Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Why release game birds?

I can really only speak with reference to the relatively small frame of experience I have had in doing so (4 years or thereabouts), but I thought it was about time to summarise, reflect and pass on the small amount I’ve learned, just in case someone out there wants to give it a shot. First let me start by saying that I was particularly lucky to be asked to join with a small group of people with similar interests. Some were already friends and others have become good mates. More recently, (and to prove a point that it can be done elsewhere by others) I’ve joined with another group to set-up a similar pheasant release site. More to come on that later as the story unfolds – we are only in the planning/paperwork phase at this stage.

So, let’s say that you have the people who are willing to donate time, effort and some cash. Next, you’ll need a venue. Obviously a privately owned block is pretty much mandatory. Further, the block should have enough cover to sustain the birds you wish to release. There is little point in rearing and releasing hundreds of birds into a “dairy desert” (to borrow a phrase), unless cover crops have been planted or are available to the birds. Even with cover crops, hedge rows or trees are preferable to birds such as pheasants which prefer to roost off the ground at night, safe from predators.

With your team and venue in place, you’ll then need to decide on the budget. In the case of Piripiri Pheasant Plucker’s Preserve (as we affectionately name ourselves), each member (8 members) puts in $500, so our annual budget for birds, feed and materials is $4,000. From the start, we set out to rear birds from day old chicks, rather than buy and release fledglings. This in turn requires a more intensive effort and the full time availability of a bird keeper or game keeper. The owner of the land we shoot on is a full member of the party and takes responsibility for the day to day care and management of the chicks from day olds to released fledglings. Do not under estimate the importance and commitment required of this role!

We were very lucky in that members were able to donate time and materials for the establishment of rearing pens, and that we also were able to utilise and extend some existing infrastructure. Our rearing facilities include an old concrete water tank, painted red inside and modified with heat lamps set to a uniform chick sustaining temperature. The importance of the shape of the tank should be highlighted – pheasant chicks just love cramming themselves into corners. When jammed into a corner, the potential for a chick to die of asphyxiation is high … and so they do. In a circular enclosure there are no corners – problem solved. The nature of a pheasant chick is such that it will discover any one of a thousand ways to kill itself. If its feathers get soaked, it will die. If it eats a piece of string, it will die. Another bird will then hang itself on the other end of the same string... and die. It is almost inevitable that losses will be sustained, so that brings us nicely onto the topic of shelter. Our rearing tank is able to be closed with a door, so that in times of cold or wet weather, the birds can be enclosed in their nice warm space. But when it’s warm and dry, you want the chicks to be able to roam and find their feet but to return to shelter quickly. So the tank then opens out into a sheltered shed area (with superb indoor-outdoor flow!) which in turn opens out into the main “recreation area” – the rearing pen. The pen itself is approximately 30m long by 15m wide and 1.5m high, is fully grassed and covered with shade cloth. This provides the perfect area for the chicks to develop their instincts to find food, seek shelter when disturbed and generally grow up.

Rolling out the grass in the rearing pen

Rearing pen prior to completion - tank and shed to left

If we had chosen to buy fledged birds, the need for rearing facilities would have been removed, but cost per bird increases according to age.

Onto the topic of predators. Lots of animals out there quite enjoy a tasty bite of a chick or 2. Stoats, ferrets, weasels, rats, possums, hawks…. So in order to be ready to release wee charges, you must ensure that the area (including inside the pen!) is predator free. This involves a program of trapping and bait laying. We found that early on the program we managed to catch and kill a number of mustelids, but after the initial population reduction mostly critters such as hedgehogs were captured. So keep on top of the predators as they will continue to show up.

Food and water are the next requirements. Be careful with any type of trough for watering the chicks. They are able to drown easily in a cm of water, so use small stones to let the birds stay above water should they step into the water… further, if you can avoid mud forming around the drinker by placing it on a piece of wood or similar, that is very helpful in avoiding disease. Food sources include mash, crumbles and pellets – we use pellets as they cost less. Avoid whole grain for day olds, after they get to about a month old they are better able to deal with such offerings. In the meantime, the chicks will begin to hunt bugs and worms as they spend more time in the pen and this is where the grass comes into its own as it hold such food sources. The topic of disease is not one I know too much about, however we take care to keep the general environment clean to avoid Coccidiosis which is a protozoan disease that can be brought on by dampness. There are a whole host of nasties that can knock your chicks about…. But I’m no vet so you can research that stuff at your leisure.

Chicks on the feed

As the birds begin to age, they can in captivity become prone to some strange behaviours such as pecking and cannibalism. We’ve experienced both; rather, one is symptomatic of the other. It can start as mild pecking and rapidly increase to full scale attacks on the flesh of other birds. Basic rule of thumb here is that if they “see blood” then they’ll kill the subject of their pecking. We have learned that by providing some cover in the rearing pen, along with objects that interest the birds such as sticks, shrubs etc, the problem is much less. Further, immediate removal of a pecked bird is very helpful. In NZ, measures such as beak trimming are not allowed so we have to be more creative in resolving pecking issues.

Bird distraction branch, note that pen has subsequently been enlarged
 Having got through the dramas of nurturing the chicks, they enter a phase of beginning to fledge. This is where the birds begin to grow out flight plumage and express their willingness to escape by flying. Within the rearing pen they will begin to display their flying tendencies by flying small distances and landing on above-ground objects. Soon after, it is time to move them to the release pen(s). At this stage, the genders of the birds are discernible as while they are not fully coloured up, they certainly are displaying.

Immature birds - still ok with game keeper's presence

Birds feeding outside release pen, note plumage is not fully developed

Our release pens are situated in areas of cover, and are designed that when the time is right to allow the birds the freedom to move in and out of the sheltered area, they can do so at their whim. If needs be, the birds can be encouraged to go into the pens. One of the pens is situated by a heavy ground cover crop (turnips for cattle feed), and the birds over time become relaxed with browsing amongst the crop as it grows. For the first few weeks the birds are fed within and around the pens, but a number of peck feeders are deployed around the property to encourage the migration of birds yet at the same time hold a number. In a normal year, our budget is expended by March, so for the month of March and April inclusive, the birds are on their own or in other words, wild. Thus by May, when hunting commences, the birds are very much in a mode where they know how to avoid predators and survive.

Rudimentary release pen - works perfectly

That, in essence explains the “how”, but this post is entitled “Why…?”

The why part is easy. We all love seeing pheasants, we all love hunting pheasants, we all love the elements of putting in time and effort that allows us to share a created resource between ourselves and our friends. This year at least 2 new to pheasant hunting folks shot their first birds. It’s a great feeling to know that the resource created is enjoyed so much. As the years have gone by, our return in terms of birds bagged has increased, but the pressure on the resource has not increased correspondingly; and through wing tagging we are beginning to see an emerging picture of 2 and 3 year old birds being harvested as a greater proportion of the bag. This is very important as it indicates that a sustainable population is being created.

The hunting season is now ended and in a couple of days’ time we enter September, the hunting/fishing lay month…. But September is not unimportant – its when we begin the planning and purchase of next season’s birds. And so it starts again…

Mick, Mitch & Craig (and dogs) - what its all about!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The hundredth bird

Craig reports that the 100th bird of the season was taken at 4pm this afternoon, at which point hunting ceased.

Some stats:

"With our wing tagging this year, we know we ended up with about 15% of birds of two years old or more, and about 15% untagged one year olds so can guess that most of those are wild bred from our previous releases.

It is addictive, and we are now talking about funding ourselves a leg banding program to see if we can get info back on how far the birds are spreading."  

I cannot emphasise enough how rewarding it is to release birds. We know that its bolstering the wild population as well as offering world class opportunity. I'm convinced that bird releasing is the way of the future, including waterfowl. (In comparison to pheasants, raising ducklings is a doddle).

100, a nice number to finish on.

Craig's final bird of 2012

A fine end to the upland season

Strictly speaking, the season finishes tomorrow, but I've cleaned my gun and put it away for another year without a single regret. Today we had an absolute ripper of a day. I picked dad up at Rick's place at 7 and we hit the road. The fog was horrendous, and the whole trip to Waitomo was through a heavy blanket of the grey stuff. We emerged from the mist near Craig's to find a blue sunny sky, a stunning day. Craig is currently hosting 3 German exchange/work experience girls and after introductions and a coffee we got ready for our morning's hunt. The Frauleins wanted to tag along and seemed to be good value so off we went in 2 cars. Dad's knee and hip are due for replacement soon (there's a lesson about playing rugby in there somewhere) so we set off for the easier side of the farm.

 A stunning day

It was truly lovely out there, perfect warm day, blue sky, the greens seemed greener than usual ... I really enjoy spring (even though technically we're still in winter). We weren't particularly quiet as we approached the first gully so I was surprised when 3 birds burst from the sunny side under some scrub - dad and Craig each took a bird, a fine start to the day and not 100 metres from the car! Then dad had the honour of taking a flying turkey as it flew down to him... sounded like a sack full of elephants when it hit the ground.

Dad, Craig & turkey

We worked our way around bushy rock outcrops, Craig pushing up and over while dad and I took the low road. As we moved around one large outcrop Craig called out "bird!" and a cock burst over high and handsome, my shot was definitely the highlight of a great season's hunting and folded him clean and cold.


The walk was pleasant, but the old man stumbled early on and aggravated his knee (by bashing it on a rock) so we kept to the gentler stuff. We soon arrived at the old release pen area and walked up the swampy finger that always seems to hold a bird or 2. While dad, Craig and Miss Germany #1, #2 & #3 walked to the head of the scrubby area I walked down to cut off the escape route.

Never fail pheasant spot
It looked bare and I had just commented that I'd never seen it blank before when Max locked on a scent and pushed out a rooster. He had no choice but to come  my way and I had a long leisurely swing before knocking him down. Very satisfying.

Hunting party
The hunt was fairly relaxed and carried out at a gentle pace as we picked up birds here and there. By the time we returned to the cars, I had a limit in the pocket of my jacket.

Pie. German lasses love pie.

We sat in the sun and ate bacon, egg, potato and herb pie before heading back to Craig's house for a beer and a natter. With today's birds the total harvested of the 400 released was up to 98 odd, an excellent return.

We left and reached Rick's by 3 - Cock was there preparing to go on a goose hunt. We had a quick natter before I set out for home reflecting on what's been a damn good season.

As for the Frauleins? Well they enjoyed every second of the hunt. Who knows, maybe some more converts?

Some photos courtesy of Craig & co.

Friday, August 24, 2012

BOP - The pheasant zone

The Bay Of Plenty has everything that appeals to retirees and pheasants. Warm climate, high sunshine hours, relaxed pace of life. Even better for a pheasant - abundant multi land use agricultural and forestry activities. To sum it up, there's food (lots of food), warmth, shelter and enough rain to keep it a nice green hothouse.

Everything grows super-big in BOP, including pheasants...
Milo sent a text last week to sort out a late season hunt, we roped in Andy (and Keira) and the mission was a go. Given the recent weather I threw just about every wet weather garment I owned into the truck, along with an impossible amount of ammunition (just in case) and the gun. Hit the road at 6 to avoid rush hour traffic and made my way down SH1, over the Bombay's and off on SH2 to Tauranga. As I crossed the Hauraki Plains the sun came up revealing a cloudless sky... but taking the weather for granted and not preparing for the worst case can lead to an uncomfortable day at best.

We gathered at Milo's place and caught up on life, before packing our gear into Andy's car and heading for the farm, where we caught up with the farm manageress who tried to get us to adopt a puppy before we set off. The first block of bush we worked saw 2 birds sail out away from us, 1 hen and 1 of unknown gender.

Fairly typical of the land we were on
 Keira worked her little butt off and wasn't really rewarded all that much for her efforts, especially when I saw her working and a rabbit departed in some scrubby stuff under the pines.. I told the boys it was a rabbit .. and sure enough a cock bird exploded at the top of the ridge and out of range. Doh.

Pine block... Milo likes it!

We arrived at a pine block where some years ago Milo and I (with Bobby the Fox Terrier and Milo's dog Moss) had the most amazing experience of pheasants dropping in and landing pretty much where we were standing. Bobby revealed his class (and the smarts of the breed) by charging into a patch of thick crap and hauling out  a wounded  pheasant hiding there - was quite something to see.

This time the birds broke almost as soon as we entered the block. Miles got a long shot in on a big bird that escaped. I found myself in head high shrubs so was a bit useless on the trigger pulling front. Andy was occupied with Keira. We worked the edge of the block and a bird jumped from my right... luckily my second shot cleaned him up, a nice young bird, hopefully he'll be a tasty treat for my folks.

We back tracked and then climbed a gut buster of a hill (which my memory had faded out at some stage.. normally I remember shitty hills) for the final part of the hunt. We worked some brushy edges and as we went I spied a rooster at the same time as he spied me, I told the lads to get ready, hoping that he'd take to a patch of cover and hold... but instead he broke and flew.

All too soon (really? Close on 6 hours for the hunt) we were back near the car and decided to push through the patch we'd hunted when we'd first arrived. Andy and I moved down through the patch while Milo circled back to trap any escapees - 2 shots rang out and I heard a cock cackling - another escapee I thought, but when we caught up with Milo he'd dropped a big old bird that ran, so the cackling was most likely a different bird taking off. We tried for quite a while to pick up Milo's bird, but poor Keira was almost out on her feet and just couldn't track the bird down  - but he'd had a good head start, so while disappointing it didn't take the gloss off a great day in the field.

Back to Milo's for a coffee, then back home via Paeroa to visit them, their pup and drop off the day's pheasant. Home by 8pm, quick clean up. (Oh, and the weather played ball as well, for a while dark clouds piled overhead but held off dumping on us).

I just love the BOP, so much to offer in the pheasant zone. Thanks lads.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The old guys make some observations

Over the past couple of days, I've received calls and a letter from some old duck hunters. One, Bert Laing, is a life long hunter who spend his life on the Hauraki Plains and in retirement spends all of his time hunting ducks in season. The other, Rex Murray, is from the same mould, a life long plains hunter. Both wanted to talk about the state of the duck population. Both are convinced that electronic decoys are having a huge impact on the juvenile duck population. Bert mentioned that in both the Whangamarino pond he hunts (~30 birds harvested for the season against a 'normal' season tally of 150) and the Firth of Thames, the observed numbers of ducks were far far below the norm. Rex noted that the majority of birds his team harvested at the opening of the season were adults, and that juveniles were almost absent in their bag. Bert is a lead shot advocate, stating that the use of non toxic shot (he referred to 'steel shot', which is the most common non toxic alternative to lead) leads to injured birds escaping to die slowly elsewhere. Rex had similar views. Both discussed season length, Rex in particular observing that in the month of June, mallards are displaying courtship behaviours and are pairing up, a pre-cursor to mating. Rex also noted that we as a hunting populace, have become far more efficient at harvesting ducks - the semi-automatic shotgun with as many rounds as can be carried now dominates whereas prior to 2004 we had a 2 shot restriction. Motion and electronic decoys are now mandatory items in every decoy spread. The influx of quality camouflage clothing now commonly worn are another balance tipper according to Rex.

Its obvious that as hunters we have to make some sacrifices to preserve our sport. As an organisation, Fish & Game needs to continue to galvanise its activities in the field of understanding of what's happening to the duck population, and even though that program has begun to take flight it will take some time to get meaningful analysis outcomes... In the meantime the biggest gain for Auckland Waikato may be able to be made by adjusting the season length again in our region. If ducks are indeed pairing and mating in June then one part of the overall puzzle should be easy to solve, but we then need to be able to back that up with quality population science to prove a positive impact from making such a move.

Based on the findings of Auckland Waikato's most recent Game Bird Harvest Survey supplementary questions, a larger proportion of those surveyed mentioned that 'seeing game birds' and enjoying the social aspects of hunting were more important to them than simply pulling the trigger. Therefore, you could reasonably expect that these hunters would still purchase a game bird license (if season length were reduced), which while no one is saying it must certainly be one of the biggest concerns in the corridors of power, because any threat to revenue is what keeps CEO's awake at night and reducing the season's length will be viewed by some as reducing opportunity. As such they may choose to not pursue the sport further. A delicate balancing act indeed.

The final word from Rex "You show me anywhere an organisation in the business of producing and harvesting stock kills off 70% of its breeding population..."

Thanks Rex & Bert, great hearing from you both.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Hell, now the upland hunting's almost finished

But not quite. 2 more hunts to go, after today's little sojourn. Tim, Quinn and I headed up to Mitch's folks' place for a walk around after whatever we could find. Brutus (dog) was back in action after an injury break, and Quinn was sporting his new 16g youth gun, bought for his birthday.

The weather played ball too - after weeks of drizzle, rain, drizzle and a spectacular overnight thunder storm we got a pearler, albeit extremely humid for August!

Quinn took a beautiful overhead shot on a pukeko - his first kill with the gun and a marvellous shot to boot!

Quinn's first game bird with his new gun
We worked gulleys and hedgerows and pushed out a number of birds - between us we put shots on 3 or 4 pheasants. There is nothing in life half as exciting a a flushing cock pheasant and one particular bird was very game indeed. Brutus winded him a ways off then settled in to his search and hold mode but the bird flushed wild. With 2 of us on each side of the hedgerow we were working he was well enough covered but as he jumped well out he was a challenge. I hit him with the second shot and as he shot over the hedge and he rocked then Quinn (other side of hedge) hit him and he curled back into cover on a damaged wing.

We worked the rest of the hedgerow and he jumped again, this time evading a volley. Finally we worked to the end of the hedgerow and Mitch popped him as he jumped. Total shots expended = 9 and we all agreed he was a very sporting bird having offered a shot to everyone.

Mitch with the iron bird
When I got home and showed the Justin Bieber Fan Club the photos, she expressed an interest in 'going shooting' one day. Music to my ears.

Thanks Mitch, Tim & Quinn (& Brutus) for an outstanding hunt.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Loonies walk amongst us

"Electrofishing is like tasering a baby" 

The last time I tasered a baby.... oh, what's the point in even trying to invoke such a stupid metaphor...

Must be a slow news day for any reporter idiot enough to submit such a story, presumably the edition's Editor was on his lunch break as well. As for the commentator, if netting long-fin eels is good for the species then I'll eat my hat. Sustainable quota? Pfffft.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Bad habits

I had a bit of a shooting wake-up yesterday. I was standing on a far peg, bogged down in mud and a blazing sun in my eyes. The birds that did appear from the stand of tall pines in front of me immediately split hard right (into the sun) or hard left. I was left chasing birds at 40 - 50 m and was hashing it badly. My 30 odd shots left me with not much to show for it. I was over and behind birds, and by the time I was taking them they were well past the prime position. While I was enjoying pulling the trigger (it had been 3 weeks), I wasn't doing much to add to the bag.

After the drive, a gent pulled me aside. He explained that his role was shoot coach, and he wanted to work with me. First of all, he noted that my mount was wonky and the gun was canted slightly, resulting in shooting over birds. We got that worked out, then he helped me with my ready position, bird identified, gun tucked under arm pit, from there to shoot position smoothly. We practiced for a while, and then headed for the next drive. To be fair to everyone, this was the first drive of the day where birds presented themselves to me in the traditional fashion; head-on or there-abouts, high and handsome. I only missed one bird slightly behind, and the coach was stoked. So was I, by adopting his method I had straightened up, cleaned up my posture and bought more time on each bird. At the post shoot round-up we learned that we'd done a season best on that particular (and challenging drive) with 2.85 shots per bird.

Never under-estimate the importance and value of being coached by seasoned players.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Catch Mag

August 2012 Catch is out, fabulous as usual.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Oreti Cycle Way

Hearing Commissioner Denis Nugent's report & findings into the proposed Oreti Cycle Way is a triumph of commonsense. The plan was for a renowned and very popular wilderness fishing area to be abutted by a cycle track, the construction of which included the creation of artificial stop banks, an amenity block and several bridges. (This when a road is already available from Mt Nicholas).

The popularity of this fishery is such that a 'beat' system is in place, with beats beginning and ending at access points up the river.

Fish and Game's role in the hearing process, along with anglers and outdoors enthusiasts who made submissions is to be applauded.

Of course, the decision is most likely to be appealed, but the precedent is set which is a very important win. NZ's scenic fisheries are heavily pressured already, so protecting what's left is an important legacy issue for future generations.