The Drummer

For reasons that will become apparent in a future post, I recommitted my fall 2017 hunting season to ruffed grouse.  I have always hunted grouse as a byproduct of hunting other animals. Grouse were the incidental harvest when I encountered them while out hunting deer, or rabbits, or even while calling coyotes.

Many, many ruffed grouse also got a free pass for precisely the same reason; because I wasn’t hunting them specifically. Sometimes I had the wrong firearm in hand, other times the opportunities were at too close of range, while in other cases I did not want to spook deer, or rabbits, or coyotes by shooting. Whatever the reason, either by choice or necessity, I rarely if ever exclusively dedicated time to ruffed grouse hunting.

Until this month.

It was a grey, humid, and unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon when I carved out time to stalk some birds in the Simcoe County forests near my home. I parked the car and slid the silky-smooth Ruger over-under shotgun from the fleece-lined gun case. I thumbed the barrel selector over to “T”, broke open the action and casually dropped two wasp yellow 20 gauge shells into their slots. Flipping the action closed with a firm click, I locked the car and started down the two-track trail.

I had a blaze orange hat and matching t-shirt on.  The windless, overcast sky hid above the greenery, and I remarked to myself at how many leaves were still on.  These were not orange, red and yellow leaves clinging to the last vestiges of summer, but rather healthy, verdant, and persistent foliage enjoying the summer-like weather that had continued to hang around southern Ontario well past its expiry date.

A mourning dove flushed from a tree and a snap shot from the Ruger ushered him along unharmed down the arrow-straight path ahead of me. I popped open the gun and caught the spent hull as it launched backwards; the smell of spent powder incongruous to the mild, damp afternoon that had promised rain since before lunch. I reloaded and walked onward to nowhere in particular. This specific tract of public land is made up of a series of interconnected bush roads that winnow their way through a mixed woodland of precisely planted pine trees interspersed with more mature stands of native hardwood. In several places undergrowth has taken hold, and there the ferns and saplings brush against legs and try to tangle the arms of a shotgun-laden hunter. I walked large figure-eights across the bush roads, back and forth between the pines and hardwoods and ferns and saplings in the hopes of flushing a bird, all the while listening for the peeping of an alert ruffed grouse that I might have been able to stalk closer to.

However, aside from the earlier roar of the shotgun, only the sounds of the woods around me played out.  Somewhere squirrels barked at each other, either as an altruistic warning to each other about my presence or perhaps just in the conversational way that a squirrel’s daily interactions might go. Sparrows and blue jays flitted about, chirping and screaming respectively, and for a while I was simply a quiet spectator to the goings on in the woods that day.

Two things broke my enjoyment.  The first was the discovery of a series of tumble-down, makeshift tree stands in the woods.  All were ramshackle and trailing litter and waste. I would have felt reproach, I guess, if I knew who the architects were, but as it stood I could just simply smirk at the recklessness of them all, and stand smug in the knowledge that I was more sensible than anyone who would sit in those precariously perched contraptions. A short while later, I heard the revving of a vehicle and a few moments after that a man and woman on a side-by-side ATV sped past, dirt flying from the wheels and music blaring from a sound system. The din faded down the bush road, and soon enough I was once again in relative peace.

Further into my slow walk, after having encountered a large pile of rotting, discarded hay bales and a dried-up tom turkey dropping, the wind picked up gently and soft drizzle began to fall.  The leaves caught most of it and although the patter of rain on foliage muffled some of the wilderness sounds, the breeze and occasional drop of precipitation cooled me nicely.

I was at a bend in one part of the road when I heard it; faintly at first and then more clearly as I turned and triangulated the source of the sound.  A ruffed grouse was drumming on a log somewhere.

I stood stock still and waited. Hoping to hear the bird again, he obliged me about three minutes later.  I marked the sound and started slowly moving through the trees in the bird’s direction.  Shortly thereafter, he drummed a third time and I smiled to myself.

I was closing the distance on him.

The fourth time he drummed, I froze and moved my thumb to the safety of the gun.  He was close, and his wingbeats thrummed in my ears. As he concluded his thumping, I took two steps towards the sound with the gun at the ready.  Just to the periphery of my vision I saw him running through the low cover. I swung the bead onto the gray of his head while he juked and weaved and disappeared into the undergrowth. I never fired his way. As if on cue, the drizzle became a steady rain.

Standing in the hardwoods, with my shoulders getting soaked, I briefly took stock of the situation.  I was not getting any drier, so I quickly decided to walk along after him, in the hopes of either seeing him or having him flush. After a few more minutes of pursuit, no sightings, and a lot more rainfall, I realized that I was fighting a losing battle, and to boot I was just a bit misplaced. I hesitate to say ‘lost’ since a ten-minute walk in any of the chief compass directions would eventually have led me to a road, but I was admittedly quite turned around.  For just a moment I was unsure if the nearest intersection with the bush road was due east, west, north, or south of me and I felt a snarling murmur of alarm restlessly turn somewhere deep in the back of my head. A brief glance at the compass and I was reoriented and confident, a minor crisis averted.

Having convinced myself that I had spooked the bird thoroughly, and not relishing any further time spent in an October rain shower, I cut north and shortly found myself back on the carpet of dead pine needles blanketing the familiar bush road.

No sooner had I made the road, I heard the grouse drumming…again…from what sounded like the exact last spot where I had seen him.  A wry grin broke uncontrollably on my face at what struck me as a divine piece of wilderness comedy. “Clever fellow…” I muttered to myself, and I metaphorically tipped my cap to the bird.  I’ve had turkeys that I’d spooked do the same thing to me after I gave up on them, gobbling in my direction long after I have decided to call it quits.

On the walk out I heard another grouse drumming from another point in the woods, but he was past the county forest boundary and safely ensconced on someone’s private property.  I pictured that second bird drumming his response to the first bird, and for a fleeting second took it as their derisive, taunting laughter at my failed attempt on their lives.

But even I’m not so far gone to believe that ruffed grouse are capable of that.

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