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One of the best things about spending long hours in the woods during deer season is all the stuff you can learn about the birds and animals you are not hunting. For example, most hunters know that it’s a good idea to get into position well before sunrise in order to catch deer enroute to their bedding areas. This happens often enough to make it a worthwhile practice, but most November mornings the woodland traffic consists more of birds, small mammals, waterfowl and the ubiquitous ravens, which are often the only company a pre-dawn hunter will have all day.
I like to get to my hunting spots early because I like to hear the woods wake up in the morning. The night shift (owls, mink, foxes and other predators) come by for one last look around before they find a safe place to snooze all day, and no sooner are they gone than the day shift shows up. Most woodland dawns are greeted first by nuthatches and wrens, but if turkeys are nearby it’s not unusual to hear them cluck and yelp before they leave the roost for a long day of pecking and scratching – sounding so much like an approaching deer that I have often had my rifle up and ready when they appeared over the nearest ridge. Thrilling and disappointing at once, a group of turkeys in November is still a grand sight to see, especially when no deer are around. (Be alert, however, for the wise, old buck that likes to accompany a flock of turkeys because he knows they’ll see or hear trouble long before he would).
Crows are likely to show up just as the sun peeks over the horizon, cawing with vigor at having survived another night on the roost.
Lately I’ve been hearing the lusty, strident cries of mallard ducks, which sound for all the world as if they are laughing at some inside joke or punch line that only they know. I sometimes wonder if they know I’m out there, sitting in the wrong place – with the wind at my back and the sun in my face – and they find my lame attempts at outwitting a big buck outrageously funny. It seems as if every time I conjure up a clever thought about where I should be the duck starts laughing again, more derisively than last time. I’m sure my whereabouts and plans have nothing to do with a duck on the marsh, but spend 12 hours in the woods every day and you start to wonder if they know something you don’t!
If ever there were an annoyance in the woods, at least from a deer hunter’s point of view, it’s got to be a fat gray squirrel going about his business. Big enough to make some serious noise in the forest litter, every hunter out there has at least one squirrel story to tell: “I thought it was a big buck coming my way till I saw the squirrel jump up on a log just 20 yards away!” One tip: make sure it is a squirrel before you let your guard down. Once in 100 times it will be that buck you are waiting for, so always verify every sound you hear. Many a whitetail owes its life to a hunter who decided that scuffling in the leaves he heard was just another squirrel headed his way.
Most of the woodland critters that happen by during the course of a November day will come and go rather quickly, offering the hunter a pleasing glance into the day-to-day maneuverings of the furred and feathered denizens of the forest. Some, however, tend to spend long periods in one place, quickly graduating from interesting interlude to annoying aggravation.
Leading the pack (in my corner of the woods, anyway) is the remarkably common pileated woodpecker. Big as a crow, colorful and almost tame, the pileated woodpecker was the model for the cartoon Woody the Woodpecker – fast, loud and gregarious! At first the birds are exciting to see, especially when they swoop in from nowhere and land on a dead tree just yards away. How they manage to hop upwards (from a vertical position) is a question to ponder as they hammer and dig for insects inside the punky bark of the rotted tree.
All this is fun to watch until they start to utter their surprisingly loud, laughing call. Sounds great once or twice, but after dozens of repetitions it’s tempting to stand up and shoo them away. Unfortunately, when a pileated woodpecker finds a dead tree that is full of bugs, he’ll holler enthusiastically about it for hours. The bad news is that this activity may well attract one or two more woodpeckers, which then spend the morning or afternoon hammering and yelling for all they are worth. The noise is deafening and, as far as I know, not attractive to deer, so the hunter has two choices: wait it out or move. If you wait long enough (several hours in some cases) the birds will go away, but if you move, they may well follow you – dead trees are everywhere and so are those pesky woodpeckers!
Bad as those big old birds can be for a hunter hoping for a quiet sit near a swampy thicket, the red squirrel (a smaller, friskier version of the gray squirrel) is even worse. Normally too busy and active to bother with that lump sitting on that stump over there, the curious red squirrel misses nothing. If, in his travels, he suddenly notices the cringing hunter, he will utter a loud chirp ad then sit on a cozy limb close to the trunk of a spruce or cedar and bark at the intruder for what seems like hours. Some will give up after a few minutes and proceed with their day, but others will keep it up till, A: You get up and move away, or B: You get up and move away!
I have found that if I actually get up and move the noisy chipmunks and squirrels will be satisfied and go bother someone else. But, if I try to sit it out and hope they get bored it may be an hour or more before they decide I am not a threat. Sitting there fuming with a deer rifle in my hands I beg to differ, but I know they are only doing what comes naturally, and that’s exactly what I am out there to see.
If only deer were so curious and persistent!
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