QUIT GROUSING — Ruffed grouse are curious wilderness birds, this one joined veteran East Aurora hunter, Bruce Mohney, and his first-time hunter nephew, 14-year old Riley Hill. The bird eventually followed Mohney home!
SPRINGVILLE — Every season, big game hunters trade their time in the woods for the hope of a whitetail deer or black bear harvest. For the majority of hunters, moments in the woods offer no meat for freezer storage, except for the enjoyable exposure with the natural world of the outdoors.
Most hunters can recall special moments in the woods, when time is frozen and a remarkable new relationship begins to develop, between the hunter and the hunted.
An overwhelming appreciation for the outdoors soon develops and a distinct reverence for nature, wild animals, birds and fish, grows to define the reciprocal relationship that veteran hunters cultivate, over time. This relationship creates a dilemma for experienced hunters, as they work to maintain and support the health of wildlife with multiple programs, but, during the big game season, the correlation between predator and prey is renewed.
Hunters fall in love with the woods in one sense, thanks to the very animals that they seek to kill and consume, during those few weeks of open big game hunting season. While it would seem a contradiction, it is a challenge to understand this delicate balance. A new level of compassion evolves and the difference between the spirit of the hunter, his love of the woods and the understanding for subsistence by nature is reaffirmed. Imagine that, in the early days of human life, our very existence depended upon this metaphor.
Big game hunters also share a bond. Veteran hunters experienced in the lore of hunting details share their time with new students that come to the hunting world, every year. Perhaps this is a responsibility of hunters that has descended through the generations. Such was the case for Riley Hill, a 14-year old hunter and nephew of East Aurora resident hunter Bruce Mohney.
Mohney offered to mentor the youngster in his first-ever hunt for deer, opening day of firearm season. The pair reached the woods in time to climb into their stand well before sunrise and were able to enjoy the respectful silence and vitality of the undisturbed woods. As the day wore on, no deer came their way, but the quiet moments of watchful waiting were displaced by a number of squirrels, chipmunks, a fox, an assortment of fleeting bird species and one very special visitor to their tree stand, an adult ruffed grouse.
The ruffed grouse apparently spotted the two hunters and decided to explore their presence, landing on the edge of the platform they occupied. For what seemed like several hours, the bird examined the pair, edging ever closer, until the bird actually came within an inch or two of Riley’s hand, resting near his gun. The young hunter instinctively moved to pet the bird and began to carefully and slowly stroke his feathers.
As the hunting day began to pass, Mohney and his nephew talked about the woods, nature and Mahoney’s hunting trips with his father Edward, who died in 1996.
The 2013 hunting season passed very quickly and Mohney did not return to the stand until the last day of the regular New York state Southern Tier firearm season, last Sunday. He didn’t get there until mid-afternoon, but as he walked to the stand alone, he could not help but recall the experience with that bird that had visited the last time he and Riley hunted. Mohney also thought about his dad, who had taught him so much about the kinship of the outdoors and respecting nature. His love of nature has become a daily part of his life and is woven into his mind. He thanks his dad for that.
He was finally in the stand and totally relaxed, for several hours of silent observation, when suddenly, he heard the gentle flicker of flapping wings. The ruffed grouse was back. It appeared to be the same bird, as it was the same size and color as the feathered fowl that had joined the hunt on opening day. He softly spoke to the bird and the bird cocked his head slightly from time to time, as if to show his understanding of the conversation. The bird walked ever closer to Mohney, moving about on the exterior of his hunting clothes.
Just then, a large branch snapped to Mohney’s left. There, in the thicket of the dense woods where he was hunting, a monster buck appeared. Mohney turned his head to the deer and stopped counting at 12 points, when the ruffed grouse hopped into his sightline. It was OK, Mohney thought; the buck was working his way through the thick trail of fallen trees and the bird would soon move. It did.
Mohney raised his shotgun and put his sights on the monster buck, just 35 yards away. He exhaled and had his finger on the trigger, ready to gently squeeze off one shot. Just then, the grouse hopped from the rail of the tree stand to the barrel of his gun. The bird was standing between the rear sight and the front bead of the shotgun! The deer was moving and soon, was out of range.
Mohney sighed and smiled to himself. Again, thoughts of his dad popped into his mind. In 10 minutes, it would be sunset. He decided to climb down and head for his truck. Still thinking about the big deer that could have been, he felt a bit saddened. Reaching his truck, he unloaded his gun and placed it safely when the ruffed grouse landed a few inches from the door and hopped in! Mohney asked the bird, “Are you going home with me, buddy?” As he tried to help the bird out of the truck, the bird hopped to the other side.
“OK,” said Mohney, “you are welcome to travel with m,e for a while.” Upon reaching home on Underhill Road, a few minutes later, the bird flew out of the truck and up on Mohney’s porch. Mohney went down to the feed store and bought some seed to feed the bird. If you ask Mohney about this experience, he will simply smile and say, “It was an amazing hunting year!”
Each fall in New York, about 75,000 hunters take to the field in pursuit of ruffed grouse, making them the second most popular game bird, behind wild turkeys. Despite declines in their numbers, over the past 40 years, ruffed grouse are still common, particularly in younger forests, and provide excellent hunting opportunities. One bird has a new home, this year.
Each hunting experience depends on the kinship we form with the woods and the critters in it. The great spirit of the woods is with us, when this kinship matures in each of us, and with each trip to the wilds, as we renew the respect we have as hunters and affirm the understanding that we humans are the ultimate predator.
The NYS ruffed grouse hunting season runs from Oct. 1 through the last day of February, in most areas of the state. The Department of Environmental Conservation does not conduct any systematic surveys to monitor grouse populations. However, DEC recently began a new survey effort with cooperating hunters to help track grouse distribution and abundance. The cooperator ruffed grouse hunting log asks hunters to record their grouse hunting activities, including the county where and how much time hunted and the number of birds flushed and harvested. This allows DEC to estimate flushing rates statewide and for major regions of the state. Flushing rates are used to monitor changes in grouse populations. Visit www.dec.ny.gov/animals/9351.html.
If you would like to participate, download a survey form from the grouse log or contact DEC at 518-402-8883 or www.dec.ny.gov/animals/48169.html.
Dec. 13: Western New York Safari Club International 19th annual game dinner, Michael’s Banquet Facility, Hamburg, 4 p.m. start. For more information, call 984-2773.
Dec. 17: Last Day of NYS late archery and muzzle-loading season at sunset.
Dec. 18: Erie County Federation of Sportsmen monthly meeting, 7 p.m., free dinner, Bison City Rod & Gun, 511 Ohio St., Buffalo. For more information, call 597-4081.
Jan. 4: Erie County Trappers Association Fur Handling Seminar, Collins Conservation Club, 2633 Conger Road, 9 a.m.-1 p.m., free. For more information, call 337-2556.
Jan.11: Fundraiser for Ray Markiewicz, who is fighting leukemia, Eden Legion Post No. 880, 1-6 p.m. For more information, call Jim Bailey 649-9714.
Send information for the outdoor calendar in Forrest Fisher’s column, 10 days in advance, to firstname.lastname@example.org.