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My snowshoe aluminium claws broke the silence in the woods, when they crushed through the ice and into the softer snow below the crust. I was well over a kilometer away from the nearest barn and I was surrounded by evergreen trees. They stood tall with their majestic winter coats and seemed on the verge of collapse because of the weight of the snow.

January 15th, 2016 marked the last day of sharp-tailed grouse for my hunting zone. I thought to myself it would be amazing to maybe get a harvest on the last day of their season. I was out hunting snowshoe hare, grouse and maybe if time permitting a few rock doves over by the farm.

Still-hunting for snowshoe hare and grouse are very similar in technique, it is basically scanning the hidden dark spots at the base of spruce bows and fallen logs, walking slowly and frequently stopping to look and try to identify shapes and colors that don’t fit in.

Hares have black tips on their ears and are generally straight up listening for danger, as for their black shiny eyes these are easily spotted with a keen sight.

Grouse can either be sitting at eye level on small branches in a tree or at ground level tucked away in a ball puffing out their feathers to stay warm during the winter months. Or just simply walking about like a domestic chicken, in short but quick bursts.

Once you see one, lock your eyes on them and stay with them because they can lose you in an instant as they dash around foliage. If you decide to follow, then make sure you are well versed in the use of a compass because they will bring you further into the brush but they will always stay in their circuit. Which is invisible to us unless you follow their tracks in the snow.

After about two hours of following hare leads, I was slowly making my way back to the farm, when something caught my eye at the base of a pine tree on my right about twenty meters in from the main trail.

There was a dead fallen log leaning diagonally under the pine tree up against its trunk and the pines lowest branches were buried with its tips buried under the icy snow forming a natural skirting almost all around the base of the tree.

What struck me was this black circle just sitting under the fallen log, I mean it was a perfect black circle. Deep down I had a feeling it was a grouse but I was not sure yet and couldn’t decide if it was a malformation on the tree, like a large accumulation of sap on the log in the shape of a ball.

It would have been unpracticed and unsafe for me to take a shot at the dark object without truly knowing what it was. I was excited and yet physically I remained calm in my decision, I had no choice but to move in closer for a good confirmed shot.

I loaded two shells into the shotgun and pumped one in the chamber then instantly clicked it into safety on position. I lifted my left leg and started to make my way toward the tree through the deep snow and dense brush.

My first two steps through the snow aroused the grouse with a thrashing sound which caused it to turn its head to the right, I had my final confirmation, it was a grouse.

My shot was going to be a very difficult one with over twenty meters between us through several thin branches. In addition while aiming I had to point low below the log where the grouse was hiding. I only had about a five-inch diameter to make the shot and the bird was on the move toward the north.

To make matters worse, my snowshoes had failed me and I went through the snow on the edge of the trail and sunk down to my waist. I was using the more modern pair of snowshoes, my Michigan’s would have kept me at the surface of the snow crust.

Once I got myself into a descent shooting position I shouldered my 870 and fired a shot, aiming to high and missing my shot completely.

The grouse jumped out to the right and made his way north and then back around the front of the tree heading west.

I saw him through the greenery but it was not a clear shot. I tried to chase it but sunk even further into the snow.

I was instantly broken and felt and incredible amount of frustration. Gosh!! I love the winter woods but it can be a tough environment. You might live incredible hunts but you will also have days like these.

I tried to circle around but the grouse he was gone and my hunt was also done as it was getting close to dark.

I know there will be next year’s season but this one was a bust, this is when you must dig deep and find the positive in the experience and not find things to blame.

Like there could have been less snow, I should have used different shot or a different shotgun.

Next fall will remedy this and for now I can continue to pursue pigeon and snowshoe hare and hope to make up for this day.

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There was a strong breeze coming in from the west that brought with it some cold air; for a moment I felt a chill down my back while descending the ridge toward the creek. The sun was out and the birds were singing and you just felt this renewed source of energy in the air, what an incredible day I had chosen to visit my friends farm and hunt small game.

I was on the lookout for woodchucks and rock doves. By the time my descent had finished I was now standing at the edge of the creek, the water was still incredibly cold with the water levels higher than usual caused by the melting snow and ice.

I crossed over to the other side choosing my path carefully stepping on the large boulders just below the surface of the crystal clear water, high enough to prevent my socks from getting wet, also not to allow the water to reach the top of the boot which was just below the knee.

It was now time for the climb to the rock formation at the top of the southern ridge, it is a really enjoyable walk but I am alway cautious passing through the wall of evergreen, because the cattle have carved out pathways that they use frequently and I would not want to surprise a young bull into a face to face encounter.

As the years go by and as you spend more time outdoors hunting small game it is inevitable that you will make mistakes which causes you to lose out on a few harvest opportunities. I find the trick is once the frustration has been released through a few swear words and licking your wounds; you then decide to learn from them. Observe and then you promise yourself that you will not be doing this twice. The mistakes I mean.

One example of this is, a few years ago I was walking up the whole length of the creek in late October trying to flush ducks and after several hundred meters I was starting to get discouraged and tired of still hunting. Not one duck in sight, as soon as I let my guard down and started walking tall and ordinarily, I scared off two mallards and they got away before I could get a shot off because of the tough angle of the shot.

This has happened to me with Grouse, Woodcock and also Woodchucks. I walked right into their still stance trap and then boom in an explosion of speed they were gone. Once you become an expert in their habitat I believe you get to know when you should flick the on switch for still hunting alert mode.

So on this particular day I put my theory to the test, I made my way through the cattle trail and got up to the rock formation. I could have walked right up to the crest and looked around and gaze over the horizon like a king over his kingdom but every single game would fly off or run for cover. Of course the red squirrel and crow alert calls wouldn’t help.

So, instead I leaned forward and just popped my head over the crest and I found myself practically staring into the eyes of a woodchuck who was sun-bathing just meters in front of me. I put myself in reverse fairly quickly and lowered myself into the low ground and took a few deep breaths. Loaded a shell into my 870, clicked the safety on and then started to lift the top part of my body just above the crest looking right back into the woodchucks eyes.

Lined up my bead sight with the vitals, completed my three breaths then slow pushed my safety off. Moments later I released my shot and harvested my first spring woodchuck. That night I pan-fried some nice thighs in maple syrup with Cajun cowboy spices from Canadian Tire. It was delicious.

Two years ago, I guided a friend duck hunting in my canoe, he was in the front ready to shoot and I was paddling us through a maze of weeds, but because I had learned so much about ducks and their habitat and knew the swamp extremely well, I had also observed like a hawk and mentally recorded certain gold pot spots. I had it down to a science. I knew exactly when he should shoulder his shotgun and be ready. On this day we did not make same mistake twice. Instead we made nice Mallard dishes.

Take your time still hunting on foot or paddling through the weeds, when you feel it, you will know when to flick on the switch and be extremely observant and be ready.

The results are very rewarding and a confirmation that you are learning. Observation just like conservation is paramount.

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I drove carefully through the creek, it was going to be a quick crossing; just minutes before I had put on my Allen waders and walked across it to see how deep it was, this also let me find the sharp rocks sticking out of the muddy bottom.

As the tires pushed through the creek, three mallards that were hidden in the dense grass burst into flight heading westward, they were climbing gradually but their flight lightning fast, one drake and two hens. I was heading to the edge of the marsh to the south-east.

When I first arrived at the farm I noticed the southern field was empty with no Canada geese in sight. I wasn’t sure how my hunt was going to turn out on this fall day but I always try to be creative and remain optimistic.

The cows were scattered all around the barns and open fields, I was hoping for a good day but there were no birds in sight. I took a few deep breaths and with my binoculars in hand, I started to scan the landscape. Over a kilometer away in a south-westerly direction, I noticed long black objects poking out the swamp grass, they were moving very little but just enough that I could make out the difference from the tree stumps left by the beavers and a goose neck.

I stood there on top of the ridge for a few more minutes, raised and lowered my binoculars several times trying to get a better look at the thin black sticks. Once I cleared the creek, I turned toward the west and moved along the ridge driving in the low ground, and my plan was to park away from my start point for my stalk.

With the truck now parked exactly where I wanted it, I opened the driver door and stepped out onto the moist field. It was a cold windy day, so I put on my Remington hunting jacket and zipped it up just below the chest pouch fitted with a magnetic strip of my waders giving me easy access to my shells.

With my 870 ready and placed on the field floor I took three Challenger shells and loaded them and pumped one into the chamber and placed the safety on. The whole time I was kneeling beside the truck, I kept my eyes on the cattle more particularly the big black bull.

They were only a few meters away and I only had small spruce trees and dead tree stumps, between them and I and they got pretty weary with me crawling around them.

I now had to move my way closer to the water’s edge without triggering any panic among the geese, especially the one’s on watch. As I came around the front of the truck and headed to the water, I would sneak up behind some trees, then move my way around to freshly cut stumps left by the beavers. The ground beneath me was transforming into a muddy sludge mixed in with rotten pieces of wood and rock.

With my green balaclava pulled over my face; every few steps I would stop and check my alignment with the spotter geese and then adjust my movement forward, so that they could not see me.

I was now only twenty meters away but it felt like a longer distance than this as I could no longer finish my approach slouched forward. I had to get down on my hands and knees, and with every pace forward, I would meticulously place my shotgun onto swamp grass mounds just high enough to keep my barrel cleared of the muck.

A few weeks earlier I had observed my cat stalking some common house sparrows in the tall grass. Everyone of her muscles were moving in a calculated fashion then very often she would stop and just watch, then adjust her position again and move forward with only her front legs and then minutes later she would bring in her bag legs forward, thus allowing her to jump forward with the maximum reach allowed. It was incredible that a large black object like her could move ahead closer to the birds without sending them into flight.

I was now knee-deep in the cold waters, my hands were breaking through the very thin layer of ice and then sinking into the muck, my fingers were starting to burn because of the cold waters but I was so focused on my approach that I did not give much thought to my uncomfortable movement.

I finally got into the position but my left boot was stuck in the mud, I had to figure out how to shift my hip forward and get into a good shooting position without getting too high. I grabbed a chewed beaver stump placed my fingers carefully around tip and pulled myself up.

This was all done in an exaggerated slow motion, so that I did not alert the spotter geese. I could hear one of them calling out nervous short calls. But before I could shoot, I needed to get one final look at the main group of geese in behind the marsh grass and ensure that my first shot was going to be perfect and safe.

The group formed a sort of broken circle with three geese lined up with two on each side. I took several deep breaths then looked down into the water, my heart was beating like crazy and I was breathing like I had just run several kilometers.

I was ready and had all my shots planned out, I did the slow controlled push-off of my safety button just like Wade Bourne had shown in one of his videos. I slowly raised myself up behind thin branches of a dead tree that came up out of the water like a cypress tree in the shape of the letter “y”, my ruse worked for a few seconds until the geese started calling out aggressively and pushing off into flight. I released my first shot when the birds where just inches off the water and my shell shot snapped the first three geese and brought them down. I aimed for the head and neck just like turkey hunting.

I could not believe it, I had just brought down three geese in one shot, the first one fell hard into the water and the two others spun and flipped back into the water right after, the first two were down but the third tried to fly again and I released a second shot.

With three harvested, I turned to my right or north-east and released another shot and hit a fourth bird and it fell and spiraled hard into the water. I had to reload, so I reached into my pocket and pulled out two more shells and loaded them then pumped and twisted to my left now in a full standing position I released another shot and brought down the largest bird of my harvest.

Once the water calmed below my feet and the empty shells floated near my boots, I had five Canada geese lying in front of me and I could not believe what had just happened.

I had just reached my daily bag limit in a matter of seconds and I was in total disbelief, my years of work to become a better waterfowler had just materialized before me and the future could only be brighter.

It took me several minutes to get the birds back to the truck and then drive back to the barn on my way home. While loading my kit in the back of the truck, six rock doves flew in from the east heading west over the barn by the cattle gates.

I grabbed my 870 and snuck in behind the southern barn and made my way around the front, the pigeons where flying just two meters above the ground in formation. I loaded one shell of number three and released a single shot into the flock, taking down two birds.

I have gone weeks without a single harvest but days like these taught me to never give up and learn as much as you can and spend as much time as you can in the field. It does not matter where you are in the world, after all it is in our blood and I understand!

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A strong wind from the east was blowing in toward west and then spiraling around through the copses of trees behind me. It was a perfect day at the farm and the temperature was sitting at about twenty-one degrees Celsius; it wasn’t warm but I was quite comfortable and very excited about my half day hunt at the farm.

As I walked through the tall grass and lifted one leg after the other to pass over the electrical fence heading south down toward the three barns, five rock doves circled round and landed on the first barn on the ridge of the roof.

They could see me but they did not move, some where facing south others north, but they were well aware of my presence. It wasn’t until I took a few more steps forward that they flew off toward the second barn and landed on the far side of its roof, closest to the edge of the forest.

The farmer had told me earlier during our conversation that there were five rock doves playing around but he did not know their whereabouts, however I know they seem to like the barns and that this was a likely place to start looking for them. The first barn was abandoned and broken, making it an ideal place to have a nest and to provide shelter, not just for the doves but also woodchucks and rabbits.

I took a few more steps, stopped and then looked around; I wanted to make sure I knew where all the young bulls were before I crossed the field in an attempt to harvest the rock doves at the second barn. The cattle were scattered all over the field and I always make sure I have a clear path to safety in case one the bulls comes running.

Once I had everyone in place exactly where I wanted them, I got down really low ran across the field and came up to the second barn from an angle using its gable roof as cover, the rock doves never even saw me sprinting across the open ground and by the time I caught my breath I was just beneath them.

I loaded a shell into the chamber of my Remington 870 and clicked it into safety, and shouldered my shotgun into a good firing position. I stepped away from the barn taking two steps backward and this movement sent the rock dove into the air, I focused on the one to my right, followed through and released my shot.

I was leaning right back and aiming directly straight up into the sky above me, the pigeon spun around in an incredible aerobatics display and flipped twice more and fell to the ground below only four meters to my right. It was a great harvest and a great start to an afternoon.

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It had been several weeks since I had gone to the farm to hunt pigeons; and I was really looking forward to spending some time in the woods. The past few times I was out the birds were either too fast for my shot on that particular day or they would simply spot my orange safety vest and then fly away to the neighboring farm even before my kit was ready. If this occurred I would not see them again until it was time for me to head home.

This past winter, we had several days in a row when the temperatures dropped below normal and it was a wicked cold. As a result the farmer would wear a heavier coat which happened to be orange. Part of his daily routine was to feed grain to some of the younger cattle; he would come out with a white bucket and wore his orange vest.

Within minutes of this feeding routine, the pigeons would fly in, swarm the cattle then help themselves to the grain. This pattern occurred daily for quite some time without interruption and the pigeons got used to the routine and the color orange.

So, on the day that I arrived and put on my orange vest, they did not pay too much attention to me, in fact they were quite bold. This allowed me to sneak in and line up several precisions shots and by the end of the afternoon I had harvested two large pigeons and enjoyed a good pan-fried feast that night with maple syrup and Montreal spices.

Color, habits and patterns are very important elements to hunting and its success if applied well. If you are out hunting a specific type of game and it is not working, do not be afraid to change-up your game and adapt to their habits, habitat and remember always wear orange vests.

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The pigeons flew in very fast over head from the south in a flock of seven or more, circling around and breaking apart into smaller teams of two or three and then eventually the lead bird flying ahead for a few seconds, playing in the winds, maneuvering with skill and grace.

They wanted to land in the mud filled with corn but they were hesitant after spotting my truck with the canoe strapped to its roof and I had just opened the driver’s side door. This sent them even higher into a panicked flight, circling two more times near the southern barns before setting off to the east and over the tree line.

I would have to wait now a few minutes for them to come back and attempt to harvest a few. So, I jumped out of my seat and began unpacking my kit for the morning hunt and laying it out neatly on the tailgate.

I reached into my backpack and took out my new Tasco binoculars which I had purchased just a week ago at SAIL. I brought them up and focused in on the low ground and open fields near the creek to the south. The cold air and winds were in my favor today but there were no geese down in the low ground near the creek, this was their usual spot, but I did hear a few of them call out from above but were too high for a shot.

I continued scanning the ground and I immediately noticed the ripples in the water close to where the cattle cross the creek and there were three mallards dabbling in the water.

My initial plan for the day was to try for pigeon and then check out the open areas south of the third barn near the creek and look for woodcock, duck or geese. Now that I spotted the three mallards, two drakes and one hen, I knew that I had the time needed to come up with a plan of approach as long as something did not scare or alert the birds.

I zipped up my jacket, put on my balaclava and then loaded three shells into my Remington 870 and stood still for a few minutes looking at my two approach options, either coming in from the west from the low ground in behind the third barn and potential harvest a duck from the western corner of the barn. Maybe… I thought, but a few weeks ago, I got stuck in this same situation and the geese spotted me and flew away and had plenty of time to put some distance between me and them. There was too much open ground to cover for this choice.

So I chose to come in from the east and run up the shrub line along the creek and move my way up along its shore to the cattle crossing area. Almost a year earlier I had harvested a mallard hen in the exact same spot.

I checked over my pockets and kit and then slipped under the electric fence and started my way down through the rough terrain and across the field moving away from the ducks circling around from the east. It was quite a detour but it allowed me to move in from the left. I made about forty steps and as soon as I got into the wet grass, I flushed a woodcock which flew directly in front of me but I did not take the shot because the mallards were more interesting for a meal being a larger bird. The shot would send them flying away into the air.

Now that I had reached the shrub line and was right on the edge of the creek, I slouched forward and slowed my pace right down. I was now in the final approach and did not want to spook them into flight. My shoulders were at the same height as the tallest bushes and this provided me with the cover that I needed to close the gap between them and me.

I must have covered around thirty meters, before I had a chance to straighten up for a look, and a mallard I hadn’t seen let out a two quacks then burst into flight. This set off a second duck which was only two meters in front of me and both flew away incredibly fast. I loaded a shell into the chamber pushed the safety on and started running after the ducks for about four meters and aimed but they were too far, then all of a sudden splash another mallard shot up on my left and started to gain some distance. I aimed and released my first shot at the bird and it dropped, swerved and then flew even higher.

Now around twenty meters away, I pumped and released my second shot. In my mind I thought this shot was too far and that the mallard will get away and as soon as my shot reached the bird its head leaned forward and the duck tumbled to the ground below. I could not believe the shot.

I made my 870 safe and ran through the shallow part of the creek and started to look for the bird because it fell in the high grass. I applied what I wrote in my last blog and traced back my shot from where I was standing using my arm as a pointer and then completed five back and fourths sweeping the grass, the duck was lying in a small recess in the ground. It was a magnificent mallard drake with beautiful coloration.

A great harvest and a sure long shot!

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In one of my previous blog entries: Furred & Feathered Game, I typed up some bird names that were listed on the MNRF website, its link was also made available. These are in fact birds that you can hunt in the Province of Quebec, under the small game or migratory bird license permits. 

Some of these birds such as the Rock Dove may be hunted all year round; other birds like the Red-winged black bird or Ruffed grouse hunts will normally be managed with the use of specific hunting seasons which include variable dates depending on their provincial zones (Quebec). For the rest of Canada this list may vary slightly; as an example one of the factors could be that your area may not have suitable habitat for certain bird species.

For more information on waterfowl hunting, check out the Environment of Canada website.

This article however does not focus on hunting seasons or zones; it is about mastering the skills of bird identity. Learning is part of the joys of bird watching and this is also true for hunters, but as a hunter we have an added level of responsibility when it pertains to correctly identifying our birds. This is absolutely critical before taking our shots.

I recently finished the book The Birds of winter. I have to say it is quite easy for any of us to pick up a similar book about birds and turn to a page where there is a photograph of a bird we wish to harvest. In my situation it was on page 48 of the book where there was a black and white photograph of a Ring-necked pheasant. I then turned back to page 46 and on this page there was a same sized black and white photograph of an eastern wild turkey in the exact same position. They looked somewhat similar from a distance and with additional factors such as rainy weather, thick grass or woodlands you could begin to understand, how at first glance you could fail to differentiate the two. Yes, the pheasant has bright colors indeed when comparing them to eastern wild turkeys, however when studying some duck species as mentioned in the book Birdwatching, A guide for beginners they write about the word: eclipse.

Eclipse is a term used for dull plumage color, a great example of this is the grayish brown colors of a mallard hen. Some male ducks will lose their eloquent colors once the mating season is over, in turn becoming dull. The change in color of plumage could make it more challenging to identify a specific bird. In my photo gallery page, I have a photograph of two ruffed grouse near a stump and I consider it a great illustration about how easy it can be to walk right past them while still-hunting. When considering behaviour, the eastern wild turkeys will quite often be in a group called rafter.

In the book Birdwatching, A guide for beginners, the authors did a fantastic job in outlining what they consider to be the five major clues to bird identification. I describe these clues in my own way.

Silhouette: In other words the outline of an object in our case a bird; this can help you identify which group of bird they belong to. I am pretty confident that most of us remember our plastic ducks found in almost every bathtub across North-America and if someone were to hold one up you could most likely identify it as a duck just by looking at its outline and noticing its short flat bill or tail.

Plumage: One of my favorite birds to help explain plumage is the mallard drake duck. With its bright green head and white ring color plumage on its neck, it is a rather large duck, and also easily identifiable from far. Study the colors of the birds you wish to hunt and take note of their distinctive colors patterns.

Behaviour: When I am hunting Rock dove, knowing their behaviour as a flock helps me get closer, knowing what movements will cause them to fly away. Pigeons are gregarious and this provides added security, more eyes to help notice danger. I use my environment for the approach, either using low ground or a barn as cover. I can then get closer and identify them as Rock Dove.

Habitat: Eastern wild turkeys normally stay within a five-mile radius of their roost and they can often be found near the edge of tree lines and hay or corn fields. Knowing the habitat of a specific bird will enable you to get closer and identify them. Avoid wearing red, blue or white and use extreme caution during the turkey hunting season when moving around.

Voice: Duck calls are a great example to use for voice identity, the greeting call, or hail call. When you are sitting in the marsh, and you hear such a sound this confirms that there are ducks nearby and eventually you will be able to identify different duck species through their calls.

Have a great season!

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