Mo Bloggin'

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Archive for the tag “bird dog”

Songbird season continues

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Not sure how old I was when I got this, but it was (is) well loved.

I’ve always been a birdwatcher; ever since I knew what birds were, I think. As a schoolchild I made (or had an older sibling or adult help me make) bird feeders  out of empty milk cartons and plastic jugs and hung them in the trees and shrubs near the house, where I could watch the birds and help them out during the snowy New Jersey winters. I had a bird book I read over and over, and I got books from the library about birds, including one from National Geographic that had a slim, floppy “record” you could play on a turntable. Here I heard the cries of a bald eagle for the first time – something I hear frequently now, but back then, when the species was still perilously endangered and I lived in an area they did not frequent, it was a thrill, even when my oldest brother said “it sounds like a canary” (I think we all expected something more raptor-ish, like the red-tailed hawk scream you heard on westerns on TV). Now when the eagles make their chittering cries, my old bird dog goes running to the window, or to the door to get outside, barking at the sky. Yesterday one was being dive-bombed by a hawk, and would turn on its back mid-flight to greet the diving hawk with talons raised in defense before flipping back to normal flight. Farley barked at them as I watched, marveling at this acrobatic display; no airshow could be more thrilling to me.

I got my first real field guide when I was 11 – a Christmas gift from that same brother. It was the gold standard for years, even when I moved to the West Coast. Now I have several – Peterson, National Geographic, and Audubon – and refer to each of them regularly. I try to update my life list but I would never call myself a birder. I am distracted by birds no matter where I am – on a city street, driving down the freeway, or sitting at my desk or table by the window. Mostly though, I’m just interested in MY birds, as a fellow blogger, new to birdwatching, put it so well. I am fiercely protective of “mine” – those who I am lucky to have visit and even set up house here. I’m torn when a Western Wood Peewee parks himself on a post near my beehive, flying out to snatch my girls out of the air on their way in or out of the hive and returning to the post. I’ve seen the peewees out in the pasture snatching flies and other insects out of the air and returning to their perch. But this day, when my girls (and other insects, I imagine) were pretty much grounded with the downpours, the peewee is coming in close – a thrill as I sat at my wee table and looked out the window at the beeyard (part of the reason I moved the bees up to where I have is just this view). Thankfully he only did this a few times before flying off.

I no longer feed the birds, due to the bear visit I had the first year I was here. I don’t mind that the bear visited so much, despite the damage to the fence and knocking over the chicken feed and bird feeder (nom nom!), but don’t want to habituate him or her (bears love bird seed/feeders), and thus endanger his life if he tries to do this at some other human’s house. So without the bird feeders I am reliant on really watching, versus just seeing them when they happen to cross my path, and more important, listening. And in this I suppose I am more like a birder now, learning what’s nearby from their voice (guessing the probable bird, and using my smart phone to play sounds (I am careful with this, and don’t use it to taunt the birds – just a quick match/doesn’t match to identify)), because I can rarely see them in the thick foliage. The robins and jays and Swainson’s and tanagers visiting the red huckleberry nearby – loaded with fruit, its bounty seemingly bottomless. The twee-ee-eee of the junco, the long whistle of the chickadee, the melodic song of the Black-headed grosbeak (a song as beautiful as the bird itself, though I rarely see them, high in the maple canopy), and on and on it goes. One wonders how these tiny creatures can create such big sound. After a long day of singing, I am exhausted for them.

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There’s nothing to him, but he fills the woods with song.

And of course now is the nesting season, so babies – and the drama around them – abound. I’ve been keeping the cats inside during daylight hours, much as they hate this. Until recently, I let them out after full dark, and thankfully they’re of an age when staying out all night has less allure. After two or three mice on the doorstep (or, and I don’t know who’s doing this, the mouse “face” left–truly, the only thing left is the ears and face; just enough of an appendage, or a whisker, to pick up the gruesome artifact and toss it into the grass, a treasure for the chickens to fight over the next day) they are willing to come inside. Even sooner if it’s raining or otherwise crappy out.

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Almost time to let the cats out safely.

But with Pal, the younger of the two setter boys and really more like a 47-pound cat, running like the wind around the property and stalking, stalking, stalking, I watch and worry. With the adult birds I don’t worry too much, but with the babies fledging now…  A stramash early one Saturday morning left a juvenile Robin in the driveway, still alive (part of the stramash was me running out the door in my nightie, screaming NO! PAL NO!). The parent bird was chirping madly, though the youngster had stopped its screaming. Pal was running in wide circles around me (NO!) as I picked it up—it had enough juice left to peck at me aggressively, but I didn’t hold much hope—and put it in the pasture with the gate closed, bringing Pal into the house. I checked on it a few hours later and it was, unfortunately, right where I’d left it, rigor mortis set in. Damn.  I apologized aloud.

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Pal’s other favorite prey – moles.  He dug up a 20 x 20 section of the pasture recently.  I don’t think he got the mole this time, but he’s gotten a few in his time, plus he’s so cute to watch, digging furiously, so I don’t mind.

One evening a couple of weeks ago I heard an unusual call, sounding like a baby bird call of sorts, and accompanied by a call from a robin. I went back towards the woods, watching Pal to see where it was coming from (and also to be sure he didn’t find it before I did!). He eventually honed in with a hard point, and began to creep forward toward something on the ground in the thick growth in the woods. PAL NO! I called, as I headed toward him (I do hate doing this, because his point is frippin’ gorgeous, and everything he’s doing is just perfect, not wrong, for a bird dog bred to hunt birds). I saw the little bit of grey and brown scuttle off and followed it, Pal running around me as I repeated NO! (this to Farley and Daisy too, joining in on the fun). I caught the wee bit of fluff and found it to be a baby robin, it seemed a little too young to be off the nest – maybe for just a couple more days of growing feathers. The tail feathers short and stubby and the flying skills not anywhere near ready, but the nest is also a target for predators and parasites. I looked for a nest (in case this was a precocious early fledger), as the parent birds chirped excitedly from branches high above. And I heard a call of another baby (sibling?) further into the woods on the other side of the fence. I tried putting the little guy up high on a branch or even one of the half rotted old growth stumps but it wanted nothing to do with being up high. It would flutter down to the ground and scuttle along into some underbrush, with me yelling (I’m sure the neighbors must wonder about me sometimes) at the dogs to LEAVE IT!  It was somewhat of a free for all for a bit. Finally I caught the wee thing and held it. It seemed okay and was uninjured. What to do?  I’ve raised baby birds but with attentive parents present it didn’t seem necessary (though how attentive – if the baby couldn’t get up to them, would they come down for it?). Dusk was coming on fast and I decided to feed the little guy (he seemed a little out of it – stress/shock? Or the warmth of being held in my hand causing him to nod off?) and find him a safe place for the night. I dug up a few worms and stuffed them in, then put him down in a safe spot near where I found him. He immediately scuttled off down the path and into the brush, then to the other side of the fence, thankfully.

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You have NO idea how hard it was to leave this little bit of fluffy innocence underneath that sword fern and go inside for the night.

I left him there – it was a good safe spot, but it was still seriously difficult to leave this little bit of innocence to the coming night. I checked on the spot the next day. He was gone, but there were a couple of healthy droppings left. I hope the parent birds collected him/her in the morning and they continued his rearing and education. A week later and the scene was repeated in nearly the exact same sequence and location. Another baby of about the same age/size as the one a week earlier, maybe even a little younger, me screaming at the dogs NO! (Pal left; though he’s the one who found it, of the three he’s the most responsive) – Farley was especially enamored of this one. Finally I grabbed Far by scruff of the neck (the setter boys don’t wear collars) and dragged him away. I checked the baby – it seemed uninjured and lively, and the two parent birds were coming down close to chirp wildly at us. I put the dogs inside and went back out to check. The little guy was gone from where I’d left him, and the parents were calling from the trees a little further into the woods. I have to assume the little tyke scuttled after them and they tucked him in for the night. The birds have the place to themselves all week long, except for a few hours each evening, so one hopes we’re avoiding most of this fledgling drama. I don’t know if I can take much more of it.  But wait, there’s more… (to be continued)

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Nosing into Fall (or, my latest obsession)

The garden, soaking up the last rays of summer.

The garden, soaking up the last rays of summer.

Though it wasn’t planned, I essentially took the entire summer off from blogging (and writing of any sort, to be frank).  Here I sit, on the last day of summer (for the northern hemisphere) and thankful it turned out to be a beautiful day.  The weather forecast was for rain all weekend, and it started pretty much on schedule (per forecast) last night at dusk.  Let the mud begin, sigh.  Then this morning I saw a few peeks of blue sky through the clot of clouds.  Farley and Pal had their last nose work class for their beginning odor session and we headed out to the park with our liver treats, leaving an unhappy Daisy behind.  By the time class was over at 11:45 it was downright hot, the sun having been out in force for two hours.  Yay!

The boys did well in class, though the hides on the pedestrian bridge were extra hard, with lots of breezy air movement and the salmon swimming upstream in the creek below us (spawning season; we were working over a small tributary of the Skykomish River, which was a few hundred yards away). Pal especially gets distracted; his search word is “birdy” because he is.  And with his bird dog brain, it’s hard for him to concentrate on one task.  By nature (instinct/breeding), he’s hardwired to hunt, to have all his senses open and processing at once.  He’s filtering so much at once that adding birch odor (paired with liver treats I make using the excellent Squaw Creek Cattle Company beef) isn’t necessarily the primary target in his bird brain.  He’s a hunter, and once he’s locked onto a target bird he can and does hold point (and focus) for many minutes at a time.  Or, in the case of his most

Pal with his eye on something

Pal with his eye on something

recent target, hours – he’s playing some version of predator/prey footsie with an obliging Douglas squirrel in a maple tree on the other side of the fence.  He sits or stands in the same spot for what seems like hours (I can see him from where I type, he’s easily been there for half an hour now) fixed on his target and nearly unmoving (not at point, but definitely hunting).  The squirrel will chirrup at him on occasion, but mostly Pal’s just there watching stealthily (methinks Mr. Squirrel has Pal’s number).  So yeah, nose work for Pal can be a challenge.  But make no mistake, Pal is an AMAZING nose work dog, and when he’s focused he’s as good as they come.

Farley on a tennis ball search

Farley on a tennis ball search

Farley is also very good.  He’s old enough now that he can focus more easily.  Plus he’s more of a chow hound than Pal.  Pal likes his groceries, and eats like a champ, but Farley is more motivated by food.  When he gets close to the hide he will usually start drooling, and I often wonder if the slobber he leaves makes it easier for the next dog searching.  Far is very methodical, and also a little more bonded to me, so will often look at me when he doesn’t find the odor readily, expecting me to point to it as I do when he loses his ball in the grass or brush.  He’s obsessed by his ball, so has a lot of nose work practice built up in his many years of searching for missing balls.  He’s very thorough, and learned a long time ago to use and depend on his nose rather than his eyes (a dirty green ball in the grass is pretty much invisible to both of us).  This too, is where he has an advantage over Pal, who is still very visual in his hunting (birdy, indeed).  It’s an absolute pleasure to watch him work.

Miss Daisy, whose class is on break until October, is my best nose work dog, but she’s also two classes ahead of the boys.  She’s done container searches, interior searches, exterior searches, and vehicle searches.  Sometimes she’s a little distracted – she’s a very social girl and nose work isn’t necessarily her preference when there are people to meet and greet, and new best friends to win over.  We recently entered an Odor Recognition Test (ORT) for birch (through the National Association of Canine Scent Work or NACSW) and I’m happy to say she passed, though it was a little dicey for a moment.  Daisy is odor obedient, no question, and has been ready to pass her ORT for a few months now.  When this girl hunts for odor (“giddyup!”) she is freaking awesome and it’s a sight to behold when she’s on task.

Daisy at home with her sheep

Daisy at home with her sheep

For a dog of her skill level, an ORT is ridiculously easy.  In theory.  Besides her handicap at the other end of the leash, there’s also her Achilles heel of sociability.  At the ORT location, a dog training center about an hour’s drive south, we were led into the room where the ORT boxes were set up.  All the humans were looking at her but not saying anything, and not coming over to say hello.  She was a little puzzled at the quiet atmosphere.  I held her for a few seconds at the starting line, just like we do in training, then gave her search word.  She tugged me down between the row of flat boxes, one of which held a swab containing birch odor.  She gave a cursory sniff (I’m guessing) as we went swiftly past the boxes, not even lowering her head.  We got to the end and I stopped.  She continued pulling – the NACSW videographer was a few yards away, and sitting (an easy target!)– surely this was Daisy’s new best friend!  She then looked over at the judge, steward, and timer, pulling towards them.  She could win them over, for sure.  I held my ground.  She was losing focus fast.  I looked at the woman I’d mistaken for the judge and asked if I could say Daisy’s search word again (to get her back on track).  I was too nervous to remember that I could say it as needed (no permission needed).  Yes, came the reply.  “Daisy, giddyup.”  Nothing (the people spoke! (to answer me) Progress!).  “Daisy,

All tuckered out after her ORT trip

All tuckered out after her ORT trip

giddyup!”  She turned and sniffed one box in a cursory manner.  Then another.  We went down the row again 

At this point I was thinking “oh, well, not every dog passes, and it’s only $25…”  This about a dog who has found hides in places that left me gawping in amazement at her ability.  I gave her word again when, as we headed back, she seemed to have a different agenda.  At this, she lowered her head and sniffed, then nudged, one of the boxes nearest to us.  She nudged it again, nosing it across the floor.  With all her shenanigans, and the fact that this was only the third box she’d actually (noticeably) sniffed, I hesitated.  Was she just goofing around?  A paw slap and mouth crunch would be next.  Oh well.  I turned and looked at the judge and stewards.  “…Alert?”  YES! came the immediate and relieved-sounding reply.  This was music to Daisy’s ears and as the steward came over to me with her scorebook and time*, she was sure it was her chance to win over another Daisy fan.  Normally you treat your dog at source (the hide) when they find it.  Daisy had no interest in any liver when her new bestie was on her way over.  I kept her from jumping up on the woman and tugged her back to the source box for a treat.  I don’t remember if we ever connected treat to source, but we headed out the door with only one more obstacle, the steward at the door – “HiHiHi I’m Daisy!What’s your name?Don’t you LOOOOVE me?!”  Whew!  Now on to our NW1.  Gulp.

I’m going to take Farley and Pal for their ORT at the end of next month, but don’t anticipate this social rodeo with them.  Farley’s not a hugely social dog, and Pal is polite and demure.  Fingers crossed.

*You get three minutes to complete an ORT; Daisy did it in 46 seconds (that felt like three minutes), when it usually takes her less than 10 seconds.

Waking up with flying squirrels

I make no secret that I sleep with dogs.  My running joke–though no one seems to enjoy it as much as I–is that every night is a three dog night.  Often the three cats will join us, for a snug six-pack of furry warmth next to me, on top of me, pushing me out.  I’ve awoken in all sorts of horizontal “Twister”-style contortions, with all of them surrounding me in a jigsaw puzzle of beating hearts.

Bedtop real estate is rarely contested, though there are grumbles and discussions, usually between Farley and Cutter.  While Farley always concedes, moving away in a scuttling rush, he does so with his warbling complaining growl (he wouldn’t dare growl for real) that elicits a talking response from Cutter.  Once The Monster (Cutter) is settled, always perpendicular to me, his head on my hip or leg, Farley leaps up to curl up next to /on my shoulder. 

Farley is the baby of the family.  Somewhere around 3 1/2 or 4 years old, he joined the pack three years ago.  The Rottweilers accepted him and his always wagging tail, and his insane energy and drives.  And I learned about the vast differences between a working breed and a sporting breed.  Far is all birddogbird dog, all the time.  During the long winter months, when the weather is lousy and the back yard is a soupy mire of mud, Farley finds ways to entertain himself, and in the process, me. 

My bird dog is all about his toys, and his delight with each one is such that I can’t help buying him new ones frequently.  He has a toy box that’s brimmng with stuffed squeakys and chew ropes, bones and balls.  Not to mention the sea turtles that are living under the bed, the pheasants lying around the house, the dimply honky ball (now in the wash), soft squeaky balls in every corner, a honking duck, a honking heart-shape (the honking sound is a siren song to Farley, so many of his toys have this) and the latest, a flying squirrel.  The toys are ever present, being tossed seductively to entice me to play.  As soon as I look at the item dropped by my feet he goes into a classic Setter crouch, poised for the feeble indoor throw, then the mad scramble for it as if there were even a remote chance of any competition for its retrieval.  He flips and tosses with delight (more than one toy has ended up in a pot of soup or sauce on the stove) and honks or squeaks incessantly.  And at the end of the night, one or more toys will have made it into the bed with us.  Thus, waking up bleary eyed and rolling over, I encounter this in the morning:

The squirrel

Yes, this flying squirrel is cousin to Rocky, of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame.  The chinstrap of his starred “helmet” turns into a slingshot, so one can launch him by pulling back on the tail and letting go.  The thing makes (er, made) a squirrelly chattering noise as it flies through the air, little red cape fluttering, eyes goggling out of its felt goggles.  The flying squirrel was pretty much anFarley instant hit. 

 I know it will only be a matter of time before another toy comes home with me to join the squadron.  And really, with a face like this, who could resist?

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