Flights of Fancy

The sun warms my face as it cascades through the passenger side truck window. Images of Rupert quivering with anticipation after locking eyes with a grouse hidden in the brush flood my mind’s eye. I wonder what I’ll do when that king of birds flushes up through the thicket in a thunder of wings and feathers. Will I rise to the challenge and take a shot? Will I miss?

As it turns out, I did neither. The first time Rupert bumped a grouse I was dumbstruck. By the time the unfamiliar sound of a bird taking flight rung in my ear drums, Scott had already swung his shotgun toward the fleeing grouse and emptied both barrels.

He turns to see me with my gun still resting on my shoulder.

“Did you even shoot?” he asks with a puzzled smile.

“Shoot? I didn’t even see it!”

“That’s the thing with grouse,” he says giving Rupert a satisfied pat on the head. “You aim toward the sound. By the time you see it, it’s already too late.”

With that we were off in search of the next covey. Busting through young birch trees so close together I often got my vest or hat stuck while trying to squeeze through. Even more often I was whipped in the face by thin branches. It is as though the trees are fighting back against my intrusion.

Rupert, clad in his orange vest and bell cheerily ringing, bounds through the thickest brush without hesitation. It’s as if the branches part on their own creating an invisible path that only he can see. I envy him as yet another hidden branch slaps me in the ear.

I’m rubbing the scorned earlobe with my palm, distracted, wondering what the heck I am doing out here. I should be cuddled up on the couch with the cats and a good book. Not out here being abused by nature. That’s when I hear Scott call out “he’s on point”.

I turn and see Rupert, tail high and quaking, right paw curled up at the ready, and nose pointing forward. There’s be no doubt maties, birds be here. Scott motions for me to move up in front of Rupert to try and flush the bird. “Be ready” is the only advice muttered.

To our right I hear the now familiar flutter of wings, Scott again empties both barrels. This time when he turns, I’m seen standing shot gun at my side and my hand pointing in the direction of the bird.

“I already have a pointer,” Scott laughs at me. “We don’t need another one.”

I have spent 30 years of my life observing nature. Being witness to fluffy bunny rabbits hopping along the bunny trail or spotting unique avian creatures as they flutter across the sky. It’s going to take a while for the muscle memory to change from pointing a finger to pointing a gun in the direction of the animal.

On our next venture out, Scott, Rupert and I decide to scout out new territory. The trees are a little older and more spaced out and the ground is soft and damp - “could be perfect for timberdoodles” Scott says eagerly. To which my instant reply is “timber-what-dles?”.

For those not in the “know” as I was, “timberdoodle” is another term for woodcock - a ground-dwelling migratory bird. It is, quite frankly, one of the oddest looking things with wings I have ever seen. They also have some killer dance moves.

Tromping through the woods we came across a creek, Scott took one side while I walked along the other. Rupert, like he’s been doing it for years, worked the area bounding from one side to the other between the two of us, leaving no potential location unturned. To my left I hear a gentle flutter of wings and wispy “peep-peep-peep”. Without even thinking, my shotgun is resting at my shoulder, I pull the trigger in the direction of the timberdoodle’s escape path. I, as expected, miss, but as Scott said, at least I was shooting.

I have spent more time out in the woods during this fall and winter than I ever have in recent memory. As pheasant and woodcock season came and went, and grouse season comes to a close, I find myself silently cursing after a smack from a branch less and less. Instead of following behind Scott’s sure-footed steps, I venture out on my own path through the woods more and more. I close my eyes, taking in the sweet cool air and the quiet sounds of the forest.

Rupert makes a hard right and slams on another point, snapping me back to the moment. I move in front of him to flush the grouse while Scott stands at the ready. Moving through the brush, I anxiously await the the thunder of feathers taking flight. With every step I imagine a grouse fluttering up in front of me… Nothing.

“Maybe it moved, relocate him,” Scott whispers in a hushed tone.

I tap Rupert on the head. “Go ahead.” Nothing. I give another nudge to his head “Go ahead” a bit more forcefully. He doesn’t budge. Shaking his head, Scott begins to move toward me and the stubborn dog. He barely takes two steps when there is a thunder of wings behind me, and in front of Scott, breaks the tense silence. It was too quick and from an unexpected direction, neither of us had a chance. Rupert broke from point and went on a short chase, hoping, perhaps, that he could do what we couldn’t… get a grouse.

Not long after, Rupert catches wind of more feathered friends he eagerly wants to make the acquaintance of. With Scott on one side, and me on the other, a covey of five grouse burst from the brush in a flurry of thunder and feathers. Scott lets loose some rounds to my right and I pull the trigger at a grouse flying right across my line of sight and hit… a tree. Those grouse lived to see another day and Rupert’s disappointment in our terrible shooting is quickly forgotten as he catches wind of other pursuits.

I've seen many woodcock, grouse, and pheasants this season and although the only birds I've been able to hit have been on a game farm, I've had the pleasure to watch a young dog grow in the grouse woods. And that’s an experience worth a thousand branches in the face.