Category Archives: The Backyard Biologist

The Heartbeat Around Us

A Sure Sign of Spring

Welcome Robin Winsome Bluebird 733x1024 A Sure Sign of Spring

New Beginnings

 

March 20, 2013

The heavy hand of winter can be particularly punishing in the high Rocky Mountains of western Colorado. It is the meanest of seasons, often impossibly long and completely covered with a certain color of white for months on end. Living here at this time of year is all about ice and storm and driven snow, and when conditions are right it seems that there is no place that the bone chilling winds cannot touch. They are alive, animated with purpose and jagged edges, and always ready to reach out to let you know that there is nowhere to hide, nor escape.

At its worst it is possible to convince yourself that the steel-blue landscape laid bare before your eyes could never recover from such terrible, life threatening blows. The earth rolls and creaks with the dark numbness of the night, and carries on with the dull resignation of harsh reality. It is a timeless conflict between something old and cold, and the thawing breath of something new. Spring becomes a disjointed and haunting memory; a shimmering prize on the edges of raging conflict in a battle for the heavens.

Old man winter suffers no fools. Fail to give it the respect it demands, and it will kill you quick, without remorse. At the heart of the matter it remains a clearly defined struggle between life and death for us and for all the little things. Often it seems a most special and personal test, designed especially for you.

The trial is not only physical, but spiritual, and mental too. It is a measure of wills in a contest expertly developed to discover who will break first, left to lie down defeated and shivering upon the frozen ground.

Who knows how many less fortunate men have buckled before the indescribable hardship and despair of an unforgiving winter, and simply relaxed into the false glow of hypothermia and its inevitable outcome? It is a sad result to be sure, though perhaps an easy choice for some, held captive under unbearable circumstance.

It’s best to prevent things from getting to this point, and I prefer a brighter strategy. At times like these, I think of birds. And not just birds of any random kind, but bluebirds, and robins.

They are birds of the common folk, but these are not your average feathered creatures. Writers with much better words than I have spoken of them for centuries, trying to capture the magic and momentousness of their arrival. They are the proverbial harbingers of Spring, the dawn breakers, and the shining bringers of light. No other birds can offer such cheer to the lonely, windswept soul.

In this part of the country the calendar may say it is Spring long before it appears it is so, and this year has been no exception.  Typically, by now I am pacing about with one eye skyward, eager for a flash of blue or an unmistakable red. Turned to the south like the doting and overprotective parent, I anxiously search for the approach of the school bus now late for its’ scheduled stop. Things can get rough for the lover of birds.

It is no small wonder, this movement of life. No one can predict their arrival. They can not be tracked along their journey. Who knows what makes them head our way, or how long they dally at each stop. It is only for them to know, and they get here when they choose. This year it happened exactly on the first day of Spring, and it was the Bluebirds that graced us first.

I happened to be driving when I saw them, and as I turned a sharp corner on the first day of Spring on a back road as the sky exploded with dozens of fluttering bits of blue. It was if my world had changed in an instant, and I felt a great weight lift from my sloping shoulders.

Pulling quickly to the side to keep from crashing, I stared transfixed with wonder and joy and marveled at the colors in the early evening sky. It was a perfectly choreographed display of innocent beauty and it brought tears to my eyes.

What else can one do when delivered before such grandeur?

[Post in Progress]

Michael Patrick McCarty

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“…Winter is no mere negation, no mere absence of summer; it is another and a positive presence, and between its ebbing and the slow, cautious in-flow of our northern spring there is a phase of earth emptiness, half real, perhaps, and half subjective. A day of rain, another bright week, and all earth will be filled with the tremor and the thrust of the new year’s new energies.”  —Harry Beston, The Outermost House

“This is one of the earliest birds to arrive in the spring; it is a question which we are likely to meet first, the Bluebird or the Robin, but not infrequently a flash of the cerulean color tells us the Bluebird has won in the race northward.” — Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music, by F. Schuyler Mathews, 1904

“How the waiting countryside thrills with joy when Bluebird brings us the first word of returning spring. Reflecting heaven from his back and the ground from his breast, he floats between sky and earth like the winged voice of hope.” — WL Dawson, Birds of Ohio, 1903

*For more information and a great website about Bluebirds Click Here.

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Update: March 4, 2014

I had my first bluebird sighting of the year today, a broad-shouldered male, and it happened in just about the same spot as it did last year but more than two weeks earlier on the calendar.

This male was as bold and blue a bird as I have ever seen, and was in fact a credit to all male bluebirds everywhere. He saw me coming and rose into a buffeting wind with that characteristic bluebird gait, hanging there in the magnificent universe for all the world to admire. I had no way to know that he was particularly interested in showing off to the lone female watching from the dead brown grass and tangled weeds nearby.

It warmed my blood to see him after so many months of bright white snow drifts and steel-gray, overcast skies. I am sure that she appreciated his display in ways I could never fully understand.

It was odd to see a male and female together so early in the season, and it was especially unusual for them to be the first birds of the year. I had always believed that the males arrived ahead of the females in order to establish dominance over other males and secure a territory to their liking.

Obviously, this is not always the case. Sometimes a male and female pair arrive on the breeding grounds at the same time, ready and willing. Still, it seemed a bit odd that they seemed to be the first and only birds to make it back so far, unlike the previous year when dozens of males all appeared almost overnight.

It’s been a strange year all around, with numerous storms and heavy snows which have built upon the ground since last November. The weather as a whole has seemed cranky and confused, with lingering low pressure systems and wild and violent mood swings. The signs were easy to read upon the birds.

A most obvious indication was the arrival of large flocks of robins in January, which seemed strange not only to me but to several of my friends who were quick to point it out. They were wild and agitated groups of birds, milling about restlessly while searching for a comfortable clime found most anywhere but here. One friend stared in amazement, as robin after robin appeared to attack the eves of his house, desperate to catch a drop of snow melt drizzling from his roof.

There is something quite unsettling about the sight of an obvious icon of Spring staring forlornly at deep snow and bare branches, puffed up bravely against the blustering gales. It’s an image not easily processed against what one has always known to be true.

Most of the robins have since managed to remain and survive until the snow banks receded and disappeared, though I know not how. It is true that not all robins migrate to the south, and that some do overwinter even in northern areas. There is also some evidence that more and more robins are migrating northward earlier in the year due to shifting weather patterns.

Yet the birds seem out of synch, as if their internal clock has wound too soon and their surroundings do not quite match their memories. No doubt we feel their distress on some undefined level, and like our feathered friends we can’t quite make sense of the changing world either.

But there is one thing is for sure. The bluebirds and robins have blessed us with their return journey, and stand ready to beat back whatever remains of the cold and dark times of winter.

I shall turn to the East and the rising star to celebrate the passing of another raw and soul cleansing season, while keeping one eye turned to the South for the telltale flash of blue, and red.

In The Eyes Of A Pigeon

turkeyvulture11 In The Eyes Of A Pigeon

Always Watching

pigeoneye1 In The Eyes Of A Pigeon

It’s All In The Eyes

 

 In The Eyes Of A Pigeon
Up And AwayViaMoi / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

 

 

 

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 abscence 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.

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.

Continue reading

The Last Mule Deer Doe

Doe Hunt Rifle 2013 1024x768 The Last Mule Deer Doe

Backstraps Tonight!

Michael Patrick McCarty

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 weigh 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 ours. 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?

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Food Freedom, and Long Live The Mule Deer Too!

Michael Patrick McCarty

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

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all ears 2 The Last Mule Deer Doe
All Ears – And Ready To Go!carfull…Cowboy State-r / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

 

A Little Tussle Among Friends

Take a look at this short video of two mule deer bucks doing what young bucks do, although they are probably still new to the game and may not be completely sure exactly what makes them do it. The November rut is a ways off yet, but it helps to get some practice in beforehand. Just getting shed of some nervous energy, I suppose.

The clip is courtesy of Dave Masssender of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Dave recorded this little bit of fun from his office window, and the deer were sparring in his backyard. Clicking antlers is a sound not heard near often enough.

Many thanks to Dave. We should all be so lucky to have such an interesting backyard!

 

Food Freedom! – And Guns Too.

Michael Patrick McCarty

You might also like The Promise of Deer, or our story about Mountain Lions

Coyotes, Mountain Lions, and Bears, Oh My!

mountainlioncloseup Coyotes, Mountain Lions, and Bears, Oh My!

I See You…

*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.

Originally Published 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.

mountainlionsong Coyotes, Mountain Lions, and Bears, Oh My!

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.

Michael Patrick McCarty

mountainlionatnight2 Coyotes, Mountain Lions, and Bears, Oh My!

Things That Go Bump In The Night

 

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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