Our Aha Moments

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Three women who hunt talk about discovering who they are, and why upland conservation is so important

By Nancy Anisfield

As I floundered in thick streamside grass trying to cross a flooded ditch into a patch of conifers where I knew there’d be a bird or two, I had an “aha” moment. 

I was hunting alone with my shorthair in a way-back Vermont ruffed grouse cover. He and I were in the middle of our own wooded universe, thinking through a strategy to make the cover work, totally sense-aware of the terrain, the brush, the light and the space. Everything outside that place and time disappeared. 

It hit me that without the complexity of that habitat, there’d be none of the anticipation, challenge and joy I was feeling. I’d supported Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited and the Ruffed Grouse Society for years because it was the right thing to do. But in that moment I felt it somewhere deeper, realizing that being a conservationist is fundamentally part of who I am as a hunter. 

For many of us, being a hunter is integral to our identity. But not all hunters are conservationists, so I asked a few women to tell me about their aha moments. 


Camille Noldan: A Passion All Wrapped Into One 

Camille Noldan had her aha moment recently.

“I've been stumbling along trying to learn about dog training and how to hunt this dog I've worked so darn hard to train,” she told me. “Like you, I felt like I had the optics of what a good conservationist looks like. I belong to RGS, PF, DU and so on. I participate in activities put on by our Yankee NAVHDA Chapter and by Maine Wildlife and Island Fisheries to support conservation. But it wasn't until a couple weeks ago that it clicked.” 

Camille was running Reveille and Jäger to burn off some of their energy before she raced home to help her twin daughters with their Covid 19 mandated remote learning. “The weather was cold and blustery with a late season coastal snowstorm blowing in,” she said, “Almost in tandem, I got a buzz from both collars with an On Point alert. I came around the bend of an old apple orchard and there was Reveille backing Jäger on point. Never did I think I would get on birds in this cover. A small woodcock was holding tight three feet from Jäger's face. Poor little woodcock must have been tired from migrating and was trying to hunker down from the storm. I quickly heeled the dogs out.”

“Later reflecting, I realized I’d foolishly overlooked all the makings of a great woodcock cover,” Camille told me.“ Old forest meets new forest, field for landing, moist ground and so on.”

“A couple of days later I was sitting on the front porch of my friend’s farmhouse overlooking the horses in their paddocks as the sun was setting,” SAIS Camille. “Like clockwork the fluttering in the sky and peenting in the near distance began. My friend, not knowing what a woodcock was much less a peent, was inquisitive. We sat for an hour sipping wine while I talked and talked about the birds that have become so dear to me,” Camille said. “It was in these two moments that I realized how I care about the birds, their habitat, and educating others is a passion all wrapped up into one.”
 

Patti Carter: Flying Into a Windstorm

Veteran hunter Patti Carter found my question hard to answer. “Thinking about it, I went outside to stack some firewood, the whole time thinking about your question,” she said. “Then I got it! I never had one aha moment. I saw it, I learned it, I lived it, I taught it to my kids. It’s in my bones. Growing up, I was always outside. My father loved the outdoors and took us all with him. I didn’t hunt when I was young, but spent hours outside, in the boat fishing, exploring the woods.”

“The resource was huge,” Patti explained with a story:

“I remember one time maybe 20 years ago when I’d gone for a walk with Micah, my first shorthair. The woodcock were everywhere. I don’t think I had a gun with me. So much fun, bird after bird, flushing and landing everywhere. It was amazing. Now I know how special that was. Back then we appreciated the resource, loved the habitat and wildlife, but took it for granted. Hunters then assumed it would always be there. When I realized that a big part of who I am as a hunter is caring about conservation was when I realized the resource may not always be there. I go back to grouse covers that were full of birds – even in northern Maine forests where they do cut trees and replenish the resource – it’s not like it was. The grouse are flying into a windstorm of sorts because we just don’t have the habitat we used to. So my answer is kind-of the opposite of discovering an appreciation for habitat because I always had that. It was discovering the growing loss of that habitat that has driven me to talk about conservation, support the organizations, and practice good habitat management on our own property.”
 

Bridget Nielsen: Long Hikes Bring Understanding

Bridget Nielson’s career in Natural Resources and Wildlife Conservation included 12 years researching endangered and threatened species’ habitat needs, then 18 years restoring and developing habitat for over 350 wildlife species. She said, however, that she really became a researcher of upland bird habitat while seeking productive Nevada chukar hunting grounds for herself and her first vizsla.

“When you are faced with long hikes in the wrong places, finding no birds, you learn quickly what to look for in bird habitat,” she laughed.

Bridget’s true aha moment, however, came a bit later:

“It wasn't until my dog was 3 years old and my bestie, Ellie Rock, and I found ourselves trying to figure out what kinds of places Columbia sharp-tailed grouse inhabited. We walked many large tracts of land across Eastern Idaho and what became quickly apparent was how Conservation Reserve Program lands played a significant role in providing good habitat for this species. When I returned home, I studied the CRP program and how the age of a restored piece of habitat associated with intact native habitat provided the optimum conditions for the entire life cycle of this species.”

“The magical aha moment came as we were standing on a private landowner’s parcel the following fall,” Bridget said, “when my research of CRP and native habitat all fell into place. Ellie and I had decided to revisit some of those properties that year and things had changed. But what hadn't changed was where the birds were plentiful and how the CRP was clearly providing shelter and food for young broods of Columbia sharptails. In my research and hunting, it all came together. As the covey of sharptails rose in front of me and my dog, I pulled up my gun but became overwhelmed and didn't shoot. I was in awe of the beauty of the place intertwined with the sound of the rising birds. They chuckled at me as they flew from the CRP to native intact bitterbrush habitat with the Teton Mountain Range in the background where today this sharptail subspecies has recovered from threatened status.”

Nancy Anisfield is a full-time outdoor writer and photographer, creative director for the Ugly Dog Hunting Company, and secretary of the Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever National Board of Directors.