‘Icing on the cake’ provided by nature

WINTER is packing punch after punch on us human beings this winter. While we do not have much snow, wind and cold air temps are helping define this winter in pretty harsh terms. So it goes in Iowa. We must endure. We must adapt. No matter how the weather stats summarize the season, it will still be a winter to remember (or forget?). I’ll go with forget, and look forward to spring’s arrival.

MEMORIES of last fall are helping to ease the pain of winter. I call it “Icing on the cake.” It is an expression we’ve all heard at one time or another. It conjures up images of a tall cake adorned with candles. Frosting covering the cake makes it look oh so delicious even before it is cut and served to family and friends. Decorated cakes are reserved for special times such as birthdays, anniversaries or graduations. Cooked to perfection, and laden with thick frosting, great anticipation will soon culminate with tasty bites to eat.

Fall hunting seasons are just another form of anticipation sportsmen and women look forward. They can’t wait for the year to cycle through spring, summer and next fall. All is in hopes that the lure of outdoor experiences will again fill my mental need for connections with nature. As an avid bowhunter having completed my 48th year of tree stand perches and woodland wanderings, I too can reflect on things that made this past season special. I know that in part I’m exercising an ages old desire, a legacy repeated by man-kind in fair chase pursuit of turkey, deer and other wildlife adventures. It is such a strong desire that on the one hand it is hard to explain to those not comfortable in the outdoors. On the other hand it is easy to share and admire the experiences of other hunters that were able to get close to unsuspecting animals, some of which may have fallen to the arrow or bullet, and many others that were allowed to walk away without knowledge of the human predator nearby.

There are other great advantages to silent vigils of long hours waiting and watching. Just observing the give and take of natural rhythms of life at forest edge, marshy slough or upland prairie grasslands is a joy indeed. Beautiful sunrises and sunsets are spectacular slices of time that can be worth the effort by themselves. Mix in a flight of ducks or geese against a backdrop of sunset red light on the bases of clouds adds colorful memories to the task at hand. The symphony of sounds one learns to appreciate fill a wide range of auditory delights. Honking Canada geese talking to each other, migrating warblers chirping in nearby tree branches, woodpeckers drumming staccato note after note as they probe tree bark in their quest for insects, and wild turkeys calling in their subtle peeps. All is entertainment and an open book on nature’s knowledge being revealed. I, and many other hunters, count themselves lucky to be there, at those special places and times to partake in the grandeur that nature provides free of charge.

As an archer, the mighty oak that holds my stand may be no different than any other tree in the forest. For me, it is a special tree, the right tree to use as my lofty perch to observe the goings-on of the forest and it creatures. It is a big and powerful tree. It is a sentinel of strength with its big limbs and solid trunk. This tree that now holds me has paid a silent tribute of many hundreds of years of growth, surviving good times and bad, numerous decades of floods or drought, broiling summer heat or brutal winter cold. Still it lives and grows as a testament to hope, performing its duty annually to produce acorns. Each year a few more millimeters of extra girth are added to the tree’s history book of internal growth ring pages. I like this tree.

I capture many moments of time in my memory from this tree stand. On occasion I try to capture those moments with my camera. Later I may print the photos and share the beauty of nature with others who may say something like, “I wish I could be with you when these jewels of nature are offered free for the viewing.” A deer, or a turkey or flying bald eagles are part of the memory of images piling up for review. Or there are those rare times when a Red-tailed Hawk glides silently through the forest toward on a course heading right toward me. I do not move. My camo colored clothing blends into the background. The hawk stays its course and alights on a branch of the tree behind me, holding tight to the oak limb with its back toward me. I’m amazed. It does not know I’m only six feet away! I watch intently as the raptor studies the landscape before it. I feel my heart beat with excitement, a sound surely to be heard by the hawk but it does not feel my presence … yet. I observe its crimson tail feathers and its finely sculpted body of brown plumage in a perfect definition of form and function. Its yellow talons grip the branch well, those same talons that are equipped to capture and kill its prey of mouse, rabbit, squirrel or other forest critter small enough to be on the menu. Its yellow hooked recurved beak is designed to kill and pluck off morsels of meat to eat. It is a predator in a tree looking for a meal. I’m a predator in the same tree looking for a meal.

The hawk eventually turns its head to take in more views. I’m watching the hawk from behind a head net of muted colors. The hawk finally sees me and becomes suspicious that all is not right. Something really big is in its tree, a mere six feet away! Squirrels do not grow to be this huge. What is it? Rather than contemplate the issue too long, the red-tail decides that more distance is the preferred method to its survival. It flies away. But it left a memory in its wake, a memory within the gray matter of a fellow predator’s brain, of a very close and wonderful encounter of a natural moment.

I did not take a deer on this particular night from my tree stand. But I did take home a ‘trophy’ in the form of a new memory. I called it “icing on the cake.”

TARGET SHOOTING is a big time activity for many folks young and old. A simple .22 rifle can be great fun when teamed up with a mentoring adult and a youngster wanting to learn the correct way to handle and responsibly use firearms. It has worked for centuries and is still working today. A report from the National Shooting Sports Foundation helps put target shooting into perspective. The report’s title is Target Shooting in America: Millions of Shooters, Billions of Dollars. The report takes a look at U.S. target shooting-related expenditures.

In Iowa, the stats show target shooting spending contributed $114,881,781 to the state’s economy. It supports 1,265 jobs. Nationally during 2011, target shooters spent $23 billion which supports 185,000 jobs. Rifle and handgun target shooting accounted for nearly $10 billion in sales with shotgun and muzzleloader weapons rounding out the mix. California and Texas are the top two states in sales related to target shooting. The economic impact of sport shooting at targets is now more thoroughly understood. The recreational benefits are good for people and good for the economy of the country.

At each hunter safety class held at the local Izaak Walton League property, young boys and girls have the chance to do a bit of target shooting. It is all super safe, well supervised by a cadre of instructors, and is fun for the kids. It may be their first exposure to target shooting. It will not be the last for many of them who will go on to learn more and find the satisfaction of outdoor activity in the shooting sports. Even at college, skeet or clay bird shoots can become a competitive event between schools. All because somebody somewhere gave the kids a chance to experience target shooting the way it is supposed to be done.

BALD EAGLE events are taking place all over Iowa. For this scribe, every day that I make the short drive from Albion to Marshalltown is also time to observe eagles. I’m seldom disappointed. There may not be as many as a lock and dam site on the Mississippi River, but it is still eagle viewing for me. Eagle events are coming up at Gray’s Lake in Des Moines on Feb 14 15. Eagles at Saylorville Lake observing time is from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Feb. 23 at the Corps of Engineers Visitors Center. Check them out and go eagle watching.

Lastly, here is your funny bone item for the day: I dream of a better world where chickens can cross the road without having their motives questioned.

Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.