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Monday, December 27, 2010

The Importance of Land Trusts (Blog Thirteen)

One of the most important things that an outdoors enthusiast can do, regardless of whether that individual is a hunter, angler, birder, hiker, camper or enjoys any number of other outdoor pursuits, is place rural property under a conservation easement through working with a land trust. I am a member of the Western Virginia Land Trust (WVLT), the New River Land Trust, (NRLT), and annually try to donate to the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF).  All of these entities perform a wonderful service, as do local, regional, and state land trusts across the country.

My wife Elaine and I have placed 392 acres in Craig County under easement, and we have gained great satisfaction in knowing that even after we die or even if our heirs sell the land, the development restrictions placed on the land because of the easements will remain in effect.  The conservation easements assure that our rural land will always remain rural, something wildlife many decades from now will benefit from.
When we placed our first property under easement, we were unaware that we would receive major tax benefits from doing so and that we would even receive tax refunds from the federal and state governments because, theoretically, we made the land worth less by restricting development on it.

To us, though, rural land is always emotionally worth more than the most developed lot in a city – no matter what the bottom line says.  Local, state, and regional land trusts exist throughout the country and chances are that one exists near you.  For more information, consult the following.

Land Trust Alliance (national organization):

Monday, December 20, 2010

Everything But The Cluck (Blog Twelve)

A saying exists among those who raise pigs that people "can eat everything but the oink." For those of us who pursue turkeys, it could be said that we "use everything but the cluck."

This past Thursday, the Botetourt County school system where I teach cancelled classes because of a snow/sleet event.  As a fanatical turkey hunter, this was my opportunity to go hunting.  I was fortunate enough to kill one that morning and later my son Mark and I field dressed the bird.

We removed the breasts to grill later, the legs to turn into soup, and the neck for a future salad.  We examined the crop to find out what the bird had been eating, which included seeds and leafy vegetation.  We removed the wings so that my turkey hunting mentor, Larry Proffitt of Tennessee, could make the wing bones into turkey calls.  Larry and I hunt Northeast Tennessee every spring, and I will bring him the wings then.

All that was left of the bird was its "trunk" and feathers, and when a few days later I returned to where we worked up the bird all that remained were the feathers.  A creature or creatures (most likely
 from a list that would include raccoons, opossums, skunks, coyotes, and bears) had paid a visit.

Later that day, Elaine fixed wild turkey leg soup - a very satisfying end to a wonderful day.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Timber Stand Improvement (Blog Eleven)

With the Christmas Holidays approaching and time off from school, I have three outdoor related objectives: punch that second Virginia fall turkey hunting tag, do some late season muzzleloader hunting with the goal of killing one more doe for the freezer, and conduct some TSI (timber stand improvement) on the 38 acres where we live.

One of the most satisfying wintertime outdoor activities that anyone - whether they are sportsmen, bird watchers, or landowners - can do is improve the wildlife habitat on the land they live on.  This is true whether the individual owns just a backyard lot or hundreds of acres.

Last winter, for example, Elaine and I cut some cedar trees and turned them into brush piles where songbirds, rabbits, and other creatures could find some shelter from the wind and cold.  The oaks and hickories where the cedars were levelled thus had more room to grow and in the future should produce more acorns and nuts.

When you are conducting TSI, not all seemingly worthless trees should be cut.  For instance, we like to leave large, standing dead trees so that woodpeckers, tufted titmice, and other cavity nesting birds can benefit.  It is also a good idea to make sure beforehand the exact species a tree is before you remove it.  This past winter, I did not have time to remove a small stand of nondescript trees that grow on the edge of our food plot.  I was glad this May that I had not removed the stand as the trees turned out to be mulberries, which, of course, produce a very tasty berry for wildlife and humans.

One of my projects this month is to thin a small grove of dogwoods that grow in the hollow adjacent to our house.  In the past, I was reluctant to cut them because dogwood berries are eaten by many animals.  But by removing several trees, the survivors will be able to expand their crowns so that fewer trees will produce more soft mast than many trees did.

Look for similar opportunities on your land this month.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Love of a Good Woman (Blog Ten)

On December 10, Elaine and I will celebrate being married 32 1/2 years.  Every year on our half-year anniversary, we go out to dinner at Coach and Four Restaurant in Roanoke, Virginia and exchange anniversary cards.  Some may think it silly for us to celebrate our anniversary twice a year, but Elaine is a woman worth celebrating, especially for being married to an outdoor writer.

Over the years, Elaine and I have taken many outdoor related trips together - many of which went less than smoothly.  There was the time in the mid 1980s on the Rapppahannock River when a torrential thunderstorm took place, the river flooded, our canoe overturned, and we spend part of an afternoon huddled on a bank hoping lightning would not strike us.

On two other occasions, our canoe overturned (both of which were my fault), and my wife was unceremoniously dumped into a river.  She never cast the proverbial stones at me.  Back in 1995, not long after we had purchased our red Dagger Legend, we were loading the boat onto our vehicle when the canoe shifted and somehow one of Elaine's fingers became caught in a rope and broken.  Elaine has never blamed me for the broken digit, but it was my fault.

Just last week, we were using our chainsaw to cut down a dead pine in our front yard when the blade became stuck in the tree and when after turning off the saw, we had to laboriously remove the blade from the hinge.  Later we decided to use a rope to "guide" the tree downward, but the rope slipped out of my hands, Elaine fell and landed on her left hand, spraining it.  Again, my sweetheart did not blame me.

A little over two years ago, Elaine was diagnosed with a virulent form of breast cancer, and it was the darkest time of our married lives.  Fortunately, she survived two rounds of chemotherapy and other treatments, and we both are very optimistic about her future.  Elaine is a determined woman.

Over the next year, I know the following will happen:
Long after dark, I will bring a deer home for us to butcher, and she will arise and help wrap the tenderloins for the freezer and not complain about doing so.
I will do something stupid while float fishing, and she will merely bite her lip.
I will ask for her to pose for pictures out in the snow, and she will bear it.
I will plan some outdoor adventure that has failure written all over it, and Elaine will sweetly talk me out of it.
She will cook all manners of game animals, fish, and wild berries, mushrooms, and nuts that I bring home and always do so cheerfully.

On our first date, we held hands, and ever since holding her hand has filled my heart with joy. Whenever Elaine sees me, she smiles. Elaine is my sweetheart and the love of a good woman has made me a better man.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Late Fall/Early Winter Birding (Blog Nine)

Whether I am hiking, hunting, fishing, or just out walking, I really enjoy bird watching during the late fall and early winter period.  I especially enjoy observing bird behavior and identifying what foods the creatures are eating.  Today while walking, for example, I observed Robins dining on holly berries - a fruit that many avians, including Robins, won't consume until the weather becomes much colder.  Many people incorrectly believe that Robins fly southward for the winter, but in many areas, including Southwest Virginia where I live, this thrush merely transitions from being yard and field birds to spending much of their time in woodlots or forests that border fields.

Sometimes I see birds that I can't identify.  For instance, last Saturday while on a Monroe County, West Virginia mountain I spotted a warbler-sized bird flitting about in a low growing tree.  The bird featured a dark bib like that of a Mourning Warbler or a Connecticut Warbler, yet given the range of these two species such a spotting would have been highly unlikely.  The former winters in Central and South America, the latter in South America.  I would really appreciate it if someone could send me a best guess on what species I observed.

On Thanksgiving Day, I witnessed a Hermit Thrush, my first of the season.  This winter visitor was uttering its "chuck"  call note and cocking its reddish tail.  Sometimes in very late winter, I will be fortunate enough to hear the Hermit Thrush's flutelike mating song.

One of my favorite migratory birds to see and hark to this time of year is a White-throated Sparrow.  In the mountains of Southwest Virginia and Southern West Virginia, this sparrow usually begins to arrive some time in October.  By late November, vast numbers of this species are present, often found feeding in brushy thickets.  I love to listen to its "Old Sam Peabody" song.

And yesterday while cutting firewood behind our house, I watched a Brown Creeper performing its "hitching" gambit on a tree.  Who knows what I will see today.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Thanksgiving Eve Dinner (Blog Eight)

A new tradition in our family is for our daughter Sarah and her husband David to come to Elaine's and my house for a wild game dinner the evening before Thanksgiving Day.  The next day David and I arise early to hunt in Craig County and then Sarah and David go to his parents for Thanksgiving lunch.
Today (Sunday) Elaine has planned out the main part of the menu: Wild Turkey Leg Soup and Venison Potpie.  I am lobbying for cherry pie (from berries picked from our organic cherry tree back in May) but Elaine is advocating for a more traditional dessert (pumpkin or butternut pie).  This seems to be a win-win scenario for us both.
Many people roast wild turkey breasts and legs, but doing so, in my opinion, leaves the meat very dry.  A better option is to marinate the breasts and grill them and to turn the legs into soup.
Now it's Elaine's turn
I agree with Bruce that that soup is the proper venue for turkey legs.  I tried many different preparations before settling on this recipe.
Wild Turkey Leg Soup
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 turnip, peeled and cubed
2 carrots, peeled and diced
4 celery stalks, diced
Other mixed vegetables as desired
2 cups cooked, diced turkey
2 quarts chicken or turkey broth
1 onion, chopped
6 tablespoons butter or margarine
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Salt and pepper to taste
Place the diced potatoes, turnip, carrots, and celery in 2 quarts chicken or turkey broth.  Bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat and cook until vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.  Drain, reserving the liquid and setting the vegetables aside.  In the same kettle melt the butter and sauté the onion until tender. Stir in flour.  Gradually add 1 1/2 cups of the reserved broth, stirring constantly until thickened.  Gently stir in cooked vegetables and diced turkey.  Add the remaining reserved liquid, a cup at a time, until the soup is the desired consistency.  Peas, lima beans, corn, cabbage, or other vegetables on hand may be added as well.  Yield:  8-10 servings.
We will post a picture of our dinner on Wednesday evening.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

In Praise of Fall Turkey Hunting (Blog Seven)

This past Saturday was opening day of the Virginia general firearms season, yet I spent most of the day turkey hunting in Monroe County, West Virginia.  As much as I enjoy deer hunting, no autumn pastime means as much to me as pursuing turkeys does.

My first fall turkey hunting escapade was in 1986 when Jim Clay of Perfection Turkey Calls took me afield.  Jim called in a trio of jakes, and I became so nervous that I fired at - and missed - all three birds.  That humiliation led me to become consumed with how to become a successful turkey hunter - a passion that still continues today.

During my West Virginia outing Saturday, I visited four separate Monroe farms, plus my own land in the Gap Mills area.  I walked up and down several mountains, checked for birds in creek drainages and in deep hollows, searched every oak flat that I came across, yet never heard or saw a bird the entire day.

No matter, next Saturday, which will be the last day of West Virginia's season, will once again find me on a Mountain State peak at dawn, where I will be awaiting and hoping for the first tentative yelps and clucks of dawn.  If I hear turkey talk on the roost, I will run to the site where I will attempt to scatter the assemblage. Then I will try to call the birds in, using my best kee-kee runs (the sound that the jakes and jennies utter when they have been separated from the main flock). If I am fortunate enough to call in and kill a bird, my family and I will dine on it for Thanksgiving.

Today, both spring gobbler and deer hunting have eclipsed fall turkey hunting in popularity.  That's truly a shame because the latter challenges me like no other hunting pursuit.  Perhaps you should give fall turkey hunting a try.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Living off the Fatta of the Land (Blog Six)

As a high school English teacher in Botetourt County, Virginia, one of my favorite books to teach is John Steinbeck's OF MICE AND MEN.  An important passage in this classic is when Lennie talks about the joys of living off "the fatta of the land."  As a deer hunter, I well know what that means.

Saturday afternoon in Franklin County during Virginia's early muzzleloading season, I killed a deer, so during much of Sunday Elaine and I butchered the whitetail.  If you have never butchered an animal, doing so is a fascinating experience.  Elaine and I have now reduced nine whitetails to venison over the past three autumns, and we now have a much better idea of how to go about the skinning process, remove the loin, rump, shoulder, and neck meat, and package the meat so that it freezes properly. 

We also have a much better concept of how Americans in centuries past lived, that is, how hunting and butchering made them closer to the land.  Elaine and I experience such great satisfaction in supplying our family with food...from beginning to end - no need for us to go to a supermarket for meat.

Today for my school lunch, I am dining on deer burger and deer heart sandwich from the whitetail killed Saturday.  Also in my lunch box is paw paw bread (see earlier blog) that comes from the fruit of paw paws gathered earlier this autumn.  Surely this is what Lennie meant about the joys of living off the land.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Before Sunrise (Blog Five)

This morning I went muzzleload hunting before school.  Sometimes I find it hard to explain to non-hunters how much I enjoy arising at 4:30, eating breakfast, leaving home at 5:30, and arriving in the woods around 6:15.  Then spending another hour waiting for the sun to emit enough light so that I can possibly see a deer approaching.

Under an ebony sky, I thoroughly relished the opportunity to lie on my back and view the moon, stars, and planes.  I picked out Mars and the Big Dipper and around 6:30, a jet flew low over the mountain.  I remember thinking what would be the reaction of a primitive human from eons ago if he saw a light streaking across the heavens like the jet was doing.  Surely, he would have thought that his deity or deities were either very angry or coming to visit him.

At 7:18, there was finally enough light for me to shoot if a deer approached...but none did.  At 8:00 A.M., it was time to leave for school.  No success in hunting, but a grand morning, as always, to be outside.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bowhunting As the Shadows Fall (Blog Four)

Last week I never even had the opportunity to draw back on a whitetail, but I still experienced a marvelous time in the woods.  One of the most fascinating aspects of the pastime is the last half hour of shooting light when the creatures of the day stir a great deal and the nocturnal animals begin to look for food.

This past Saturday, for example, as the shadows lengthened, a barred owl on top of the Craig County, Virginia mountain where I was began to belt out the species' "who cooks for you" chorus.  The owl's song had a cascading effect on others of its kind and soon two other owls further down the mountain were joining in.

A few days earlier, I had observed a pileated woodpecker making its last rounds of the day.  The pileated drummed on a dead tree to announce its presence, next winged to an oak and vocalized its "cuck, cuck, cuck" notes, then flew and perched just outside of a tree cavity that was only a few yards from my treestand.  The woodpecker took a quick peak inside the cavity, and, apparently satisfied that the area inside was vacant, hopped in and no doubt went quickly asleep.

I enjoy bowhunting a great deal and providing healthy, nutritious venison for my family.  But sitting 10-feet above the ground in a treestand is a relaxing experience and also a superlative way to observe the natural world.

Monday, October 18, 2010

After Work Bowhunting (Blog Three)

Almost every day in October after my Block IV Creative Writing class ends, I leave my job as an English teacher at Lord Botetourt High School School and head for rural Botetourt County to bowhunt.  I truly enjoy teaching, something I have done for nearly 30 years, but I also truly enjoy being alone in the woods.  Every day in the woods, I receive a valuable lesson about nature, just as I hope my students learn something worthwhile every day in my classes.

For example, on a recent outing, I watched a flock of wild turkeys for over an hour.  The young males, known as jakes, precipitated a fight with each other in their never ending desire to see which one of them would become the dominant male.  The jakes chest bumped each other, periodically charged each other with wings held aloft, strutted menacingly toward their flock mates, and vocalized gobbles, fighting purrs, yelps, and kee-kees.  The reaction of the jakes' mother hen and their sisters, know as jennies? The females went about the serious business of eating while the males fought.

On another trip, I sat amazed as a doe and her two fawns, some 200 yards away, scented me from such a great distance.  Deer have a legendary sense of smell, and this trio stared at me, began snorting and stomping their feet, and then fled from the field they had just entered.  At times like this when the wind is blowing from my position toward whitetails, I don't think it is possible to fool a deer's nose.

Of course, there are also days after school when I am fortunate enough to use my compound bow to kill a doe - a cause for joy in my household.  My family does not buy meat from a store, so every fall I try to tag at least seven or eight deer so that we will have our meat needs  met for the year.  In the past three years, Elaine and I have learned to butcher the deer, saving a great deal of money in the process.

What will today's after school excursion bring? I will let you know next week.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Paw Paw Time

One of the great things about fall is all that there is to do in the outdoors. During September and October, I enjoy bowhunting for deer and float fishing for river smallmouths, but I also relish gathering wild fruits, especially paw paws.  On a recent Saturday afternoon before the bow season began, I went to a Botetourt County, Virginia farm where I have permission to hunt.  After I finished putting up my tree stand, I walked to a small grove of paw paws that lies on the shaded side of a mountain.

There on the forest floor were dozens of paw paws, some black and covered with ants, some green and unripe, but many were light brown and perfect for eating and gathering.  I ate the first three fruits that I found - I was a bit of a glutton for sure as I love the taste, something between that of a banana and custard.

I then proceeded to gather some three dozen paw paws, filling my hat and pockets with the delectable bounty.  That evening, my wife Elaine made two loaves of Paw Paw Bread and froze the rest of the pulp for winter.  Some January day when it is snowing, Elaine will bake Paw Paw Cookies.

Elaine's recipe for Paw Paw Bread is as follows.

First you will need to prepare 2 cups of pawpaw pulp.  To do this, cut the pawpaws open.  Remove the seeds and scrape the pulp into a bowl.  Try to get as much pulp as you can from the seeds by scraping them with a knife, but that is hard work.   Each fruit has about 5-7 seeds a bit larger than a pumpkin seed.  If you can't remove the pulp from the seeds, just enjoy sucking the pulp from the seeds as you work.  I found that a serated grapefruit spoon was somewhat helpful to remove the pulp from the skin, as was just using my hands while wearing disposable gloves.

Preheat the oven to 375  degrees F.  Grease two 9x4x2-inch loaf pans. 

1 cup melted butter
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
2 cups prepared pawpaw pulp
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1-2 tsp. lemon zest
4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
nuts of your choice, optional

Beat together the butter, sugar, and eggs.  Add and beat in the pawpaw pulp, lemon juice, and zest.  Sift the flour and baking powder together, and stir them into the batter.  Add nuts if desired. We especially like wild black walnut and shagbark and mockernut hickory nuts.  Scrape the batter into the loaf pans, and bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Check carefully the last 5-10 minutes just in case the bread begins to brown too much.