Feb 012018

Abundant Wild Turkeys entertain rural residents with their interesting behaviours.

It was a blockbuster trade for the ages. However, it wasn’t athletes that were shuffled around. It was wildlife. In 1984, Ontario sent River Otters to Missouri, Ruffed Grouse to New York and Moose to Michigan in exchange for 274 Wild Turkeys from all three states.

The last native Wild Turkey disappeared from Ontario more than 100 years ago. Habitat loss and unregulated hunting did them in. There were many attempts at reintroduction, including at least one in the 1960s with turkeys from Pennsylvania. It was spearheaded by ‘Turkey Jack’ Davis, a well-known outdoors writer who later moved to Peterborough. His daughter, Wendy, remembers a “garage full of turkeys” at their Port Credit home. These early attempts were never successful, unfortunately, because they used captivity-raised birds, which couldn’t adapt to life in the wild. However, thanks to the wide genetic spectrum of the turkeys acquired in 1984, this reintroduction was an astounding success.

Bearded hen & tom Wild Turkey – April 8, 2017 – Doug Gibson

Since then, Ontario’s turkey population has skyrocketed to about 100,000 birds. Most remarkably, they now range as far north as Algonquin Park and Sudbury, which is likely outside their historical range. Initially, there were fears that the climate would be too harsh, but the resilient turkeys proved the biologists wrong.

Catching the wild American birds was made possible by the development of a Howitzer-propelled net – a technology still used today. Jennifer Baici, a PhD student at Trent University who studies Wild Turkey social structure and behaviour, describes how the trapping works.” We begin by finding a flock and learning its schedule. This includes noting when the birds typically leave the roost, the path that they take throughout the day and what time they tuck in for the night. Turkeys are highly predictable in the winter, so we can make a plan about how to bait them. This involves intercepting their daily path with a ‘bait line’ of corn. We extend this line out into the middle of a field where we put down a large pile of corn. Once the flock is visiting the bait at roughly the same time each day, we set up a camouflaged net and wait for the turkeys to arrive. Although these birds are usually quite predictable, they still surprise us by occasionally sleeping in way later than expected!” To see a 10-second video of turkey trapping in action, click HERE.

A bird we notice

In researching this article, I contacted a number of people living out in Peterborough County for any turkey anecdotes they might have. As we’ll see, everyone had numerous stories. I should note, too, that turkeys often show up right in Peterborough.

Wild Turkeys are a striking bird. They have iridescent bronze-green feathers and bare skin on the head and neck, which can vary from to red to blue-grey. The bare skin probably plays a role in heat dissipation, since turkeys are essentially southern birds where hot weather is a challenge. Males – and very occasionally females – also have a bristly “beard” made of modified feathers that extend off the chest. Its purpose is poorly understood, but it may play a role in mate selection by the female.

Wild Turkeys in front of barn on Chemong Road at 3rd Line – Wasyl Bakowsky

In early spring, the toms (males) gather in clearings to perform courtship displays. They strut about gobbling with hormone-charged exuberance. Annamarie Beckel, who lives just south of Lakefield, has had a front row seat to the spectacle. “We woke up one May morning to find a tom and about six hens in our front yard. The hens were browsing in the grass, while the tom was displaying for all he was worth – the fully fanned tail, the fluffed up feathers and the dropped wing. The hens, of course, appeared to ignore him!”

The hens nest in hedgerows, along the edge of woodlots and sometimes in hayfields. The birds stay in family groups most of the summer. Sometimes two or three hens and their broods will join together. Winter flocks, however, are the largest. On average, a flock contains 25-50 birds, but sometimes there are many more. “In winter, we’ve seen large flocks of 100 or more in neighbouring fields,” says David Frank, who lives on Stewart Line near Cavan.

Wild Turkey nest (Marie Adamcryck – Bailieboro)

Turkeys are well-established north of Peterborough, too. Dennis and Lynn Johnson, who live on the north shore of Stony Lake, have been noticing them for at least 12 years. Across the lake on Dodsworth Island, Rob Welsh sees them there, too. “In winter, they parade between islands in more or less single file – a comical sight!”
At dusk, turkeys fly up into trees to roost for the night. For several years, Tim Dyson watched a flock that roosts in trees west of the junction of Preston Road and Fire Route 23 near his former home at Belmont Lake. One night he counted 118 turkeys lining the branches.



Turkeys eat just about everything. This includes acorns, beech nuts, hickory nuts, fruit, insects, worms, snails and even amphibians. Tom Northey of Little Britain told me of a hunter friend who was cleaning a bird and found Leopard Frogs in its crop. They will also eat crops such as wheat and corn, which does not go over well with farmers.

Turkeys can also turn up at backyard feeders. Dyson recalls a behaviour he dubbed the ‘Kenturkey Derby’. “The birds would see me go outside with a tub of bird seed. After I went back in the house, they would come running from 100 metres across the field to gorge themselves.” Dennis and Lyn Johnson’s Stony Lake birds will come right up and practically eat out of their hands.

Unfortunately, the turkey’s taste in foods can become problematic. Dennis explains. “Last year, my wife Lynn made her usual fall/winter outdoor pots of greenery. Included in the arrangement were several sumac heads. We’d never seen them eating sumac in the wild, but they sure enjoyed eating them from Lynn’s arrangement. After replenishing the sumac three or four times, Lynn decided that the turkeys could go down the road and get their own!”

Wild Turkeys at Armour Road condominiums (Betty Mitchell)



An abundance of nutritious turkey meat has not gone unnoticed by predators. Several people I emailed have seen coyotes stalking the birds. Raptors, too, are getting in on the action. Rick Stankiewicz of Keene writes, “On the edge of an open field at daybreak, I watched as a Great Horned Owl attacked and tried to fly off with a turkey decoy!” Tom Northey saw a Northern Harrier grab one in a hayfield, and this past fall his daughter came across a Bald Eagle eating a turkey.

Tim Dyson watched a female Northern Goshawk attack one of eight wild turkeys as they fed on scattered seed behind a house. “Once the hawk had seized the much heavier turkey by the rump, the other turkeys quickly surrounded the two and put on a rather aggressive display by spreading their tails and dragging their wings in an manner not unlike their courtship display. This intimidation seemed to work, since the hawk soon released her grip and sped off. The turkey fared well – only minus a few feathers!”

The interplay between turkeys and competitors for food is also interesting. Rick Stankiewicz has seen numerous interactions between turkeys and White-tailed Deer.” They always seem curious and tolerant of each other, but not in a friendly or playful way.” Trent’s Jennifer Baici also has an interest in these interactions. She is studying flocks of turkeys that congregate with groups of deer and hopes to learn more about the social dynamics between the two.

Turkeys and geese also interact in curious ways. Laura Summerfeldt, who lives near Keene, writes: “A few years ago in late autumn, we saw an extraordinary spectacle. A flock of Canada Geese had settled in the corn field adjacent to our house. The resident flock of a dozen or so turkeys withdrew to the hedgerow. The geese stayed on. The next afternoon we happened to be watching and observed that the turkeys “rallied” and en masse CHARGED the flock of geese in an organized manner. With wings outspread, they ran across the field in a line. Truly, it was like a cavalry charge. They drove the geese to the far end of the field and then resumed feeding!”

Wild Turkeys at Dodsworth Island – Feb. 2017- Rob Welsh


Thanks to their abundance, there is now both a spring and fall turkey hunt. In the spring, only males can be targeted. This puts less pressure on the population, since the toms are highly polygamous and can impregnate up to 15 hens. Hunting turkeys is not easy, however. Turkeys are extremely wary and have excellent eyesight and hearing. The success rate for both seasons is only one bird for every three hunters. For hunters who are successful, the meat is delicious and close to domestic turkey in taste.

Population study

Part of Jennifer Baici’s research is to investigate the usefulness of citizen science platforms such as eBird and iNaturalist in estimating turkey population size. This winter, she is running a pilot project in Peterborough County and is requesting turkey sightings that fall between December 1, 2017 and March 31, 2018. This can be done either by adding observations to eBird or by submitting photos of any flocks seen to the Peterborough Wild Turkey Count project on iNaturalist. You will need to sign up for the project first. Be sure to include where you saw the birds and how many there were. Eventually, Jennifer hopes to expand the project and explore whether citizen science platforms can be applied to estimate Wild Turkey population size for larger areas, such as the province of Ontario – so stay tuned.







Mar 092017

Stretching from Georgian Bay to Kingston, along the interface of the St. Lawrence Lowlands and the Canadian Shield, is a unique ecoregion, now known as The Land Between. It is home to loons, bears, moose, deer and more hummingbirds, at risk reptiles and habitat types than anywhere in the province. At the same time, however, this is a fragile place, which is facing multiple environmental, economic and social pressures.

The Land Between ecoregion (image from TLB national charity)

The first person in modern times to draw attention to this distinct region was probably Peter Alley. From his early childhood, he spent his summers at Muldrew Lake, just south of Gravenhurst. Alley sensed that this area where limestone meets granite had its own unique characteristics. He saw that this was not the Canadian Shield, nor was it the St. Lawrence Lowlands. For instance, he recognized that there are rock barrens here, but nowhere else. Alley wondered if there were other unique ecological features and functions, too. With remarkable dedication, Peter spent 10 years reaching out to individuals, governments and agencies to inspire participation in characterizing and mapping this landscape. His goal was to protect the significant natural features and ecosystem services for future generations. Key to this venture was persuading two land trusts, The Couchiching Conservancy, under Ron Reid, and the Kawartha Land Trust, headed by Ian Attridge, to become involved.

Aerial view of Petroglyphs Provincial Park, located in The Land Between (Photo by Ontario Visual Heritage Project)

The conservancies hired Leora Berman to move the venture forward. Berman brought a background in economics and environmental science to the project. This eventually led to the creation of nationally-registered charity, which shares the same name as the region itself – The Land Between (TLB). Berman, who is the organization’s CMO, broadened the scope of Alley’s vision to include culture and the social economy from a perspective known as “bioregionalism”. Bioregionalism is a holistic way of viewing a landscape, which encompasses and honours all the relationships that exist between and across sectors. It means mobilizing residents as opposed to simply focusing on mobilizing government. A bioregional approach understands that all aspects of a region- from the land to the people – are interdependent and interrelated. It also recognizes that nature informs culture, which in turn fosters the economy and eventually a strong sense of place in the people.

The mandate of the TLB organization is to conserve the ecological, cultural, and socio-economic features of this unique bioregion. To this end, the organization undertakes projects that increase ecological health and community and cultural vitality. The projects are multi-partnered and have multiple benefits across as many sectors as possible. TLB is now recognized as a leading model for cooperation and stewardship in North America. The charity recognizes the value of ecological traditional knowledge and First Nations’ worldviews, and is the first organization to honour First Nation treaties. All of the work they do is in partnership with First Nations. This is achieved, in part, through a dedicated board position for a Curve Lake First Nations delegate. The TLB works entirely through the support of grants, donations, sponsorships and volunteers.

Among its many accomplishments, the TLB now has planning recognition by Environment Canada for the Trent-Severn Waterway and by Hastings and Simcoe Counties. It has been involved in 42 pioneering research projects and forums. In partnership with TVO, the organization produced a three-part television documentary that has reached viewers across the province and can be seen free-of-charge online at TVO.org. TLB has also produced a free mobile app, which provides a virtual tour of the region and explores everything from its special species and spaces to First Nation worldviews. CMO Leora Berman makes dozens of public presentations each year to schools and other groups throughout the region. These presentations highlight the unique habitats, rare species, sacred spaces, history, and relationships that define the TLB landscape.

Naturalization of shorelines with native plants is one of many TLB projects (photo by TLB)


The TLB chooses projects in seven action areas: fostering cooperative solutions, conserving biodiversity through landscape conservation priorities, sustaining water quality and fish habitats, supporting sustainable economic development, cultivating vibrant culture, enhancing education and engaging youth.

Since 2006, the TLB has worked with partners to protect and conserve turtles and turtle habitats as a major biodiversity focus. The organization works to locate road mortality sites, install turtle crossing signs and support the construction and location of road underpasses. These allow turtles to safely travel to and from nesting sites. One such installation was built recently by the Haliburton Land Trust. It consists of a culvert and a drift fence to guide the turtles through the underpass. Volunteers monitor the site seven days a week through May and June. So far, there have been numerous confirmed observations of turtles and other wildlife using the culvert.

TLB is also a founder and one of many partners involved the Turtle Guardians program, which is also dedicated to turtle conservation. The program’s focus area for workshops and events is The Land Between region, since it harbours the majority population of many of Ontario’s turtles. “Turtle Guardians” learn to identify, monitor and report turtle sightings and habitat features and then apply conservation and stewardship measures on their properties. To sign up as a Turtle Guardian, visit turtleguadians.com  As part of its focus on education and youth, TLB is working with the Trillium Lakeland School Board to deliver state-of-the art learning tools for teachers and students. Engaging students is at the heart of the work done by TLB.

This spring and summer, TLB is holding three workshops to help cottagers and other landowners design a shoreline garden. Participants will learn which plants attract hummingbirds and insect pollinators, reduce erosion, provide fish habitat and deter geese. The first workshop will be held at the Buckhorn Community Centre on April 22. You can pre-order shoreline starter kits at thelandbetween.ca   and pick them up at the workshop. Seating is limited.

Social focus

In an effort to foster cooperative solutions among stakeholders, TLB will organize Land Knowledge Circles, which are a time-honoured tradition of First Nations. They will bring together the everyday people who use the land – hunters, hikers, anglers, snowmobile and ATV enthusiasts, cottagers, nature-lovers, etc. – to share their perspectives, experiences and concerns. These circles emphasize collaborative learning, where participants are encouraged to regard themselves and their ideas as part of a community working towards a collective goal – in this case, a sustainable future for The Land Between region. To participate in a Land Knowledge Circle, please visit www.knowledgecircle.ca

The Land Between is a meeting place where city dwellers, many of whom are cottagers and nature enthusiasts, rub shoulders with year-round residents. This sometimes creates friction, because of the differences in worldview that may arise: liberals vs. conservatives, hunters vs. environmentalists, Settlers vs. First Nation people, etc. However, the coming together of people with different values can also be a source of greater understanding and wisdom. With this in mind, TLB has produced a film in collaboration with Wildlife Habitat Canada. Entitled “My First Shot”, it explores hunting heritage and from a First Nations’ perspective. The film follows Erin Carmody, a left-leaning environmentalist and former vegan, who goes hunting for the first time. Her fellow hunters include Gary Williams, former Chief of Curve Lake First Nation, Keith Hodgson, a member of the Haliburton Highlands Stewardship Council and Kim Roberts, a nurse’s aid and lover of wildlife. Erin’s experience is one of brave discussion, understanding, appreciation and respect for other perspectives on the natural world and for our relationship with it. Through her eyes, the movie explores hunting with a fresh and new perspective. The film showcases the contributions hunters have made to wildlife management and conservation. My First Shot will be presented in Haliburton in late April and in Lakefield in May. Screening dates and times will be posted at www.myfirstshot.ca

To learn more about The Land Between charity, sign up for their newsletter and support their conservation efforts, go thelandbetween.ca

Land trust & Kawartha Highlands P.P. trails

From the outset, the Kawartha Land Trust has been a key partner in TLB work. Many of its properties are located in this region. The Trust envisions a connected system of protected lands, and great strides have already been made in making this a reality. It was also instrumental in launching The Kawarthas, Naturally Connected initiative, the goal of which is to create a Natural Heritage System made up of connected areas that maintain our ecological, social, and economic values.  A Natural Heritage System is a network of connected natural features and areas such as wetlands, forests, river corridors, lakes, and meadows. You can read about the initiative at kawarthasnaturally.ca

A great way to familiarize yourself with The Land Between – or maybe see it with new eyes – is to walk the three interconnected Stony Lake Trails, which the land trust has worked to make publicly accessible. They are located near the west end of Northey’s Bay Road on the north shore of Stony Lake. The trails wind through mostly deciduous forest on the limestone bedrock of the St. Lawrence Lowlands (Blue Trail) and mixed forest on the Canadian Shield granite (Yellow and Red Trails). All of the trails provide great wildlife-watching possibilities and, in April and May, abundant spring wildflowers. Park at Viamede Resort or at 105 Reid’s Road. You can print out a trail map at kawarthalandtrust.org

There is also an interpretive trail in Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park, which was established by Ontario Parks with the help of the Buckhorn Trails Association. It, too, is a perfect rendering of The Land Between. The trailhead is at the parking lot/boat take out point off of County Road 36, just north of Buckhorn. At 1.5 km, it features several numbered sign posts.  The numbers align with brochures that contain information specific to that location.  Visitors can read as they travel along the trail, and learn about the story of the nearby Mississauga River, its history and how it is linked to settlement and the history of the Buckhorn area. This is the first interpretive trail in the Park and is proving very popular. To learn more and download a trail guide, go to buckhorntrails.wordpress.com/about/






Dec 122013

Moose hunt postmortemBull with the heart of lion enters hunt camp lore; why hunters aren’t engaged in climate change battle    

a stark beauty

a stark beauty

One of my reasons for taking part in a Moose hunt in northern Quebec this fall was to better understand why my friend, Raynald Pilon, has an almost obsessive love of Moose hunting. I was also interested in how he and other hunters feel about the future of “la chasse” and why there isn’t more of an outcry against the threat of climate change to our hunting and fishing heritage.

During several of our memorable meals, I took some time to ask both Raynald and his hunting partner, Claude Moisan, why they are so passionate about Moose hunting. The reasons they gave were many. Naturally, they mentionned the beautiful landscapes, the solitude, the camaraderie and the joy of simply getting away from everything. They also talked about the pleasure of returning year after year to the same hunting territory and really getting to know it intimately – everything from the specific habitats and locations the Moose frequent to the types of plants they eat. They also impressed upon me once again that the world of the Moose is incredibly complex and, to be a successful, a hunter needs to acquire many different skills. One of the most challenging is learning to reproduce the many sounds that Moose make and using them in the right context. Therefore, when your skills, patience and experience all come together and result in a successful hunt, there is a huge sense of satisfaction. The actual shooting and killing of the animal is only a tiny part of the whole.

Raynald also made the important point that Moose meat is wonderful. Not only is it a lean, but you would almost think you are eating a tender cut of beef. He explained that the quality of the meat depends to a large degree on following the correct procedures after the animal is killed. This is when the hard work begins. The carcass needs to be bled, emptied of internal organs and quartered as soon as possible. The quarters then have to be cooled down by providing as much air flow as possible around the meat. If they make a kill late in the day or far from the camp, Raynald and Claude often build a platform from small tree trunks for this purpose. The quarters are then placed on the platform. A day or two later, they bring them back to camp by boat or ATV to hang in a meat house they have constructed. The quarters are then flown out by float plane and prepared by a butcher.

Moose antlers on outside wall of camp (Drew Monkman)

Moose antlers on outside wall of camp (Drew Monkman)

Richard the Lionhearted

As you can well imagine, Raynald and Claude have intense, detailed memories of hunts past, including how they found each animal, killed it, retrieved the meat and even named it. The prospect of experiencing new, equally-memorable adventures is therefore a big part of why they return each year.

Maybe the most remarkable story they told me was about a bull they called Richard the Lionhearted. Named both for its “heart” (i.e., never giving up) and the atypical, almost lion-like grunting sounds it made, they first encountered Richard in 1991. Unfortunately for Richard, they had just killed the cow that he was courting. As they paddled up to the shore where the cow lay   – it was already dark by this time – they were startled by loud, unmoose-like grunts emanating out of the darkness right beside them. Claude remembers the hair on the back of his neck literally standing on end. The banging and splashing of the animal’s hooves on the rocks in the shallow water spoke volumes of its imposing size. Standing just metres away in the glare of the flashlight, this was one mad Moose. Raynald thought the animal was going to charge the canoe at any second. Only after they started yelling and banging paddles did the enraged Moose reluctantly retreat.

The following autumn, they came across Richard once again. Raynald heard the bull’s distinctive grunts coming from high on a hill. He managed to approach the animal and found it “talking” back and forth with a cow. However, the two Moose took off before he could get a shot. About a week later, while paddling to one of the blinds, he heard and saw them again. This time Raynald was able to take a clear shot, and the bull appeared to drop to the ground. However, being a neophyte hunter and wanting to get help, he paddled down the lake and got Claude. When they arrived back, the Moose was no where to be seen. Naturally, they began looking for it. Claude walked along the shoreline, while Raynald took a parallel route further up the hill. Claude was the first to see the injured Moose and shot at it from behind. Raynald, hearing the shot, looked down the hill and saw it standing motionless. He, too, took a shot, and the bull collapsed to the ground. Without thinking, the two of them ran up to the animal, put down their rifles and hugged each other in celebration. This is not something they would ever do again. All of a sudden, the never-say-die   bull sprang to its feet and bolted through heavy bush out into the shallow water of the bay. Despite the heavy dose of adrenaline coursing through his veins, Raynald somehow managed to get off a shot but Richard kept on going. Only when he stumbled out of the water on the far shore did a fifth and final bullet bring him down for good. As you can well imagine, they haven’t come up against a mightier, tenacious Moose since. Readers should note that this type of hunting scenario is very rare. Usually, only one or two shots are sufficient to kill a Moose and any suffering is minimal. In fact, death at the hands of a hunter is probably more humane than how these animals usually die, namely from disease, starvation or a predator.

Future of hunting

I also talked to Raynald and Claude about what concerns them most with regard to the future of hunting. Clearly, their biggest worry is the lack of recruitment of young people. They both told me that even their own children are only mildly interested. Not only does this bode poorly for the future of hunting but also for the future of the wildlife and wildlands that hunting organizations help to maintain.

Claude with cow shot this fall (Raynald Pilon)

Claude with cow shot this fall (Raynald Pilon)

I also brought up something that has bothered me for years. Why doesn’t the hunting and angling community speak out more forcefully when it comes to the issue of climate change? I’m not sure that my friends could really answer this question other than to say that hunters tend to be very individualistic and are not big fans of government intervention and regulations. A couple of days ago, I talked to Dawn Suce, a biologist at the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) about this concern. She explained to me that OFAH representatives do indeed sit on numerous provincial committees that work to promote biodiversity and adaptation to a changing climate. She also spoke about the many “on the ground” conservation initiatives that the organization carries out. As commendable as this is, what I find lacking are strong public pronouncements and lobbying by organizations like OFAH about the crucial importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I would have thought that hunters and anglers themselves would be demanding action in this regard simply out of their own self-interest. Climate change is posed to transform the face of hunting and fishing utterly and entirely. To give just one example, Moose populations across the southern part of their range (e.g., Manitoba, New Hampshire, Minnesota) are plummeting as a result of winter tick infestations. Many biologists believe that this phenomenon is almost certainly linked to a warming climate. If hunters only realized that politicians, especially at the federal level, are selling them out and putting their hunting and angling heritage at risk – as well as their children’s future – they would be screaming from the rooftops for action.

Some of you may be asking yourself whether we ended up getting a Moose this fall. The answer is yes, but 24 hours after I left! Raynald shot a cow not far from one of the blinds where I had spent an entire day. As much as I regret having not been there to see all that happens after a kill, at least I dodged the existential crisis of having a Moose present itself in front of me and forcing me to decide “do I shoot or not?”


More pictures of the Moose hunt can be seen in the Photos section of this website.




Dec 032013

Heavy bodied and long-legged, Moose (Alces alces) are the largest inhabitants of the boreal forest. A mature bull can easily weigh 1000 lbs and measure almost seven feet tall at the top of the back hump. In late September, Moose are in rut – a period of high sexual energy as aggressive bulls compete for cows. It is also the time of year when Moose hunters across Canada head to the woods. This fall, thanks to my friend, Raynald Pilon,  and his hunting partner, Claude Moisan, I got to go along. Our destination was Rene-Levasseur Island on the huge Manicouagan Reservoir of northeastern Quebec.

Raynald imitating the call of a cow Moose

Raynald imitating the call of a cow Moose

Moose hunting involves far more than I ever imagined. First and foremost, Raynald and Claude impressed upon me the importance of being quiet. Moose have extremely acute hearing, along with the ability to pin point the exact location of any sound. It is therefore necessary to keep conversation to a minimum, whisper when you really need to say something and wear clothing such as wool and synthetic fleece that doesn’t make unnatural sounds. Gore-Tex, polyesters and even jeans can be quite noisy and are to be avoided. If a Moose hears something that is not part of the natural soundscape, it won’t be sticking around for long. However, noises such as branches breaking do not arouse suspicion. They are sounds that Moose are used to, as are the various vocalizations that these majestic mammals make.

For hunters, being able to accurately imitate the Moose’s different calls is an essential skill. Claude and Raynald both use a traditional birch bark cone for this purpose. The cone serves to greatly amplify their voices. They mimic both the short, throaty grunts – a sort of “ouuahhhh” – of the bull and the longer-lasting plaintive moans of the cow. The wail of a cow in heat can be heard for several kilometres in calm weather. Bulls within hearing distance will move towards her, making grunting sounds as they approach. However, the bull knows he’s not the only suitor with sex on the brain and fully expects to see and hear other males. By imitating the grunts, the hunter can therefore entice a bull to present itself, since the animal assumes there is probably a female nearby as well. Claude was particularly addicted to mimicking Moose grunts and couldn’t stop making the sound, even back at camp during supper!

Claude spraying synthetic urine

Claude spraying synthetic urine

To further advertise his presence to opponents, the bull will aggressively thrash small trees and shrubs with his antlers. As you might expect, hunters do this, too. Claude actually had a section of antler from a previous hunt that he used for this purpose. If there is a Moose in the vicinity and it hears these thrashing sounds, it is likely to come in to investigate.  If two bulls should actually meet while courting a female, they will sometimes spar with one another. More often, however, the bull with the smaller antlers simply retreats without a fight.

Moose also have an incredibly keen sense of smell. During the rut, a bull will often dig a muddy pit in which he urinates. He will then lie in the pit to “perfume” himself.  The scent will not only attract cows but serves to advertise his presence to other bulls. The urine of a cow in heat is also a powerful attractant. And yes, hunters take advantage of this, too. I watched in bewilderment as Raynald and Claude sprayed synthetic Moose urine on rags, which they had attached to small trees around their hunting blinds. This is powerful stuff. I ended up getting a bit on a glove and I can still smell it.

The Daily Routine

The blind at the south end of Lac Fourchette

The blind at the south end of Lac Fourchette

We got up each morning at about 6 a.m., had a copious breakfast, dressed warmly – the temperatures was 3-8 C most days and there was often rain – and were out into the field by 7:30 most days. We didn’t return to camp until dark, since Moose are often quite active late in the day. Claude hunted from one of five blinds or stands – small, elevated, wooden shelters with windows on three sides – that he and Raynald have constructed over the years. Hunting from a blind mostly involves sitting quietly and hoping that an animal will present itself – possibly lured in by the calls, thrashing and scents described above. Raynald, however, prefers to actually stalk the animals. I had the pleasure of accompanying him one day to see how this is done.

Walking slowly through the woods and often along well-trodden trails used by the Moose, we stopped every minute or so to look and especially to listen. On a calm day, it’s possible to hear the grunts, moans or breaking branches made by a Moose at considerable distances.  We also kept an eye out for signs of recent Moose activity such as fresh tracks, droppings, rubbed tree trunks or browsed willow twigs. On several occasions, Raynald also used his voice and cone to imitate the wail of a cow Moose. Over the course of the day, we walked – and, in one section, paddled – at least five kilometres through bogs, alder swamps, over Beaver dams and across a huge area that had succumbed to a forest fire in 2005. Negotiating our way through the obstacle course of fallen, charred trees was quite the challenge. Fortunately, we had a hand-held GPS to help with direction.  Although we didn’t find any Moose – or even any recent signs – there was always something of interest to photograph or identify. We inspected several piles of wolf scat, flushed Spruce Grouse, ate big handfuls of delicious blueberries, and were always surrounded by stunningly beautiful scenery. As Raynald explained to me, the pleasure of “la chasse fine” – as it is called in French – comes from putting all of your knowledge of Moose behaviour to the test, as well as your physical stamina and powers of concentration and patience. There is also the aesthetic pleasure of being so closely in touch with the land. All of this makes the satisfaction of an eventual kill all the greater.

The blind in the NE arm of Lac Fourchette

The blind in the NE arm of Lac Fourchette

Whereas Raynald stalk hunted most days, Claude and I would usually each take a canoe and head off to separate blinds in different arms of the lake. In addition to a rifle, I took along binoculars, a camera, various field guides and a journal. Being able to spend an entire day in one location simply watching, listening and experiencing total solitude was a rare treat. Here are a few extracts from my journal.

07:50 – Arrive at watch in NE fork of Lac Fourchette. Sunny and clear. Beautiful juxtaposition of the dark green of the Black Spruce,  smoky gold of the Tamarack and lemon yellow of the White Birch.

08:01 – Pair of loons arrive on bay.

08:10 – Red Squirrel scolds loudly. Probably upset by my presence.

09:15 – Notice several Beaver lodges along the shore. One has winter food pile with leaves still on branches.

View from northeast blind

View from the NE blind

10:00 – Surprisingly loud, squeaky whistles of a Gray Jay. Lands on salt lick.

11: 18 – Common Raven flies over, calling loudly.

12:00 – Sun is finally warm. Removed a couple of layers of clothes.

14:00 – Go for a walk. See Brook Trout in stream. Try to identify some of the mosses and lichens.

15:03 – Utter quiet except for wind, waves lapping up on shore and rattling of windows in the blind.

15:57 – Sun is now in the western sky. Birches shining golden in its rays.

18:00 – Head back to camp. Silence of electric motor allows me to get within 10 feet of Beaver with aspen twigs in its mouth.

A glimpse inside the hunt camp

A glimpse inside the hunt camp

Each day concluded with a magnificent meal – usually Moose meat, courtesy of the animal they killed last year. We also enjoyed one of Raynald’s Landlocked Salmon from the Manicouagan and Claude’s smoked Brook Trout, taken from Lac Fourchette this past July. Then, over a glass of port, the two long-time hunting partners regaled me with stories of past hunts such as one very memorable bull, “Richard the Lionhearted.”

Pretending to be a Moose hunter

Pretending to be a Moose hunter!

More about him next week.

Nov 212013

A naturalist on the Moose hunt – part one

Raynald and Claude in front of the hunt camp

Claude (left) and Raynald in front of the hunt camp

I had rarely experienced such intense silence. Yes, there were sounds, but they were the sounds of undisturbed nature – the whispering of spruce and birch swaying in the wind, the harsh chatter of a disgruntled Red Squirrel and the loud whistles of a Gray Jay. This was the resonance of nature at its most natural – a soundscape that is nearly impossible to find these days. Obtrusive, man-made sounds were completely absent, save the passing of a float plane once or twice a day. But there was one group of sounds in particular that I was hoping to hear – the grunting, moaning and thrashing of Moose during the rut.

In mid-September, I made the 1500 kilometre trip to the Manicouagan Reservoir in northeastern Quebec to experience a Moose hunt. This man-made lake is located at approximately 51 degrees north latitude, between Baie Comeau and the Labrador border. The hunt camp itself is on l’Ile Rene-Levasseur, a huge island in the centre of the lake. The lake and island are clearly visible from space and are sometimes called the “eye of Quebec.” For many years, my friend Raynald Pilon, a physician in Fermont, Quebec, had regaled me with stories of his annual Moose hunt, the incredible emotions involved and the stark beauty of the boreal forest landscape. This year, I was invited to come and join Raynald and his long-time hunting companion, Claude Moisan, to see why they are so passionate about la “chasse a l’orignal.”

Some people may be surprised that I should want to take part in a hunt. However, I have never been opposed to most types of sustainable hunting. I also don’t want to be a hypocrite. I still eat red meat on occasion and realize that someone has to kill the animal. Hunters simply eliminate this middle man. Secondly, I would probably never have become a naturalist if it wasn’t for a hunter. The late Maurice Clarkson, a well-known Peterborough physician and avid duck hunter, was also a very knowledgeable birder. He used to take me and his son, Peter, on bird-watching outings and taught us a lot about identification.

One of the world’s most influential ecologists and environmentalists, Aldo Leopold, enjoyed hunting, too. In his famous book “A Sand County Almanac” (1949), there is a wonderful essay on Ruffed Grouse hunting entitled “Smoky Gold.” Beautifully composed, Leopold describes his love of season, of trees – especially the smoky gold Tamaracks of October – and his love of grouse hunting. Not only have his ethics of nature and wildlife preservation had a profound impact on the environmental movement but reading Aldo Leopold was largely what inspired me to write my first book, “Nature’s Year in the Kawarthas.”

Hunting, for most of our evolutionary history, was the way in which humans experienced nature. Only in recent decades have large numbers of us had the luxury of the free time and resources to enjoy the natural world as mostly a leisure pursuit. Still, I am well aware that hunters and naturalists/environmentalists are often at odds with one another. I was therefore hoping that by experiencing a Moose hunt, I would discover more about what these two groups have in common and where they differ.

Stark but beautiful landscape

Stark but beautiful landscape

Having taught in this part of Quebec for two years in the late 1970s, I knew that rediscovering the flora and fauna of the boreal forest would be a treat in itself. Moose or no Moose, I would not be bored. As Raynald and I made the one hour hike from his main camp on the shore of Rene-Levasseur Island to his smaller hunting and fishing camp on Lac Fourchette, it was like reacquainting myself with old friends. I had forgotten just how different the boreal forest is from the forests we are used to in the Kawarthas. First of all, thee vast majority of the trees are conifers, with Black Spruce the dominant species. There are also smaller pockets of White Spruce, Balsam Fir, Tamarack (Larch) and Jack Pine.  As for broad-leaved species, these are limited to scattered stands of Trembling Aspen and White Birch.

But the understory is what I find most interesting. It is made up primarily of shrubs in the Ericaceae family (heathers), a group of flowering plants most common acid and infertile growing conditions. These include abundant Labrador Tea, Sheep-laurel and Blueberry. This year, the Blueberries were so heavily laden with fruit that you could literally pull off a handful with one swipe of the hand. Other common understory species include Bunchberry (its red berries almost looking like drops of blood on the ground), Swamp Birch, Swamp Red Currant, Twinflower, Squashberry, Black Chokeberry, Mountain Alder, Speckled Alder, willows, cranberries and a host of different mosses and lichens.  In fact, the mosses and lichens form a vast, mattress-like green carpet over the forest floor that almost beckons you to lie down and have a nap. Sorting out all of the different species, however, will have to wait for a future trip.


Beaver lodge south of  Lac Fourchette

Beaver lodge south of Lac Fourchette

It is estimated that the avian population of the boreal represents 60% of the landbirds in all of Canada. However, by mid-September, the majority of these have already departed for more southern climes.  The species I saw and heard most often was the Gray Jay, also known as the Canada Jay. Most days, we also encountered Spruce Grouse, Dark-eyed Juncos, Golden-crowned Kinglets and White-throated Sparrows. A Common Raven occasionally passed over and both a Bald Eagle and Northern Goshawk put in an appearance. Migrating flocks of American Robins and Bohemian Waxwings were also seen on several occasions. On Lac Fourchette, a family group of Common Loons kept us company, as did three Common Mergansers. As for mammals, Red Squirrels were a constant presence and Beaver ponds, dams and lodges were everywhere. Judging by the amount of scat we saw, Gray Wolves were certainly in the area, as well. Some of the scat contained bones as big as quarters. Most importantly for our purposes, however, the island also has a healthy Moose population. Raynald and Claude kill a bull, cow or calf most years and signs of Moose activity are usually fairly easy to find. We were therefore watching closely for recent tracks, droppings, browsed shrubs and both rubs and scrapes on tree bark.

The camp itself was quite a site, especially for the uninitiated like me. A huge rack of Moose antlers adorned one of the exterior walls and, to keep bears out, an “unwelcome mat” of upward pointing nails was placed in front of the door. The windows were covered with steel bars. Inside, there was another, even larger, rack of antlers, a dining area and a bedroom with bunks. The table, counters, chairs, walls, beds and floor were littered with everything you could conceivably need to have a comfortable, safe and successful hunt. I think this is when I fully realized just how far out of my comfort zone I had wandered. Not only do I know relatively little about rifles and hunting, but I’m not terribly technically-minded. Here I was immersed in a world of outdoor motors, batteries of all kinds, chargers, generators, gun paraphernalia, walkie-talkies, satellite phones, GPSs and esoteric talk of hunting techniques. What was most intimidating, however, was having to quickly familiarize myself with hunt camp rituals and do’s and don’ts dating back 30 years – and all of this in French. To add another twist, it was the first time a third person had joined Raynald and Claude on the hunt. And not just any third person, but an Anglais who’s not a hunter! I had set myself up to feel, well, kind of dumb.

Raynald with head of bull shot in 2012 (photo by Claude Moisan)

Raynald with head of bull Moose shot in 2012 (photo by Claude Moisan)

There was also a moral dilemma that I had not yet addressed. Raynald explained to me that we would each be hunting separately and that there was every possibility that I might encounter a Moose on my own. I was therefore provided with a gun. What would I do? Would I shoot and probably feel guilty about having killed such a majestic animal? But, the implications of not shooting were grave, as well. The last thing these guys wanted was for me to come waltzing in the door at the end of the day to show them some beautiful Moose photos. Yes, this was serious business and I was expected to do my part in assuring a successful hunt. To be continued