McHENRY -- Allow me to capture this moment atop southwest Garrett County's Roman Nose Mountain.
From the clear blue sky a bright sun causes the ice on tips of overhead branches to sparkle like diamonds. The temperature is below freezing, and the floor of the forest is beneath 8 inches of crusty snow.
I reflect on a perfect day. Moments before the noisy crunching of my boots in the snow sent two wild turkeys from a thicket less than 75 yards away. What a beautiful sight as -- once above the trees -- they set their wings to glide like buzzards over the steep downward slope on the west side of this mountain, once the stomping grounds of Mesach Browning.
Could these be the turkeys that left the tracks I crossed several times earlier? The snow is unmarred except for the tracks of wildlife that roam here in daylight in search of food.
I came in search of one species in particular, the most elusive of all Maryland game birds, including the always alert and wary turkey. My target is the ruffed grouse, a small swift gamebird available only in Western Maryland save for a small flock stocked by DNR last year in Charles County on an experimental basis.
Four times earlier this day I encountered these thunderbirds -- so named because of their noisy wingbeat when flushed -- but I have yet to fire my muzzleloader loaded with No. 6 pellets. Twice they did the predictable. They burst into the sky from the other side of high piles of thick branches stacked by men who last summer harvested timber.
Their takeoff was fast, but worse for me, it was so low I couldn't swing my barrel on them as their flight pattern remained below the brush pile before they vanished into surrounding trees, leaving me with renewed admiration of their evasive skills.
A third bird didn't wait for me to kick its brushy hide-out. Hearing my crackling approach it flew prematurely, long before I was close enough to raise my shotgun. Another smart bird, indeed.
Yet the fourth old ruff displayed a lack of caution rare for such a grand bird, other than when it is courting in the spring. As Chuck McCrobie and I were driving between mountain hunting spots, he suddenly jammed the brakes.
There on the road not 5 feet from the right fender was what McCrobie referred to as a "roadhen." It was a female grouse browsing on sandy grit to grind hard weed seeds in her digestive process.
Brazen or curious, she stayed put as she looked us over for nearly a minute before ambling over the shoulder of the road and almost nonchalantly taking to wing. She would have been an easy -- and unsportsmanlike -- target.
So here I am, still two birds shy of my bag limit of two, atop desolate and silent Roman Nose, long abandoned by all but the most hardy of hunters. I have not heard a distant shot from the direction of my companions Calvert Bregel, Johnny Marple, McCrobie and Dick Friend, who owns 160 acres on the summit and who hunts turkeys, deer and grouse here regularly.
Something else hunts grouse here regularly -- something that has led me to the three grouse I have flushed. In its hunt it has left its meandering fresh tracks that go from one pile of branches to another.
Where its paw prints in the snow reveal a cursory check of a thicket or a brush pile, I don't waste my time. I know the keen nose of the hungry red fox can detect a secreted grouse, and he will leave signs in the snow of an effort to dig in to enjoy a meal up here where food is scarce in midwinter snow.
Alongside some fox tracks there is an occasional cone-like hole in the snow where Reynard has plunged his long, pointed nose deep to ferret for vegetation or perhaps a holed up rodent for a consolation meal. The squirrels hereabouts are too fast for him, and everywhere they have nearby trees as an escape route.
Meanwhile, judging from other tracks I have crossed, the fox must also look over his shoulder to survive. Those other tracks are those of a bobcat.
Yes, life is tough up here on Roman Nose, but this day I have not complicated the lives of the ruffed grouse.