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Stood up by toms, nature gives grand substitute

One of the greatest sounds to a turkey hunter is a tom gobbling up a storm. It rates in the same class of thrill as a flock of bluebills screaming into the decoy set.

That is the kind of thrill I was after a couple weeks back when I headed into the wood with an owl call. It had been blowing all day but around 7 the wind dropped and we suddenly had a quiet spring evening. Tom turkeys will not come to an owl call but if he hears the call he will let out with a gobble, giving away his location.

The plan was perfect but the results that evening were strictly negative. There must have been a tom turkey convention in Las Vegas that night because the owl call did not elicit a single gobble.

That should have been that, but for some reason Mother Nature wanted to make it up to me.

A beautifully colored hooded merganser floated on a small pond with an amphitheater of trees behind him. Most of us call these hook-billed birds "fish ducks" because that is what they feed on. This one was a male and he was in full feather -- brown, black and white -- quite a sight to behold.

I blew on my owl call in the woods and got no gobbles but I did attract the attention of another owl. We "hooted" to one another for a couple of minutes. According to directions that came with the owl call, you should blow "who cooks for you, who cooks for you now" into the call. The real owl did not follow this script so one of us learned something.

There were old deer scrapes on the trail and a lot of buckthorn trees to be seen. Buckthorn is spread by deer and birds that eat the black berries of the thorny invasive plant. You can find it everywhere they have been, in woods, under trees, along lakes and under telephone lines. If you find a lot of it you can be pretty sure you are in good deer country.

On my way to the next spot a pair of Canada honkers passed over my head on final approach. Their big, powerful wings were on "full flap" as they dropped into a small cattail-lined pond for the night. Canada geese can be a nuisance to farmers but they are also easy to admire. They take a lot of punishment. They are one of the first waterfowl to return from the south and many even stay for the winter. They are loyal mates and ferocious in defending their territory and their broods. They are also noisy. Head into the country on a spring morning and you will hear them talking around almost every pond.

It was getting late by now and it was time to head for a nearby river. There is a recently installed wood duck box on the bank of that river. This is a great location - great privacy and a sylvan setting. A certain middle-aged sportsman lugged that box about a quarter of a mile wearing chest waders to find that spot - but if a woodie uses it someday to hatch out her brood it will be worth it.

It is amazing the different uses there are for an owl call. I did some owl hooting at this spot, just for fun, and found a new use for it - flushing deer. My calling made a whitetail doe nervous and she left the bed she had settled into for deeper cover. I got a quick glimpse of her as she made her escape. This is the time of year when a lot of does are carrying fawns. In another 4-5 weeks those white-spotted babes will be arriving.

About this time a rooster pheasant crowed in the big grassland a short distance away. These gaudy jerks are pretty visible in the spring. They parade around, cackling and crowing, and the hens flock to them. It would have been easy to run down two of these playboys while driving home from work this past week. They were standing in the middle of the highway - tall and arrogant. They did not want to fly even when you clapped your hands to flush them. Pheasant roosters can be peculiar during the spring. An acquaintance of mine had a rooster chase him down a gravel road one time cackling in anger. He believed the bright, red pickup he was driving had set the rooster off.

The biggest thrill came at the end of the trip. A bald eagle soared overhead in the gathering darkness and landed high in a tree overlooking the river. Eagles are becoming more and more plentiful. Handclaps would put a lot of birds back into flight but not this eagle. They are predators and they act like it.

If nature is the straw that stirs your drink, get out there now. It is a magical time.