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Postcard from the Matthews Ranch: A hunting dog turns 10 -- and it's Spring


Duke, our Labrador, turned 10 years old on April Fool’s Day this year. We have always said the joke was on us. Any hunter or dog person who has a social media account has seen the meme with four Labrador photos clustered in a block -- Black Lab, Yellow Lab, Chocolate Lab, and Meth Lab. Duke is our Meth Lab, black in color with a shorthair’s ability to run, and a cat’s distain for commands. He hasn’t mellowed much with age.

I tell people I take Duke out for walks on the Matthews Ranch, but “walk” is a misnomer. We don’t walk. Duke runs at top speed in all directions for the first 30 minutes, and I trot around trying to keep him in sight and attempting to call him back to me. It is really more like a one-dog stampede, and I’m the cowboy trying to avoid getting trampled while keeping track of the where the cows go.

After the first 30 minutes, the dog settles down and allows me to stroll through the washes on the ranch, while he quarters back and forth in front of me at speeds varying between breakneck and wild abandon. How he smells birds at that pace, with his tongue lolling out of his mouth, slobber soaking his cheeks, I have no idea. Yet, when we were out this week during the mild Santa Ana and 80 degree morning, he found a small covey of valley quail, a dozen tweety birds hunkered down out of the wind, and two jackrabbits.

The quail were all under a small, native California walnut awash in blossoms. Duke ran past the tree, circled into the breeze, and went into his ears-up, high, ridged-tail posture. That is his “I smell birds” demeanor, and he jack-knifed back into the tree. I heard the birds chittering, and they flushed out in pairs, three males and three females, as he rousted them.

The first jackrabbit skulked past me at a lope, moving away from the dog that never saw him but smelled where he had been sitting. Then the hare kicked up the tempo when he saw me and sprinted at high speed down the wash, doing a couple of those high bounces jackrabbits are prone to do when spooked, but not panicked. I knew he wasn’t panicked because his ears were erect the whole time he ran, not that ears-laid-over-the-back and afterburners-on run of terror.

The second Jack popped out under Duke’s nose and the dog gave half-hearted chase. Duke has chased wildly after these guys before and knew it was futile, and this pursuit ended after 20 yards and the dog looped back toward me to make sure I saw that he had pushed out the hare.

The age is finally starting to show on Duke, and after about 40 minutes, he was staying close and working shorter arcs and his pace was slowing to a trot. (It used to take two hours to reach this point in the day.) If I stopped to use the binoculars he would flop down in the shade of one of the Mexican elders or some tall chemise, panting.

It was the first time I had been out on the Matthews Ranch in a couple of months, and I had missed the subtle graduation into spring. Now, the washes were a solid carpet of green grasses and annuals that were already knee high in many places. A little early for most wildflowers, there were already four kinds of fiddleneck blooming, and the trees were leafing out. The buckwheat wasn’t blooming yet, but the heads were forming, and I saw my first phainopepla of the spring.

I’m sure I mistakenly just thought these birds were mockingbirds for years, but I had to scramble for my copy of Sibley’s bird book when I looked at one with a pair of binoculars a number of years ago. It was a near-black male with his crest erect, and he watched me with his red eyes. Mockingbirds don’t have red eyes or a crest. When he took off from the top of a dead yucca blossom, I saw his wingbars as he glided up into the air, made a dip, and quick turn to the right to nab a beetle in mid-flight. In two gentle swoops, he was back at his perch and had the beetle gulped down.

I have watched them every spring since with interest as they fed on insects and wild elderberries, never confusing them with the raucous mockingbirds again. I learned their fun-to-say name, and their high-pitched, single-note call, and could imitate it with my own whistle. It was like seeing an old friend.

As Duke and I walked back to the truck, I saw a redtail hawk at the top of one of the native walnuts. I watched him for a long time through the binoculars. The wind was blowing hard enough that I could see his talons and leg muscles flexing as he had to clench and balance to hold on to his perch. I had parked right by the one big cottonwoods still alive in this little wash complex, and we hustled under it at the beginning of the stampede. I’m pretty sure the other redtail was there when we arrived, but I never saw it then, already trotting after Duke. But while walking back to the truck, I saw this bird and watched it as we approached, glancing back occasionally at the other hawk.

There is a big nest at the top of the cottonwood that has been there for years, and it gets used some seasons. I was thinking these two were pairing up for nesting and that this might be the year there will be hawk chicks to watch. Over the years, I have noticed that if you don’t look at these hawks and just go about your business, they will just watch you pass. I had obviously stared at the hawk by the truck too long, and it reluctantly took to flight in the stiff breeze. Diving off its perch it slipstreamed easily into the wind, made a couple of strong wingbeats as it rode the wind to get some elevation and then flapped lazily low over the wash into the wind to land next to the other redtail.

When I looked back toward the truck, Duke was laying in the shade of the vehicle, tongue out, waiting for a drink. As I gave him some water, I was thinking that I needed a little swig of this place to quench a different kind of thirst.

[You can read more about The Matthews Ranch at this link: Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at 909-887-3444.]


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