September 22, 2014

Elyria
Cloudy
54°F
test

Owls and Turkey Vultures

Great-Horned-Owls-at-aWalking through high Jewelweed in the flood plain of the west branch of the Black River, my attention focused in on the babble of the current over some rapids. The big downed sycamore tree that spanned the two sides of the river banks made a natural bridge for squirrels to cross and my eyes searched around until I found a place where I could set up an ambush once they had cleared the water. Of course I’d have to wait for them to be across so I wasn’t running downstream to fish the squirrels out of the water, but it was a spot where they’d have to break from cover and make themselves obvious. Once they did that, I’d just follow them to an advantageous shooting spot and make my move.

I found a little mound of high dirt where I could sit and look down on the sycamore; the base of an uprooted tree that had apparently fallen a few weeks ago when the river jammed up and a backflood washed out the area. The brown weeds still showed the high water mark, but it was clear now and everything was on the rebound. I moved my beloved workhorse Mossberg 500 shotgun to my left hand so I could steady myself with my right as I climbed up the stump, and fell straight back on my pockets as the base of the stump exploded in a flurry of black feathers. Looking straight up I instinctively brought the gun to my shoulder and sighted down the barrel at what I thought was a huge black crow I had practically stepped on. As my thumb was pushing the safety to the off position and my grip tightened, I caught a flash of red in the erupting cloud of black feathers, and that slammed the brakes on my whole shooting process. It wasn’t a crow, it was a turkey vulture, a protected raptor. I pulled the safety back on and sat up, trying to put together everything that had just happened.

There at the base of the tree was a fine example of half-rotted and half digested Black River Asian Carp. Apparently it had washed up in the flood and been unable to get out of the tangle of tree roots when the water subsided. There it expired, and was making a fine seafood meal for this scavenger among the great birds. I guess with the noise of the river rapids he hadn’t heard me sneaking up on him and I wasn’t looking for something like this in the backwaters and banks, so he surprised me as much as I surprised him. It seems like that’s a pretty common scenario when I’m hunting; two species trying to be stealthy meet by chance, completely unaware of each other’s presence. It just usually doesn’t happen at “bayonet range”!

That’s sort of the M.O. of great birds whether they are scavengers or birds of prey. Several times I’ve been heading down a trail in the mid-evening when I am startled by the sound of swooping wings just a few feet over my head. This is the calling card of an owl who, flying high above the canopy, noticed my hat moving through the foliage and decided to make the attack, only waving off at the last second when something didn’t look right. It’ll make you duck, but he’s so quick that by the time you hear it and reflexively look up, the owl is gaining altitude, flapping his mighty wings furiously and trying to make his escape.

I’ve been told that owls are about the only animal that will predate a skunk, but I’ve never seen it happen. It seems that having a white stripe down your back, plainly visible from above could be a disadvantage when pursued by a night hunter. Still, I can think of better entrees.

One of my favorite ways to fish is in chest waders and making my way into shallow lakes, casting across lily pads to stir marauding Bass right around dusk with a “noisy” top-water lure like a jitterbug. This classic lure has two big paddles on either side so when it’s retrieved it skips and waddles across the surface like a wounded morsel for predator fish to grab. One of the things about fishing this way is that without a boat you make a very small profile on the water and bats will often buzz you as they home in your lure or vibrating rod tip. It’s a little annoying at first, but you get to where you ignore it. Let me tell you though, the first time an owl swoops in on your lure as you cast and flies straight up your line at you, you might get the sensation that your waders sprung a leak!