North Fork Outdoors: Advice for birders — follow bird dogs

A couple of weeks ago we got a close-up visual on a hen black duck crossing a local state highway with her ducklings as we swerved onto the other shoulder of the road. The day before, I positively identified a fledgling crested flycatcher when I picked it up in my hand. The bird was huddled behind the front wheel of a car in the driveway. Fortunately, I hadn’t started the car yet and the little fellow fluttered off into the shrubbery.

On the south shore of Long Island and the north shore of Boston, this is the season of the well-protected piping plover, currently a success story for conservation. Plover populations are recovering from all-time lows. For example, they’re up by a factor of at least two on Revere Beach in Massachusetts, according to The Boston Globe, but the long-distance-traveling migrants are nevertheless the target of complaints by beachgoers and buggy riders asked to detour around their nest sites. Sorry, folks, but we’re the intruders on their beaches; anyway the plovers will be on their way again soon enough.

Bird protection, accepted by all but a few who resent intrusions on their “way of life,” is common in our region. An eastern grasslands ecosystem, for example, is now being established on Cape Cod, around Falmouth, Mass., where hopes of saving the grasshopper sparrow and re-establishing native bobwhite and meadowlark populations run high.

This effort comes far too late, unfortunately, for the eastern prairie chicken, a species that was once native from the mid-Atlantic up through New England. Populations collapsed by the mid-19th century on Long Island and became fully extinct when the last birds died on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1930s.

Some birders travel extraordinary distances to put birds on life lists, although outdoors persons in certain areas see these species all the time. At a college reunion in late May we met a couple of intrepid birders who had traveled all the way east from California; they were headed into northern maritime Canada in search of spruce grouse. We told them about a couple in the Adirondacks who are managing an area of several thousand acres of spruce grouse habitat that was hundreds of miles closer. Birders from Paumanok are impressed by tales of the melodious bobolinks and meadowlarks that nest in the fallow fields on our property upstate.

You have a different identification scheme for your birds, however, if you train and work with bird dogs, particularly the pointing breeds. Very young, inexperienced pups will point to everything (not only birds, but also butterflies, skunks, turtles, opossum, etc.) and we ignore the little gray, little brown, or little black guys that flit in front of them. Warblers, sparrows, wrens? Who knows what they are?

We’re waiting for a solid point on a game bird. “Tweety” birds or “stink” birds don’t count — usually. Long ago, in an “unofficial” field trial in Manorville, I was judging a friend’s Brittany and we were having a terrible time getting good work on the quail we had put out. Out in one field was a huge flock of blackbirds and I joked that I wished they were bobwhite. “If you want, I’ll send her out, and she’ll point ’em, clean,” said our friend. I told him to go ahead and send the dog. The Brit pointed and held point for the flush and shot, and I (somewhat sheepishly) credited the find!

Then there are woodcock! Birders often seek out nocturnal woodcock in the springtime when the flight birds come north and the males court the hens. The “peent” calls, like Bronx cheers, are unmistakable. The flights follow ancient shorelines, now often inland, cross waterways, and the six-ounce bundles of energy show up in many places, e.g., Shelter Island and even Central Park, but are seldom actually seen — unless you have a pointing dog on the ground.

In central New Hampshire we had our last field trial of the season in the Pemigewasset river basin and drew the last brace on a very hot Saturday afternoon. The scent of the quail that was put out was very poor and Janet’s dog, Missy, was about to go birdless. Suddenly, there she was, stacked up on point in an anomalous spot, a birch copse in the middle of a field. Jan dismounted, walked beyond the dog on point, and out fluttered a woodcock hen, trying to distract attention from either her nest or perhaps her chicks. Jan fired the blank pistol, then gingerly walked the dog many yards away where Missy could be released to go on hunting. Missy would be placed third among 14 dogs, despite having no quail finds. Amazingly, trained mostly in central Pennsylvania, Missy had never seen a woodcock before!

Birders could have lots of fun, we think, if they occasionally followed bird dogs!