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Our DFW Budget, Changing Times and Game Bird Psychology

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 17, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

I remember thinking that The Old Man (my father) had some sort of magic power, the way he could look around and describe changes new decades would bring. Now that I’m him, I see it’s just the way the world works – change is the only constant we can count on in our lifetimes.

Cousin Ron and I grew up together. He was in Yakima, Washington. I was in East Wenatchee, Washington. We were inseparable for months of every year. We often lament that we had, in the 1950s, the best hunting and fishing Washington ever enjoyed. When I remind him of the changes we’ve seen, his standard response is, “Well, if I was in charge we’d just roll back the game and fish regulations to 1955 and everything would be fine!”

It isn’t that simple, of course. In the decades since our youth, the state’s population has exploded, federal and tribal relationships have become integral parts of wildlife management, cost of that management has steadily risen, less ground is left for wildlife habitat, woodlands have become surrounded by humans and water quality has suffered. Maybe someone has a way to roll us back to “simpler” and cheaper times, but I have yet to meet that person.

Our liveliest discussions, I think, are around the great bird hunting we found across the state. Yes, there are good opportunities today to hunt chukars, quail and pheasants, but they pale in comparison to the days when farmers could spare some cover ground and Washington’s Fish and Wildlife had hatcheries rearing and releasing birds into that good habitat. Ron is still cranky about the closing of hatcheries (both bird and fish operations), and with the annual $30 million-plus deficit our Department of Fish and Wildlife is facing next year, he’ll have more to chew on.

In the late 40s and early 50s, there were lots of birds – not because Game and Fish had decreed that there would be lots of birds, but because there were places for the birds to hide and nest and live. Orchards still had brush piles no one got around to clearing, and field fence rows were tangles of brush and weeds perfect for nesting. There were wild berries and roses. A good many, if not most, of those birds were wild-hatched birds.

In the late 50s, The Old Man and I would grab his old J.C. Higgins bolt-action 12-gauge, wander off into the orchards around the East Wenatchee home we had so lovingly built, and within an hour, we’d have a couple roosters and quail for the table. His powers of prognostication still left me wondering a bit. “This will be very different when you’re grown up, son…” [Yeah. The house we built is now under Costco and most of the orchards and fields have transmogrified into single-family homes…] Our lives and pleasures change with time; it’s as true now as it was then.

As human populations and habitat changed, bird numbers dropped. That “rearing and releasing” stuff became a big activity for states all over the U.S. Today, it simply isn’t economically feasible. The rearing of game birds is now handled by a limited number of bird farms. For decades, the Kittitas County Field and Stream Club raised game birds for release around Paradise, but that stopped at the end of the last Century. For a time, the Club bought and released hundred of birds from select hatcheries. No more.

Still, I enjoyed working the waning years of the Club’s rearing efforts, taking my turns feeding pheasants, Huns and chukars at the game farm. I saw much of that time as a course in bird psychology. I miss feeding and studying those birds. Interesting critters. Some, I thought, were fully capable of stacking the deck against predators or hunters.

Here, then, are my thoughts on the psychology of the birds I fed, and the little California quail outside the pens..

The quail, I thought, were little snots. They would stand just outside the pens, daring any bird inside to fight them. They would pick up loose feed, staying just out of reach of a peck through the fence. As I moved up, they would melt into the weeds with that patented smooth hustle.

Before I even touched the entry gate, the Huns were at the far end of the run, and nervous. This caution, I figured, would help them make more Huns over the years.

As I entered the pens, the chukars would scoot away, in an ant-like single file. At a safe distance, they would calmly stand until I left. They were almost imperturbable, but always alert to my movements. I sensed that they had decided, before I even drove up, which way they would go if I got too close. These guys had my number; they were hatched with it.

The pheasants, on the other hand, were mostly goofballs – and nervous wrecks. I always moved slowly and cautiously, but it did not matter. (They are, after all, just long-tailed chickens.) Any false move and they=d be off and flying in any direction. They never seemed to think about where they were going, they just went. Consequently, there were numerous fence-jousts. And, maybe, that pheasants-going-any-which-way thing is why we enjoy hunting them.

As chair of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association’s Bird Psychology Subcommittee, I’m required to share those observations. I leave it to you to assign value, although it seems beneficial to have a handle on the psychology of wild things – even if it is just game bird pop-psycho-babble.

Oh, yes. That “change” business. DFW is facing a big hole and we are going to have to help fill it. We’ll discuss how that might happen next week.

Happy summer.

Coming Up on Swift Time

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 10, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

Chimney swifts, common in the central and eastern portions of the US, are widely celebrated for their habit of nesting in chimneys and spiraling “home” at dusk. In the western US, we have our Vaux’s swift, which uses chimneys at migration time, but prefers hollow trees for nesting. Our smaller swift occupies the Pacific Northwest up into northern BC, and it is every bit as entrancing as its eastern cousin. With its communal spirals into evening roosts during migration, it is now preparing to head south. My birding homeys calling these coming weeks “swift time.”

The Bird Identification Subcommittee of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association requires the information below. Its name is English, with a hard “x” as in “box,” in honor of William S. Vaux, compliments of John K. Townsend, a contemporary of Audubon.

The scientific name for Vaux’s swift is Chaetura vauxi. It is the smallest swift in North America. Both sexes are about 4.3 inches long, with narrow wings spanning 11 inches, weights to three-quarters of an ounce and a wide mouth. It is generally seen only in its rapid flight and is widely described as “a cigar with wings.” Both sexes are brownish-gray overall, with lighter rump and breast areas. Its short tail is squared off at the end, not notched. It forages in flight over clearings and ponds and streams, on flying insects and the occasional spider.

The birds arrive here in late April and early May. Nesting is often communal, by the hundreds or thousands, in coniferous or mixed forest, although they will be found below the lower tree-line in residential areas here in the east. The dramatic, spiraling, headlong rush into the roost tree or chimney at nightfall is what enthralls birders and observers.

Cupped nests are of small twigs or evergreen needles broken off in flight and glued to the walls of hollow tree snags (rarely in a chimney) with sticky saliva. Our small swifts can only perch vertically and must cling to hollowed out trees or old, generally pre-1940, chimneys (newer chimneys have linings which do not allow good claw holds). Those strong sharp claws enable the birds to easily move around on vertical surfaces to manage nesting and resting. Both parents will brood the four to seven white eggs (just under three-quarters of an inch long). Young will hatch in two to three weeks and will leave the nest at three weeks. Both parents – and other swifts – will feed the youngsters small balls of insects.

Vaux’s will winter south in California and on into Central Mexico, leaving the eastern portion of the state over the next few weeks. By late October, they will be gone from the other side of the Cascades, too. Our swifts are just now at the beginning stages of gathering numbers and spiraling into temporary roosts at dusk all over the Northwest. THAT is what makes this “swift time!”

This swift time is a big deal on several levels. People are dazzled by those spiraling roosting birds, of course. The birds eat significant numbers of insects we see as pests personally and commercially. And those old chimneys are disappearing; with their loss comes serious concerns about the apparently shrinking numbers of our western swifts.

Since the 1980s, perhaps the largest celebration of Vaux’s swifts happens in Portland during the September-long “Swift Watch” at the Chapman School. As many as 2,000 people will gather of an evening to watch thousands of the tiny, noisy, birds “swooping and swirling like a cloud of pulsating black ink as they circle a tall brick chimney silhouetted by the fading light.” Folks from as far away as Europe will sit or lie with blankets and picnic baskets, cheering a flock of swifts pouring into the school’s chimney “like water spiraling down a drain!” The tradition is so embedded in Portland lore that the little Vaux’s swift is the Chapman School mascot. Find more, including counts of birds (by date) and info about the Portland Audubon’s activities during its Swift Watch at audubonportland.org/local-birding/swiftwatch.

Learn more about the swifts of Paradise and where to watch. Larry Schwitters, with Rainier Audubon, has a “Vaux Happening” site with several ways to learn and play. Check it out at www.vauxhappening.org/. Seattle Audubon, at www.seattleaudubon.org/birdweb/, is worth your time, too (just punch in “Vaux’s Swift” and hear the sounds of these birds). For a broader view, see www.allaboutbirds.org (the Cornell Lab of Ornithology page). For hardcopy resources, check out The Birder’s Handbook by Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, Birds of North America by Robbins, Bruun and Zim, or any good field guide.

For many years, here in Ellensburg, Washington, we celebrated and counted Vaux’s swifts swirling into the chimneys of the old hospital (torn down – no more chimney) and Morgan Middle School (gone, also, with the remodel). You can still be dazzled by them as a few dozen spiral into the old chimney on the southeast corner Fitterer’s Furniture at the corner of 4th and Main. (See Monica Fletcher’s YouTube video from last October: “Vaux Swift Gathering Ellensburg…”) Watch from the Main Street sidewalk or that classy private parking lot, but be respectful of the private ground there. There are rumors of the swifts finding other chimneys here in town, but I can’t confirm them. There are, apparently, a couple good watching sites in Yakima – to be passed along in future columns.

We are witnessing first-hand the regional and national trend of lost and capped-over old chimneys. Many are looking for solutions, and that is another week’s discussion.

Two “Alaska” Tales

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 5, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

I bring you two stories from Alaska – one of the recent week and another spanning 55 years.

Story one. Homeys Bill Boyum and Jim Taylor and I returned Tuesday from this year’s run to Alaska’s Kenai River for sockeye salmon. For the days we were there, this was an “off” year, with only a fraction of the numbers of incoming fish we have seen over past years. The daily catch limit early on was three fish per day per person, but for our last day of fishing, Alaska slashed that to one. Be that as it may, we had an adventure. Herewith, a brief summary.

Day 1: Bill and I caught a sockeye each, with one pink and several dolly varden and rainbow trout. Day 2: Bill caught a sockeye and a pink. Day 3: Nobody caught a salmon, but released a few trout. (Let it here be noted tthat, while he had not caught a salmon, Jim was practicing the skills which fueled his long and successful coaching career with the youth of Ellensburg. Over and over it was pracice, observe, study, observe and practice.) Day 4: Bill catches a morning sockeye, Jim catches two. That evening Jim and I return to the base of the cliff, with its very narrow shore shelf and he hooks an 11-pound salmon. In getting Jim’s monster into the net, I leaned a step too far and ended up in the river. The fish left the net, which Jim grabbed, lest it float away. The fish was so fascinated with my demonstration of swimming toward shore in chest waders that it hung around as Jim pulled me back onto the shelf with the net. I then re-netted the fish between my legs. A fisherman upshore yelled, “First time I ever saw the fisherman netting the netter. Bravo!” (Thankfully, it was not cold.). Day 5: Jim and I brought our limit of two salmon back to the cabin. [Duly noted: Coach/Homey Jim Taylor was the only member of our party to catch any daily limits of salmon.]

Story two. On our second day in Alaska, I got word that Jim Erkel had died in his van near his property outside Wasilla, Alaska – a couple hours north of where we were fishing.

Jim and his family hit Denver in the early ‘60s, after teaching welding in Guam and Europe. We babysat his kids. He’d grown up in the fields and woodlands of Minnesota and South Dakota. We were brothers the moment we met. Arguably, most of the great adventures of my life happened when we were together.

I taught him about elk, antelope and mule deer hunting, but that was just a starting point. On a hunt, he might leave our comfortable elk or deer camp with a sleeping bag, rucksack and his old .32 Winchester carbine and return two days later needing help packing a deer and/or elk out of some distant forest. He did everything his own way. He taught me to live life in the here and now – though I was not always a great student.

At some point he and his wife parted ways, and he became evermore his own man. He never had much cash, but he got by. He owned a few apartments and, occasionally, lived in his beautiful duplex in the Colorado mountains (paid for by downstairs renters). He drove VW camper vans that he could rebuild in an afternoon alongside a road, and made most anything else he needed. He was fascinated with flight, flying, and WWII aircraft. He always had a plane – now two. He lived well on the game, fish and vegetables the earth provided. He wintered at his camp in Baja, Mexico or in Australia. He summered at his cabin near Wasilla, catching salmon and seafood, and reveling in the view of the lake outside his window. Transition time happened in Colorado or Texas or elsewhere. Always kind and curious, he was eager to find a woman with a similar soul, but found few takers. Sometimes I thought he was nuts. Often, I thought I was.

One example of high times with Erkel: Over a long Memorial Day weekend in 1978. Jim and I and a couple woman friends flew in his Piper Cherokee to the southern tip of Baja. Erkel had fallen in love with the people of Baja California Sur – different, he would say, from people of urban Mexico, as Nevadans are different from New Yorkers. They were poor, but of the earth and sea, and filled with love.

On a dirt landing strip about halfway between Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, an old man pulled up in his beatup station wagon and hauled our stuff down to the beach. For a buck or two and a “Gracias!” From our camp on the beach above high-tide, we walked to the Hotel Palmilla. The afternoon was warm and intoxicating, as were the banana daquiris. We sat in the shade, feet propped up on the low wall around the open‑air bar and gazed out over the Sea of Cortez.

We were like high school kids on a lark. We swam and fished and ate seafood as the sun set sank into the Sea of Cortez. We watched $150‑per‑day‑per‑person charter boats bring in marlin and dorado and yellowfin ‘til we couldn’t stand it. Erkel found a new buddy – an old charter boat captain. With Cokes, bait and charter fees, the captain wanted the equivalent of $99 – less than 25 bucks apiece for a day chasing marlin. We caught two that day – 7 1/2 feet, 135 pounds and 9 feet, 165 pounds. After the pictures and congrats from other fishermen at the little pier, the captain sold chunks of the marlin to the villagers.

Multiply the joy and adventure of that 1978 trip by a dozen or so and you may begin to know my brother Jim Erkel.

Death, of course, is  the future for each of us. Ever wonder what someone might say about you after you’ve gone on? Here’s what Edward Last-of-the-Hucklings wrote about his loss: “Family isn’t really about blood at all. Family is about those who love and care for one another on the hardest of days. Family is about those who can look right through you, and you through them, and still enjoy the view. I have been so blessed to grow up in a family that embraced the truth that ‘family makes you blood, blood doesn’t make you family.’ I have known great men as brothers to my fathers and mothers, and have been lucky to call them my friends, though they are clearly my uncles. This year, in a short time now I have lost two of these men. My heart broke when at first my Uncle Scott passed only months ago, now my heart breaks again for the loss of my Uncle Jim Erkel. He was a man of the wild, living out of boats, planes, vans and cabins. A dirtbag extraordinaire that inspired me to live my life outside the lines. A man that would rather fix it, than buy a new one, and even with houses to his name was never ungrateful for a hot meal and a roof over his head. He molded me and shaped more then I ever told him. His loss will be felt for a very long time. My love goes to his children, and to my parents, all of my parents for whom he was a brother and best friend. Time here is short my friends, don’t waste it. Remember family makes you blood, blood doesn’t make you family; go tell your family you love them.”

RIP, Brother Jim Erkel.

Why Get Kids Hooked on the Outdoors

Written by Jim Huckabay on July 27, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

Several things conspired to get me thinking about this “outdoor-connected kids” stuff. Part of it was talking with GrandHucklings about fishing and camping and hunting. Then there was Homey raving about his kid’s learning in the Kittitas Environmental Education Network (KEEN) Pond to Pines Summer Camp. Mostly, however, it was a new way of considering that moment when a child first sees him- or herself as an integral part of Earth, Nature, and the universe itself.

Morris Uebelacker and I had pretty much wrapped up one of the final interviews for the book our Reecer Creek Publishing is doing on his life and successful struggle to overcome a brain injury, when arose the role of unconditional love. Morris spoke of his realization of the unlimited capacity of a fully opened heart – feeling and giving love without condition.

We found ourselves remembering when we each first experienced that fully opening heart and instantaneous recognition of belonging to all of life. We spoke of friends who have identified and confided that moment. And of lifelong quests to recapture, maintain, or hold the feelings which buoyed us at the moment we recognized our capacity to unconditionally love – and be loved by – all of life and the universe itself. Interestingly, the moments we and others identified took place outside, on the ground, in the midst of some simple fishing, hunting or observing activity.

And aren’t those moments the ones we talk about facilitating everytime we have these chats about getting kids connected? We can’t make the heart-opening moments, but we can create the space for them to occur. This is important stuff.

Pulitzer Prize‑winning Harvard biology professor E.O. Wilson calls it “biophilia.” It is the innate desire of humans to connect with other life forms; a connection that benefits us and our species. Any one person’s loss of the connection – that belonging to nature – threatens us all, he might argue, and our future. Robert Michael Pyle calls the loss of connection “the extinction of experience.”

Robert Pyle has long been recognized as one of America’s finest nature writers. From his popular books “The Thunder Tree, Lessons from an Urban Wildland” and “Butterflies of Cascadia” to “Sky Time in Gray’s River,” he has led a quest to understand our earth connections. In the long run, he says, estrangement from the natural world bodes ill for the earth, and we must become believers in the natural world to prevent the extinction of experience with wild things and places.

Pyle often notes that connection happens at some specific place. It may be “a wilderness, a national park, or a stretch of unbounded countryside, but more often the place…is unspectacular: a vacant lot, a scruffy patch of woods, a weedy field, a stream…or a ditch.” Save wilderness, yes, but also save vacant lots, ditches and woodlots. These must be places where people don’t just tip‑toe through, but observe, feel, and interact in a way that touches and awakens the knowing within them. They must be places where kids might fish, or collect butterflies or touch snakes and insects; places where they will awaken to the knowing of safety and honorable responsibility within themselves. Maybe, too, these are places where kids’ hearts first open to unconditional love. We just have to get them to these places.

Aldo Leopold (“A Sand County Almanac”) observed more than sixty years ago that he was unable to live without a connection to wild things. He implied that, while others may be able to live without it, he could not. How many of us today could live without the wildness flowing through our beautiful county? To me, it’s almost unthinkable. Yet, with rising human populations and shrinking wildness, a world without wild things is fact for many millions of people.

Every day, various media make us witness to the devaluation of human life. More and more of our kids are learning to live without an earth connection. Regularly, we hear kids expressing a sense of fear in their lives. Writers and naturalists have long held that it is only through a sense of belonging to earth and wild things that we experience the natural rhythms of life and death. To them, it is only through some hands on connection that we develop a true sense of responsibility to ourselves and others. Storyteller Valerie Martin says it simply: in the end, only nature can restore our sense of safety.

This is the ideal season to get our youngsters on the ground and into nature. Get them out there, and they will find for themselves that heart-opening moment. This is important. To paraphrase Jodi Larsen, Upper Kittitas County Rotary: Children are the emissaries we send into a time we will never see – what do we want them to take along?

It’s Mountain Goat Time

Written by Jim Huckabay on July 20, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

Mountain Goat – USFS photo

You have heard, no doubt, about the plans for the mountain goats in the Olympic National Park and on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. Mountain goats are, arguably, our most unique large mammal. I’m always surprised when people who love our back country know so little about them.

This time of year, as more and more hikers get deeper into the high country of the Cascade Mountains, I always get a handful of questions about mountain goats, or “some big white animal.”

“So we climbed that ridge between French Cabin Creek and Lake Kachess on Sunday,” Young Homey said in passing, “and we saw these three big shaggy white animals way up in the rocks. There was a little one, too. One of the guys said they were very rare white bears, but it was obvious after we watched them that they were probably mountain goats. Do they belong there, or were they brought into Washington? And are they going to be removed like the ones in that Olympic National Park, where that guy was killed? Are there a lot of ‘em?”

Given my role as chair of the Wildlife Education Committee of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association, and governed by our bylaws, I am sworn to answer all inquiries. Herewith, my response to Homey – and then some.

Mountain goat’s scientific name is Oreamnos americanus. Not a true goat, it is most closely related to the chamois of the European Alps and some African antelope. It acts like a goat on rocky outcroppings, cliffs and alpine tundra in some of the most remote high country of North America, so the name sticks.

A large billy may be three feet at the shoulder, five feet long, and weigh three hundred pounds.  A nanny may reach a bit over half that weight. Their shaggy white hair and shoulder hump may be why they were often called “white buffalo” by Native Americans and early European settlers. Shed hair may be found all over goat habitat all summer long, and is often woven into warm blankets and garments by collectors.

Mountain goats, it is said, live one step below the sky. There, they feed on low grasses, sedges, mosses and willow shoots. Their black hooves have concave rubbery pads surrounded with sharp, hard edges, enabling them to keep solid footing even on near-vertical cliffs. An amazing sense of balance, powerful hind legs, and forequarters strong enough to lift them to a higher ledge make their climbing legendary.

Mating takes place in November and December, and one or two six-pound kids will arrive in May or June. An eagle may occasionally take a kid, but few other predators bother them. They rarely move lower in winter, and icy snows and hundred-mile-an-hour winds threaten their survival. Even the best of feet may fail on ice, and freeze-thaw action will loosen benches and ledges. Many goats have scars or broken horns, proving survival ability, and it is not uncommon for several animals to perish in the misjudged crossing of an avalanche chute.

The mountain goat is native to the Cascade Mountains of Washington, but not native to the Olympic Mountains, where it was transplanted in the 1920s. Unfortunately, the Olympics lack a key set of nutrients goats need, and their constant search for it among humans has led to their long-held “pest” status. In the 1980s, their numbers surpassed 1,000. While hundreds of them were moved out of the national park, numbers stayed high, and biologists think there may now be as many as 725 goats in the national park and the adjacent national forest (somewhere around 3,000 goats live in Washington State). A new plan for the Olympic goats was released in May.

Because goats crave salt – not naturally occurring on the peninsula – they seek it and other minerals along trails and in wilderness campsites where they find them in people’s urine, packs, sweaty clothing, and places where cooking water has been dumped. The goats’ need for access to trails and campsites has led to a lack of fear of humans – that pest status – and was likely a factor in the 2010 death of a park visitor gored by a large billy.

Under the plan released in May – a coordinated effort of the National Park Service, US Forest Service, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife – all Olympic Peninsula goats will get one-way tickets to the North Cascade Mountains, to supplement native populations there. Using helicopters, during two-week summer periods, the mountain goats will be moved over the next three to five years. Any goats remaining after all capture efforts will be shot and killed.

Until the removal is completed, you may still find goats in the Olympics; check out the cliffs on Mount Ellinor, out of Hoodsport. Our Washington State Cascade Range goats are wild and watchable. Head up to the Sunrise Visitor center in Mount Rainier National Park and look around. Closer to our Central Washington home, drive up to the Timberwolf Mountain fire lookout, off the Bethel Ridge Road from Highway 12, and look around. You’ll see them along Lake Chelan, as you boat up to Stehekin. Kachess Ridge works, and I always see goats on the cliffs of Mount Si, out of North Bend. If you’re looking for a mini-vacation, head for Flume Creek Mountain Goat Viewing Area out of Metaline, northeast of Kettle Falls, where you may also see moose, bighorns and (maybe) woodland caribou.

For a great read, get Chadwick’s A Beast the Color of Winter. For your trip, pick up a copy of the Washington Wildlife Viewing Guide at a local bookstore or online.

Grab your binoculars and spotting scope and go. It’s High Country goat watching time.