  It is an appropriate name, as the Buzzard is the sharp-beaked “tearer”, and recycler of flesh and feather. He is part of nature’s cleanup crew, and a perfectly ordained sanitizing unit. His kind is often referred to as “carrion eaters”, as if it were a derogatory term used to define the sordid parameters of their defective character. Nothing could be father from the truth.

I, for one, am a defender of this homely yet beautiful animal. The manner in which he makes his living should not be used to demean or degrade his standing in the larger scheme of things. His shadow may strike terror in the souls of countless scurrying and furtive creatures, but he has not come for them. Not now. He is where our lifeless bodies might naturally go, may we all be so lucky. There are far worse fates to suffer than those borne through the belly of a bird.

Still, it makes me wonder about the sensibilities of the pigeons in my charge. None of this buzzard business should be of any concern to a bird so far removed from a natural environment. It may be true that their only protection from flying marauders is a thin, nylon mesh that forms the roof of their cage. But what of it?

Most of my birds have never known anything else than the limited boundaries of the aviary. They were hatched here, reared by their parents and brought to adulthood without having to worry about danger and death from above. They have never enjoyed a truly wild moment in their lives, and I doubt if the thought of escape and a different kind of life has ever occurred to them.

Likewise, their parents have grown up in much the very same way, as did their parents, and their parents, and so on and so on. In fact their domestic lineage goes back for thousands of years, to the days when the first man-made his first hopeful departures from the relative safety of the caves. They are mankind’s first domestic animal partner, and their history is our history. One would think that very little of the wild would be left in the soul of a pigeon. On the contrary, it would appear that the thin margin of safety above their swiveling heads provides little comfort.

It makes me wonder about the level of domestication in the so-called domestic pigeon. How much wild is left in an otherwise non-wild creature? What does he remember of his life on the cliffs? Is it some latent genetic memory, or something else that keeps him looking skyward? Something tells me that there are some wild yearnings left behind, and that it might not take them very long to surface if given some small opportunity.

Truth be known, the story of the vulture and the pigeon is a tale as old as time and one not so easily forgotten. Each has something to tell us in their own way. Their interactions remind us that the primordial spark of life burns on as brightly as ever. They beckon us to live fully while we are alive, no matter the circumstance or the crosses we bear.

They tell us that danger is but a heartbeat away, though we try to deny it by surrounding ourselves with shallow and petty distractions. The realities of life and death lie closely behind the delicate veil, no matter how hard we may try to separate and protect ourselves from the natural world with the cages of our own clever designs.

The Turkey Vulture occasionally wishes to feel like a master predator on the wing, and a hunter of live prey. Perhaps he flies over our birds to feel the power of his blood and history. He dares us to be watchful, yet hopeful, lest we gain the finality of his steady gaze. We all must eventually return to replenish the elements of the earth. We are needed, we are welcome, but perhaps not today.

The great purifier embraces the rising thermals and circles ever upward, hanging on the edge of consciousness to remind us that a little bit of wild remains in the most cowered and tamed of the earthly realms below. We shall all have plenty of time to rest, and to watch, in our time.

 

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) riding the air currents while searching for prey or carrion and something to eat
Patience Is A Virtue For a Vulture

By Michael Patrick McCarty

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Sacred Ground – The Fate of Elk & Man

This unique collection of new nature essays forthrightly addresses the environmental conditions and concerns of the 1990s. The contributors include an anthropologist, a filmmaker, and several novelists and fly fishermen and -women as well as established nature writers like Wendell Berry, Gary Nabhan, and Bill McKibben. Subjects range from hiking in Alaska to viniculture in France, and the tone and style vary from the Swiftian satire of Robert F. Jones to John Murray’s personal meditation and Wendell Berry’s passionate biblical rhetoric. Yet these diverse essays are bound by a single theme summed up succinctly by Mary Katherine Bateson: “Ethics follow efficacy.” Because we humans have become so many and so powerful, we must become environmentally responsible; we must reform our greedy, exploitative relationship to the natural world and learn to share the planet’s wealth with other species and future generations.
– Joan S. Elbers
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.

 

Sacred Ground, Sacred Trust

 

By Michael Patrick McCarty

Animal signs and tracks have always fascinated me, no doubt encouraged by the knowledge that a living, breathing creature just laid them down and might be standing just over the next rise. Tracks are a record of nature’s wanderings and little doings, scratched and scribed on mother earth’s own back. They are placed there, as new each time, for those who wish to follow and investigate.

Temporary and ephemeral, they sing with animal promise and life eternal, bursting of meanings far greater than their small impression would indicate. They speak of purpose and plan, reward and desire, and adventure for all.

Tracks lead, I must follow. I aspire to ponder the possibilities of their message, and to attempt to practice what they may wish to teach. I wish could read them better. Maybe I can decipher them in this lifetime. I am determined to try.

I am a particularly fond of elk, and I am a dedicated student of elk tracks. Their shape intrigues me, and I like the way they cut deeply into the ground as if searching for the planet’s center, releasing the earth’s rich, dark aroma to mingle with their heavy musk. There is nothing subtle about the way that an elk marches through life, churning and slinging dirt and mud while becoming even more solidly rooted to the ground. It grounds my wandering boots as well. They pull me deeper into the ground with each step. I feel freer, calmer, and more fully connected to my life.

Their tracks tell their story, and I gain insight and know the characters more intimately through the added layers of each successive chapter. It is a long and complex tale. I have trailed along wherever and whenever I could. Later, my mind wanders, and I am on the move again, reliving old trails and experiences even when my body is somewhere else.

The characters in this tale are many and varied, each with their own unique qualities, motivations, and point of view. I can read the developing plot on the ground, at my feet, and just ahead. Here are tracks large and small, first meandering slowly, then running. Some are evenly spaced and calm, some are random and hurried. Yearling elk lay them down, as do old dry cows, new-born calves, and antlered bulls small and large.

They document the every day struggles, their hopes, their fears, joys, and occasional sufferings. I can picture in my visions the upturned head of an alert mother, nostrils quivering and searching for unwanted and dangerous scents. Ahead of her, I see a battle-scarred old warrior bull, standing tall in its last footprint, bugling and aching for a fight. It’s all written upon the ground, in the signs of animals and tracks.

Tracks have led me to vibrantly green, sundappled forests so beautiful it was difficult not to cry. It was tempting to lie down there forever, quiet and unmoving, until my body turned to stone, left to weather and crack and fall upon the earth.

I stood again, to wind my way through sage covered flats, with pounding rain and fog so thick that one is forced to look only down, watching the rain drops from your hat land squarely in the elk track below. Shielding my eyes from stinging, wind-driven snowflakes, I have waded through the unbearable snows of a terrible winter to find a calf’s last struggles against barbed wire and fence, too high.

More than once I have explored an anxious trail of tracks patterned by a solitary elk, and observed the paw prints of a mountain lion, or a bear, on top. Moving on intently, I have found only piles of hair or a few shards of bone in the last impression, with no elk left to pursue.

Backtracking upon tracks I was stepping on, I have been confronted with the reality of mountain lion or bear tracks covering my tracks, in turn. Tracks have led me to the center of nowhere, and back again. On the way I found myself, staring back. I am always looking for the next track to chase, eager to discover where it may lead.

My life is surrounded by elk and their tracks. apparently, I’ve made sure it worked out that way, without fully realizing it. Tracks lead past my house on their way to hay fields below, and I often stand in them on my way to our garden. Even at work, I look for them out of the corner of my eye, knowing that they are often just yards away from my comfortable shoes.

I work as a security guard, and my “office” is a “shack” at the main entrance of a golf course, country club, and home development. The sprawling property is interspersed with large homes on small lots, with much open space, and for now, many vacant house lots. A river runs through it. Public lands are near and expansive. Elk and mule deer are a commonly seen, along with a variety of smaller animals, birds and waterfowl.  I am a most fortunate person.

You might say I have a room with a view. Red rocky ridges, sparkling clear water, and manicured greenery wrap around and fill the big windows of the small building. To the south, Mt. Sopris looms above us and refuses to be ignored. Broad shouldered and solid, with a long, deep blanket of shimmering snow fields below her twin peaks, it is one of my favorite and most comforting friends. The Ute Indians revered her first, and named her “Mother Mountain”.

Somehow I feel that she is watching, and that she is caring and protective of the many beings down below. I look to her often, and wonder what she would have to say about our human doings. She already knows that all is not always well in paradise.

“Mother Mountain” has a grand view of the “eagle tree” on the property, and a section of the development has been declared off-limits to all activity in an effort to honor the pair of bald eagles that raise their young here every summer. It is a grandfather of all trees, a towering ponderosa with heavy, thick branches, perfectly placed on the bank of a sweeping curve in the shallow river.

The eagles have been raising their young here for decades, perhaps millennia, or more. They have seen a lot, these eagles. The place would not be the same without them and it is a credit to the developer and others who planned it.

 

werner22brigitte / Pixabay

In the spring and summer people talk of them and wish to see them. They call for the daily eagle report. They are famous, they are legend. Homeowners and club members can see them whenever they wish. Outsiders cannot. We must protect the eagles from disturbance, we say. To appease the general public, we occasionally host a coordinated observation tour to show everyone that all is well in eagle world. It’s the least we can do.

However, limited and brief access does not satisfy the public demand. Most of the excited, would be visitors arrive by vehicle unannounced, without appointment. They wish to watch the eagles and they want to see them very badly. They are curious about their eaglets and they can’t wait to take their picture. One of the parent’s may return with a freshly caught and wiggling trout to feed the young, and they want to encourage them on. For their own reasons they are humans who want to be part of something else, something wild.

Birders and eagle lovers can be very determined folks, and they do not like to be turned away. But we do, because we must, and we can.  After all, it is private property, you see. Members only, I’m afraid.

The private in private property can define and expose some harsh realities. It means that something, in this case the eagles, belongs to someone else. They are not for you. When I deprive someone of the eagles, I know that it was not my idea and that I am only doing my job, but that does not make me feel any better.  I must wonder, as I turn to Mt. Sopris and ask, what would “mother” say”?

My head is out of the office as much as it is in, and when I slide the door open to greet a guest I cannot help but look in the direction of the river and the eagle tree. Perhaps I can catch a glimpse of that distinctive white head flashing in the light of a low sun, as it soars calmly over the back of an elk on its return to the comfort of the family nest.

After sunset, the night belongs to the elk, particularly during the long, cold nights of winter. I often can hear them calling back and forth to each other, conversing in a language as old as time. They paw and crunch through the snow just out of range of approaching headlights. On moonlit nights I can spot them weaving around the trees near the building, a ghostly apparition that begs me to leave my confines and join them. Unobservable to the casual traveler and yet so close, it is our little secret, the elk and I.

During the worst days of our long winters, the elk congregate on the property to escape the heavy snows of the high country. Skiers on their way to Aspen, most of them apparently from elkless places, slam on their brakes and leave the highway. They can’t believe their eyes. They shower me with questions. Is that an elk? How many are there? Where did they go? How long will they be here? They want to see the elk, and they want to see them very badly. They need to see them. Why are the elk here, they ask? I do not know the answer to that last one, but I am glad they asked. That is the million dollar question, after all.

I want to grant the them access, because I love the fact that they are so completely enthralled with an animal that I love too. Instead, I must say no, and turn them away. It is that private property thing again, rising to rear its ugly head. The elk are standing on private property, I explain. It is a private subdivision and a private club. The message is clear. They are “our elk”, not yours. They may wander about on public land most of the year, but they are “our elk” now. They are not for you. I cannot let you past. I cannot accommodate your request.

Most of the time they look past me and through me as if I’m not there, eager for another elk sighting. They plead and they reason, hoping to gain some toehold to hang on to and work a crack to break my resolve. They cannot believe I am blocking their way, incredulous at my lack of compassion and understanding regarding their need. I stand uninvolved, professional, resolute. They do not know that I wish for them to see them too. I cannot let them see the inner workings of my conflicted mind. If I only could…If they only knew…

The west is not the west that I came to 35 years ago. More populated, yes, but different  in ways apart from the addition of people. Attitudes have changed. Colorado has become more and more like…other places. It has never ceased to amaze me how people come here to escape the problems of the place they have come from – and then promptly try to change the new place back into the old place they just worked so hard to escape. Too often our stunning views become valued most for the picture through the picture window in the great room of the palatial house on the new hobby ranch estate.

Here, as in many areas throughout the west, the trophy houses perch like sentinels above the river, on guard against the boatman who pass on the public waters below. In Colorado only the navigable and flowing water is public; the river bottoms and shorelines are private. May the heavens part and jagged thunderbolts smite the poor, unwashed soul who touches the river bottom with the metal of boat or anchor, or wader covered foot. They are watching, and the fish policemen are but a moment away. I should know. I am one.

skeeze / Pixabay

The fish, of course, belong to the public. The finny creatures are managed by people who work for a public wildlife management agency, which is funded with public funds, paid primarily by private citizens who purchase a public fishing license with their private dollars, which pays for the public fish managed by the public wildlife management agency. Yet, there seems to be some confusion over who owns the fish.

The private property proclamations and numerous no trespassing signs are placed strategically and obviously to remind the boatmen not to stop. The signs imply the desired message. You may pass but do not enter. Wet your lines and be on your way. The area is designated as catch and release, the sign says, so put our fish back too. Like the elk, and the eagle, they are “our fish”, and not for you.  I blissfully fished on these river banks many, many times over the years, with the eagles over my shoulders. There were no signs or houses then. I quit fishing here, a lifetime ago. Somehow all of the joy has long since been squeezed out of these troubled waters.

I like my job well enough. Like many people I have too many bills to pay, a mortgage to service, and promises to keep. I must work, but the duty does not particularly suit me. I struggle with my inner wranglings, and find it difficult to relate to people on equal or near equal terms, in an effort to provide what they need. Mind reading and the decoding of a person’s unspoken and true desire is not one of my strong suits. Oh how I wish that it was.

On the other hand, my desire is clear. I would prefer to be glued to a hot track, or directly connected to a pulsating and surging fish. I want to be the eagle, to fly away, circling ever upward and screaming fiercely in a bold, blue sky. I do my best to smile. No one has ever asked my opinion about anything substantial. In the end, I am a glorified Walmart Greeter, waving contentedly like a trained and tethered circus monkey, guarding a lifestyle at my back that I could never attain financially, but would never chose if I could.

To be fair, many of the residents love the elk and respect and cherish the gift of wildlife around them. They wish to help much more than harm. Most of the rest are nice enough. Some of the others, not so much. Some of the not so nice have long since moved away. Selling out, they were eager to move on to the next better place and conquer new-found worlds. Godspeed. I wish them well. Continue reading Sacred Ground – The Fate of Elk & Man

A Skunk Is A Down Low Odiferous *Weasel (But That’s O.K.)

Havahart 1030 Live Animal Two-Door Rabbit, Squirrel, Skunk, and Mink Cage Trap (Lawn & Patio)

The Havahart Medium 2-Door Animal Trap has been designed for the safety of animals. This humane trap, with its two spring loaded doors, has many features to allow safe, quick and easy catches. Constructed of sturdy wire mesh with steel reinforcements for long life, and galvanized for maximum resistance to rust and corrosion. Mesh openings are smaller than competing traps of comparable size to prevent escapes and stolen bait. Two spring loaded doors allow animals to enter from either direction. Sensitive trigger ensures quick, secure capture. Solid door and handle guard protect user during transportation, while smoothed internal edges protect and prevent injuries to animals. Havahart recommends checking with your local authorities to determine the trapping laws in your area before using a live trap.

New From:$41.96 USD In Stock
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By Michael Patrick McCarty

 

 

A striped skunk on the prowl in green grass, ready to spray if threatened.
Giving Pause to Both Man and Beast

 

Just about everyone with a most basic understanding of the natural world knows to stay away from the back-end of the black and white critter called skunk. Forget that little fact and they will be quick to leave an indelible impression upon your person. Or ask any family dog that has disregarded that squared up stance and upturned tail and suffered the indignity of a well-aimed spray. Unfortunately, this is a minor inconvenience when compared with the real damage often inflicted by their front end.

Skunks possess powerful forelegs which they use to burrow and scratch about for food. Digging and the churning of earth is really what a skunk is all about. They are also great fans of a free or easy meal and a frequent backyard visitor. A poultry dinner is top on their culinary hit parade, and they are notorious nighttime raiders of the barnyard and chicken coop. Their tunneling skills are legendary and deviously effective, much to the chagrin and unmitigated consternation of small animal breeders and poultry keepers for hundreds of years.

I was reminded of their penchant for tragedy when I entered my pigeon keep a few days ago. The telltale signs of the obvious break-in were written plainly on the ground, as was the bloody aftermath. Once again, the scene screamed of dastardly polecat, and the wind held the last remnants of that unmistakable and musky perfume.

I soon discovered that my favorite bird was among the casualties, and it hit me like a primordial punch to the solar plexus. He was the biggest of our Giant Runt’s, and he had always been scrappy and bold and proud. I had bred him down from a successive line of top-notch parents and he had never let me down in the squab producing department. We called him “the bomber”, and I had always looked for him first amongst his comrades.

Skunks have an uncanny ability to make it deeply personal in some unpredicted way. We have probably lost more birds of various kinds to them than any other predator, though I have worked hard to stem the tide. Once locked on to a target they can become incredibly determined, often working for several days to accomplish their clandestine mission. You have a full-fledged skunk problem when they do, because they will not give up without a fight. They can be incredibly bull-headed about it all. Once joined in battle they generally need to be forcefully persuaded, often with hot lead,  to see the error in their ways.

They are also extremely good at pointing out the errors in yours. An unwanted entry means that you have not done your job as an animal husbandman, whether you care to admit it or not. It means that the cage or coop is not built as well as it could be. Or perhaps that small repair you have put off has returned to haunt you. In the end it is your fault and your’s alone, although I cannot say that the acceptance of such responsibility can make one feel much better.

It would be easy to hate the skunk out of  hand, but I refuse to accept such an easy fix. A skunk is a skunk after all, and he is just doing what he was designed to do. They are a necessary and vital component of a healthy ecosystem. Perfect in form and function, they are more than beautiful in their own way.

Still, I am sad for the loss of our pigeons and it will be some time before I can stop myself from looking for the big guy. I have no doubt that he faced his end as best he could, with dignity and noble character. In my mind I like to picture him wedging his body in front of his mate, staring his adversary down and delivering a solid shoulder punch or two before being overwhelmed. At least I’d like to think so.

It makes me wonder what other beastly trials and backyard tribulations take place under cover of the dead black night.

By Michael Patrick McCarty

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Skunks can have devastating effects on waterfowl nesting success, as well as on upland game and song bird populations. If you would like to learn more about the dynamics of predation, we recommend that you pick up the classic work titled “Of Men and Marshes” by Paul Errington. It is a fascinating and eye-opening read. We often have a copy for sale. Please email for availability.

You Might Also See Nuisance Wildlife Laws In Colorado and Coping With Skunks

— *Historically, skunks have been classified in a subgroup within “the weasel family”, or Mustelidae. Biologists began to understand that they had been misidentified all along. They were assigned new classification in the late 1990’s, and now belong to the family Mephitidae. So you see, they never were a weasel, after all.

—Weasel (Informal) – a sly or treacherous person.

 

minka2507 / Pixabay

 

 

A photo of a skunk caught in a havahart live trap at night
Caught Red Handed – And Probably Only Once

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NBCI’s State of the Bobwhite 2018 Reports 24% Increase in Managed Bobwhite Acres Over Last Year

For the Health of the Land: Previously Unpublished Essays And Other Writings (Hardcover)

Aldo Leopold’s classic work A Sand County Almanac is widely regarded as one of the most influential conservation books of all time. In it, Leopold sets forth an eloquent plea for the development of a “land ethic” — a belief that humans have a duty to interact with the soils, waters, plants, and animals that collectively comprise “the land” in ways that ensure their well-being and survival.For the Health of the Land, a new collection of rare and previously unpublished essays by Leopold, builds on that vision of ethical land use and develops the concept of “land health” and the practical measures landowners can take to sustain it. The writings are vintage Leopold — clear, sensible, and provocative, sometimes humorous, often lyrical, and always inspiring. Joining them together are a wisdom and a passion that transcend the time and place of the author’s life.The book offers a series of forty short pieces, arranged in seasonal “almanac” form, along with longer essays, arranged chronologically, which show the development of Leopold’s approach to managing private lands for conservation ends. The final essay is a never before published work, left in pencil draft at his death, which proposes the concept of land health as an organizing principle for conservation. Also featured is an introduction by noted Leopold scholars J. Baird Callicott and Eric T. Freyfogle that provides a brief biography of Leopold and places the essays in the context of his life and work, and an afterword by conservation biologist Stanley A. Temple that comments on Leopold’s ideas from the perspective of modern wildlife management.The book’s conservation message and practical ideas are as relevant today as they were when first written over fifty years ago. For the Health of the Land represents a stunning new addition to the literary legacy of Aldo Leopold.

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October 5, 2018

By The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative

Now reported at nearly four million acres, bobwhite management across 25 states is up 24 percent over the 3.2 million acres reported the year before — or 771,345 acres added — according to NBCI’s Bobwhite Almanac: State of the Bobwhite 2018. That’s just one insight provided by the eighth annual report by the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI), its 25-member states and partners on progress in restoring wild quail to the landscape.

“Because habitat is managed for bobwhites doesn’t necessarily mean quail are there,” cautioned NBCI Science Coordinator/Assistant Director Dr. Tom Dailey in reference to the Bobwhite Habitat Inventory Index. “It means it’s suitable for bobwhites in the year it’s reported or will be in the near future. It can take some time after initial management for a population response. But habitat management is trending in the right direction.”

You Can Read The Full Post Here

—————————————–

*Bobwhites have always been near and dear to my heart, and it is heartwarming to know that groups like the NBCI are working so hard to preserve one of our most cherished gamebirds. The future of bobwhite quail may very well depend on private land partnerships such as this.

Michael Patrick McCarty

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The Last Mule Deer Doe

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A Mule Deer Doe Strikes a Pensive Pose Somewhere in the West

October 19, 2013

I harvested a sleek young mule deer doe today, dropped cleanly with a fast-moving .270 caliber bullet well before the crack of the rifle had begun to die away in the thin mountain air. It was a fitting end to a hunt that had barely begun, yet at the same time a fine beginning to something so much more. Why then, did it cause a small pang of concern, like I had done something somehow wrong and irreversible?

It had not been a difficult hunt in the rugged landscape around me, where so often in the past it had been exactly the opposite. She had been standing with another doe just above a dirt access track stretching through a small parcel of public ground, and when the bullet hit her she had made one jump and came to rest in the middle of the road. A quick field dressing and a short flip to the waiting tailgate and she was off to the garage to hang and cool, and it won’t be long before some savory steaks and roasts hit the plate. It’s what dreams of wild game dinners are made of.

It was a planned meat hunt first and foremost, and in that respect it was a mission accomplished for which I do not apologize. I am a fan of mule deer for the table, though I do acknowledge that many people would disagree. To be honest, I would also admit that although I do like it, for the most part this western venison is not my favorite big game offering.

Given a choice, I would rather walk a substantial distance for some expertly grilled chops from a properly fed mid-west Whitetail. I would, and have, walked heroic distances for the well-earned privilege of packing back a heavy load of elk meat. I’ve also worn out a considerable swath of boot leather in pursuit of mule deer in all kinds of terrain, mostly in search of the all too few with some heavy horn on top of their head. I have not always been willing to walk so far just for a meal of mule deer.

This past Spring it occurred to me to try something different this year, and I don’t begrudge myself an easy hunt for a change. Lord knows that I and many of my friends deserve something short of an expedition occasionally, and one’s goals do tend to develop over time. I also wanted to give a mule deer a fresh chance in the culinary department, thinking that perhaps it might be best not to judge things on the taste of tough old buckskin taken well past their prime. A freezer full of protein also does wonders to combat the ever rising grocery bill.

The state of Colorado does issue a limited number of anterless deer permits for the regular rifle seasons, with an emphasis on “not too many”. To my surprise I was lucky enough to draw a license for an area close to my home, which made it all the more enjoyable. The rest, shall we say, is in the books.

What I failed to mention is that they were the only two deer that we saw that morning, in spite of a three-mile hike through some once great deer country and then, later, a short drive to another area. Nor did I say that I could easily see two houses from where my doe had come to lay, and I knew that there were several more not far over the hill.

Such is the reality of things in the ever more settled west. The deer are not always located in some far often mountain valley, and sometimes you must hunt them where they are. And sometimes you hunt them in places that you used to hunt, years before, in a place where not long ago there were no houses to see.

Things are changing rapidly in the Rocky Mountains, and the once vast Mule Deer herds have been dramatically impacted by that change. Populations have been in serious decline in Colorado and other states, for reasons that are not so clear and steeped in worried speculation. To be blunt, Mule Deer are in serious trouble, and their ultimate fate as a species is in real jeopardy.

I, for one, did not have to read a detailed report to come to that sad conclusion. The evidence is everywhere; the end result devastating. Herd sizes have dropped by 50% since I moved to Colorado in the mid 1970’s, and the absence of deer is remarkably obvious. As a result, the number of hunting permits have been severely reduced and tightly controlled, with less than encouraging results.

For some time it is has not been easy for a resident of Colorado to obtain a deer tag of any kind, and when you do it can be difficult to locate a legal buck. Finding a trophy animal can prove nearly impossible for even the best of hunter’s. It’s just not easy being a deer hunter these days.

Unfortunately, the worst may be yet to come. It is debatable whether the herds have stopped their terrifying free fall and reached a period of relative stability. Why then, one might ask, are there any doe tags at all?

What is difficult to pin down are the exact reasons for the decline, and public opinion is wide-ranging and increasingly heated. There is great debate over the effectiveness of the overall state big game management plan, and one wonders if there is really any plan at all. One hand does not always appear to be aware of what the other is doing across state agencies, and I can only hope that in this case the harvesting of a doe somehow contributes to the overall health of the deer herd in this particular game management unit.

I have heard most of the standard theories of cause and reaction. Of course I have a few of my own, or simply evaluate all of the factors in my own way. Some people are quick to put the blame on an overabundance of coyotes and other predators, and no doubt there is some truth to that. Others blame highway mortality, road building and natural gas drilling, and all forms of habitat loss. More than a few people say that what deer habitat that is left is of poor nutritional quality, and there is an increasing effort underway to remove sections of old growth forest and range and replace them with rejuvenated browse and plant communities. The long-term drought certainly has not helped, and maybe, just maybe, there are now just too many elk.

More than likely it is caused by a combination of all of the above, and I don’t know how it will turn out for the deer in the final outcome. Nor does anyone else out there really know for sure. It may be that Mule Deer are simply incapable of tolerating or forgiving the daily trespasses of man, and that their loss to history is essentially assured. That would be unspeakably sad.

I do know that the mule deer is a western icon of immeasurable proportions, and the Rocky Mountains would simply be a hollow and soulless shell of itself without them.

Call me selfish, but the possibility of their disappearance is not acceptable. I intend to smile over their big ears and bouncing, improbable gait for however many years that I have left, and I hope that you can too. To watch them brings pure and simple joy. To hunt them is an honor and a gift that should never be taken for granted.

I hope that the current trend of decline can be permanently reversed, for their sake and for our’s. I wish that there will always be Mule Deer to hunt, along with a place to hunt them that remains wild and free. Most of all I would like to shake the sinking feeling that I am hunting one of the last female’s of her glorious and irreplaceable kind.

Thankfully, that is still quite far from the truth, at least for now. It is not too late to help ensure that such an unthinkable day never comes.

In the meantime, I will do my best to use all parts of my animal as gratefully as possible. I look forward to many fine meals ahead, provided by an animal I both respect and cherish. It makes each small bite a most precious encounter.

Got any good recipes?

————————————————————————————-

Long Live The Mule Deer!

Michael Patrick McCarty

Interested in big game conservation? Take a look at the Mule Deer Foundation.

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A mule deer doe watching over her two young fawns somewhere in the west
We Need More of These

Coyote Predation is without doubt a significant factor in the overall health of mule deer populations. Common sense would lead one to believe that they must certainly be extremely effective at locating newborn and younger fawns. The literature is also replete with the idea that they are quick to make a meal out of the weak and the sick in any group. But are they capable, or willing, to go against a full-grown adult?

That question was answered, to my satisfaction anyway, one spring morning while turkey hunting in a remote mountain meadow…

[Post in Progress]

 

https://steemit.com/hunting/@huntbook/hunting-for-the-last-mule-deer-doe

Coyotes, Mountain Lions, and Bears, Oh My!

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“Adoration is as alien to wild nature as blasphemy. Nature transcends love, goodness, malevolence or evil. It is simply a primordial force – shining, aloof and brooding, a vast sweep of power too awful to be imbued with human emotions, virtues or mischiefs. It is presumptuous to adore nature as it is to kick a redwood”.

John Madson, Stories From Under the Sky, 1998.

 

A closeup photograph of the eyes of a mountain lion
Things That Go Bump in the Night

 

August, 2012

Many of our followers are aware that I have done a lot of security work over the years, and I still do. I’ve spent many sleepless nights on one type of patrol or another, and I’ve learned to notice many things that most people miss in the world all around them.

Last night I missed a chance to see a big mountain lion moving just a short distance from my solitary post. It was reported to me by an excited and breathless observer, who apparently had some trouble believing his own eyes. He just had to tell somebody, and I’m glad it was me.

The sighting took place on the black top and concrete of a two-track bridge over a cold, clear river in western Colorado, not far from the unfenced yards of several exclusive homes and the manicured grounds of a large country club and golf course. It seemed an unlikely spot to find such a magnificent predator, or so he thought. For his part, the tawny beast was no doubt chagrined to find himself caught in such an exposed and vulnerable position.

The lion enjoys good company as he hunts. Coyote, the all-seeing trickster grows more bold and opportunistic with each passing year, having learned long ago to take advantage of the nonchalance of the family pet. He may have learned it from the big cat. Likewise, encounters with black bears are increasing, as are people and bear conflicts. As a result we receive many complaints about coyotes and bears on the property that I roam, and it looks like it may become particularly bad in this time of terrible drought.

After all, we are surrounded by the rocky mountain west, with national forest and other undeveloped lands close at hand. Still, a mountain lion report is big and electrifying news which will surely surge throughout the small community by morning. This creature rules by stealth, and it is no surprise that most people have never seen one outside of a zoo or animal park.

I have been quite fortunate to study them several times in my adventures and wilderness travels. I’ve spied them without them seeing me, and I’ve noted their reaction when they realize they haven’t seen me first. I’ve hunted them several times, and have found myself standing with the bawling hounds under the killing tree, with an angry and snarling cougar above. I’ve followed their distinctive paw prints over hill and dale, and on more than one occasion found their tracks following me. I love to watch them under any circumstance, and to see them do their thing for any amount of time is an awe-inspiring experience that marks an indelible impression. I can see a stalking cat right now, in my mind.

What I don’t like is this long-tailed ghost watching me, particularly when I don’t know it. I have absolutely no doubt that it’s happened, countless times, at close range and but a primordial fang away. I’d take a bet that it’s happened to you too, if you have spent any significant amount of time in puma country. Fates can change quickly, as the tip of a cat’s tail twitches, measuring what to do. But of course, we will never really know, and it only adds to the mystery and magic of it all.

 

A trail sign describing what to do when confronted by a mountain lion
Follow The Signs

 

I would have explained this to my wide-eyed mountain lion man, if I could have gotten a word in edgewise. There are some noteworthy visitors out there in the black night, just out of reach of headlight beams or human consciousness.

Think about that the next time you enjoy a hike on a shadowy mountain trail in a quaking aspen grove, and the hair on the back of your neck stands up for some unknown reason. You may wish to honor that sense. It’s there for a purpose.

Keep it in the back of your mind the next time you go out at night to check on your chickens or other animals in your backyard or back forty. Catch a breath, and take a second to wonder about what just made a nearly silent footfall, behind or above.

The possibility of a lion nearby reminds us of the wilds at the edges, and grounds us in the realities of the natural world. It’s an unsettling thought for some, and one that many of us have to live with when we spend time in the places that we love. Still, I would rather live where I live knowing that a mountain lion lives here too, rather than in a place known to have no mountain lions, and wishing that it did.

It’s a reality I am happy to accept, in the hope of but a quick glimpse, in the corner of an eye.

Posted by Michael Patrick McCarty

a nighttime trail camera photograph of a mountain lion
Things That Go Bump In The Night

 

*Update August 27, 2013

There is not a week goes by that someone does not ask if we have had any puma reports, and I must say, I’m a bit anxious myself. The leaves in the high county are beginning to turn color already, far too early it would seem, and it won’t be long before the early snows are as high as an elk’s belly and the mule deer are headed for the lower valleys along the river. The big cats are sure to follow, and it is then that there is a fair chance to record them on a well placed trail camera. We hope that the hunting is good this season, for us, and for mountain lions everywhere.

You can see a short video of our night-time visitor here.

 

 

Update: October 17, 2012

Game trail cameras are an invaluable tool for those wishing to document the comings and goings of our wild neighbors, particularly in those magic hours between dusk and dawn. Strategically placed, they can capture a delightful display of animal movements not otherwise observed. It’s great entertainment, with the promise of true surprise within easy reach. My anticipation of the next photo or the next video can barely be contained. You never really know what you’re gonna get…

We use several cameras scattered about the property, which we move on a regular basis. Our main interest lies in the activities of the creatures with two legs. We watch for trespass, intrusion, and foul play. That, of course, is a story for another time. Animal sightings are the bonus feature to the main event.

Today’s review of the image collection was no exception. They held the usual cast of characters. Marmots, foxes, and inquisitive raccoons. Wandering pets, and the occasional biker. One frame held the faint outline of a bear in the shadows, and another the up close face of a young mule deer.

And as you may have guessed by now, one camera captured a video segment of a mature lion on the prowl. At first there was nothing but the wide emptiness of the night, then the world lit up as the beams of infrared caught the ghostly figure like the flashes from an electronic campfire.

He was big and long and solidly built, with well-defined muscles that rippled on his bones as he padded easily back to who knows where. No doubt he had used this route before.

A house loomed large here too, just out of camera range. I know, because I set the camera there myself.

My reaction was sharp, and visceral. It’s one thing to hear someone else talk excitedly about their sighting and personal experience. You want to believe, yet, there’s always a little room for doubt in undocumented reports. It’s quite another matter when you actually see a lion for yourself, or have indisputable evidence in hand.

Real is real, and but a moment away from memory. It is undefinable proof of the untamed mystery of our realm, accessible to all just inches from the comforts of our daily routines.

I shall do my best to stay out of the big cat’s path and unseen wanderings, yearning, for his eventual return.

Hunt well, my friend.

Michael Patrick McCarty

Food Freedom, and Guns Too!

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Comments? Tell us about your Mountain Lion experience.

https://steemit.com/nature/@huntbook/coyotes-mountain-lions-and-bears-oh-my

Memories of The Giant Sea Bass, The King of The Kelp Forest

A Fishermans Catch of Giant Sea Bass By The Office Meteor Boat Company Off Catalina Island, California
The Good Old Days Never Looked So Go

 

October 7, 2015

Did you know that you may be a deltiologist?  Would your next question be, just what in the heck is that?

As it turns out, I may be one too, and I had thought that I just liked many of the images which can be found on old postcards.

Deltiology is the study and collection of postcards, and of course a deltiologist is one who collects. If you do, you are far from being alone. It is the third largest collecting hobby after stamp and coin collecting.

How about that?

I am particularly drawn to images relating to natural history and wildlife, and even more so to vintage hunting and fishing scenes.

My collection is not that big, and I don’t know all that much about the collecting field in itself. My only real motive to this point is that I bought them because I like them. I suspect that some of the images are rare. No doubt, some are not. Most are completely fascinating, at least to me.

I do know that picture postcards fall into categories based on the time period produced and published. The years 1898 to 1919 are considered to be the Golden Age of Postcards, followed by Linen Postcards (1930-1950), and the Modern Chromes (after 1940). There are further differentiations within these categories.

I found this particular postcard in a second-hand store, and I was astounded at the sheer size of the fish. My first reaction was to wonder – were they real?

Well, of course they are, and it is not an optical illusion. Photoshop and other photo manipulation programs had yet to be imagined.

But what about these magnificent fish? Could the largest of them depicted here really have weighed in at 320 pounds?

The postcard simply states “A Catch of Black Sea Bass”, and that would appear to be quite an understatement for fish of this size.  It is a species that until this time I was completely unfamiliar with, and that in itself was a big surprise. But then again, I was born and raised on the East Coast, and they are found primarily off of the coast of California, and south into Mexico.

Obviously, they would not be an easy fish to miss, though their true name is the Giant (Black) Sea Bass. To this day very little is know about their biology and habits. They may be capable of reaching lengths of up to seven or eight feet, and one specimen was reported to have weighed nearly 800 pounds. Now that’s a fish that can really get your attention, which sometimes is not such a good thing.

By 1915 both commercial and sport fisherman had taken their toll on the population. By 1935 most commercial fishing was no longer viable, and by the 1970’s they had all but disappeared. Finally, in 1981 the state of California closed all fishing for the Giant Sea Bass, although no official conservation status has ever been designated.

Postcards can be difficult to date. This one was easy, since the postmark tells us that it was posted in 1909. And we know that the charter was by the Office Meteor Boat Company, which was an established company on Catalina Island at the time. One must wonder if the participants ever had an idea that the best sport fishing years were nearly at an end?

No one knows yet if the king of the kelp forest  will ever make a full recovery, but from what I can gather there is still hope. Until then, we may have to be content with known historical reports and the photographic record, such as it is.

And that’s another great reason to collect postcards…

Posted by Michael Patrick McCarty

Read More About The Giant Sea Bass Here

https://steemit.com/fishing/@huntbook/memories-of-the-giant-sea-bass-the-king-of-the-kelp-forest

Flying Proud – The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative

bobwhite quail

 

The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI) is the unified strategic effort of 25 state fish and wildlife agencies and various conservation organizations — all under the umbrella of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee — to restore wild populations of bobwhite quail in this country to levels comparable to 1980.

The first such effort, in 2002, was a paper-based plan by the Southeastern Quail Study Group under the umbrella of Southeastern Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies. That plan, termed the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, attracted considerable attention around the country, including that of the other states in the bobwhite quail range. The result was a broad expansion of the effort and a revision of the plan (and the Southeastern Quail Study Group itself, now the National Bobwhite Technical Committee) to include 25 states in the bobwhite’s core range.


Today, NBCI is a multi-faceted initiative characterized by key elements:

  1. an easily updated, online strategic (NBCI 2.0) plan released in March 2011
  2. a massive and easily updated online Geographic Information System (GIS)-based conservation tool to help state biologists and other conservation planners identify and achieve individual state objectives within the overall national strategy, also released in March 2011. (Over 600 biologists within the bobwhite’s range participated in building this conservation tool.)
  3. The NBCI Coordinated Implementation Program (CIP) to help states adapt the national strategy to the local level
  4. A small team of specialists in grasslands, forestry, government, communications and research to work at regional and national levels to identify opportunities and remove obstacles to bobwhite restoration

NBCI Principles

  1. Working lands habitats
    • Bobwhites and grassland birds can be increased and sustained on working public and private lands across their range by improving and managing native grassland and early successional habitats, accomplished through modest, voluntary adjustments in how humans manage rural land.
  2. Landscape-scale habitat problem
    • Long-term, widespread population declines for bobwhites and grassland birds arise predominantly from subtle but significant landscape-scale changes occurring over several decades in how humans use and manage rural land.
  3. Stewardship responsibility
    • Reversing long-term, widespread population declines of wild bobwhites, associated grassland birds and the native grassland ecosystems in whichthey thrive is an important wildlife conservation objective and an overdue stewardship responsibility.
  4. Heritage
    • Northern bobwhites (Colinus virginianus) are a traditional and valued part of our nation’s cultural, rural, hunting and economic heritage.  Widespread restoration of huntable populations of wild quail will have myriad positive societal benefits for individuals and families, rural communities, cultures and economies.
  5. Interjurisdictional responsibilities
    • State wildlife agencies bear legal authority and leadership responsibility for bobwhite conservation, while migratory grassland birds legally are a legal co-responsibility with the federal government; however, the vast majority of actual and potential grassland bird habitats is privately owned.
  6. Partnerships and collaboration
    • Restoration success depends on a comprehensive network of deliberate, vigorous and sustained collaboration with land owners and managers by state, federal and local governments as well as by corporate, non-profit, and individual private conservationists.
  7. Strategic approach
    • Success requires a long-term, range-wide strategic campaign combined with coordinated, effective action at all levels of society and government, to create a public movement to address conservation policy barriers and opportunities that have the needed landscape-scale influences.
  8. Adaptive management
    • Adaptive resource management principles will inform and increase the efficiency of restoration and management and to satisfy multi-resource and multi-species needs.
  9. Long-term challenge
    • Following a half-century of decline, landscape-scale restoration of bobwhite and grassland bird habitats and populations across their range will require determined and sustained conservation leadership, priority, funding and focus for decades to come.

You Can Help

The bobwhite quail and the suite of other species in peril won’t survive as part of America’s landscape without a larger community working toward the goal. Here are a few things you can do to help:The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI)

  • First, spread the word about the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative by sharing this website with friends and acquaintances who care about bobwhite quail and/or the suite of other wildlife species being wiped out by destruction of their habitat.
  • Keep current with efforts to save the bobwhite by subscribing to NBCI news releases and the NBCI blog, and encourage others to do the same. Keep passing that information along to others.
  • NBCI is an organized effort by the states for the states, so contact your state department of conservation or fish & wildlife commission (check the web links under About Us), tell them you support their efforts to restore quail to America’s landscape and ask them how you can help.
  • Join one of the non-governmental grassroots organizations, like Quail Forever, Quail and Upland Wildlife Foundation, Quail Coalition or the National Wild Turkey Federation (yes, they have a effort on the quail’s behalf), and put your boots on the ground to help restore habitat in areas targeted by your state. (Again, check the web links under About Us/State Quail Coordinators.)
  • See if any members of your Congressional delegation is a member of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus. If so, contact him/her about the bobwhite’s plight and the NBCI.
  • Contact your local county extension office and ask them what they are doing to promote improved quail habitat with agricultural interests in the county. Share the NBCI story with them.
  • Ask your state forestry commission how they are working with the state’s wildlife biologists to manage state forests in a way that will help recover wild quail populations. Share the NBCI story with them.
  • Donate dollars to the cause. NBCI, working with its headquarters institution the University of Tennessee, is establishing an avenue to allow financial contributions, including establishment of an endowment to help support what is sure to be a long-term effort.

 

bobwhite quail hunter with hunting dog

 

All information taken from the NBCI website here.

Posted by Michael Patrick McCarty

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In The Hushed Silence of Winter Storm

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Laying Low and Hanging Out. Photo by Michael Patrick McCarty

 

It’s a lean, yearning, time of year. Photo by Michael Patrick McCarty

 

A Trophy Mule Deer Buck On Alert During A Colorado Winter Snowstorm
Hard to Hide Those Antlers. Photo By Michael Patrick McCarty

 

A small herd of cow elk weave in and out of the snow during a November Storm in the Rocky Mountains
Out of the Storm. Photo by Michael Patrick McCarty

A Late Night Postcard

Elk: A Postcard Book (Postcard Books) (Paperback)

The elk is perhaps the most enduring symbol of the high country of the American West. These 20 postcards, selected by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, feature breathtaking photographic portraits of elk in the vibrant natural habitats that sustain them.

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two bull elk in late winter preparing to paw in the snow for food, somewhere in colorado
Winter is the Tough Time
SEASONS GREETINGS!

 I arrived home past midnight last night, to find a small herd of elk feeding in an open pasture to the west. My neighbor keeps his horses here, and I have an unobstructed view of it from our house on the hill. I spotted them as I walked over to our dog kennel on the fence line, and as I studied them I saw a big cow raise her head, just to let me know that she was watching me too.

 I don’t suppose I will ever tire of seeing elk. They have a way of taking over the conversation, you might say, to make you pause in mid sentence when you spy one, to make you completely forget whatever you had been doing at the time, as if the world is a mere background created just for them. It has always been this way between the elk and I.

 They looked particularly surreal this night, quietly feeding on a blanket of fresh, white powder, surrounded by the mystical light of a high, full moon. I am struck by the picture quality of it all, the sharp crispness of the image frozen in the cold night air. I can only smile. It is a perfect moment in time.

 

a labrador retriever in the snow, a dog at full attention and watching for what is hidden in the trees
Watching For What Comes

 My dogs knew they were out there, of course, being that they were no more than 100 yards away with just some old wire to separate them. They had probably been watching them for some time, waiting for me to come home, whining nervously, and wishing they could run over and join up. The elk, for their part, paid us no mind, as they pawed in the snow. They had seen this show before and are not as impressed as us.

 We see quite a few elk around our property when the snows grow formidable in the high country. It is one reason to look forward to winter. They especially like to feed at night in a large hay-field below us, and at first light they bunch up and head for the cover of rougher grounds and cedar trees on the properties and public lands to our North.

To my everlasting delight, they like to cross one small corner of our property as they leave the hay fields, and if we are lucky, we get to watch. I often sit in an overstuffed chair behind our big picture window, waiting, hot coffee in hand, enveloped in the approaching day as the rest of the world wakes up.

a bull elk feeding in the snows of late winter somewhere in the rocky mountain west
Without Winter, No Spring

 We have seen herds of one hundred elk and more, although smaller groups are most common. One morning I sat transfixed as a herd of about fifty or so lined up to jump the fence at the edge of the field below our house, then crossed our field on a run and passed along our fence line next to the house. I counted seventeen bulls, some small, some large, surrounded by foggy breath when they stopped. I can see it in my mind’s eye, just now.

 At times, a small herd will bed down for the night under our apple trees. Once I looked out to see several lying contentedly in the sun, with freshly laid snow still shimmering on their backs. I’ve seen them browsing in the remnants of our flower garden or standing next to our bird bath, and I wave and say hello.

Welcome, I say, and good morning to you.

 Last night, I reach my door and turn one last time to watch the elk and try to lock this image in my memory bank for all time. It is the quintessential Rocky Mountain postcard, a picture postcard for the soul, and I wish I could send it out to you, to all, with good tidings and cheer.

May the spirit of elk be with you!

I don’t suppose I shall ever tire of seeing elk….

 ————————————-

 By Michael Patrick McCarty

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photo of the moon over the mountains, bathed in pink light
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