Late every winter while the rut is winding to a halt, and the freezer is bulging at the seams, thoughts and daydreams transition from “what can I do for my deer” to “what can I do for the birds.” I think it’s pretty safe to say many of you guy’s thought processes follow the same calendar. Even though its engrained in our heads how important it is to follow a long-term management plan, that small block of thinned pines you swore needed a couple years allowance to grow super thick for deer cover suddenly needs a burning to create a scratching and strutting hotspot come the turkey opener. The same can be said for that field you wanted to put in soybeans suddenly just has to become a chufa plot. Or what about all those cameras you wanted to put out to see which bucks made it through the season? Instead you find yourself spending weekends setting traps to catch nest predators!
The list of “seasonal mindset changes” happens to just about every so-called gamekeeper, and the good news is that all of these practices are beneficial and rewarding, even if they do weigh a little more towards either fur or feathers. So what are some things we as hunters and land managers can do to benefit both ends of the spectrum? And to be more specific actually improve deer huntability AND provide a food source for the Sultans of Spring? Since one of my main passions aside from deer and turkey hunting is trees, and the three can go hand in hand, I’m going to cover a tree planting strategy we implement on our client’s, and our own personal properties that tackle both buck and bird with one stone.
In a nutshell, it’s all about what trees you plant and where you plant them that make a drastic difference. At Nativ Nurseries, we raise a wide spectrum of species… all beneficial for wildlife, but it’s about where you put them that makes a difference when it comes to huntability. Huntability and recreational value pretty much go hand in hand these days, don’t they?
The almighty oaks, my personal favorite, are by far the most popular trees to plant when it comes to wildlife, but a common mistake I’ve seen over the years is in the choice where they are planted in respect to improving huntability for deer. In my opinion, the single biggest mistake a tree planting deer hunter can make is to raise “acorn” trees along access routes to deer stands. To be a more effective deer hunter, it makes sense to NOT attract deer to the same roads and trails you use to access them for hunting. Think about it! Why on earth would you want to bump multiple deer en route to the hunt? All this will accomplish is to encourage them to wait until way after dark to come out and eat. The best solution is to establish plants and mast trees that aren’t attractive to deer in the fall and winter along these pathways. But that doesn’t mean you have to avoid mast producing species altogether. Just make a point to plant these access areas in something wildlife can utilize at times of the year other than deer season. I’ve found the best scenario is to establish spring and summer dropping “turkey trees” such as: black cherry, blackgum, and red mulberry along your access routes, or any other species such as plums or dogwoods. Save your oak seedlings for everywhere else.
It’s not that deer won’t utilize these turkey trees, in fact they relish ‘em. The driving home point is this list of soft mast species won’t be a source of attraction during deer season. This will greatly reduce your human impact when human impact is a no-no, and on the flip side give your birds a reason to stick around. Bucks and birds bagged with one stone, how’s that for a win-win scenario?
Dudley Phelps is the Manager at Mossy Oak Nativ Nurseries in West Point, MS for more information on what plant species will work best on your land email Dudley at email@example.com.
By Dudley Phelps Mossy Oak Nativ Nurseries Research and Development Associate
Why on earth does our calendar year end and begin in the middle of winter? It simply doesn’t make sense considering everything else in God’s creation follows a year based on the changing seasons. Shouldn’t our year begin with the first day of spring? I guess it doesn’t matter to the rest of earth’s inhabitants that humans and computers follow a different time schedule because they don’t know and don’t care what we think. When the big ball drops in Times Square, deciduous trees don’t begin growing new leaves, farmers haven’t begun planting corn, and virtually nothing in our hemisphere is in bloom.
Maybe I’m over thinking this phenomenon? Perhaps the calendar New Year gives us time to prepare for Mother Nature’s new year, much like we set our clocks fast in an effort to get to work on time. From a land manager’s standpoint, this alarm of sorts can serve as a wake-up-call to begin preparation for the following spring.
Assuming hunting season is over for many of you, we now have more time available to do things at the farm in hopes of making the next year and many years ahead the best they can be! And what an important time it is… Now is a great time to service equipment, look for sheds and find trails, run traps, build turkey blinds, and frost-seed clover. Of equal importance to me and many other hard-core land managers is the fact that this window of time is also ideal for performing TSI (timber stand improvement) work. Practices such as hack-and-squirt, hinge-cutting, and prescribed fire come to mind right off the bat, and planting trees can also be done at this time.
To many land managers, winter “wonder” land can have a different meaning than is intended. Sure, you get a sense of wonderment looking at the frost or snow cover blanketing the landscape, but I’m referring to the fact that most folks “wonder” what the heck kind of tree that is when there isn’t the first leaf on it. So how can you hinge-cut a tree to daylight a field edge, or treat undesirables to release or plant an oak if you can’t identify trees in the winter? Personally, I’d rather be sitting in a tree in October than storming through the woods cutting them down while they’re more easily identified. That leads to my goal for this article, which is to get you on the right track towards becoming an expert in identifying trees after they have senesced for the winter. These tips should in turn also improve your identification skills and thus your management efficiency year round.
Summer Practice – Don’t look up
When foliage is present, and you can much more easily identify a tree by looking up at the canopy- Don’t. Force yourself to take a guess before giving in and gazing up. Try getting a first inclination from looking at the bark characteristics and the stump. Once you’ve done that and still aren’t sure you can get hints by looking at the forest floor. What leaves are on the ground? Are those acorn cups, or hickory husks and nuts? Sweet Gum balls? Maple Samaras? In time you’ll be surprised how easy it is to walk around calling trees by name without having to strain your neck, and soon thereafter searching the leaf litter won’t be necessary in most instances.
Up close and personal – Get twiggy with it
Not every tree you need to ID in the wintertime will be out of reach, even if it is you can find clues as previously mentioned on the forest floor. If there aren’t old fruits, nuts, or leaves lying around, or the tree is too young to produce a crop, you can always find a few twigs lying on the ground if the tree is too tall for them to be in reach. Regardless of the size or age of the tree, a simple twig is all that’s needed to positively identify every tree in the woods.
Growth patterns on the branch of deciduous trees are usually either considered opposite, or alternate. That means stems, buds, and leaves are attached either opposite, or alternate of each other, which can quickly narrow down your choices. There are several acronyms that have been used to remember who’s got opposite arrangement, but many refer to scientific names. There used to be a simple acronym for all of the oppositely arranged trees and shrubs, but a bunch of taxonomists got together recently and broke up the honeysuckle family into several. As a result, the best acronym I can come with for now is: MAD Cat Paw, Buck Honey Vibe; which stands for: Maple, Ash, Dogwood, Catalpa, Paulownia, Buckeye, Honeysuckle, Viburnum. Catalpa’s arrangement can also be whorled but is never alternate, buckeye includes Horsechestnut, and Viburnum also includes Blackhaw and the Elderberries. This acronym is a useful tool for beginners, but like the English Language, there are exceptions and taxonomists are always changing classifications, so use this as a crutch to get started, then throw it away.
Leaf scars on the twigs give answers as well. Although all hickories have three lobed leaf scars (kind of like Mickey Mouse’s head), a black walnut or butternut’s looks distinctly like a monkey’s face, and the less common butternut has fuzzy eyebrows. Can’t decide if you are looking at a white or green ash? Look at the leaf scar on a twig. A white ash leaf scar takes on a crescent or U shape and the green ash has more of a half moon or D shape. Magnolias (including yellow-poplar), and sycamore show distinctive stipular leaf scars appearing as rings encircling the twig.
Dormant buds can also be used in identification. If the slick grayish bark and persistent tan leaves don’t tip you off you’re looking at a beech, check the buds. They look like little cigars. A persimmon tree’s bark is a dead giveaway on a large tree, but what about the young guys? If you see jet black, triangular shaped buds on the twig, you’re probably looking at a persimmon.
Know your sites
Probably the easiest way to narrow down the many species of trees is to understand the sites they commonly occupy. Some species such as Yellow Poplar are aggressive, vigorous growers and need a deep, well-drained soil to defeat the competition. Others, such as post oak can tolerate shallow upland soils, thus giving them a competitive edge on poorer sites. Aspect is another important feature to consider. Northern red oak more often than not favors cove-type sites with a Northern exposure. It could be a pH thing where you have species that will tolerate one extreme or both. Pin oaks are never found in alkaline soils. What about moisture? Bitter pecan may only be found in areas that are too wet for its close relatives from the hickory family to grow. “Site plastic” species can throw you a curveball, so you’ll have to rely on other methods for identification.
From a distance
With a little practice, one can learn to identify different species or types of trees from a distance, even in the dead of winter. Distance ID doesn’t seem very important at first thought, but after mastering this technique you can ponder TSI ideas while sitting on the deer stand. This practice alone saves precious time and offers a real-time, birds-eye view! Now you can theorize which trees to hinge cut for directing deer traffic, or where you want to enhance bedding/feeding areas based on wind direction, lay of the land, AND mast trees present. Interested in finding a small piece of property to purchase or lease? Knowing your trees from a distance can provide a sneak peek from the road before asking for a tour.
To Master the distance tool, it’s important to know your trees from up close at first. Much like calling tree names out by not looking up, you can practice making educated guesses from afar and then move in for a closer look to verify. Before long, general physical traits such as branch habit, crown shape, or overall stature will provide answers. For example, a black gum’s branches grow at 90-degree angles from the trunk, making them easily picked out from the crowd. Sycamores are often the tallest trees out there, and their smooth, white bark can nearly blind you on a bluebird day. Down here in the South, a white oak often keeps its dead, brown leaves for much of the winter, and the bur oaks often take their time to change color and fall, and can be further separated from a white oak because of their gangly, twisted form. Our previously described, “opposite or alternate” acronym can also be used from a reasonable distance with a pair of binoculars.
Trees are indeed individuals, and the more time you spend getting to know them as individuals rather than “just trees,” the sooner you’ll realize how easy it is to put a face on them in a crowd. In time there will be no need to remember a silly acronym, dig through the leaves, chew on a twig, haul an ID book around, or look up. Having an expert knowledge of your trees will cut down on the time you spend “wondering,” and will give you the tools you need to turn a property with potential into a property with presence.
I remember the first time I went turkey hunting with my good friend Bill on a parcel of land he had permission to hunt. We met at a gas station a few miles from the property where he pulled out a paper sketch of the property and valiantly attempted to show me the details of the tract. I must admit, it was like trying to decipher Russian spy code! When we set foot on the property, the map might as well have been used to build a fire, as it did nothing but confuse us.
I told Bill that if we were ever going to hunt together again on a new property, that I was going to print out a quality aerial map beforehand. After pulling the briars out of his hands and chugging two bottled waters from near dehydration, he enthusiastically agreed with my plan.
I do not proclaim to be a mapping genius. I do not work for a government mapping agency and did not receive a degree in surveying. However, for the applications that most hunters and wildlife managers use, those certifications are simply not necessary. Mapping technology has evolved tremendously over the past ten years, and the “average Joe” now has more than a few options to obtain quality, up to date, and easy to produce aerial and topographical maps.
By now many of you have probably heard about the monster known as Google. Google is a mega search-engine site that also offers a “maps” search console that I have found to be very beneficial. The main selling point of using Google to search for maps is that it is fast, easy, and best of all, free. I have found recently that more parts of the country are “covered,” in that the maps are high quality colored aerial maps. The main con to me is that you cannot save the Google produced maps to your computer without being a tech wiz. You can, however, print them out very easily, which is crucial if you are in a hurry on opening day.
Bing.com is almost identical to Google in that it is a search engine site that happens to have mapping features. The pros are pretty much the same as Google, except for one really neat feature that Bing has. In certain places, you can get “Bird’s Eye View,” which is literally what it states. I was floored the first time I saw it! It really gives you a glimpse as to what the future may hold for mapping. The negative with Bird’s Eye View is that the coverage areas are few and far between, and you cannot map large parcels of land on the same sheet. For forty acre tracts or micro-scouting, it is perfect.
MapCard.com is a membership site that allows you to search, save, and print an unlimited number of high quality aerial and topo maps. Standard packages start at around twenty dollars, and the MapCard Pro package runs closer to thirty. MossyOak.com has an access portal that allows you to use some of the MapCard features, but will not let you save the photos. My favorite feature of MapCard is undoubtedly the Hybrid TopoPhoto feature, which overlays lines of elevation on a high quality aerial photograph. For hunters and land managers alike, a hybrid aerial has a multitude of uses from locating funnels to designing food plot or lake sites. Visit www.MapCard.com for more information.
The numbers of software-based mapping systems are limitless. I could devote an entire article to those alone. One mid-range software system that I have had some experience with is DeLorme’s XMap program. It is basically a step up from MapCard, and enables you to draw property lines and measure off acreage. It is based on GIS principles, which make the maps very active and interactive. The cons with XMap are the cost, which can run upwards of $300, and the fact that the maps get outdated fairly quickly, requiring you to buy new discs every so often. However, for someone who really wants to ramp up their mapping capabilities, XMap is a very good place to start. Visit www.delorme.com for more information.
Local mapping services
Many people do not realize that they can obtain high quality area maps through local mapping services, both private and government funded. There are a number of flying services in my area that take photos for their clients. The obvious advantage is that the maps are clear and up to date. They usually run around a hundred dollars per property, but they can produce you some very high quality, laminated aerial maps. Most companies will save your maps to a disk, enabling you to use the data at your discretion. If you are unable to find an aerial service in your hometown, contact a local forestry or land management group to see if they know someone that could assist you. They lean heavily on aerial services due to the current information they can obtain.
As far as government agencies are concerned, the NRCS office in your county is a great place to start. They normally keep an extensive catalog of aerial, topographical, and soil maps from the county, from which copies can be ordered for next to nothing. Having three different classes of maps for your property can do nothing but help you in managing it more efficiently. The drawback with using NRCS is that some of the aerial maps may not be as current as you may like. For more information, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov.
As you can tell by now, maps are readily available through a number of avenues. A person simply needs to identify what uses they want the maps for. I personally like very current aerial photographs that have been laminated. I buy several copies of them and use each of them for a different task, (for example, I will mark my stand sites on one map, planting program on another, etc.). For the weekend warrior, however, a Google or Bing.com derived map may be sufficient. It all comes down to priorities.
The mapping industry is constantly changing, with more options emerging on a seemingly daily basis. This article was not intended to be an exhaustive review of the available services, but more so a “tip of the iceberg” introduction to the world of mapping. I encourage you to lean heavily on maps this upcoming season. You will be amazed at their ability to make you a better hunter or land manager!