The Night Sky

Last weekend as I trekked to my deer stand in the darkness of the early morning I was captivated by two bright stars that shined almost directly due east.   The one star seemed brighter than the other, yet both were in close proximity to one another.   Obviously the stars didn’t provide much light to guide path into the woods, but to an extent I knew that walking toward the stars meant I was going easterly in my travels.
















  In some odd way I felt a connection to the stars with what early man must have felt.   Believe it or not, once upon a time there were no GPS units, there was even a time when there were no compasses…but one thing that has always stayed constant for man was the existence of stars in the nighttime sky.

It seems in recent years stargazing has taken on a new popularity with a growing number of folks.  For more information click here.   But I contend that for many sportsmen we have always had at least a passive interest in some minimal understanding of our celestial system.   Perhaps the reason for this is most sporting activities that take you into the darkness of the night also take you away from the city lights where the stars and the sky suddenly seems to come to life.

I must confess that I am a very green novice when it comes to stargazing.   Even so, I am often amazed at the deep knowledge and appreciation that many folks have for gazing into the nighttime sky.   They can use their little charts and pick out clusters of stars that only serve to boggle my mind.

I once spent some time with a serious stargazer who had a very high powered telescope that he had made.   The scope was so powerful, that it had a motor that actually moved the field of view as the star would be moving across the sky.   Without the motor, a viewer can focus on a particular star and by the time another observer peered into the scope the star would be out of view.   It was amazing!

I also remember once laying near a campfire staring straight up into the sky looking for satellites and other debris.   Once your eyes adjusted to the darkness of the sky, it was amazing how many objects were constantly in motion above our heads.   To point out our finds, we would direct a flashlight into the sky serving as a pointer to aid the others in seeing what we were seeing.

Even though the modern sportsman does not have a need to navigate using the stars, it is important to point out that many of our migratory game birds are said to adjust their internal compasses based on the alignment and location of the stars.   I’m not quite sure how researchers ever were able to discover this connection, but I find it interesting how the sky can possibly serve this function.

The next time you are out, whether it is hunting or just outside taking a break, take a second look at what you are seeing in the night sky.   There’s a fascination between the sky and man this is undeniable.

© 2004 Jim Braaten. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction without Prior Permission.

Timberdoodles Still Sticking Around

Today when I was out doing a little scouting for the upcoming deer season next week I happened upon one of the more encouraging sights I’ve seen in the woods lately. As I walked through an area that was quite muddy with a mix of corn/woods, I flushed up several Timberdoodle, or American Woodcock, as they are commonly named.

At first glance I was surprised to still see woodcock as you wouldn’t normally expect them flittering about as the calendar is about to turn to the month of November. Then I quickly thought about the mud I was walking through and figured this had to be a prime area for these probe-feeding birds. In most years the woodcock would be migrating out of Minnesota as soon as the first few frosts begin turning the ground hard. This year, that just hasn’t been the case quite yet.

The woodcock is an interesting bird because it has a voracious appetite for worms. In fact, it dines almost exclusively on worms using its long probe of a beak to snatch its prey from several inches deep. This proficient little worm gatherer will often dine on nearly its own weight in worms each day of its life. Then when the ground becomes hard or dry…and worm gathering becomes difficult, the bird tends to move on to new areas.

The woodcock has long been considered by the experts to be an indicator species in the woods. Indicator meaning that usually when you observe a woodcock it means the local environment is in relatively good health. When chemicals and land practices start affecting its food source, you simply will not see many woodcock frequent a given area. Therefore, if you develop land practices that encourage the existence of woodcock you are likely also taking measures to be good stewards of the land.

I enjoy seeing woodcock because they seem to have a tendency to flush almost in front of your face. While many game birds will flush and be out of gun range within a few split seconds…the woodcock gives you a true sporting chance. Now that doesn’t mean, however, they are an easy bird to bag. Typically this chunky-appearing bird will launch itself airborne and flutter off for only a short distance…and it doesn’t always do so in a straight line, either.

I also enjoy listening to the sound of a woodcock when it takes to flight. The rapidly beating wings almost make the bird sound like its whistling, or at least making a buzzing type sound. But this is a bird that is truly famous in the springtime for its romantic “kissing” sounds and the aerial acrobatic courtship ritual. Perhaps this is why some people call the American Woodcock the “Whistledoodle.”

I suspect that most of the woodcock hunting in Minnesota is done incidental to hunting other species. As I think back over my sporting career, I cannot think of any hunter who proclaimed to me that he was going out Timberdoodle hunting exclusively. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen…but I can suggest it doesn’t occur with large masses of people each fall here in Minnesota…not like in the southern states during the winter months where hunting woodcock is quite popular.

I can honestly say I have never shot or even shot at a woodcock while out in the fields pursuing my sporting interests. I guess it’s one of those game birds for which I have not developed much of a hunting passion. Nevertheless, when I happen upon a woodcock I do very much admire the uniqueness of this game animal. It just dawned on me that seeing a woodcock this late in the season can be an indicator for one other thing…that being what a wet and warm fall season we’ve obviously been experiencing here in southeastern Minnesota.

© 2004 Jim Braaten. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction without Prior Permission.

Fox Sightings on the Rise

I’ve always appreciated catching a glimpse of a fleeing red fox. There’s just something about their sleek, brightly colored appearance that has fascinated me ever since my youth.

I grew up on a farm and like most farm boys you were expected to “help out with the chores” beginning at an early age. I think it must have been about the ripe old age of 8 years old or so when my nightly task after school was to chase the cows home from whatever pasture in which they were found grazing. So, after school I would set out with my three canine accomplices (Poochie, Queeny and Sharky) to complete the necessary task.

I distinctly remember one night in particular as if it happened only yesterday. The cattle on this evening happened to be in one of the far pastures which meant about a ½ mile journey to and from the barnyard area. Most nights I would just take the dogs with me and the cows, knowing the routine, would willingly head for the barnyard.

Well, this night was a little different. I was walking on one of the well established cow paths sort of daydreaming when suddenly I was face to face with a critter that I knew instantly was not one of my dogs. Truth be known, the red fox was much small than all of my dogs…but in the mind of an 8 year old it could have just as well been a bear. Both of our eyeballs—at the sight of one another—were likely as large as golf balls.

The fox bolted in one direction and I bolted in the other direction—heading home. That night I remember running so fast that I actually beat the cows home. I soon came to the realization that I didn’t really chase the cows home each night…they were simply conditioned to see a young boy with his dogs…and they used this to prompt them to head home for “the good stuff” that dad would throw in the feed bunk.

That night I described my hair-raising experience to my father informing him that there was a wolf out in the pasture and that a young boy should not be chasing cows out there. Of course he laughed, and used the experience to do a little teaching about nature. Soon he had me convinced that it was not a big, bad wolf I had seen; rather, it was a red fox. Absolute proof came when he showed me a picture from a book and I confirmed that was the culprit causing shivers to run up and down my young spine.

Ever since this memorable day over 30 some years ago I have held a special place in my heart for red fox. I’ve trapped fox…I’ve hunted them…but most of all I have appreciated their existence in the ecosystem. Sure, they’re a predator and they can do some not-so-good things to our pheasant and duck populations during nesting season, but nature is not always kind that way and we must accept it. When populations get out of control that is when trapping and hunting play a vital role in wildlife management.

In recent years the fox population here in southeastern Minnesota has been what I would say was somewhat depressed. I could go a couple years between occasional sightings which was unusual. Typically, I would see them either in a road-kill state or running from one side of the road to the other during my travels. But not lately. “Mr. Red” has been a hard customer to find…and probably for several reasons. By no means is this scientifically deduced, but I think one of the big reasons the red fox has become so scarce lately has a lot to do with the population boom of the coyote. Twenty five years ago there were few coyotes to be found in this part of the state. Today, however, the coyote population is way out of control and it’s certainly suppressing the fox population to points where they are hardly seen anymore—at least until this year.

The Red Fox has a cousin, of sorts, the gray fox which to some extent can also be competition. It seems in areas where gray fox are quite prevalent the red fox population tends to be more suppressed. While red fox tend to prefer the more open meadows and fields, the gray fox, on the other hand, is more of a woodland dweller. In fact, one of the gray’s capabilities has been noted that it can climb trees—you will never find a red fox displaying this sort of behavior.

Indeed, during the past week I have seen three live reds and two dead ones lying along the road. I can honestly say that I have not witnessed this many fox during the past five prior years…so obviously the population must be on the rebound. Like most animals in nature, fox populations tend to run in cycles…and according to one of my old trapping manuals it stated that typically fox populations peak during years that end in “5.” If this holds true, then the next couple of years could be banner years for those of us who fancy seeing “Mr. Red.”

© 2004 Jim Braaten. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction without Prior Permission.