Friday, December 12, 2014

The View from a Hunt: on Altruism and Ruddy Ducks

It was a hunt where nothing seemed to be going right.

My calling had helped hook three mallards on their way to some rice fields, only for me to whiff when they floated over our blind.

I'd received the supreme blessing of having two Aleutians randomly fly super low over me and my buddy Charlie in open water, only to hear that worst of all noises: click.

Aaaand I heard that sound one more time with my bead on the crimson head of a canvasback. (And yes, it was operator error - so was the other one.)

I admit it: I sulked for a while after that. I lay back in my hunting kayak, pulled some camo netting over my body, shut my eyes and allowed myself to drift in and out of sleep. It was pretty much a self-imposed time out. It's actually a really effective cure for a bad mood, by the way - not sure why we think of it as a kid thing.

Anyway, at some point, my buddy Charlie saw me moving around in my little nest and said we should move because all the action was 100 yards away, so I picked myself up and paddled to the other spot.

The first thing I noticed there was a dead grebe floating in the water. And about ten yards from that, there was a dead hen ruddy duck on the shoreline. I let them be, lest one careless touch put them, legally, in my possession.

After Charlie finished setting up the decoys, we settled back into tule patches and waited for the ducks to come.

Before long, there were ruddies and buffleheads all around us, but neither of us was interested in shooting them. Ruddies can taste good, but that was highly unlikely to be the case where we were hunting them. And buffies just taste terrible unless you're willing to jump through hoops to make them taste good, and for that little meat, it's just not worth it.

We kept watching, hoping something tasty like a canvasback would wander in, when something weird happened. Maybe 20 feet in front of me, I saw a drake ruddy pulling himself ashore, just five feet from where the dead hen was.

God, he was graceless. Divers really aren't made for land. He kind of hurled himself against the shore repeatedly like a penguin, using his bill occasionally to pull himself in. I wondered for a moment if he would go over to the hen - his mate, perhaps? - but he didn't. He just settled onto a little hump of earth and began preening.

It was as he was settling in that I saw the reason for at least some of his gracelessness: His left leg was dragging. Injured.

Normally when I see an injured duck, I shoot it, because I've killed injured ducks before, and usually what you see is ample evidence of starvation and massive infection, particularly when they've been shot in the gut. I'd rather put them out of their misery early in that process. I really, really hate suffering.

But something made me hesitate with this little guy.

It hadn't occurred to me yet that a diver duck with an injured leg can't fly. They have to run a long way on the water to take off. So until his leg healed, assuming it ever healed properly, swimming would be his only defense and his only means of getting to food. Swimming with just one leg.

If I'd thought of this right away, I probably would've shot him.

I looked a short way off shore and there I saw two other drake ruddies swimming around nervously next to their pal on shore. It was pretty obvious to them that Charlie and I were there. If ducks could talk, you know what they would've been saying:

"I don't know, man ... this doesn't look very safe here."

"Yeah, I agree. Bob. Bob! Can we please get the hell out of here???"

Eventually, something spooked them - perhaps it was when Charlie and I spoke to each other quietly - and they went away, leaving behind their buddy who had determined either the humans weren't a threat, or he didn't give a shit because he just wanted to rest and clean up.

Fifteen minutes later, ducks we didn't want to kill once again surrounded us, including some drake ruddies that again came close to the little guy on the shore. It seemed like they were having the same conversation, but the guy on shore wouldn't budge.

So one of his buddies started walking ashore.

I stifled a laugh. This guy wasn't injured, but he was not much more graceful than his injured friend on shore. Hurl, grab, hurl, grab, waddle. Then he found a spot on the little mound where his friend sat and joined him, and they began alternating between preening and napping.

"Charlie!" I whispered.


"Check it out!"

And as Charlie watched, more of them joined those two on shore. One more, two more, three. FIVE drake ruddies were sitting there, preening and sleeping just 20 feet from me. They all knew Charlie and I were there, because we kept talking quietly the whole time. They just made a leap of faith that we were no threat to them, despite the fact that we were in a location heavily trodden by duck hunters, many of whom DO shoot ruddies (or at least try to).

A little later, a hen bufflehead swam up too, toodled around on shore a bit, then dipped back into the water and stayed near the boys. 

The injured one is the one on the left in the foreground.

They all stayed there for quite some time, until some ducks Charlie and I did want to shoot flew over.

Those ruddies, so clumsy getting out of the water, shot back into it like little rockets and went about ten feet before the realized we hadn't shot at them. They milled for a bit, as if contemplating returning to shore, then decided to keep going. Better, perhaps, not to push their luck with two gun-toting assholes right there.

As they swam away, I couldn't stop smiling. This was one of the most magical things that has ever happened to me while hunting.

It's always a treat when a non-threatening wild animal ventures close to you, and moreso when he stays even though it's obvious he knows you're there.

But I felt like I'd witnessed something much more than that: I had witnessed five acts of friendship (or at least one or two, followed by a wee bit of herd mentality) in the face of grave danger. Regardless of whether any of it was sparked by the presence of the dead hen, it was absolutely touching.

Now, some people may think I'm anthropomorphizing, and to you I say this: I don't think we should anthropomorphize humans. And yes, I know what the word means. What I'm saying is we think far too highly of ourselves as a species apart from all others, and we seem stunned when animals exhibit traits that are familiar to us, forgetting the fact that we, too, are animals. Duh.

This encounter was, to me, a window into that world we've forgotten - the world where altruism can be found in many species, if we're just lucky enough to see it when it happens.

© Holly A. Heyser 2014

Monday, December 1, 2014

Expectations? My latest column for Shotgun Life.

I've spent the better part of nine duck seasons now trying to temper my expectations going into every hunt.

But this hunt may have ruined me forever.

Check it out - it's my latest column for Shotgun Life.

© Holly A. Heyser 2014

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Novice Women's Duck Hunt - a video slideshow

For the fourth year in a row, my friend Judy Oswald and I have organized a fantastic event for women: the Novice Women's Duck Hunt.

It starts with a day of training ... no, wait. It started with a night of drinking, and THEN we started training the next day: shooting instruction, waterfowl ID, calling and plucking/gutting. The next morning, we all head off to a cluster of three duck clubs in the Upper Butte Basin.

This year's group of women was fantastic. They were excellent shots, they were super fun and a few got limits on their hunt, including one of the brand-newbies! Good stuff, for sure, and you can get an idea of the fun by watching this video:

© Holly A. Heyser 2014

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Hunting the Drought: a column for Shotgun Life

Just about every duck hunter in California went into this fall wondering what duck season would bring.

Our population of local ducks - especially mallards - is at record lows, but the migrants that just winter here are at record highs. And we're in a serious drought, meaning water for the wintering birds is seriously limited.

We had a general idea what to expect, but the way things started here didn't necessarily match those expectations. You can read about how my opener went in my latest column in Shotgun Life.

© Holly A. Heyser 2014

Friday, October 3, 2014

I want to believe (in my dove hunting spot) - a column for Shotgun Life.

Dove season in NorCal last month was, um, pretty lame. For the most part. A spot that performed pretty damned well last year was ... well, that's the subject of my latest column for Shotgun Life.

© Holly A. Heyser 2014

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Banded birds in Cali - an interactive map

In the Fall issue of California Waterfowl Magazine, we did a huge piece on banded ducks and geese that were recovered in California during the 2013-14 duck season, with lots of cool charts and maps, and a video that I posted here last month.

Well, the magazine is done, but I just can't let go of it, so I've spent a bit of my Saturday afternoon creating these interactive maps.

In the first, each dot represents one recovered bird. Just like in Google Maps, you can zoom in and out, and change from map view to satellite view, but the really cool thing is you can click on each dot to find out what species it was, when it was recovered, and when and where it was banded.

One thing to keep in mind: Band recovery data is user-reported, which means the location may be imprecise. So, take the recovery locations with a grain of salt.

The second map is where all the birds in the first map were banded.


© Holly A. Heyser 2014

Monday, September 1, 2014

Why failure is good - a column for Shotgun Life

Whenever I work with new shooters or hunters who want to get into duck hunting, I always work really hard to lower their expectations. Shooting clays is hard enough; shooting ducks that move faster and can change course instantly can be almost impossible for the newbie.

It turns out that embracing failure is really good for your brain, and my latest column for Shotgun Life explains why.

And here's a fun postscript you won't see in the column: Minutes after I sent that tale of epic failure to my editor, I got an email from someone submitting a hunting photo for the magazine I edit, California Waterfowl. The caption - with names changed, of course - said this:

Bobby Jones, age 14 attended the 2014 Youth Hunt at the Quack Quack Duck Club and took
a full limit of seven ducks while only firing nine rounds.  This was Bobby's first duck hunt.



© Holly A. Heyser 2014

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Blue-Billed Mallard - a video for California Waterfowl

I have been super excited about doing this video, because it's just a really cool story about a hybrid duck California Waterfowl banded in 2012, and the boy who shot that bird. Check it out:
© Holly A. Heyser 2014

Friday, August 1, 2014

Making it work - a column for Shotgun Life

If you're a bird hunter, you know damn well what you have to do to stay sharp: When you're not hunting, you MUST shoot clays. A lot. Kinda like if you want to lose weight, you have to exercise. A lot.

Four years ago, I did just that over the summer (shoot, not exercise - that's another issue) and I had my best season yet. This year, I discovered how to get my groove back, and that, my friends, is the topic of my latest column in Shotgun Life.

© Holly A. Heyser 2014

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Yep, we do all that - a video for (and about) California Waterfowl

Even after a full year at my new job as magazine editor for California Waterfowl, I wake up every day excited about, and proud of, what we do.

So when my boss tasked me with producing a video that encapsulates the wide range of our organization's accomplishments, I was stoked. It was an extraordinary amount of work, but I think the result shows pretty clearly everything that makes me so proud to work for CWA.

Enjoy! And if you're not yet a member, I hope this will convince you to join, which you can do here.

© Holly A. Heyser 2014

Saturday, July 12, 2014

This ain't your daddy's hunter ed class - a video for California Waterfowl

You could take a regular hunter education class if you were ready to start hunting.

But why would you do that when you could do something like this instead?

I shot this video at California Waterfowl's Family Camp in June, one of many hunter ed camps we do at our property in the Suisun Marsh, Grizzly Ranch. At this one, kids and their parents go through hunter ed together, but we've also got kids-only camps, adult-only camps, women's camps - you name it.

This was incredibly fun to shoot - didn't even feel like I was working. Check it out, and if you know someone who's ready to start hunting, please share it with him or her - there's still time to sign up for more camps this summer.

© Holly A. Heyser 2014

Monday, July 7, 2014

A sense of foreboding about the coming duck season - a column for Shotgun Life

Here in California, we have an odd situation: Nationwide, duck numbers are really good - better than last year, and better than the long-term average.

But the drought in California is poised to put the kibosh on hunting opportunity for thousands of duck hunters who rely on public land or rice leases for hunting, and that worries me, for more reasons than just the question of "Where the hell am I going to hunt?"

Read more about my concerns in my July column for Shotgun Life.

© Holly A. Heyser 2014

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The one true way to shoot a shotgun: a column for Shotgun Life

All I'm gonna say is the headline above is total B.S. To see why, check out my latest column in Shotgun Life.

© Holly A. Heyser 2014

Friday, May 30, 2014

Grizzly Ranch Fun Shoot - a video for California Waterfowl

A couple years ago, California Waterfowl was lucky enough to acquire Grizzly Ranch, a fantastic duck club in the Suisun Marsh, just south of Fairfield.

We do a lot of hunts and educational programs there, which is awesome, but summer is when everyone gets a chance to come check out the club's wicked sporting clays course during our monthly fun shoots. Check out the video below for a preview of the course, and if you happen to live a reasonable driving distance from Fairfield, come join us! Fun shoots are held the second Saturday of the month through September.

Newbies are welcome too - we have instruction for beginners.

Pre-registration is required, as is non-toxic shot, because the course is actually in the marsh. For more information, go here.


 © Holly A. Heyser 2014

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Humans Gone Wild: an essay for the Center for Humans and Nature

Does hunting make us human?

A few months back, that was the question I was asked to answer in 800-1,200 words for the Center for Humans and Nature. This week, my answer joined more than a dozen others by scholars and writers from a variety of backgrounds.

Be sure to check out other writers' answers too, and maybe even leave a comment, which you can do both on individual essays and on the main page.

© Holly A. Heyser 2014

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Quite possibly the funniest turkey hunt ever - a column for Shotgun Life

My boyfriend has had a GoPro for a year and a half and I never laid a hand on it, until this turkey hunt happened.

Sadly, not before this turkey hunt. After. Because what happened on this hunt would've made HILARIOUS video if each of us had been wearing a GoPro.

Live and learn!

You can read about the hunt in my latest column for Shotgun Life

And hey, at least I got to use the GoPro for something cool at work, once I'd dusted it off and figured it out - I posted about it here.

© Holly A. Heyser 2014

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

How California Waterfowl counts ducks

My main job at California Waterfowl is producing a magazine, but I also work on videos, and this was a fun one because I got to go for a helicopter ride. Life is good, baby!

What we're doing here is cruising really low and counting waterfowl to help the state determine the size of the breeding population of resident waterfowl (i.e., not the migrants who just spend winter here). If you go full-screen, you'll see some of the ducks flying in some  of the shots. Turns out they don't like helicopters much.

© Holly A. Heyser 2014

Monday, March 24, 2014

What we mean when we say CWA does habitat work

For the most part, I can't share the work I do for California Waterfowl because the magazine I produce is print-only, not online. (And for the record, I support that - a couple decades of giving away free content hasn't worked well for newspapers.)

But I've started producing more videos for CWA, and this was a fun one. Fire!

© Holly A. Heyser 2014

Monday, March 3, 2014

Hunting zeppelins - a column for Shotgun Life

Photo by R.J. Waldron, Northwind Outfitters
I think it's safe to say that most geese I've killed in my eight seasons of hunting have been crips - birds injured by someone else that then either flew or swam near me in their debilitated state.

Mercy killings. I put them out of their misery, and the hunting gods showed mercy on my pathetic self by putting those birds in my path.

On the rare occasions I've paid for a goose hunt, it's usually been a spectacular failure.

Between that and the fact that I think duck hunting is just more exciting, I tend to run around saying things like "I hate goose hunting."

But I might not be saying that anymore, and you can find out why in my latest column for Shotgun Life.

© Holly A. Heyser 2014

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Extreme bird hunting - a column for Shotgun Life

Photo by Ayla87 via stock.xchng
I've wanted to hunt sandhill cranes for years now, and this season, I finally got my chance.

Unfortunately, it wasn't the experience I'd hoped for, or even braced for, and that is the subject of my latest column in Shotgun Life.

© Holly A. Heyser 2014

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Goddess for a day - a column for Shotgun Life

This is not my clothing and these aren't
all my ducks, but you're going to have
to read the column to find out why.
In a rare turn of events, I found myself last month at a rather exclusive duck club in the Butte Sink, where spectacular success and spectacular failure trumped my garden-variety insecurity to make me a goddess for a day.

You can check out the whole story in my latest column for Shotgun Life.

© Holly A. Heyser 2014