Friday, January 30, 2009

Howling in the Night

Coyote leaving its den

One of the most popular cartoons in the 1960s was the "Roadrunner". Its cast of characters was limited to Wiley Coyote and the bird. Always after the "beep-beeping" fowl, Wiley always failed miserably--often painfully. But he has the last laugh.

Currently, his kind is firmly established in New York. The Department of Environmental Conservation estimates 25,000 of 'em live here. The only roadrunner you'll see is on bill boards.
Shy, modest, blessed with superior sense--and senses--coyotes were considered God's dog by Indians west of the Mississippi. Their remarkable journey East indicates heaven favors the beasts.

First appearing in the state around 1920, the eastern coyote filled the vacuum created when our wolves were hunted to extinction.

In the span of a human lifetime, they've multiplied almost miraculously. You see, fully 30 percent larger than their western kin--the result of breeding with Canadian timber wolves, their natural enemies--our eastern variety resembles wolves and has been hunted with the same prejudice. Unlike wolves, however, coyotes are solitary, hanging out in family groups consisting of couples and their young pups. When the kids grow up, they're run out of the territory, and end up traveling for up to 100 miles in search of their own turf.

This independence and wanderlust allows their numbers to prosper when the population is stressed through heavy predation.

Today, they rank as one of the state's most popular furbearers.

Best of all, they're a great remedy for cabin fever. When the NFL's last touchdown of the year has been made and the road to the Final Four comes to an end, coyotes are howling at the moon, daring you to come out and get one.

Oswego County is loaded with the beasts. Lance Clark, wildlife biologist for DEC Region 7, says they're pretty evenly distributed throughout the county. However, they're easier to hunt west of I-81, because the greater abundance of farmland, brush and lowlands makes getting at them easier for mortal hunters.

They're taken in one of three ways: trapping, hunting with dog packs, or by a single hunter calling them in.

The latter is the most personal and popular technique, and offers some of hunting's greatest excitement.

Go for them by decking yourself out in camo-they have great vision. Find an area in heavy brush--you want to be where they feel comfortable--and mask your scent with a circle of film canisters filled with cotton soaked in bobcat, rabbit or red fox urine. Set a varmint decoy to the side to draw the coyote's attention, and use a game call like Quaker Boy's Cottontail Screamer to send out a distress signal. After communicating for a few minutes, hush up and keep your eyes peeled for the coyote.

If one doesn't show in an hour or so, move and start over again.

Coyotes howling in the hills are a marvelous throwback to more primitive times. By heading out into snowy woods to get one, you join their celebration and participate in one of life's most enduring symphonies.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Antlers in the Snow

Susan Douglas of Phoenix finds half of a six point rack.

Standing on the wrap-around porch, preparing to open the door to a listing she was showing me, Marvella Oberg, a real estate agent specializing in waterfront, looked out over the steep valley cut by the creek running through the backyard and exclaimed: "winter woods are extremely beautiful."

My eyes swept over the crystal clear water slicing through snow covered banks, over the gray slush clinging to submerged boulders, and slowly ran up the side of the hill. Reaching the upright below me, I caught a glint of sunlight. Going down for a closer look I found it was reflecting off the tine of a perfectly formed antler; the right side of an eight pointer's shed. I put in a purchase offer for the house right then and there.

What else could I do? It was obvious the buck survived 2008 and would be in my neck of the woods come opening day 2009 -- only bigger.

But that's in the distant future. If my offer is accepted, I'll be extending my deer season well into spring by scouting the area for deer patterns. While I'm at it, rest assured I'll be hunting for the left half of that rack.

You see, white-tails shed their antlers every winter. When the rut ends, so does the need to impress does and to fight other bucks for bragging rights to harems. Becoming added weight the deer doesn't need during winter's harsh conditions, its body stops sending testosterone to the horns, drying their link to the nubs on the skull, and the rack falls off, generally when the buck hits branches, tree trunks and other stuff with it.

The shedding process only takes two to three weeks; new antlers take all summer to grow.

Deer enthusiasts aren't the only ones to go after the sheds. Rodents nibble on them for calcium. Cross-country skiers and snowshoers look for them to add trophies to their workouts.

Don't just enter woods expecting to score. Oh sure, you might get lucky and find an antler out in the open, like on a logging trail. But your best bet is to locate where the deer eat, drink, and, the most productive spot of all, where they bed down.

Next time you're hoofin' it through the wilds, follow a deer trail. When it goes into bedding areas like thick pines, brush or stands of young trees, or crosses an open spring, start searching.

Shed hunting is a lot like deer hunting; the critter doesn't always show himself entirely.

Extremely skittish by nature, bucks move excruciatingly slowly by our standards. The most successful hunters scan the woods looking for pieces of the deer, usually antlers first, to emerge from behind trees or brush. Similarly, winter sheds are covered with snow, so concentrate on finding a piece of tine, which is usually all that's exposed.

A good way for novice shed searchers to get started is to drive along country roads and keep an eye on fields. When you spot a herd, go back, search the edge where it meets the forest, and follow the trails in.

Snowy woods have a special appeal. Robert Frost wrote a poem about it. Snowshoers and cross country skiers indulge in it. By paying attention to the ground you stand a chance of coming home with a great memory and trophy without ever firing a shot.