Posts Tagged ‘wild turkey’

bobcat tracks ocala national forest

We came to the forest to run the dogs. Many days of hard driving down the East Coast had made them edgy, so we left the wild road of I-95 at Ormond Beach and slipped down through the land of the pine and the scrub until we entered the Ocala National Forest.

Eyes peeled for these little sand roads that cut off into the scrub and pine, we knew it would just be a matter of time before the hounds and German shepherd were racing as wild beasts of the field once again.

We found just such a road, and though I had never driven on such sand and dolomite before, I eased my way into this bit of preserved Florida Wilderness. The dogs were loosed. No one would care. Locals run their dogs on these roads every day, and it would be good for me to stretch my legs as well.

So the dogs tore down the road. My eyes were peeled for wildlife, but the general rule is one doesn’t typically see much wildlife when a pack of dogs is frolicking about. These were once the haunts of the Florida black wolf, a melanistic form that ran the swamps and pine and palmetto scrub and was extirpated from the peninsula to protect growing cattle interests. It had to have been a hardy creature to put up with all that disgusting heat and worminess of such a land.

But even with it gone, most wildlife would have retained some instinctive fear of large canids, which would be reinforced with the advance of coyotes deeper and deeper into the Southland.

So I went to look for a bit of wildness, but I guessed I would see nothing. Where Poet the whippet ran down one sandhill, I thought I glanced at some bobcat tracks. I told myself that I’d merely mistaken whippet racks for those of a large cat. I was getting rusty as a naturalist anyway, and my brain was likely to make me see things that simply were not there.

We ran the dogs up and down the road. Whooping and shouting like foxhunters calling to their hounds on a distant ridge in West Virginia on a starry December night.

And it was as we turned that Jenna spied the tracks, her eyes flew wide.

“What kind of tracks are those?”


And they certainly were. The cat that had left them had to have been a fairly large tom, and judging by the ATV tracks that skirted down the road around them, he had been there that morning, crossing from one set of palmetto scrub to another.

My eyes followed the bobcat tracks on the dolomite and sand road. I spied turkey tracks coming the opposite direction. The two species had crossed paths, though they did not meet in the road.  There was no sign of a struggle in the tracks.

I guessed the bobcat had gone out across the road to go do a bit of turkey stalking. Maybe he’d jumped this turkey, which was also a fair-sized tom, and it had realized that it needed to cross the road, where no fanged and clawed beasts were lurking.

bobcat and turkey tracks ocala national forest

This part of Florida is still essentially wild. The national forest merely keeps it way by the law, but all around there is wooded country.  The people who live in the little towns around the forest choose to live in Florida’s subtropical rusticity. This is not Miami or Orlando.  This is a wild country. Signs along the road warn you of bears crossing the highway, and yes, I would have loved to have seen a Florida black bear.

I didn’t though, but it was enough romance for me to know that they were there, loping around the scrub and pines with the big flocks of wild turkeys and stalking bobcats.

Florida does not draw attention to its wilderness. It advertises its beaches, its urban scenes, and its amusement parks.

But wild places still exist. They just must be encountered, usually with the help of someone with local knowledge.

And yes, I urge travelers to take the jay-off of I-95 and take the country road into the Ocala National Forest. The kids might want to see the cartoon princesses, but you can show them a real enchanted forest.

If I had seen such a place when I first traveled to Florida as a kid, I think I would have such a different impression of the place. I certainly have one now.

Yes, it’s the land of urban sprawl and wild real estate speculation, but it is also a land of bears and bobcats and swaying palmettos in the March breeze.

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Tom bird

tom bird

The early weeks of May begin the age of green pastels. The soft greenery of foliage pokes its way out of the gray smudge of the canopy, and the pastures are thickly verdant in the revived grass.

This age of green pastels is the harbinger to the age of photosynthesis, high summer, when the days steam long and hot and all living things in this temperate zone play out the business of growing, reproducing, and laying store for that long winter darkness that will return someday– but not soon.

This is the time of the cottontail doe kindling her kits in a bowl nest made from weaving the fur plucked from her belly with the furrows at the bases of the rising orchard grass. This is the time of the resplendent red cardinal cockbirds and their wild singing to ward off their rivals from the best nesting grounds. Testosterone rushes in them hard, as it does with all those of the avian kingdom, who are now at that season when procreation is the main consideration.

Just as the spring turns the “redbirds” into their state of lustful madness,  the wild turkeys turn their attention to these same carnal pursuits. Not pair-bonded in the way that most birds are, the big toms woo the hens with their gobbling and fanning and turning their light blue heads deep warrior red.  The spurs get thrown on occasion, especially for those foolish jakes who try to sneak a tryst with a hen in the undergrowth.

This time of green pastels is also a time when the shotguns go blasting.  Most other game beasts are left to alone in the spring time, but the wild turkey is one species where the hunt comes now. The camouflaged hunters, armed with their turkey calls and 12 and 20 gauges, braved the early spring snow squalls and bagged a few jakes and naive lustful toms.

But this big tom has survived the slinging of lead wads. Most of his rivals now reside in freezers or have already been fried as a fine repast.

The big bird has the hens mostly to himself, and when he hears the kelp-kelping of a hens on a distant ridge on a May morning, he lets loose a few loud gobbles.

“Come, my beauties! Behold me as your lover and protector!”

And the gormless hens kelp-kelp and wander in all directions, searching with their exquisite eyes for the big tom’s fanning form among the undergrowth.

The naive toms and young jakes will often go charging towards their calling, but the turkey hunter uses these exact same sounds to toll in the quarry.  The naive ones come in, and the shotguns have their number.

The big tom has seen his comrades dropped so many times that he hangs back and listens. He gobbles back every ten minutes or so. He walks in the opposite direction for about 20 yards then gobbles at the hens.

They kelp-kelp and meander around, but eventually, they line themselves on the right trail and wander over to meet the big tom. He fans for his girls, but none crouches before him for a bit of mating. They are just here to check the old boy out.

But sooner or later, they mate in the spring sun, and the hens will wandered to their nests in the undergrowth and tall grass. They will lay speckled eggs, which will hatch into speckled poults, which will carry the big tom’s genes into the next age of green pastels.

Someday, a skilled turkey hunter will work the old boy over with the hen calls in just the right way, and he will stand before the hunter’s shotgun blast. He will be taken to town and shown off to all the local guys, the ones who shoot jakes in the early days of the hunting season.

He will be a testament to the hunter’s skills, for real hunting is always an intellectual pursuit.  It is partly an understanding of biology and animal behavior, but it is also about the skillfulness at concealment and mimicry.

21 pounds of tom bird will be a trophy for the hunter, but they will also be the story of a bird who outwitted the guns for four good years and whose genes course through the ancestry of the young jakes gobbling and fanning in his absence.

A century ago, there were no wild turkeys in the Allegheny Plateau, but conservation organizations funded by hunters brought them back.

In the heat of July, the hens will move in trios and quartets into the tall summer grass of the pastures. They will be followed with great parades of poults, who will be charging and diving along at the rising swarms of grasshoppers and locusts. They will grow big an strong in the summer.

And someday, a few may become big old toms that will gobble on the high ridges, calling out to the hens to come and see them in their fine fanning.

And so the sun casts upon the land in the spring and summer, bringing forth the lustful pursuits among the greenery, even as mankind turns his back on the natural world more and more each year.

And fewer and fewer will feel sweet joy that one hears when a big tom gobbles in the early May rain that falls among the land dotted in green pastels.

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Running into poults


I went out on a late June saunter with camera in hand. It is that time of year just as the gloriousness of high summer begins its slow slide into the muggy doldrums of the the dog days.  It is the time before the mowing machines and the hay tedders and bailers come and denude the meadows of their tall grass.

It is the time when rabbits run through the tall grass. Furry paws hiss through the weeds as they course away from my treading advance, and the stalks bend with each contact, making it seem as if the grass sways to the haunting of some apparition as it slinks between the Netherworld and here.

But on this day of tall grass and sunshine, the rabbits were all in their weedy forms. Being abroad in the sunlight is only going to expose a lagomorph to the watching eyes of red-tailed hawks, which sit with casting eyes on power-line poles and tall trees.  Any furry exposed furry movement will be sure to get a great buzzard’s attention, and down from the trees and the power-line poles will come the winged death.

All that was abroad in the sunlight on that day were little songbirds, like goldfinches and chipping sparrows, flitting above the tall grass like bits of animate confetti. Crows were calling from the early season apple trees, and I could hear the croaking of ravens on a distant ridge, where I knew a farmer had deposited the remains of three Angus cows had succumbed to a lightning strike the week before. I imagined that the ravens and turkey vultures came during the heat of the day and pecked away at their beef buffet, but when the night drew in, the coyotes and foxes came to get their piece. I knew the rank stinking of beef carcasses would likely draw out a bear or two, and perhaps one might be wandering through the woods and meadows while I was out with my camera.

I had all these thoughts going through my mind when I turned down an access road that cuts along the edge of the meadow and the big woods. The meadow’s highest point rises to my right before leveling out, and it was in that leveling place that I saw a small doe standing tawny and russet in her summer coat.  I readied my camera, but she was startled by my presence and bounded off into the forest before I could crack my shutter.

It was at that moment that I noticed something sky blue sky blue in the grass that was growing about half way up the that high point. The blue spot rose above the grass and revealed itself to be a wild turkey’s head. The sun cast a sheen upon the black feathers and the iridescent shine that appears on turkey plumage cast back to me the greens and violets that would be hidden if the sun were not shining so brightly upon her.

I knew from the size and shape that it was a hen turkey. She was svelte and trim, and I couldn’t see much of a “snood” protruding from her forehead.

And I knew instantly why she was there, and I knew I had come across a fine photo opportunity.  I had to play this right, because if I came in too quickly, I would mess it all up.

When the grass is tall, it is a paradise for grasshoppers.  Grasshoppers are little more than bits of protein with exoskeletons, and hen turkeys know this well.  They need to know this fact, not because they need lots and lots of protein to thrive, but because in midsummer, they have rapidly growing poults that need as much easily procured protein as possible.

So I knew that if I approached this turkey calmly, I might get a chance to photograph some wild turkey poults. They weren’t bears or coyotes, but they were pretty amazing.  I knew that by this time of year, the little wild turkeys would have already developed flight feathers, and if I spooked them, they would shoot out of the grass in all directions, heading skyward to the safety of the forest’s canopy.

So I came slowly. The turkey hen glowered at me. She lowered herself into the tall grass, hoping that I hadn’t seen her.  I took slow steps, but her dark eyes never left me.

Suddenly another turkey rose on stilt legs from the grass and ran hard for the woods. I had not seen her, but I now realized I had come onto a matriarchal band of turkeys. During the summer, related turkey hens will band together with all their poults, and they will work together to bring their charges into good foraging spots and protect them from predators. I knew that if there were poults, there would be many, and this was an opportunity that I hoped I didn’t mess up.

I made a few more steps to the turkeys. Two more hens rose from the grass and ran hard for the woods.  I stopped.  I had now seen four mature hens, which meant that the grass was probably full of poults.  Four hens with four clutches of offspring. It was almost too good to be true.

I made a few more steps.  The hen that had been staring at me the whole time suddenly took to the wing.


A half dozen small brown poults followed her skyward, but one stood around, exposing itself in the grass.


The photo is fuzzy, because it was the only photo I was able to take. As soon as the shutter clicked, the grass erupted in wing beats. Black-speckled brown poults shot out of the grass in all directions. I had too many targets, and in the fog of all this action, I got no photos of turkey poult shooting out of the grass.

I was disappointed, but I thought if I slinked along the treeline, I might find a poult or two that had taken refuge in a tree that abutted along the meadow. It was my only hope.

Or so I thought.

As I began my slinking approach, I heard a high-pitch cheeping sound from the grass behind me. I turned my head to see the tall grass swaying as something small moved along the bass of the grass-stalks. Before my mind could register that it was a poult, the little beast busted out of its hiding place. Instead of flying away from me, its little wings took it straight at me. It passed no more than six feet from head before it landed on a small hickory tree under which I was standing.

The camera was ready this time.


The poult stared down with me, perhaps wondering what it was. I couldn’t tell if it had fear in its eyes or curiosity. Perhaps both.


But I’m sure its main concern was the location of the rest of its band, especially its mother and aunties and their soft clucks and purrs.

It chirped away into the bush, and then realizing that it probably shouldn’t stay in that hickory tree, it took flight again.

It was there only a minute, but in that minute he revealed to me the beauty and elegance of wild youth.

And the camera was there to capture it, so I could share it with you.

Running into poults.  Soon to be jakes and jennys.  A little longer and they will be stately toms and hens. The bobcats and coyotes will stalk them all their days, as will the spring hunters with their yelping and clucking calls. The fall hunters will go gunning for them too.

And they will eat a belly-full of ticks and spiders and the acorns and the wild fruits as they go through their life course, clucking and fanning and digging in the leaf litter.






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My guess is this is a wild turkey hen trying to hide her poults in the tall grass. She probably had them out for a nice grasshopper hunt on a balmy June morning. but when she encountered me, she went renegade.

Unlike suburban wild turkeys, which appear clueless dumb, those from pressured populations behave with all the stealth of a well-trained and well-seasoned sniper. Any mistake and the shotguns will get you.

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Grandpa’s Bird

aududbon wild turkeyIf you were to travel the back roads along the wild border between Calhoun and Gilmer Counties and mention my name to some well-worn local, you would probably get “You mean that guy who kills all the turkeys?”

I am Scottie V. Westfall III.  Junior is my father. The elder has passed on.

I have never killed a turkey, though I’ve certainly seen the birds slinking along on gray November days, the sort of days when you hope against all hope that a white-horned stag might come slinking out of the thickets and into rifle range.   When the bipedal fantails come trudging out of the gray gloom, I’ve been sorely tempted, but I’ve held my fire.

Not in season. Let them be.

My grandpa killed 8 turkeys in one season. The limit is 2.

He saw them as the Holy Grail of wild game.  He made his own calls and spent hours scouting and “chumming” them.  “Chumming,” of course, meant the copious dropping the “yellow call” in the March woods,  and “yellow call” was cracked corn. Baiting turkeys was illegal as taking more than the yearly bag limit.

He and often argued over conservation issues, but he liked playing the scofflaw, a sort twentieth century version of the old European poacher who loved to flaunt the king’s edicts about the king’s game.

Turkey hunts in spring begin before the sun rises.  The birds start moving and then start courting once there is just enough light to see, and the big tom birds drop from their treetop roosts and go about the business of fighting and fanning before the often reluctant hens.

The trick is to hit the woods before the birds come down and begin the process of “talking turkey.”  The talk a man gives the tom bird is supposed to be that of a dopey but receptive hen that is looking for a male company but just can’t make her way toward him.

If a tom is “henned up” with plenty of female company, he’s not likely to leave them to look for the yelping idiot on a distant ridge. He’s going to be content to stay with his harem and fan and puff  up for them.

The best hunters have strategies for the birds, but the very best– the ones who shoot 8 birds in a season– use the yellow call. They risk the game warden’s fines, but if he really wants the bird, it’s a risk that some will take.

Before there was ever a turkey season, my grandpa set out a bunch of game-farmed Eastern wild turkeys in the back country. The dumb things were too tame to be sporting birds, so he took to harassing and harrying with sticks.

And they soon learned to fear man, and they thrived in the backwoods.  When their numbers were high enough, my grandpa opened his own season and shot a tom.  He was totally flaunting the North American model of wildlife conservation. He’d set out private birds on private land, and now he was opening his own private season.

I can’t say that I approve of such things. I’m more or less in love with public wildlife model that has served our game species so well. I don’t hate conservation laws, which are mostly based upon the most rigorous science available.

But a few days ago, I saw a few big toms out fanning in a pasture. The greenness of the new April grass painted a pastel promenade ground, and the bird’s iridescent feathers were shining in the April sun.

I saw in them the beauty that had so beguiled my grandfather. They drove him into the scofflaw world of sniping turkeys with a .243.  They were what led him the regular haunts in the March woods with buckets of yellow call.

“You gobble. You die,” said the vanity plate on my his Ford pickup.

And for the turkeys he took, it certainly meant death.

But in their gobbling, he truly lived. He was a wild beast of the woods as his ancestors were, hunting hard the wild game without any regard for such artificial abstractions as law and conservation science.  It is the way that our kind lived for much of our 200,000 year existence. It is a way that has brought down many species, including the passenger pigeons which used to fill the skies on warm spring days.

The pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, more than 19 years before my grandfather was born. They died off as the wild turkey nearly did. We just couldn’t stop killing them.

The turkey was saved, though, and is doing well.  And the bag limits and seasons get more liberal every year.

I think of my grandpa when I see these birds on clear April days. I know that he would be out there questing for them, yearning for them, coaxing them, ready to harvest as a wild hunting man should.

And I can only come up short. I’m an ersatz hunter-gatherer, wet around the ears, domesticated by the post-industrial world.

Yet still seeking that essential wildness that lies in gray woods of my people.








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Turkey bunch

A big flock of wild turkeys (hens and this year’s poults) cam by the Moultrie 1100i.

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Seasonably appropriate


In most of the US, this is Thanksgiving week, but here in West Virginia, it’s deer season. I’ve seen only one deer in two days. I’m that bad a hunter, but I’ve seen more than a few turkeys.

Which is a more seasonably appropriate animal.

But this is deer season.



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If you didn’t know any better, you’d think some velociraptors were out stalking the mist.

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Some turkeys

Some Eastern wild turkey stride by on an autumn morning.


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The last flame of autumn:









(I don’t know why he went into eclipse! He’s too young!)


Bobcat track. You’ve already seen the bobcat, though:



Quaking aspens against a blue sky:










Wild turkeys trying to hide:








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