Post-modern Sport Hunting

post modern sport huntingHunting runs deep. The person who could watch a flock of ducks move over a glowing eastern horizon and not feel moved to participate is someone I do not know how to deal with. To shoot a ruffed grouse on a frozen Appalachian slope then slide it into your hunting coat is to put in your pocket a tangible piece of something intangible. In principal at least, we realize that  the prospect of death is incidental. Jose’ Ortega y Gasset noted, I do not hunt in order to kill. I kill in order to have hunted.

In Hunting, as in other sports, there is a skill set requisite to being successful. The skill set in question would include, again in principle, awareness, attention, patiece, perception, etc. As we develop and come to refine those skills we come to know and understand wild ways on a level far beyond the horizon of many. In the end those things add up to an understanding of the land that does not lend itself to novalty.  Woodsmanship is the language through which we read the land. It is important that sport hunting is distinguished from market hunting and poaching only through its essential premise – fair chase (reaffirmed by law in that game cannont have economic value). It is only through that premise that shooting game for sport may have any value at all. Sport hunting has to be a deliberate submission to nature, carying a requisite scepticism for expedience.

Over the past few decades a hunting industry has emerged. An economic juggernaut, it purveys all sorts of gadgets which, to varying degrees, lend some type of advantage to we the preditor. In principle these things might assist a woodsmanship. But have we allowed them to become substitutes for it? We talk about our love for nature then immediatly put a thousand buffers between that interface. We are diminishing the chase that we praise as substantial and fair.  What message are we sending?

To be sure, I don’t know of any hunter who would argue that hunting needs more technology, or even that hunting is improved by it. I suspect the majority of us would agree that at some point the integrity of the thing is inverse to expedience. But where is the line? I suppose that it is a gradual one, a gray scale between the honest immersion in the land mechanism and a sad dependance on technology. For perspective, consider these words from Aldo Leopold, published in 1948: “The traffic of gadgets adds up to astronomical sums, which are soberly published as representing ‘the economic value of wildlife’. But what of cultural values?” If this more than six-decade old statement was considerable then, where do we stand now? I do not presume to know the answer. As with any ethical matter, there are no cut-and-dry boundaries, only a visceral sense of what is right and what is wrong.

I’ll venture to express a few of my own convictions, and the reader may come to his or her own conclusions.

Not being endowed with cryptically colored fur or feathers, we don’t stand much of a chance against the sharp, warry eyes of our prey. For that reason camouflage seems reasonable. It is also a natural mechanism that has been used by both predator and pray since the dawn of time. That is, it has a natural analog: an analogous feature or behavior used by animals.  To be sure, anyone who has ever owned a dog knows of its affinity for rolling in carrion. That instinct is one that they have retained from their kinship with wolves who exhibit the same behavior to mask their own scent, and there lies the natural analog.

Firearms certainly do not have a natural analog. On the other hadn, the use of gun powder harks back to the days when hunting was essential for sustenance and has since become part of the culture and heritage of hunting. But firearms also bring to the table an element of skill and a component of woodsmanship: marksmanship.

Like firearms, the use of game calls goes back a long way and their use also requires skill. Game calls also encourage a familiarity with the communication of the game pursued. So there is skill and experience necessary to extract utility from them. Perhaps there there are two criteria that may assist in determining whether a gadget assists woodsmanship or is a substitute for it: Does it have a natural analog? Does its application require some skill to derive its utility?

Many of the items we take into the field have no natural analog, nor do they require skill to use effectively. Scent-eliminating technology requires no effort to extract utility. And while natural cover scents may mask scent, modern fabrics are designed to eliminate it. Instead of honing one’s skill in order to combat game’s senses, we depend on a modern, synthetic substitute to buffer us from the challenge of eluding detection. Sure it can be effective, but is it not too painless? Range-detecting optics are another example. They represent a painless substitute for good judgment. Game cameras?

The virtue of sport hunting may be maintained even with the occasional application of technology. But it is the incremental dependence on synthetic materials and technology to expedite pursuit that should summon concern. In sport hunting, the quality of the experience is, to a large extent, inverse to degree of expedience. It is worth examining the question whether the criteria for success is being shifted away from skill and towards purchasing power with a corresponding dilution of woodsmanship. With each modern tool comes an incremental erosion of true sport and fair chase. Unlike spectator sports there is no league to set standards or prohibit performance-enhancing drugs. There is no crowd to criticize or applaud sportsmanlike conduct. There is no referee to blow the whistle when a hasty shot has left game crippled. At some point we have to define for ourselves how much too much is.

I hope we can all critically consider the direction of modern sport hunting, that we can recognize that its virtue is not indestructible and that, like athleticism, woodsmanship is a skill set to be pursued and refined over time through discipline and practice. John Calvin left us with a quote that seems now more timely than ever: “…we should beware lest we pervert into impediments things which were given for assistance”.

Hunter S. Bridges


311292_10100642487686448_377148968_nOne of the most striking aspects of autumn is that rich, copper light that slants in low over the horizon to casts long shadows over the landscape and overstate even the subtlest details of geographic relief and texture before dripping like April dew from the fiery leaves.

Photoperiod acts like a cosmic metronome, setting the four-quarter time for the biotic cycles of the natural world. Everything, from fruit maturation, breeding cycles, migration patterns to feeding habits, etc, follows the tempo set by the earth’s trajectory around the sun, and the angle of that angle.

With respect to the sun, the earth is set on an angle just a little over 23 degrees. Without that angle, there would be no seasonality, no photoperiod. During summer, our latitude faces the sun almost directly, during winter our piece of the earth (here in the southeast) is oriented slightly away from the sun by a little over 23 degrees latitude.

Notice that the angle of the earth is tilted with respect to the sun (indicated by the red arrows). If those arrows were oriented up and down with respect to the sun, seasonality would not exist.

During the summer months, the sun traces out an arch through the sky whose apex is almost directly overhead. However, by early September we begin to notice the sun hanging lower in the sky each day. As the sun’s arching path over North America leans further towards the southern horizon, the light pitches down at a lesser angle, passing through more of the atmosphere before finally striking the earth’s surface. Consequently, the frequency of light that our eyes perceive as the color “red” scatters, that is to say, the light “redshifts”. Come fall, that elegant, redshifted sunlight slants through the fiery canopy and drips off the autumn leaves like April dew.

By late September, warblers begin their migration over the Southeast. The decreasing daylight initiates their journey from their summering grounds in Canada to their wintering grounds in South Florida and beyond. The small, colorful birds eat almost exclusively insects and tend to avoid urban areas; in fact, many species of warbler depend on unbroken tracts of forest along their migration route. September through October is the best time to catch a glimpse of one of these handsome and energetic creatures. A great place to encounter one is along a stream bank or moist bottomland flanked by dense vegetation with an adjacent mature forest canopy – conveniently, also a great place to wait for your buck.

1914665_679990701148_5448662_nThose of us who take to the trees every autumn with high hopes of venison have a front-row seat to the drama of autumn light. Photoperiod largely governs a whitetail’s social and behavioral patterns. Beginning in late August, hormonal changes begin to occur in both bucks and does. The waning daylight causes testosterone levels in bucks to spike, which in turn causes the soft, velvety antlers to harden and the bucks to relieve themselves of the now itchy, peeling velvet. The curled shreds of bark at the base of saplings attest to the bucks’ high-strung aggravation.

Come autumn, there is only one place to find a whitetail: in the hardwoods. Acorns are a staple dietary component of deer and other wildlife. They also testify to the opulence of season, and more than once I have found the urge to try one irresistible. I don’t know when I’ll finally learn not to let my curiosity get the best of me; I hope never. Tannic acid is the plant’s mechanism to make its fruit less palatable to would-be predators; though it does not seem to be especially effective at deterring much more than curious, hardheaded Southern boys. In those tannic, oaken morsels are the crucial complex carbohydrates – long chains of sugar molecules – that are stored as an energy bank to see the animal through winter’s frosty nights and leafless woods.

Acorns from the white oak family, including the white oak (Quercus alba) and the chestnut oak (Quercus dentatum), among a few others, take only one year to mature, while those of the red oak group including northern red img_1463-676x507oaks (Quercus rubrum), southern red oaks (Quercus falcata), water oaks (Quercus nigra), willow oaks (Quercus phellos), and many more, take two years to mature. That may not sound like a pertinent fact, but it is. If a mid-April frost nips the tender young buds of the white oak acorns, the white oak crop may be poor the following autumn. However, the red oak acorns were already over a year old and thus heartier during the same frost. This staggered arrangement of acorn maturation ensures that, come autumn, there will always be acorns in the hardwoods. That nature never places all of her eggs in the same basket stands as a testament to t14324175_10102791102629878_7261893305757590901_ohe supreme craftiness of the biotic mechanism.

Recognizing the subtle goings in nature is the greatest mark of woodsmanship. It keeps our minds working and our wits sharp, and best of all, there is always something new to see and try to understand.

Hunter S. Bridges


Wild Heaven

The Lord’s made a place, designed just for me,
Where the land is still wild and I may always run free.

The mornings are April, soaked in glistening dew
Where the whippoorwills sing and the chuck-wills do too.
At daybreak the turkeys, perched high in the pines,
Greet the morning with vigor and calls of all kinds.
At the hens’ soft calls the ol’ tom’s seduced
But he comes to my call from straight off the roost;
I pick up my trophy, four years old, I infer
‘Cause he hangs on a limb by only one spur.

The evenings are autumn, the sky deepest blue,
Shafts of autumn light and red-shifted hue.
The slopes are replete with acorns galore-
A crisp autumn breeze, a frost is in store.
High in the hardwoods in an old wooden stand
I watch a cold ridge with longbow in hand.
All evening long the deer work the slopes
Sun gleams off their backs, flashing brilliant, bronze coats.

As dusk closes in the woodies and teal
pour down from the sky for their evening meal.
Swirling and squealing through timber and marsh
I stand in the flurry with No. 4 charge.
But on Heavenly swamps there is no hording 
And I’m light years away from the nearest game warden.

But I must get some sleep ’cause the morning is spring
And when the sun rises the gobblers take wing.

Back to my camp I trek off through the forest,
Hearing the sound of God’s Heavenly chorus.

– H.S. Bridges


Your Field Journal

It’s been almost a decade since I bought my field journal. When I saw it in a gift shop I knew I had to have it – the Col. Littleton No. 9 Journal, crafted out of thick leather and brass. It looked like something that Hemmingway might have opened under the glow of an oil lamp to record some electrifying showdown involving a flurry of dust, a custom English side-by-side rifle, and a pissed-off cape buffalo. When I told mom what I paid for the No. 9 she wryly (in that harmless, endearing way only a mom can) replied “Hunter, I doubt you have anything that important to say”.

Mom was more or less right. No doubt, the Nobel Prize Committee would not find my entries fit for personal use in a public bathroom. Nevertheless I have accumulated a priceless pile of journal refills, filled cover to cover, and stained with the sweat and dirt of a thousand wild moments.

Fortunately for most of us, neither a literary propensity nor grammatical precision is requisite to keeping a field journal. In fact laboriously technical composition in a field journal only tells first-hand that the author wasn’t paying attention to the field. Formalism is tacky in a field journal, so if that’s your thing, keep a diary. Meanwhile two deer just slipped right past you.

It is the informality and imperfections that make your entries yours and over time are the underpinning for thier intrinsic value. Your handwriting, if you record events in real time, can add more to your record than words ever could: cold stiff hands, hands rattling with adrenaline, smeared ink from sweaty palms. The the last word in nostalgia is thumbing through old entries and finding the stiff penmanship of nearly frost bitten fingers; or the salient details of a hunt, written with shaking hands and blood on the page as standing proof of meat on the ground; or a poorly rendered sketch of a blackburnian warbler that lit on a branch and blew your mind.

A record might even be expressed by some piece of musty wildness pressed between the pages. Naturalist Joe Hutto would smear deer flies and yellow flies on the pages of his field journal as he followed his flock of wild turkeys through the Florida hammock. The more smears from the respective species of fly, the worse that species was on that particular day. It saved him time, he explained. I doubt that, but I like the idea. I started doing the same thing, and when I run across an old entry with 10 or 12 mosquitoes smeared into the margin, the memory of an early-season deer hunt among black water and cypress trees comes rushing back with more momentum than words alone can summon.

In time, your field journal takes on a life of its own. Your entries accumulate to something more than the sum of scarcely legible notes on dirty paper. A distinctive character emerges from your scribblings, with feathers from dead turkeys and autumn leaves pressed between the pages. Finally, the entries become a deeply personal anthology of wild strivings and a tangible collection of moments that define your passion and nourish your love of wild things.

Finally, Rain!

Kindly contributed by Dr. Gene Wood, Former Professor of Wildlife Ecology, Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, Clemson University

On Sunday, August 1, 2016, the preacher preached: “Do not complain!” Although recalling numerous complaints made by the Old Testament prophets, and in the New Testament more than a few by the apostles, as well as by Jesus himself, I did not argue with a “man of the cloth.” Therefore, this little essay/story is not one of complaint, but of observation.

I do not recall a spring through early summer drought equal to that of 2016. According to the meteorologists, it is not uncommon for a strong El Nino to be followed by a strong La Nina. This one has been one to tell stories about.

From early May through July less than two inches of rain fell on my little farm. The official weather station for Oconee County, South Carolina, located about three air-miles east of me, recorded five inches, the discrepancy a result of the “widely scattered showers” distribution. But even that was only 43% of the 30-year average. At the weather station March had only 29% of the normal rainfall. April had 1.5 times the normal precipitation, but May dropped to 59%, June to 20%, and July to 51% of normal expectancy.

Mean high temperatures fueled the developing drought. In the abnormally dry March, the mean high was 8 degrees above normal. Even the abnormally wet April had a mean high 3 degrees above normal. By July the normal mean high of 90 degrees was exceeded by 7 degrees.

The high temperatures reinforced by the almost daily light to moderate winds sucked the land dry of its life-giving moisture. As revealed by two graves that I had to prepare for beloved trail horses in June and July, the soil was as desiccated at six feet as it was at six inches. By mid-July, the meteorologists officially designated a portion of northeastern Georgia and bordering counties in South Carolina as in “severe drought.” It was not news to those of us who live close to the land.

Not only could plants not grow, it was a total mystery as to how they could even stay alive – many didn’t. In the agricultural venue, grain and forage crops and pasture grasses grew slowly if at all. April put a good finishing touch on fescue hay, but the onset of the drought in May simply prevented coastal Bermuda grass hay production. The first cutting of Bermuda grass for square bales should have been made in late May or by mid-June, but there was nothing to harvest even by the end of July. Pastures dried up until the cattle farmers, as well as recreational horsemen, were feeding hay. Short stalks and small ears characterized the corn crop. Soybeans were off to a slow start, if starting at all.

In the orchards, the farmers reported that while the peach crop would be substantially reduced, the individual peaches would be sweeter. My sampling of the crop caused me to be in general agreement.

Honey production was another matter. When I had a 100% over-winter hive survival, the first such success in at least eight years, I was set for a high production season. Nature paid no attention to my expectations. April, the month of normally heavy production from the nectar of tulip poplar flowers, was a bust due to abnormally high amounts of rainfall. The bees could not work in the rain, and when the rain stopped it had washed the nectar from the flowers.

There was the usual lull between the poplar bloom and that of sourwood. The sourwood bloom began in early June. The rains had long been over. If any sourwood honey was made, it was not detectable. (Sourwood honey is easy to detect by its lack of color.)

The bees were moved to an area of 15 to 20 acres of sunflower in early July. Two years ago, my bees had made a great deal of exceptionally high quality honey from these same fields. The bloom was beautiful, but not a drop of honey was made.

At that point I began to wonder if moisture stress in the soil was so great that neither sourwood in the forest nor sunflower in a field could extract enough water to produce nectar in the flowers. I discussed that possibility with a friend who was also a forest physiologist. He corroborated the theory as a possibility and explained some of the technical aspects. Perhaps I will live to test the theory in future years when we get normal rainfall.

In the forest, the El Nino rains followed by a very warm March lead to a dogwood bloom that was at least two weeks early and one of the best in recent years. Wildflowers that typically bloom in Mid-April were blooming early in the month. All signs seemed to point to a beautiful spring. But by early May and full leaf-out by the trees, the weather was turning hot and dry. Low relative humidity exacerbated the rapid loss of soil moisture through evaporation and transpiration by plant foliage. The crescendo of wildflowers that normally burst forth to grace the forest trails in May and early June did not develop. Sightings of butterflies on the wild landscape were uncommon to rare. Even the swallowtailed tigers, a hardy and abundant tribe, were notable when seen. I did not see a single zebra, my favorite. To see butterflies, one needed to visit a flower garden, preferably one that was being irrigated. If you were going to find wildflowers in significant numbers in the forest, you had to find a spring seep or a bog near a stream.

Among the forest trees and shrubs, the very shallow rooted dogwood was wilting by June. Leaves hung limp and began to curl. Soon foliage turned brown on the outer portions of the limbs of most trees. Some trees, particularly those already greatly debilitated by anthracnose, turned completely brown never again to grace the spring forest with their virginal white flowers. Anthracnose has been decimating the dogwood of the southern Upper Piedmont and Blue Ridge for many years. Aided by the severe drought of 2016, it has made a great leap in its deadly progress towards causing total loss of the species.

The oak species that fall into the category labeled by taxonomists as the red oak group are all shallow rooted. In addition they are all prone to root rot which becomes extensive as the trees reach an advanced age and size. When they reach a large size, the loss of a mechanically stabilizing root system makes these trees highly susceptible to wind-throw. Under drought stress, they cannot get enough water, thus this year numerous specimens are standing with all of their foliage dead, awaiting the rains and winds of winter to turn them stark and bare. In years to come they will lie prone on the forest floor.

Tulip poplar was another notable story. This tree has a taproot that descends deeply into the ground. It should be able to defend itself against the ravages of drought better than many other species. Yet it seems to be quite sensitive. Poplar is among the first to don itself in green in early spring and put forth its beautiful and astonishingly complex flowers in April. It is also the first to signal the coming fall with leaves turning yellow in September. This year, the poplars had an abundance of yellow leaves in July, undoubtedly a result of moisture stress.

Wild black cherry, itself bearing many yellow leaves in mid-summer 2016, was empathetic with the plight of the tulip poplar. One afternoon in early July, a moderate wind arose associated with a nearby shower from which we received no rain. I looked across the front yard to see black cherry leaves falling in numbers characteristic of late October.

Hickories seem to have an interesting mechanism for self-preservation during major droughts. When the stress reaches a certain level, they begin to cast their nut crop. Nut production requires a substantial investment in water, energy and nutrients. By getting rid of its current crop liability, the tree can invest these same resources in preserving itself and providing for nut production in future years. The ground around the hickories along the edge of my yard and near my barn became littered with immature hickory nuts all of which had been split open by hopeful, but likely disappointed, squirrels.

One wild creature that seems to have benefited from the drought was the wild turkey. Dry springs typically favor turkey reproduction as eggs, hatchlings and young poults are less likely to get chilled by spring rains. I saw more turkey broods this year than in a long time. They foraged for insects frequently in my lower pasture lots. Given the scarcity of green plants for insects to feed on, I was surprised that there were enough to attract the turkeys.

Other wild animals seemed to be generally okay in spite of the drought, although numbers of songbirds in my yard seemed to be down. Squirrels remained abundant.

Some good news, although the forest floor had been like a tinder box, there were no forest fires of significant size in our severe drought area this year.

Finally, the rains began! By late July, some portions of the South Carolina geographical area called the Upstate began receiving significant amounts of rain. Showers were scattered, often dropping one to two inches in one locale while another only a mile or two away received only sprinkles, if anything at all. By the first week of August, the showers were more numerous and more closely spaced. The meteorologists explained that a strong low pressure system stationary over the Florida Panhandle was driving in our direction moisture from both the Gulf and the Atlantic. Helping with the process was a strong high pressure system to our northeast that was blocking the counterclockwise winds of the low and concentrating rainfall over us.

I never did get the single storm amounts of one to two inches that fell only a few miles away. But I got a total of a couple of inches of soft, slow falling rain, almost every drop of which was captured by my soils. These clay soils can dry and harden to the consistency of concrete. Rain, preferably in small drops slowly applied, is needed to soften the surface and expand the pore space to allow the penetration and percolation of the life-giving water. That happened.

Within a few days the miraculous resilience of nature was witnessed once again. Although the blisters of drought had left numerous scars on the soil surface, the lawn and pasture grasses were being renewed looking healthy and reaching out to garner the summer sun. My horses, who had been on grain and hay rations comparable to those of winter, were relishing fresh, green forage.

The spring and early summer flowers that did not appear in their normal time will not grace the wild landscape of 2016. Those plants that did not survive will not be brought back to life. Some, like the lightly to moderately anthracnose-infected dogwood, will survive for a while longer, although weaker, their lives shortened.

There is still time to grow and harvest substantial amounts of coastal Bermuda hay in which will be stored the energy and nutrients to be fed to livestock in the coming late fall and winter months. Joe Pye Weed, a favorite of butterflies in late summer, will bloom although in smaller than usual numbers. If it keeps on raining, the fall crescendo of wildflowers will form a garland on the landscape by the end of the month.

“Reverend, this is not a story of complaint, but of observation, perhaps even resurrection.

Dr. Gene Wood

Former professor, Dept. of Natural Resources, Clemson University

A Must Own…

2016-08-22_12h19_20In just the past few decades, South Carolina has emerged as one of the most exciting archaeological research sites on the continent. Literally.

ARCHAEOLOGY IN SOUTH CAROLINA: Exploring the Hidden Heritage of the Palmetto State, edited by Adam King, contains an overview of the fascinating archaeological research currently ongoing in the Palmetto State and features essays by twenty scholars studying South Carolina’s past through archaeological research. The scholarly contributions are enhanced by more than one hundred black-and-white and thirty-eight color images of some of the most important and interesting sites and artifacts found in the state.

South Carolina has an extraordinarily rich history encompassing some of the first human habitations of North America as well as the lives of people at the dawn of the modern era. King begins the anthology with the basic hows and whys of archaeology and introduces readers to the current issues influencing the field of research. The contributors are all recognized experts from universities, state agencies, and private consulting firms, reflecting the diversity of people and institutions that engage in archaeology.

The volume begins with investigations of some of the earliest Paleo-Indian and Native American cultures that thrived in South Carolina, including work at the Topper Site along the Savannah River. Other essays explore the creation of early communities at the Stallings Island site, the emergence of large and complex Native American polities before the coming of Europeans, the impact of the coming of European settlers on Native American groups along the Savannah River, and the archaeology of the Yamasee, a people whose history is tightly bound to the emerging European society.

The focus then shifts to Euro-Americans with an examination of a long-term project seeking to understand George Galphin’s trading post established on the Savannah River in the eighteenth century.

The volume concludes with the recollections of a life spent in the field by South Carolina’s preeminent historical archaeologist Stanley South, now retired from the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of South Carolina. March 2015, 304 pages, 38 color and 103 b&w illustrations

Aldo Leopold

Aldo Leopold: the father of wildlife management.

The progress of conservation in the US is paved by sportsmen, naturalists, philosophers, scientists, authors, activists and more. Despite their various, and sometimes clashing philosophies, their efforts added up to acre upon acre of preserved wilderness, and an ever growing awareness of our dependence on ecological integrity.

Even with so many players, it is doubtful that any single name is as revered among conservationists from all walks of life as the name Aldo Leopold.

Leopold began his career as a forester with the US Forest Service. By the end of his career, would produce hundreds of publications, launch conservation organizations, found the field (indeed, even the notion) of wildlife management , and hold the first such professorship at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

However, Aldo Leopold’s most influential contribution would emerge from the pages of an unassuming book of essays publishedASCA posthumously. Through A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold would would awaken the minds and touch the hearts of readers for generations, and leave us with a work that would be deemed the cornerstone of the North American environmental movement.

Leopold was just the person to author such a book. He was the erudite professor lecturing with the brilliant prose of a poet. In ASCA, Leopold teaches us how to read and understand the land, and we learn that even the subtlest natural event may offer intuitive deduction and intriguing questions as we learn to see and wonder. To Leopold, “Every farm woodlot is a textbook on animal ecology; woodsmanship is the translation of the book.”

Leopold inspects one of his white pines.

Part I of ASCA is  a charming and thought-provoking trek through fields and forests, with Aldo as our guide. In January, we follow skunk tracks in the thawing snow, see what saplings the rabbits have girdled and draw  thought-provoking deductions from hawks and meadow mice.  In April, we watch the mating ritual of the woodcock’s Sky Dance. In June, we follow Leopold on a fishing trip on The Alder Fork, and sense that the value of the experience is in the pursuit. In October, we follow along with Aldo and his dog Gus through the Smokey Gold tamaracks of Adams County in pursuit of ruffed grouse. In November we take to the woods with Axe in Hand where we really begin to understand how the mind of a conservationist works. In December, we smile at Leopold’s enthusiasm for tracking chickadees.

In the sections following the Almanac , Leopold’s prose becomes slightly more poignant as he wrestles head-on with some heavier issues such as predator control, the cultural value of wilderness, the role of science in conservation, and more.

Finally, in what is likely his most famous work, Leopold pulls it all together in brilliant fashion with the book’s capstone essay called The Land Ethic – a beautifully written exposition on the relationship between land and people.

With his longbow in hand, Aldo Leopold scans for deer from a high bluff in northern New Mexico.

That land is a community”, Leopold explains in the Forward to ASCA, “is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten.” It is those three concepts that Leopold so eloquently weaves together throughout his monumental book.

In the end, we have an inspiring glimpse into the mind of one of history’s greatest conservationists. Most of all, however, Aldo Leopold left us with a piece of work that lays out the value of nature and a resounding call to preserve it, both for its own sake, and for ours.

For more on Aldo Leopold and his conservation legacy, or to purchase a copy of A Sand County Almanac, visit

Hunter S. Bridges


Landscaping for Wildlife

Swallowtail on Milkweed X

“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”  Aldo Leopold

No doubt, by creating a landscape that offers the same utility to wildlife as natural habitat, you will enjoy a greater diversity of wildlife species year around. But the real satisfaction is coming to understand the components of wildlife habitat and how wildlife depend those components. By coming to understand wildlife habitat, you will learn firsthand, and hands on, how to comprehend land from wildlife’s perspective. You will become an ecologist in every sense of the word.

An urban wildlife habitat should accomplish two things. It should meet your needs, such as aesthetics, maintenance and cost, as well as meet the needs of wildlife: cover, food, water and space.

Understanding Cover for Wildlife

The importance of cover to wildlife is often overlooked but cannot be understated. Sufficient cover allows animals to avoid predators and offers safe places for nesting, brooding or avoiding inclement weather. Escape cover for birds, for instance, should be dense and close to where they access food or water. Nesting cover varies. It might dense vegetation for ground-nesting species like Canada geese or killdeer. For cavity nesters like wrens, bluebirds or wood ducks, standing dead trees or artificial nesting boxes can offer nesting cover. Brooding cover is critical for species like bobwhite quail, ruffed grouse and wild turkey, whose young are mobile and must forage for insects as soon as they hatch. In essence, cover types are structurally different and wildlife use them in different ways. In most urban cases escape cover should be the focus: consider a food source like a single bird feeder; that feeder will concentrate birds, and predators will quickly learn to focus on that location. If the feeder is close to adequate escape cover, it will be more heavily used by birds, since they can quickly dive into the safety of brush before a predator can close the deal.

The arrangement of cover also matters. Cover should be multi-dimensional; that is, diverse horizontally across your landscape and diverse vertically from understory to mid-story to tree canopy.

An example of very poor vertical diversity. There is no mid-story and very little, if any, usable understory.

Different species of wildlife, birds in particular, will utilize different vertical levels of vegetation. Species such as sparrows and wrens spend most of their time within ten or fifteen feet of the ground, whereas some species, like the threatened cerulean warbler, generally stay high in the canopy. Providing different levels of vertical vegetation – vertical diversity –  will make your habitat desirable to more species.

Forest openings create horizontal diversity by breaking up mature forests, creating diversity across the landscape. Forest openings like fields and meadows are areas where the most sunlight reaches the ground and allows

Forest openings offer horizontal diversity. They also offer great cover and food for wildlife.
Forest openings offer horizontal diversity. They also offer great cover and food for wildlife.

grasses and broad-leafed forbs to flourish, offering excellent cover and a storehouse of seeds and protein-rich insects. Species like the eastern meadowlark, purple martins, swallows and flycatchers depend on these areas. Openings also create valuable edge habitat. You’ll notice also that unmanicured forest openings, like fallow fields or powerlines, do not have a crisp transition from grass to forest. Instead the vegetation is very dense along the edge. The transition from knee-high grass and weeds, to thick saplings and vines, to mature forest, is gradual. That gradual, layered transition from one habitat type to another is called an ecotone and is heavily favored by wildlife.


Cover for Wildlife in your Landscape

In your lawn, hedge rows and beds of dense vegetation can offer ideal escape cover for wildlife and be an appealing profile to you landscape design. Vegetated fence rows are another opportunity to incorporate cover for wildlife.

When deciding on what to plant as a hedge row, consider whether or not the plants will offer sufficient cover year around. For instance, hydrangeas and some Virburnum species, which are common deciduous ornamentals, offer great cover during the summer but poor cover during the winter (though, that’s not to say they should never be planted). American hollies are native evergreens, regularly used as ornamental hedges, and offer excellent cover year-around.  Other ideal hedge plants include Eastern red cedar, Japanese honeysuckle and wax myrtle, all of which offer a food source as well.

Keeping “soft edges” on hedge rows enhances the hedge’s utility as escape cover, while tightly trimmed hedge rows are slightly more difficult for birds to penetrate quickly into the safety of the branches. In addition, thorny plants such as blackberry present even more of an impediment to would-be predators.

The "tight" pruning on these hedges makes them difficult for many wildlife species to enter.
The “tight” pruning on these hedges makes them difficult for many wildlife species to enter. This compromises the hedges’ utility as escape cover.

There are numerous native plant species that are attractive landscaping specimens and valuable to wildlife. Using native plant species has several benefits. Native species, being already adapted to your region’s climate will require little or no watering, fertilizer or other special care. In addition, native wildlife is generally adapted to seeking out native food items. Referring to the resources at the end of this article, as well as consulting a local plant nursery, preferably one that offers native plant species, will give you a lot of options and allow you to use your own creativity.

Many species depend on dead, standing trees for food and as nesting cover. Photo Credit:

Many wildlife species depend on standing dead trees for both food and cover. However in urban settings, dead trees are most often removed to reduce liability and enhance aesthetics; if you can leave a few, do so. If not, offering nesting boxes for cavity nesters can help offset the deficit of natural cavities. Nesting boxes should face away from each other to

Photo Credit:
Photo Credit:

avoid competition (female blue birds for instance can be wildly aggressive if the openings face each other). Many commercial bird houses are available, but metal or plastic bird houses should be avoided, as they tend to retain heat more than wooden boxes which can lead to “cooked nests”.

If possible, a portion of your landscape should be converted to a tall, grassy,meadow-type habitat. The grass should be mowed or weedeated downtwice a year, once in early summer and again in late summer,  to reset natural succession and discourage woody plant vegetation. One drawback in many urban settings is that unmowed grass suggests a neglected lawn. However, by thoughtfully orienting and mantaining your meadow habitat you can create an aesthetically pleasing layer to your landscape’s arrangement. Dispersing native wildflowers among the grass

Adding wildflowers to your tall grasses can add color to your landscape and benefit wildlife. Photo Credit:
Adding wildflowers to your tall grasses can add color to your landscape and benefit wildlife.
Photo Credit:

will add a splash of color to your landscape as well as attract butterflies and hummingbirds. A few native, low maintenance wildflower species to consider include:

  • Black-eyed Susan
  • Purple coneflower
  • Butterfly weed
  • Standing cypress
  • Sage (Salvia coccinea)
  • Cardinal flower
  • Sweet goldenrod

Food for Wildlife

Offering plants that produce fruit well into winter, such as American holly or Eastern red cedar, will ensure that wildlife can find adequate nutrition even during stress periods. Photo Credit:
Offering plants that produce fruit well into winter, such as American holly or Eastern red cedar, will ensure that wildlife can find adequate nutrition even during stress periods.
Photo Credit:

Food items should be diverse and available year around. Incorporating plants that produce fruit at different times of the year will ensure that wildlife are able to meet nutritional demands even during stress periods such as late winter. It is convenient that many plant species that offer great cover for wildlife also offer excellent food sources. This can save space in your yard and keep food and cover close together. Native plant species should be the first resort. A few attractive, native (to the southeast) species of fruiting trees and shrubs that will provide food from mid-summer will into fall include American Beautyberry, Hearts-A-Busting, Dogwood, Black Cherry and Sugar Berry. As a winter food source, consider American Holly and Eastern Red Cedar. Again, there are a lot of options depending on your region and soil conditions so researching and consulting plant nursery will allow you to determine which plant species are best for your landscape.

Insects are equally important food items. This is where your meadow type

Many species depend exclusively on insects, like this purple martin. Photo Credit:
Many species depend exclusively on insects, like this purple martin.
Photo Credit:

habitat can play a crucial role since the tall grass holds more insects than short mow. Amply higher in protein than fruits, insects are a critical part of birds’ diet, especially during the spring when females rely on insects to feed their rapidly growing young who require a protein-rich diet. Some species, such as wrens, most warblers, phoebes, great-crested and blue-gray flycatchers prefer insects year-around. During the summer months you will likely notice bats feed just above these areas to glean small insects that spend the hottest

Hatchlings depend on insects for protein. Photo Credit:
Hatchlings depend on insects for protein.
Photo Credit:

hours of the day among the cover of tall grasses. Tall grasses largely benefit insects in the order Orthoptera, which includes crickets, grasshoppers, katydids and more. Insect pests such as mosquitoes, roaches and termites will not be similarly encouraged by tall grass.

Warblers are brilliantly colored species that migrate back and forth over the southeast from their wintering grounds in the neo-tropics to their breeding grounds in the northeastern US and Canada. They are also habitat specialists, meaning that they prefer specific habitat types, especially specific food items, as opposed to most resident backyard bird species who are habitat generalists. Warblers are almost exclusively insectivorous and especially benefit from vertical diversity. Tree species such as oak and beech generally offer more caterpillars than other tree species and will be more attractive to warblers than a bird feeder. Warbler sightings can be an indicator of how successful your backyard habitat is, but not always.

Feeders can be an excellent supplementary food source, especially during winter when both vegetable and animal food items are hard to come by. But

This bird feeder is not close to escape cover. A bird visiting this feeder is taking a risk. Photo Credit:
This bird feeder is not close to escape cover. A bird visiting this feeder is taking a risk.
Photo Credit:

feeders have their drawbacks and should be a supplement to, not a substitute for, wild food items. Feeders concentrate birds, provoking aggression within and among species as well as making them more vulnerable to predators. Using several feeders, placed at different heights and in different parts of your landscape can decrease competition and, of course, placing them close to escape cover can decrease predation. The most common types of seed available are millet, black oil sunflower and thistle seed. Blends, usually containing peanuts, black oil sunflowers and millet, are not bad but offering those seeds separately in different feeders can help to curtail competition since different species often prefer different types of seed. For finches, Niger or thistle seed is preferred to all other seeds. Suet, a mix of fat, seeds and nuts can be an excellent supplement. Suet is high in protein and energy and will often attract birds that are typically insectivorous, especially during winter when insects are not as abundant. Move your feeders every few weeks to avoid a build-up of droppings beneath the feeder which can represent a health hazard.

Be judicious with pesticides. While mosquito and fire ant control can be a reasonable objective, consider that if an insecticide kills mosquitoes or fire ants it is likely just as toxic to other insects. Bifenthrin is a very effective insecticide and one of the most common active ingredients in over-the-counter insecticides. Bifenthrin is not a selective insecticide and if it is applied indiscriminately all non-target insect species are effected. Bifenthrin’s impact on the declining honeybee population is of considerable concern. To control fire ants, consider applying the insecticide directly to nests (in accordance with application directions), as opposed to broadcasting evenly over the lawn.


Water should always be nearby. A natural water source like a creek or pond is a-bird_bath_fun-1517257ideal because they require little or no maintenance and will always provide fresh water. Artificial water features are great as well, though they’re often expensive to install. Bird baths work perfectly well as long as the water is changed every few days. If you have the space, offering two or three bird baths can decrease competition by providing more of the resource. Again, keep the baths close to escape cover.

If you are lucky enough to have a natural water source connected to your landscape you may have additional wildlife viewing opportunities, as some species like belted kingfishers, hooded warblers, prothonotary warblers, great blue herons, etc. require natural water sources. Preserving dense vegetation along the bank will encourage wildlife to visit, reduce erosion, and preserve water quality by naturally filtering runoff.


Space is another important wildlife habitat component. The amount of space an animal needs depends largely on how far it has to travel to meet its daily nutritional requirements. The area an animal travels on a daily basis to meet those demands is called its home range. For migratory species, home range can include tens of thousands of miles; for a whitetail deer a few hundred acres can be sufficient; for a robin or sparrow, just a few acres might do. When food, water and cover are close by, wildlife needn’t travel as far to meet their nutritional demands. Most urban landscape initiatives are restricted to relatively small property boundaries, so getting neighbors involved in wildlife friendly landscaping might increase desirable habitat size from a few small disconnected properties to a large, subdivision-wide wildlife initiative.


Fertilizers, while frowned upon by some “experts”, can be an asset. Applied properly, fertilizer has been shown to increase the nutritional quality, abundance of vegetation and fruit production, palatability, and digestibility of many plant species. However, applied improperly, fertilizer can lead to compromised water quality and other environmental concerns, not to mention the cost. Fertilizer should only be applied in accordance with the results of a soil test. There are numerous facilities that offer soil analysis at a negligible cost, as well as easy-to-follow online resources for interpreting the results from your soil test.

Urban Wildlife and Predation

Pets are often the most significant predators to urban wildlife.
Pets are often the most significant predators to urban wildlife.

When you have created your wildlife habitat, you will have created a place where wildlife is likely to congregate, and as prey congregates, so do predators. Some predation is inevitable, however offering sufficient cover will keep the playing field level between predator and prey. In many cases, pets are the main predators of urban wildlife.

Finally, enjoy getting dirt under your fingernails and working with the landscape, not against it. Remember that in the end, your initiatives are well conceived and will likely add up to more than just good intentions.

Hunter S. Bridges

Birding in the Carolinas

blackandwhitewarblerSweat soaked and out of breath, I crouched behind a tangled labyrinth of mountain laurel. After minutes of staring into a stand of doghobble on the edge of a creek, I finally saw his zebra-like plumage. Black and white warbler, I thought, as the morning sun cast columns of golden light through the dense mountain canopy.

No doubt, birding is great fun. Whether you make a special trip to do it or find it to be a pleasant way to pass the time in the deerstand, you will find satisfaction in coming to know the names and habits of the birds in your area. You may also be astonished at the diversity of species that have always been around, just not obvious until you watched for them. Birding is about getting out into wild places and scanning the canopy and understory for birds of the wildest colors, who’s elusive nature keeps them above the mediocrity of the obvious. With over 350 bird species, a menagerie of landscapes and habitat types, and plenty or rural land, the Carolinas offer an amazing birding experience to anyone who is willing to try it.

Spring is a great time to do it since that’s when the spectacularly colored warblers pass over us, boasting their vibrant breeding plumage on their migration route from South America to their breeding grounds in the northeast and Canada. However, with so many species passing through the Carolinas this time of year, getting started can be daunting. Indeed, if you are like many of us who have ever tried it, your first attempt was frustrating: flipping through your field guide as fast as you can trying to identify every species that flies by. In your haste, you do not definitely identify any of them and turn homeward, frustrated. It is best to start with a plan, and here is how to formulate one.

Each field guide (we’ll discuss some of the best field guides later) has a species distribution m

Photo courtesy of

ap that indicates where each particular species is likely to be found at a given time of year. Make a list of those species that are in your region at the time you plan to go out. After that, narrow the list down by finding out how abundant each species on your list is. For instance, you may find that the Bachman’s warbler (Vermivora bachmanii) is listed as being in your area during the spring, but it’s also listed as an endangered species and is by far the rarest and least known warbler. The cerulean warbler (Dendroica cerulean) is not endangered, but has a discontinuous range and is almost always seen high in the canopy of old growth forests. Narrow your list by crossing out the rare or unlikely species (Of course, that doesn’t mean rule them out. Indeed, one of the most alluring aspects of birding is that chance to spot one of those rarities!). Of the species left on your list, notice the habitat types that each species prefers. The prarie warbler (Dendroica discolor), for instance, is a beautiful species common in the Carolinas in the spring and fall and likely to be found in open grasslands or large pastures, while the prothonotary warbler (Protonotaria citrea), also common, is found almost exclusively in wooded swamps. You might start with 10 species that you can expect to encounter. Study those species and their habitats, take note of distinguishing features on each one, eye rings, wing markings, coloration on outer tail feathers, etc. Take a look at the diagrams on the right.

Now you have a list of birds that you can expect to spot and a heads-up on what habitat types in which you are most likely to see each species on your list. Study each of those species, stick to your list, and if a bird flies by that you cannot identify do not get discouraged. Once you have a toehold in the sport you will be a pro in no time.

Ecotones, or places where several habitat types come together, is the best place to bird watch. For instance, an ecotone with five converging

Ecotone, or edge habitat, is a great place to watch for wildlife.

habitat types might look like this: the edge of a brushy field(1) near a stand of heavy brush or evergreens(2), bordered by a hardwood forest(3) with ample understory(4) that slopes down to a creek bottom(5). That type of landscape is as good as it gets and not too hard to find. Remember that each species requires a specific habitat type and means of competing for food, called an ecological niche. With more habitat types within seeing distance, the more species you are likely to encounter without walking your legs off.

Most warblers are hardly more than a few inches long, so despite their vibrant colors and markings, their small size alone can make them hard to spot. Their diet is exclusively insectivorous which is why you are not going to find one sharing a bird feeder with the finches. Only a few of them have elaborate songs. Usually their calls are insect-like buzzes, hardly the warbling songs you might expect. In short, watch closely and pay attention.

A field guide is critical, of course. One of the best field guides is the Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Eastern Region. It offers multiple images of each species (very helpful), categorizes the birds according to color, making it easier and faster to look up a species in the field, it also has a wealth of information on each species. There are a number of other great field guides, so just browse through them at a bookstore or online and discover which one appeals to you.

Binoculars are important, too. Look for a pair with a magnification of 7×40 or 10×40. The first number tells you how close the bird will appear through the lens, that is, a 7×40 magnification will make the bird appear seven times closer, a 10×40 will make the bird appear 10 times closer. The second number refers to the diameter of the front lens (the objective lens). Generally, a 40mm objective is sufficient. The greater the size of the objective lens, the better the light-gathering capabilities of the binoculars. If you plan to be birding in low light conditions you may want to consider a larger objective lens, such as a 50mm lens.

Lastly, a field journal is a great addition to your gear. Anything in which you can jot down a few notes such as species that you have encountered, notes on unidentified species, weather conditions, etc is invaluable, especially in the long-run.

It is also a great idea to join a birding club so that you will be able to go afield with birding enthusiasts of all skill levels. In addition, their websites will offer information on what species other birding enthusiasts have been seeing and where. The Carolina Bird Club and South Carolina Bird Watching are two great organizations to help you get started.

Best of luck!

Hunter S. Bridges

Wild Carolina Celebrates NWTF

Scanned by: Retouched by: DT-VGQC'd by: DT-SSLegend has it that it all started on a cold dawn in 1971 when Tom Rodgers, then manager of an insurance company and writer for a syndicated outdoor column, headed toward a favorite turkey hunting spot in northern Virginia. Moving swiftly over the dim landscape, Tom’s heart was full of adventure as he envisioned an old longbeard perched on his roost. However, his heart sank when he topped out on the ridge. Rodgers would later describe what he saw as “a desolate field, filled only with decaying tree stumps and no wild turkeys in sight.”

On that cold morning, Rodgers, immensely disappointed, began to envision a way to improve the outlook for wild turkeys and their habitat; as a hunter, he realized that he had a responsibility to preserve land and wildlife, both for its own sake and for ours. On March 28, 1973, Rodgers put down his own $440.00 to launch the National Wild Turkey Federation, along with its flagship publication Turkey Call Magazine, in Fredericksburg, VA. Drawing on the connections he had made as an outdoor columnist, Rodgers recruited the help of wildlife biologists, outdoor writers and public relations specialists to launch a public relations campaign. It was not long before his old cigar box was way too small to hold the flurry of membership applications. In June of 1973, Rodgers moved to Edgefield, SC and with his friend and new business partner, Sam Crouch, established the national headquarters for the NWTF, where it remains today.

When Rodgers launched the NWTF there were only 1.7 million wild turkeys roaming the fields and forests of North America, and habturkeyrelease1itat management alone would not be enough to revitalize the population. It was Rodgers’ idea to trap birds from areas with healthy turkey populations and release them on suitable habitat where the birds were scarce. The NWTF also assisted with the trapping and relocation efforts by providing funding, equipment and staff to both state and provincial wildlife agencies. It worked. In fact, trapping and relocation made the revitalization of the wild turkey population one of history’s greatest conservation success stories.  As of today, there are more than 7 million wild turkeys in the United States. As for the NWTF, they are currently a vibrant, multinational federation built on state and local chapters all dedicated to conserving the wild turkey and together they have spent $412 million dollars on conservation and have preserved nearly 17.25 million acres of excellent habitat. Also, by preserving wild turkey habitat, which by definition is spacious and biologically diverse, the NWTF has preserved ideal habitat for countless other game and non-game species, including a number of threatened and endangered species.

In addition to conservation, the NWTF is dedicated to fostering our cherished hunting tradition. Through initiatives such as Wheelin’ Sportsmen, Women in the Outdoors, Families Afield, and JAKES, the NWTF brings the outdoors and the hunting tradition to women, children, the disabled, and so many others who might otherwise miss out on the outdoor experience. No other conservation organization has had such a positive impact on both land and people.

It all started in the heart of a citizen-conservationist who sat on a stump in a ruined habitat and wondered what he could do to ensure a bright future for the game, the land and the sport he loved so much. As fate would have it, a disappointing turkey hunt would inspire one of the most successful conservation stories in history. But most of all, those of us who are deeply stirred by the sight of a stately tom or the echo of his daybreak gobble, owe so much to Rodgers’ vision, and to the hard work and determination of the National Wild Turkey Federation.

To learn more about the National Wild Turkey Federation or to get involved, visit

Hunter S. Bridges