On the Trail & ‘Round the Campfire
Welcome to my little diversion from the daily grind. Pull up a log or, just sit on yer’ fist and lean back on yer’ thumb (put a smiley face here) and let’s share a moment. I’ll throw another blog in the fire every now and then and, we’ll chew the fat about such mundane things as birds, nature, cowboys and the southwest, USA. I may even wax poetic or philosophical occasionally, but always honoring our creator. If you like something you read, please leave yer’ tracks.
Digital Turkey Huntin' ----One shot!
You only get one shot at tom turkey—maybe two. From chicks to jakes to old toms, they are cagier than an early Native American; and more sly and cunning than a bobcat, more aware and alert than a coyote... that's how they stay alive. So, for a birder to see a wild turkey in the wilds, up close and personal, it doesn't happen without careful planning.
I grew up in a family of hunters and trappers and fishermen. To me, the most interesting hunting stories were always about turkeys. Hunting big game, including bow-hunting desert Javelina were certainly interesting tales, but the experience of hunting wild turkeys was always of special interest to me because of their natural wildness and innate smarts. That's what makes each experience so memorable. It pits the wits of the hunter against a bird brain, and a hunter often loses, no matter how good he/she is. So clearly there is a difference between IQ and turkey smarts. I've known men/women with high IQ's that were not very smart. As in other endeavors in life, all it takes is one tom turkey to prove the point— even an immature bird brain (a jake) can prove the point.
Over the years I have evolved into a serious birder (birdwatcher), from killing to saving, from "hunt to kill" to "hunt to save;" from "trophy fishing" to "catch and release," from trapping just because... to trapping a photographic trophy. Call me a "tree hugger" and a "whale saver" now, but I am not one who believes in the pretext of global warming, or its green politics, or the concept of "carbon neutral," which is a virtual impossibility in the natural world.
Anyway, I decide to go spring turkey huntin' with my digital camera—a pure form of hunting—for the pure pleasure of hunting and shooting a wild turkey. The preparation leading up to a shot or two cannot be overemphasized. It starts with the expectation of the unexpected, the anticipation of the unanticipated. The hunt for a wild turkey is all about the joy of preparing the mind to think like a wily tom turkey. For camera-hunters who want the ultimate challenge, turkey hunting can test your skill, patience and accuracy. Getting the right shot at a turkey with a camera is a whole lot different than shooting one with a shotgun.
It began with scouting the woods in the Santa Rita Mountains of southeastern Arizona for a good set up location. Having some knowledge of turkey behavior is helpful. Such things as learning where they roost can be invaluable. Water sources, foraging and strutting areas, if they can be determined, may give an idea of their habits. Openings and small meadows in the woods, ridgelines and canyons that serve as travel and escape routes all help the hunter to determine a good location for his set up.
Also, the direction of the sun and areas of shadow are vitally important to a proper set up. Keeping the sun's glare in a turkey's eyes and making him look into the shadows means keeping the sun and a tree trunk at your back, and preferably the shadows in front of you. Mind you, a wise old tom will be using the very same scheme of light and shadows to try to get your picture! So carefully setting up in the right location before calling in a tom turkey is one key to success. Having a second and third set up option improves the possibility of success. What if he responds with a loud gobble to your first call from your backside? You have to be prepared for a, quiet, quick move to the other side of the tree!
Because wild turkeys are extremely alert to changes in their environment, they are quick to notice any sort of movement or reflections. They have peerless eyesight and hearing and instant escape reflexes. Hunting with a shiny camera lens is a liability in this regard, because the lens can easily cause unwanted reflections to be noticed by the tom turkey.
Taking special care to remain undetected in their habitat leads to the issue of camouflage. Many hunters use full camouflage regalia, from face paint and gloves to boots and caps...even camouflaging their guns. No shiny spots or cowboy buckles or gold teeth showing—not even the white of the eyeballs or Crest-white teeth! some sort of face netting is absolutely essential because to a turkey a persons face glows in the daylight and the dark. So, most of the time, remaining motionless is probably the best camouflage.
Even after such careful preparation, how do I get this wary bird to come up close enough to get a decent digital shot? That's where the turkey call comes in. There are different kinds of turkey calls made for that purpose. Other than the mimicry of the human voice, maybe the most primitive of man-made turkey calls is the simple box call. It is a small hand-held, coffin-shaped box, about 7'' L x 2" W x 1 ½" H. The box has an arced paddle attached to the top, that when dragged or rubbed across the arced top edges, of the sides of the box, it creates a chafing squawk-screech or yelp sound, that can carefully manipulated to mimic a clucking hen.
I have had a very old call box setting on a shelf in my den for years. It was hand made by an Arkansas turkey hunter, probably back in the forties and given to me as a souvenir. Its age means that the wood is well seasoned, so it should give off a realistic guttural tone that no amorous tom turkey can resist. Yes, I know one can use the digital recordings but, then, I wouldn't get to test my skill with the old turkey call.
Up to this day, many turkey hunters still use the "squawk box" for its ease of use, versatility and sound quality. Experienced hunters also use them for the high volume they easily produce. Box calls are made from various woods and are not hard to assemble. There is a great satisfaction in practicing with one of your own making. It adds a lot of joy and feeling of accomplishment on the day you call in your first wild turkey. Chalking the paddle and top edges of the box adds to the effectiveness of producing the sounds of turkey talk. For a nice diagram see: ttp://www.customcalls.com/makeaturkeyboxcall.htm
As mentioned, a stroking or scraping from either side produces a chafing-squawk or yelp sound. By using different hardwoods on each of the box sides, the tones can vary from lower to higher, and thus mimic the various hen sounds of wild turkeys. Different woods create different pitches. In some ways it's like choosing the right wood for making a violin. Cedar and cherry, the most commonly used woods give a higher pitch and sweeter tone like a young hen. Walnut yields a deeper, courser tone like a gobbler or an older hen, and the wood of a poplar tree delivers a characteristic low nasal yawlp or yelp.
So, in your head, here is what happens. every time you practice a turkey call triggers the mind to be in the middle of the woods. Each time you make some trial sounds with your box-call, you can hear that gobbler in the distance. While you are shaping the wood, in your imagination you hear and see the tom turkey coming in closer. Thus, you will call in a lot of turkeys in your head when you are making a box call. Clucks and hen yawlps on a squawk box are some of the most genuine, rivaling the cluck of any hen. Sometimes, just one or two a good yelping-clucks is all it takes to make a tom turkey stretch his neck gobble loudly!
Big tom gobblers are most often heard an hour before sun up to an hour after. However, I get a late start, but it may not make much difference. After all, turkeys don't disappear at sunrise they just scatter out in the woods. So about 8:30 or 9:00 AM, I take up my position and plant myself in front of a big oak tree, hoping my location will give me a good shot. My camouflage is just one large piece of woodland-camo netting draped over my extra-wide brim straw hat that I have sprayed with stove black. Draping it over my wide brim gives me camera room. The rest of the netting covers my entire dark clothing. I have a hole cut in the see-thru netting to stick my camera lens through. It too is flat black. Getting comfortable, I'm basically facing west-southwest, with the sun at my back. I have made sure that not too many obstructions are between me and the target area that I hope to shoot into. That is always pure guess work, because turkeys stay behind every bit of cover possible.
About twenty yards directly in front of me is a brushy clearing, a small meadow with short grasses. It is my opinion that open clearings always attract birds. The woodland border that surrounds the small clearing is a forest of mixed oak, juniper and pines. To my left about ten o'clock is a rocky hillock. The knoll extends toward the canyon ridge that runs east and west about twenty yards directly off to my left. I'm thinking I might be able to call out a tom, either from the woods in front of me or from over the canyon edge to my left.
The reason for the twenty-yard perimeter view is because I am using a 300mm lens. That's about the effective range of a 12 gauge shot gun. So the shot is sorta comparable. In fact I'll need to coax a turkey up a little closer to get a descent size photo image.
So, now it comes down to turkey smarts— IQ versus bird brain. I decide to sit quietly for at least thirty minutes or longer. This is to allow time for the ripples of my presence in the woods to dissipate; to cause a natural sense that I am no longer in the area. So I sit still and observe the small birds with my binoculars and read their behavior. Titmice and chickadees are the sentinels of the woods and so when they are calm and actively feeding around me, I know that I am no longer affecting their natural behavior. A gray squirrel shows up overhead and gently leaps from limb to limb, out to the tip of an oak twig and deftly works his way on to a limber pine twig and up the limb. A white-breasted nuthatch comes head first, down a tree trunk, right next to me. So, I feel comfortable that the time is right for my first call on the old "squawk box."
Making a yelp-cluck sound that could attract a tom turkey is a matter of touch and stroke with the paddle across the edges of the call box. It is also subjective; a matter of how one perceives the clucking yelp and yawlp sound of a hen turkey. I am not an experienced pro, but I'll give it my best shot. First, a a light touch creating a soft yelp-yelp, and then a painfully pregnant pause—at least 10 minutes. Then I give him a louder, more urgent, yelp-yawlp. Instantly! Off to my right in the woods, about two o'clock, comes' an intense gobble-gobble, maybe a hundred yards away. Stirred with excitement, my heart quickens. Now I test myself by waiting a full five minutes before testing him with my squawk box again (some hunters would say to wait at least 20 minutes). I figure he will be heading toward her (me). So, with a lighter touch, I do a softer yelp or two, softer because I am guessing he is in a little closer. It's a guessing game. Bingo! Gobble-gobble-gobble! But this time he sounds like, not one but possibly two gobblers. Maybe jakes (young males) since they tend run together.
And, this time the tom's answer comes from center-left about eleven o'clock. Surprisingly he is much closer, maybe at the edge of the woods near the opening. A tom turkey can accurately pinpoint the sound of a hen from a long distance. Given this second opportunity to hear her, his response tells me that he has triangulated between my first and second series of clucks, and now he positively knows within inches just where her sound is coming from. However, if he doesn't see her, he will move cautiously in her direction, and may detour around the spot seeking to catch a glimpse of her. Anticipating his movement, I slowly and carefully scootch my butt and body around slightly to the left to be in a better position...no quick movements. The anxious minutes pass, for nearly a half an hour I practically quit breathing...and no appearance of a tom turkey in any of the openings I had in view. But, it is time for patience; no more calls on my old box call. This is the critical moment—bird brain versus IQ—the first one to move, flinch or blink loses!
And then ever so slowly, just off to my left, stretching his neck and cocking his head this sly tom comes sneaking out from behind the mound along the ridge of the canyon, he peers between the trees. Sporting a long beard, he is well inside my predetermined twenty-yard marker! But he stays mostly in the shadows and keeps a low profile with his head down. Then he pauses and raises his head for about four seconds and looks directly at my position with a cock-eyed curious look. It was just long enough to get off a couple of shots before he quickly left the scene toward the canyon. He obviously heard the click of the camera. What a really great feeling I had for being able to call in this tom turkey, even though I couldn't get a clean digital shot. Had it been a shotgun, there is no question...it would have been a clean shot!
Since I'm not shooting a noisy firearm, I decide to stay put for a few minutes to see if any other birds follow. And, just as I am savoring the moment and thinking,... "wow! that's it," suddenly, there appears another handsome turkey...a jake! He poses in partial sunlight well inside the ridge overlooking the canyon. This gobbler raised his baldhead, and showed me his red, white and blue crown and red wattles, and then curiously stared toward my position in the shade. Click!! I got off a clean shot before he disappeared over the ridge! He must have been the one that chimed in with a double gobble that I heard on the second call. I thought it was unusual to find this jake following so close to the tom, since the dominant tom generally runs off the young jakes. The whitish-tip of the tail feathers, identify these turkeys as the southwestern species. Eastern birds have reddish-brown tail tips.
The feeling of satisfaction was overwhelming! The few pictures that I shot tell the whole exhilarating story of my old call box and the results of human IQ versus turkey smarts! The huntin' / birding experience is deserving of uncorking that rare single malt libation and a little embellishment around the fire. What an awesome feeling of, not just getting to see these beautiful gobblers, but getting a shot at them! You only get one shot—well sorta— my Nikon digital shot gun gets off 6 frames per second.
© Ed Keenan