he peak of the fall colors seems to be about two weeks late this year. It’s October 25, a cool day, cloudy with a drizzling rain and the kind of subdued, general light that shows off to its best advantage the autumnal brilliance of the eastern woods.
Sassafras trees are salmon, gold, banana-yellow-all of those colors on the same tree, sometimes on the same branch. Red maples sport leaves that are gold on their undersides and orange on their upper surfaces; the leaves nod gently as the water drips off them. Basswoods show a subtle greenish yellow, dogwoods are the rich red of burgundy wine. The oaks have finally begun to take on their slow, long-lasting bronze. On the forest floor lies the scattered bluish gray of fallen grapevine leaves–the only hue in that riot of color that foretells the drabness to come.
I smell the strong minty odor of pennyroyal crushed beneath my boots, spicy wild carrot fronds, and apples lying in sweet rot beneath an old tree with a precarious slant to its trunk. If I were a grouse, I’d be after those windfalls–or at least I’d be hanging around nearby.
Caillie leads the way into the brushy woods. We hunt past clumps of multiflora spangled with bright red rosehips. Past the equally vivid scarlet fruits of barberry. There’s food aplenty in this covert. It remains for us to find the birds that ought to have been drawn here by the provender.
A band of robins interrupt their foraging to scold us; their ruddy breasts seem pale compared to the colorful foliage. At my feet, what appears to be a shrew goes dashing along through the leaf litter. The creature is a quick brown blur that vanishes beneath the leaves, only to reappear momentarily at the base of a fallen branch and then to dive out of sight again, like a half-formed thought that the mind cannot quite apprehend.
In front of us, turkeys cluck in the foggy woods, and Caillie runs amok. I can hear their wings flogging as she puts them into the air. She gives out several excited yelps. I don’t even bother trying to whistle her in, because I know she would ignore me. I lean against a tree and wait, only mildly annoyed at my strayaway bitch: Jenny would have done the same. After a while, Caillie comes trotting back. She sits down beside me, soaking wet, wagging her tail, her eyes half shut, her lips drawn back in a canine grin. She looks at me out of the corner of her eyes. As a dog, she knows it’s much more profitable to seek forgiveness for an action rather than to ask for permission. In the distance I can hear the kee-kee calls of young turkeys desirous of getting back together again. If I had a box call, I could probably toll one in.
But I’m not hunting turkeys today. For one thing, the season hasn’t opened on them yet. And turkeys are suspicious birds with incredibly sharp eyes and ears: to hunt them effectively requires that you dress in camouflage clothing and move furtively through the woods, stopping and hiding before trying to call them in. Turkey hunting is too static for me. I would rather range about, seeing something new every minute. Plus, in Pennsylvania it is illegal to use a dog for hunting turkeys – perhaps because it confers an unfair advantage on the hunter–and much of the satisfaction I get out of hunting comes from working in tandem with a dog. All of these factors have combined to prevent me from hunting turkeys, even though I admire their intelligence and sensory capabilities, and even though they are superb table fare. (I know that, because once I bagged one that flushed like a grouse.)
"I smell the strong minty odor of pennyroyal crushed beneath my boots, spicy wild carrot fronds, and apples lying in sweet rot beneath an old tree with a precarious slant to its trunk. If I were a grouse, I’d be after those windfalls–or at least I’d be hanging around nearby."
Caillie and I hunt in a different direction, away from the enticing flock.
The light rain continues to fall. It blurs the outlines of the mountains. A gust shakes the treetops, sending down a sudden shower. Geese pass over, unseen in the clouds, honking softly. Fox sparrows scuffle among the fallen leaves, looking for insects and seeds. Crows caw in the offing.
We proceed along the bench, past witch hazels laden with nutlets and with pale yellow threadlike flowers. (Witch hazel is our only shrub to both fruit and flower in autumn.) Grapevines dangle their clustered ice-blue fruits, triangular beechnuts lie scattered on the ground – good grouse foods all. We work our way uphill between fallen oaks and more tangles of grapevine and big clumps of greenbrier. Caillie checks out all of those potential grouse hideouts. Nothing. Higher up on the mountain we turn and hunt back along the slope above the bench, through equally attractive cover.
An hour later, and we still haven’t flushed a grouse. I call Caillie in. I squat down on my hams and support myself by resting the shotgun’s buttstock on the ground. Worrying that it will be another poor year makes me cross, and a bit edgy. For six years in a row, grouse numbers have been depressed in central Pennsylvania. In the 1980s and early 1990s, I could be confident of flushing twenty to thirty birds in a day’s hunting. On some occasions Jenny and I put up more than thirty-five. I would get shooting at five grouse, maybe ten, and often I would come home with a bird and sometimes with my limit of two weighing down the game pouch.
Then, in 1996, things fell apart.
It’s likely the breeding season started off normally that year. The males would have staked out their territories and begun drumming to summon potential mates. With his tail fanned, the cock grouse stands on a prominent log or stump and beats the air with his wings; the rush of air created by the wingbeats sounds like a drum being thumped. The drumming starts out slowly, then increases in speed until the individual beats merge into a steady whir lasting for several seconds. The bird’s wings blur, and it looks as if the grouse ought to be lifted into the air by his efforts, but he remains attached to his perch. The sound of drumming can carry up to a quarter mile. If you are eavesdropping at short range, say fifty feet, the drumbeats get inside your chest. You feel like you’re being thumped on the sternum with a spoon.
The female grouse come sneaking coyly in. The hen watches as the male inflates himself like a miniature turkey gobbler, then struts about, hissing and dragging his wingtips on the ground. After mating, the female will go off on her own and nest, sometimes at the base of a tree, or tucked in against a log, a root, a rock. She lays her buff-colored eggs, nine to a dozen of them. Over the years, I’ve found and photographed several hens on their nests. Usually, they sit tight enough that I can get within a few feet of them.
In the spring of 1996, I remember, a week of cold rain settled in around the time when the grouse chicks should have been pipping their shells. It was so raw that I kept a fire in the woodstove until the middle of May, when usually the last fire is in April. Insects are an important source of protein for developing grouse chicks, and perhaps the weather was sufficiently cold and damp that the insects did not hatch on time or were inactive during that crucial period. Later in the month it got cold again and rained for another long spell. Maybe the young birds that had survived the first bout of bad weather were now a bit too large for their mothers to cover them--to keep them warm and dry--when brooding them. However it may have happened, the grouse population plummeted. In the summer, I found grown birds consorting with each other–not juveniles, but adult hens keeping company because they had no broods to shepherd about. That odd sociability foretold a bleak hunting season; indeed, I found and flushed few birds that fall–so few that, by mid-November, I stopped hunting them altogether. I was afraid that if I removed too many birds from my coverts, the population wouldn’t come back for a long time.
The next year brought another cold, dreary spring. In the fall, I found almost no grouse. I shot some woodcock and a few pheasants, mainly for the enjoyment of my old dog, Jenny, and for the edification of my young dog, Caillie. By then, Jenny was nine years old and had started to slow down. Caillie was a youngster, and it was time to get her started on her life’s work. But with the grouse so few, we missed some important lessons. Nor was the grouse population appreciably larger from 1998 through 2001.
This year doesn’t promise to be a banner year, either. I haven’t seen many grouse while hiking or driving on woods roads. Friends who are grouse hunters report spotting a few birds, but not many. And it’s not going to be easy for me to get in as much hunting this fall as I usually do.
I write books for a living–an occupation that, while it doesn’t bring in much of an income, gives me a very flexible schedule. But now, for the first time in almost twenty years, I have taken a regular job. I am writing for a magazine published by Pennsylvania State University, which lies on the far side of Skytop about twenty miles from my home. I’ve been hired by the office where my wife, Nancy, usually works: she’s on a leave of absence, writing a book of her own. Fortunately, I can do some of the magazine work out of our home, and, to a certain extent, I can still set my own hours. But it’s quite different than in the past, when, once the bird season started, I could drop whatever I was doing, pick up the gun, whistle for the spaniel, and head out.
"I release Caillie, and we hunt onward through the misty, brushy woods. Using a combination of soft whistle notes and hand signals, I direct her to a grape-festooned blowdown, from which I fully expect her to root out a bird."
I stand up, look about, and tell Caillie to heel.
As I said, I’m edgy now, as I scan the cover out in front--edgy, because I really want to find grouse. I want to find grouse because there is no other sort of hunting as thrilling and challenging as the pursuit of those wild and cagey birds. I want to find grouse so that Caillie can work out how to handle them. At age six, she has never enjoyed a season with abundant birds, a season when she can make mistakes, learn from her missteps, and arrive at an understanding of how to effectively find and flush grouse.
I want to find grouse–I want there to be birds in my coverts–because this could be my last autumn in Pennsylvania. During the past summer, Nancy and I bought a farm in New England. We had considered leaving Centre County for several years, because of the new roads that were under construction or were being planned, the ever-increasing traffic, the housing developments, and big box stores popping up on every hand. We could think about leaving because a particularly cruel event had struck our lives–I’ll share it with you later– cutting our emotional ties to the place we had for so long called home.
For several years we had been looking for land. We came close to buying a ninety-acre parcel in northern Pennsylvania, but the deal fell through when we learned that the sellers had leased the mineral rights to a natural gas company. We thought long and hard about a two-hundred-acre farm on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, from which you could see emerald pastures and forested mountains and, to the north, the distant glint of the Northumberland Strait. But the owner, as it turned out, didn’t really want to sell, and Cape Breton seemed a world removed from Pennsylvania and the friends we had made there over the decades.
Then, on a rainy day in June, in northeastern Vermont, Nancy hiked up a hill (“There’s a beautiful view in that direction,” the realtor had said, pointing from inside her car, “but you can’t see it just now”), looked around at the undulating land, the mix of hardwood and softwood trees, the hayfields and the potential horse pastures, and said to me, “If you want to move, this is the place.” The landscape was beautiful and inviting, and the area reminded me of Centre County thirty years in the past. But I looked at the ramshackle farmhouse, grimaced, and shook my head. Nancy talked me into coming back the next day. Under a blue sky and a bright sun, the house didn’t look so impossible. And that view to the north was grand--sharp mountains and deep glacier-cut gaps. Before heading back to Pennsylvania, we made an offer on the property. A month later, we owned 108 acres, the house, a big garage, and a machine shed that could be expanded into a barn.
At the time, we did not know when we would be moving. We needed to look more closely at the farmhouse--should we remodel it, or was it beyond saving? A concrete porch had tilted, channeling runoff from the roof in under the stone foundation. Beneath a separate wing of the house, the foundation was also unraveling, so that the post-and-beam structure it supported looked like it was ready to tumble downhill.
We could fix up the house enough to use it as a summer place. Then, a few years down the road, we could remodel it more extensively. Or we could tear the house down and build a new dwelling. There was an outside chance that we would relocate soon, perhaps as early as next summer, depending on what we decided to do with the farmhouse, and if we could sell our current house–I had built it myself twenty years earlier. Would Will, our fourteen-year-old son, want to move? When looking at the property in Vermont, we had visited the school serving the local area. It was a beautiful brick academy in the best New England tradition. But Will had roots in Pennsylvania, just as we did. He had friends he didn’t want to leave. And he was starting his freshman year at the local high school in Bald Eagle Valley.
So everything is up in the air. We don’t know where we’ll be a year from now. But one thing at least is certain: It’s bird season in the central Pennsylvania uplands. I’ have a shotgun in my hands, a spaniel straining to hunt, and I want to find her some grouse.
I release Caillie, and we hunt onward through the misty, brushy woods. Using a combination of soft whistle notes and hand signals, I direct her to a grape-festooned blowdown, from which I fully expect her to root out a bird. I post myself on the edge of the tangle, my legs spread slightly apart, ready to shift my weight to one side or another and to point the gun in whichever direction our quarry decides to fly. But Caillie sniffs her way through the grape tangle, slips out on the far side, and keeps going.
The rain steps up. The trees’ branches wave in the breeze, and yellow leaves go sideslipping down. We turn and make another pass, a hundred yards higher up on the mountain. An hour later, as I walk out of the brush without once having raised my gun, it occurs to me that this could be the last time I hunt this covert.
Most hunters name the places where they hunt for grouse and woodcock. I’m no exception to that rule, but, as it happens, the covert we have just beaten through so fruitlessly does not have a name. I’ve never taken anybody there, since the landowner was emphatic about giving me and no one else permission to hunt it, and there has never been a need to refer to the spot in conversation. I first tried it out a couple of years ago, after the grouse population had crashed. It lies along the road a couple of miles from my house. It’s easy to get to: just park along the berm of the gravel township road, and wade into the brush. I guess I could call it Frustration Covert, because, although food and cover are both abundant there, I’ve never killed a grouse in the place.
I have always preferred covert to cover for designating the spots in which I hunt. “Covert” suggests the hidden, secret nature of such places, while “cover” describes the plants growing there, nurturing and sheltering the birds.
Some of my coverts I found by asking deer hunters where they had flushed grouse. I spotted others by driving around, looking for old fields and clear-cuts, then knocking on farmhouse doors and asking permission. (Good entertainment, in and of itself: I have met some true characters, like the old fellow who came out onto the broken porch of his farmhouse, wearing a frayed bathrobe, on his head an unraveling straw hat. I asked if I could hunt for woodcock on his boggy, overgrown acres. He didn’t recognize the word “woodcock,” but when I described the long-billed bird, he said, “Bogsuckers? Sure, go ahead and clean ‘em out.”) More than a few of my coverts I located by studying topographic maps, the kind with the green overlay designating woods. On foot, I explored isolated pockets of white (open ground) set back in the forest away from roads, and often those sunny islands proved to be old pastures and cropfields grown up in brush, creating the fertile, diverse transition zones of vegetation that grouse love. I checked out dotted lines that represented old roads wandering through the woods. Sunlight streaming down to those overgrown tracks provided, on either side, narrow strips of thick vegetation, linear bands of cover in areas where birds were otherwise scarce. Walking the roads–one of the easiest and most pleasurable ways to hunt–yielded frequent open shots.
To the uninitiated, grouse cover may seem like so much featureless brush, but the hunter soon learns to recognize its hard-to-explain but definitely “birdy” look. I remember the first time I tried a section of land scraggy with aspen, pitch pine, and scrub oak. That was before I had Jenny. I stepped slowly through a swale where the aspens still twirled a few gold leaves and fallen grapes lay scattered on the ground. “This place has to have grouse,” I said aloud, and at that moment a brown blur detached itself from the leaf duff and went clattering off between the trees. It was very much an instinctive shot, to which my brand-new short-barreled 20 gauge was well suited: swing and overtake and punch the trigger, the right barrel transfixing the bird in a cloud of feathers. I was so proud of that grouse – proud of recognizing a productive grouse covert, as well as taking a bird from it – that I carried it home to my parents’ house and helped my mother prepare it for the table.
To be a grouse covert, a tract of land must possess two critical features: vegetation that offers food, and vegetation that affords cover. Also, in my experience, a grouse covert should include a component of wildness. Although it may border a farm or be traversed by a road, the land should be sufficiently remote that the grouse are not forever being bothered by humans. If I could assemble an ideal covert, it would include (preferably in several hundred acres) evergreens, both scattered and in dense clumps, among whose boughs the birds could loaf during cold and wind and rain. Blackberries pushing up where logging had removed mature hardwood trees, and piles of tops from the cut trees, where the birds could huddle. Small grassy clearings where mother grouse could take their broods to find insects. Plenty of berry-producing shrubs and vines. And, selfishly, I would want some open lanes–old logging roads are nice–through which the flushed birds would dart, giving me chances to shoot.
Over the years, I found many such places in Bald Eagle Valley. Today, some of those coverts remain productive; others do not. Some are now ringed with No Trespassing signs. Several of my choicest spots have become cornfields. More often, new houses or trailers sit in the middle of my old hunting grounds.
As I said, almost all of my coverts have names. At Porky’s, a partner’s aggressive German shorthair met up with the swiping tail of a large porcupine. At Doll Baby I found a broken porcelain doll amid the trash from a collapsed house. One day my friend Carl and I were hunting a new, unnamed covert near the railroad that runs down the valley when an excursion train came chugging past, its cars drawn by an antique steam engine. We dubbed the place Pufferbelly.
Fox Pup got its name following an encounter with a grizzled turkey hunter who asked if we’d heard that fox pup yappin’ a few minutes before. The “fox pup” was actually my friend Dale’s springer spaniel--Ginger is so wild for grouse that she often barks shrilly when they flush, an action that would disqualify her at a field trial but that can be a distinct advantage in thick cover.
Sometimes the macabre creeps into the naming process. A nosy, officious fellow named Baker lived at the mouth of a hollow where I often hunt. Baker did not own the land, but he felt the need to quiz me every time I went there, and to brag of his poaching exploits. He died in a house fire that apparently started after he fell asleep while smoking a cigarette in bed. Burnt Baker, we call the place today.
Grouse and woodcock coverts are the very foundation of my hunting. They are fragile places, and I don’t share them casually. Too many hunters can make grouse flighty and wild. Removing too many grouse can suppress a local population and ruin the hunting for years to come. When I go tramping through my coverts, I like to take home game every now and then, but that’s not the only reason I preserve their sanctity. For me they are points of concentration – of birds, experiences, memories – places too precious to be bandied about.
A few years back, a particularly inquisitive neophyte grouse hunter buttonholed me and asked where I hunt. “Bald Eagle Valley,” I told him. “Yes,” he said, “but where do you hunt.” “Bald Eagle Valley,” I repeated. “I know,” he said, “but exactly where do you hunt?” I sighed, before pronouncing each word slowly and carefully: “Bald. Eagle. Valley.”