Talking Turkey: One Birder’s Pre-Dawn Passion

There’s no doubt in my mind the world would be a better place if everyone was a bird watcher.

I may be biased; I’m a bird watcher. Or a birder, or a bird nerd, as my friends (no doubt affectionately) call me.

I have notebooks chock full of lists of birds I have seen over the years, carefully documenting the species, location, and date. My text alerts are the call of a Chestnut-sided Warbler, and I have a serious quest for photographing these beautiful, wild birds that sometimes has me driving across the state in the dead of night to capture a photo (such as this Great Grey Owl I recently photographed).

To me, this goes beyond a fascination with our winged friends, and is rooted in a deep respect for the natural world. With respect, I understand myself as part of nature, not apart from it. And this plays out in birding (as well as hunting and fishing, which I also enjoy) this way: when I’m out in nature, I’m paying complete attention. I’m mindful of the smallest sounds and movements. I’m totally immersed in the natural world.

 

Two turkeys
Photo by William Kramer

Let’s Talk Turkey

Being that it’s spring gobbler season, let’s talk about turkeys. I’ll take you on a morning wild turkey hunt with me.

To the casual observer, it may seem that “turkeys are all over the place, pretty dumb, and easy to hunt.” This could not be further from the truth. Wild turkeys are extremely smart. They have excellent hearing and razor sharp eyesight.

When the sun goes down in the evening, turkeys fly high up into treetops to roost, usually in flocks away from predators. At first light in early spring, turkeys fly down and begin their day of eating and courting. Males compete with other gobblers by strutting and sounding off to impress the hens. This behavior is the key to locating and successfully harvesting a mature bird.

Here’s more evidence of my bird obsession: I roll out of bed 15 minutes before the alarm is set to go off at 4:30am. There is no bigger regret than arriving to a property “late” and hearing yelps and gobbles already sounding off from the ground. A good rule of thumb is to be fully set up, seated in good cover, decoys out, calm and ready, and waiting for turkeys a solid hour before the sunrise.

The first sounds to break the silence following the fade in owl hoots are usually the robins, followed by the towhees and the warblers. With anxious anticipation, I wait, hoping the first gobble to sound off is nearby.

With some luck, it happens. The gobble shatters the still air. Anticipation rises as gobbles seem to come from all directions. In order to draw a gobbler in close for a hunt I use two techniques: the box call (where I used a small wooden box to imitate a variety of turkey calls) and decoys, which draw the attention of mature turkeys.

Once the gobblers are out on the prowl, gobbling and strutting, I stay motionless. Undetected. It takes patience to wait for the right moment, and during this time all my senses are fully tuned to my environment. This quiet watchfulness is meditative—it requires intense focus, yet I feel absolutely calm in the moment.

Remember, these turkeys are smart. One slight move, and you’ll be busted. I’ve even been caught by a Tom for blinking!

 

Turkey in the field

 

It’s Not All About the Bird

There are mornings I don’t get a turkey. And that’s okay.

Whether you get a bird or not, the experience of being out in the first light, watching and listening the natural world wake up and come alive is the true reward. Every single time I enter the forest I learn something. I have found when you pay deep attention to nature throughout the year, you can begin to understand the cycles and foundations of our natural world in a way that is so rewarding.

Of course, you don’t need to be a hunter to experience this quiet, mindful satisfaction outside. This weekend, do this: walk out into the woods, find a quiet spot, sit down against a tree and stay perfectly still for at least twenty minutes. The world of sound and movement you will notice will be surprising. You’ll hear sounds you’ve never heard and see small wonders you’ve never noticed, and you may find that you experience things that spark your curiosity.

Go with it. Buy a birding book, or use my favorite app, the Merlin Bird ID app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Starting to identify the amazing birds around you will take you down a path of discovery, appreciation and love of nature that is fascinating and gratifying.

If you’d like to keep up with my bird photography, follow me on Instagram @williamkramerstudio.

From this bird nerd, happy birding to the nerds and newbies!


Bill Kramer is Art Director at NEMO, spending his days happily in the studio with a good soundtrack, bringing NEMO’s products to life in photos and videos. When he’s not at NEMO, he’s birding, biking, fishing, and spending time with his family.