Nuts & Bolts

Photographer friend Erik Hoffner, whose eclectic interests intersect mine in several areas related to nature, worldview and politics, chimed in from the wilds of Ashfield this week speculating that, judging from what he’s seen thus far around home, there’s a bumper-crop of acorns this year.

Although I haven’t toured my favorite high ridges, where freeborn spirits whisper in primitive tongues I cannot understand near geological wonders of our little world, I tend to agree with my friend. On the bottomland terrain I daily tour with my dogs, not only acorns but butternuts as well seem to be plentiful. So now I guess I have impetus to soon find a partner who wants to take a hike to a special place with me, maybe tote a camera up to the balanced rock and beyond, where the distant hardwood ridges are chock full of oak, hickory and beech groves to ramble and conduct a hard-mast assessment along the way. Maybe I’ll even try to find that rare, large, high-altitude, seven-trunked shagbark hickory tree I found a few years back and neglected to snap a photo. It’s not far above an expansive hickory grove to the south, the largest of its type that I know of, where many years ago I sent a bear hunter I barely knew through a mutual pal. I showed him the spot and, go figure, on his first day in the woods, the man from somewhere in the eastern half of the state came away happy indeed, driving home with a handsome 285-pound afternoon bruin shot through the chest with a Winchester .308 while leaning his back against one of many massive outcroppings of ledge complementing the soft, passive-gray, shaggy-barked woods on a gentle, sun-splashed southern slope within earshot of rural dirt-road traffic. I imagine a hunter’s chances would be far better in that spot today, with the bear population likely three times or more what it was back then, in the 1980s.

That’s about all I have on bears, which will in a couple of weeks be fair game to hunters during the annual three-week September season that always begins the day after Labor Day. The hard mast may lure the beasts into the deep woods this year instead of lurking around silage cornfields, but the agricultural enticements are always worth investigating because food is easy for the taking there, and farmers rarely deny hunters who help eliminate pests that create crop damage and harvesting issues.

Better late than never dept.: Some fresh news to mix with old from the catfish-derby circuit, which seems to have cooled since the Channel Cat himself, old buddy Donald Partyka of Chicopee, passed on to the happy hunting grounds likely known to men of his ilk as Cautantowwit-ski’s House in the land of the setting sun.

So, let’s start with the old news first, that of the 34th annual Holyoke Post 351 derby Partyka founded, promoted with all his affable energy for decades, and proudly boasted of it as the granddaddy of all catfish derbies. This year’s edition was held in July and winner Geoffrey Croteau of Chicopee came in with quite a fish that tipped the scales at 14 pounds, 6 ounces before being released back into the Connecticut River to swim another day. Runner-up Nick Yelle of Gardner came in with a 13-pounder, followed by third-place finisher John James, who, from parts unknown, also caught a 13-pounder weighed after Yelle’s.

Fresher is the news that arrived on my desk this week, courtesy of Greenfield’s Gary Hallowell, who along with his brother founded and ran last weekend’s fifth-annual “Last-Cast Catfish Derby.” Like Partyka’s granddaddy of them all, the local derby is held “anywhere on the Connecitcut River and its tributaries.” This competition is annually headquarters at the Turners Falls Rod & Gun Club on the southern shore of Bartons Cove.

James Lund of Greenfield was the top dog with an 11.75-pound catfish, followed by A.J. Sackett from Gardner (10.33), James Miller of Greenfield (7.03), Cooper Southworth Purdy of Montague (6.98), and Patrick Woods of Northfield (5.66).

Chiming in: Although it’s too early to start running victory laps and bouncing victorious cartwheels on the town common just yet, men of my ilk who love the woods and favor conservation and preservation find comforting the negative response to the proposed natural-gas pipeline targeted for Franklin County. Don’t let your guard down, fellas, because the folks in favor of the project are still lying in the grass waiting to strike in favor of this controversial pipeline. Trust me, they’ll soon be out in force, crowing in the public square about the jobs this project could deliver — good-paying jobs at that — not to mention ready access to cheaper natural gas for business and industry alike. They’ll likely call it a win/win economically, using threadbare arguments as inevitable as November frost. Although support is building momentum behind the scenes, I suspect the pro-growth crowd has a steep hill to climb on this one, no matter who takes the lead in crafting a sales job. From this white-oak perch just west of Bill and Camille’s in Shelburne, it seems to me that proponents are baying up the wrong tree. Just one rooted man’s opinion.

 

Sales Jobs

Why not traipse back this week to that old, familiar topic of salmon?

Yes, salmon, specifically Connecticut River Atlantic salmon, which I once spent a lot of time and energy on before wandering off to other subjects that tickled my fancy. But now, briefly back to the fish fit for kings and noblemen. Who knows how long before I’ll revisit it again, if ever? For that matter, who cares?

The impetus for this step back in time is twofold 1.) a recent rereading of Catherine Carroll Carlson’s 1992 UMass doctoral dissertation based on archaeological record and titled “The Atlantic Salmon in New England Prehistory and History: Social and Environmental Implications” and 2.) a surprise press release that found its way to me from Oswego County, N.Y., promoting what may prove to be just another pie-in-the-sky Atlantic salmon-restoration fantasy.

More than anything else, what leads me to suspect a fruitless scheme in the making is the press release’s lead paragraph stating with bold bravado that, “Back in the early years of the 19th century, Lake Ontario had the greatest population of landlocked Atlantic salmon in the world. So many ran the tributaries each fall to spawn that men could drive horse-drawn wagons into the streams and spear or net a loadful. Housewives would wade in up to their knees and catch salmon dinners in their aprons.”

Oh boy! Here we go again, fellas. Talk about hyperbole? Haven’t we been through this before? Remember the stories about walking across shallow Connecticut River constrictions on the backs of large, bottlenecked salmon? Yeah, right!

All I can say is thank the heavens I made it a habit way back when of taking rhetoric classes each semester during an erratic but not totally wasted college adventure. What that subject taught me was to avoid one-source stories and be suspicious of all messengers and authoritative filters. When you understand who the messenger is, and why he or she’s trying to sell whatever it is they’re pushing, you learn to be skeptical, which I truly am. In fact, by now I may even be a proud and committed cynic.

But isn’t it interesting that such a press release would, by chance, at this time, arrive in my inbox right on the heels of rereading Carlson’s scholarly treatment of a topic that should have been vetted before the infamous Connecticut River Salmon-Restoration Program was ever kicked into high gear some 50 years ago and ultimately failed miserably?

What most folks probably don’t realize is that there were indeed insiders who were skeptical from the start of the altruistic salmon program. We’re talking about trained, card-carrying fisheries biologists, no less, men who warned true-believer colleagues that their pet project was a long shot at best, that in their humble opinions, Atlantic salmon never populated our Connecticut River in great numbers. And if ever salmon were plentiful, it was just a temporary southern range shift triggered by the Little Ice Age, which New England rivers just so happened to be benefiting from during colonial times.

The problem was that the people in charge wouldn’t listen to reason or alternative hypotheses, and in fact went so far as to rudely ignore voices of reason and caution during what should have been open and honest information exchanges. Well, there was none of that, just nasty looks and threatening gestures. Oppositional feedback was unwelcome. It was a recipe for disaster, which eventually came to fruition this millenium, forcing the plug to be forever pulled on the program in 2012. Turn out the lights, the party’s over. Yet, still, a total of 123 salmon stragglers have migrated upriver the past two years, down to 31 this year.

UMass student anthropologist Carlson delivered her bad news in 1992 to a chorus of boos and catcalls from true-believers chasing an impossible dream of a establishing a viable Connecticut River salmon sport fishery. Yes, it seems Ms. Carlson took it upon herself to investigate some 75 known Northeastern prehistoric Native American fishing sites and, go figure, found almost no archaeological evidence of salmon. The great salmon myth had finally been debunked.

But no. Whoa! Hold your horses, Dude. That was not what stubborn proponents wanted to hear. In fact, they refused to listen and went into their finest damage-control mode, choosing instead to mount a public-relations campaign discrediting Ms. Carlson’s work, and anyone with the audacity to cast light upon her findings. Included were the four advisors who supervised and signed off on the validity of Carlson’s study: Dena F. Dincauze, Boyd E. Kynard, H. Martin Wobst, and Alan Swedlund — all bona-fide experts with the papers to prove it — not to mention any scribe diligent enough to find it and inappropriate enough to report the troubling conclusions.

Now, in a different place called the Lake Ontario watershed — where industrialists had by the Sixties literally killed the lake, polluting it to the level of fire hazard before a clean-up efforts improved water quality — they’re trying to restore landlocked Atlantic salmon as a new component to a viable trout and salmon sport-fishery that pulls in mega tourist bucks. The targeted tributaries are the Salmon and Oak rivers, where the initiative seems from afar to be a long shot given the results of other Atlantic salmon-restoration attempts over the past 25 years. Who knows? It may work. But the odds seem weighted against it.

So don’t hold your breath waiting for a rare success story to unfold on Lake Ontario, and don’t buy the propaganda about 19th century housewives scooping salmon supper from feeder streams with their aprons, either. It’s a tawdry sales job that most who read it will swallow hook, line and sinker without questions.

Which reminds me … I have in recent years polled students attending elite colleges and have concluded that rhetoric is not generally offered these days. Why? Well, I can only speculate, employing my alternative world view. My guess is that it has something to do with the fact that marketplace skeptics and cynics don’t buy sales pitches cranked out by clever spinmeisters earning big money in our consumerist culture, where everything from toilet paper to presidents is sold to a dazed, indebted public that prefers its news from tweets and texts and 15-second sound bites.

Orwell sounded the alarm long ago, when few listened. Even fewer want to hear it today. I find myself pondering whether it’s already too late to take heed?

A Teaching Moment

This subject’s been sitting handy on my desk for three weeks now, printed and pushed aside at least twice to allow for bear banter that came to me the same way most things seem to come: by email, phone or personal conversation. So, having now put the bear discussion to rest for a while, let’s take a few steps back to that lingering subject, the genesis of which was mention right here in this space of a hen turkey my spry, 10-year-old springer spaniel bitch, Lily, flushed from a tall, dense, fragrant hayfield awaiting its first cut a month back.

After that flush occurred toward the end of our daily ramble through upper fields, Sunken Meadow and back up, I made brief mention of my fear that a nest of little hatchlings could have been nearby, and that I wanted to avoid either or both of my two dogs discovering them unable to fly and quite vulnerable, even to soft-mouthed gun dogs more apt to pick up and retrieve them unharmed than crunch and kill. Still, I always try to play it safe.

Also included in that narrative was speculation that, given what I have seen most years when my dogs find young broods in our travels, poults seem to gain flight and the ability to follow their mother onto a tree limb out of harm’s way quite quickly, maybe even within a week of hatching. I didn’t Google “immature turkey flight” or anything of the sort before putting that in print, just took an educated guess based upon what I had seen with my own eyes many times in the summer — a flock of winged footballs fleeing with their mother to lofty tree limbs.

I knew I should have double-checked when an old South Deerfield pal, who makes a habit of observing and even feeding wildlife around his palatial forested home, questioned my flight assessment, contending that poults are grounded for weeks, not days. I didn’t doubt him but wanted to put the issue to rest. No, no, no, I didn’t Google it. Didn’t have to. I knew exactly who to query: my retired UMass professor brother-in-law living an idyllic retirement on his secluded Maine gentleman’s farm. I don’t believe there is anyone who knows birds better than Buzz, a cerebral man pushing 70 with a lifelong study of birds in his thorough, professorial ways. Recently, his ornithological fascination has been especially focused on wild turkeys, populations of which began populating his tidy upland farm perhaps 20 years ago and have taken off like gangbusters on terrain he manicures as a wildlife sanctuary.

So, without further ado, take it straight from Buzz the teacher, who spared no words in his email response to me, written in English, one of at least three languages he is fluent in. Here it is in its entirety, with a few minor editorial changes and one little typo repair:

“I have read that poults can fly enough to reach low limbs by 10 days of age. I have watched them for years now and note that from three days old they are constantly trying to use their wings — almost always fluttering them as they rush to stay up with the hen. By day eight or so, they actually jump, flap their little wings and remain airborne for three or four feet as they follow her.

“Once they are able to get to low limbs (10 days or so) three feet or so off the ground, they do what is called “limbing” — an activity in which they flutter/jump from limb to limb, acquiring skill, strength, and dexterity all the while. This goes on for several months as they become true experts in navigating tree limbs and moving about in trees — a skill needed to avoid danger, find a good perch or navigate their way out of trees.

“When very young, poults will simply hide, remaining motionless if danger approaches. This behavior goes on from day one to roughly day 10 or 15, I would venture. On more than one occasion I have come upon a hen that pops up out of tall grass, putts repeatedly, and walks about putting lightly — and on such occasions I have seen a poult or two (some with decent wing feathers) hunkered down motionless in the deep grass. I have generally left immediately, allowing the hen to collect her brood and move away.

“At some point around day 10 to 15, poults will flush with the hen, who may just run or fly a short distance. At this age, they cannot fly too far, perhaps 30 yards or so before a disorderly landing in tall hay. I consider this the poults’ most vulnerable time, and the hen gets very upset upon seeing them flush. Given age and lack of experience, it can be a challenge for the young to regroup with the hen. The tall grass could be an impediment.

“At about 21 days, the young can fly quite well and the hen knows this — thus she will often flush to a nearby tree, and the poults will do likewise. I would venture that it is birds of 21 days of age or more that you are thinking of when you call them footballs. I say 21 days because they are all decent fliers by this point — and they have really developed their regrouping skills. They simply become more proficient with each passing day. Leigh and I do try to avoid these stressful encounters by noting where turkeys happen to be when we are leaving for a walk, and by leaving the area immediately if we happen to run into a family.

“Several years ago we encountered a hen and five poults for several consecutive days. The hen grew increasingly alarmed over time and shortly thereafter moved her brood elsewhere. I theorized that she left my fields because of these encounters. I would venture that some hens are more tolerant of human contact than others. That said, I have since noted that a number of hens and young on my place move away from my fields for several weeks once the young are about four weeks old. I think that the hen wants to expose them to new territory, and the young are quite skilled and alert — able to handle various challenges that come with exploring new territory. This move may also be due to better feeding conditions in other areas birds have not foraged. It could also be because, by four weeks old, the young need fewer insects that abound in fields and are crucial to very young poults’ diet. It could also be because instinct tells the hen that the young need time in the deep, open woods. Though uncertain of the cause, I have noted this phenomenon for several years.

“In any event, these same groups often resurface on my place several weeks later, then appear and disappear throughout the rest of the summer and fall. The young have so much to learn — what to eat, their range, what to avoid and how to avoid it. No wonder the efforts to restore turkeys with farm-raised birds failed. All they knew was the inside of their pens and where the feeder was located!

“I do hope these unscientific observations are of some help. It is a complex puzzle. The more information one has, the better.”

So there you have it — from a man who knows yet likely never took wildlife biology in a college degree plan focused on languages and linguistics. So, let me pose this question: Is he professional or amateur?

In my judgment, he could hold his own with any card-carrying ornithologist. Not only that but, although retired on a peaceful slice of Nirvava, isn’t it blatantly obvious how much he still loves to teach?

 

Close Encounter

Although there’s other stuff I could get into, interesting topics I’m confident readers would enjoy, it’s back to black bears — specifically a big Wendell bruin that may be attempting to befriend a dear old friend of mine, himself a large, bearded, bear-like man and gentle giant.

Who knows? Maybe the burly four-legged creature thought my buddy, Big R, was his long-lost brother or half-cousin. Stranger things have happened, I suppose. And remember, my buddy’s great-grandfather was a full-blooded Algonquian of the Ottawa tribe. So one never knows when it comes to relationships between Indians and wildlife, especially bears, for which a special place was reserved in Native Americans’ spiritual realm.

This, mind you, is the same pal I have previously written about regarding past bear capers. An old softball teammate, hunting buddy and personal friend, you may recall the story about the wounded bear he kept encountering in his yard, one that was walking on three legs and may have had a compound fracture to a front leg, judging from an ugly protrusion visible maybe a foot above a front paw. That big beast, likely a male, kept visiting my friend’s yard a year or two ago in search of easy victuals — you know, stuff like garbage, garden goodies and bird-feeder fare. My big buddy on a few occasions got eerily close to that wounded black beast out by his deck and on the driveway, even on occasion speaking calmly to it, telling it something to the effect of, “Hey Big Fella, this isn’t cool. You’re gonna have to screw before something bad happens.” Eventually the beast disappeared, probably as soon as wild berries and nuts ripened and called from the wildlands.

Well, folks, here we go again: same man, identical wooded Wendell home.

Having read my last two columns about a solitary bottomland bear I jumped one morning on my daily walk with the dogs — and how by the morning after I had jumped it from a dense narrow swamp, the bear had, to a farmer’s dismay, torn up five hay bales wrapped in white plastic along the woods bordering the 15-foot escarpment it ran up to flee us — Big R was thinking the grainy, faraway photo accompanying last week’s piece was weak. He knew many opportunities had over the years presented themselves to him, offering better shots of bears much closer if only a camera had been handy.

Then, lo, just like that, another golden opportunity arose, this time camera-ready. Big R was alerted to the bear’s presence by his yapping female Jack Russell Terrier, a little nipper nicknamed “Shuggie,” for Sugar, tied outside to the deck post and barking her fool head off. Big R, cell phone in hand, walked outside onto the deck, where, to his amazement, stood a massive black bear, which didn’t seem the least bit unnerved by human presence, never mind that of the little lap dog. No, the shiny beast just stood there docile, looking my buddy square in the face, making no threatening sounds, gestures or sudden movements. The Big R picked up Shuggie, wedged her into security under his armpit, snapped a quick shot with his cell phone camera and decided to go inside for a better camera that was handy. Plus, he wanted to put Shuggie inside, out of harm’s way in a crate.

When he returned to the deck, sure enough, the bear was still standing right there at the base of the stairs 10 or 15 feet away, quite comfy with the presence of my big buddy, who snapped several up-close-and-personal photos. At one point, the bear, curiously observing and listening to the sounds of the camera, even calmly placed its two front paws, one after the other, onto the first step, as though it was coming up to join my buddy, the thought of which got his wheels spinning off into wild places.

“Yeah,” he chortled, “I was thinking that, if he charged me, I may not have time to get inside. But that bear never made a threatening move. He just stood there like a pet that wanted to be my friend and follow me inside for something to eat.”

Could it have been the same bear, healed, that came around wounded previously?

“You know, that’s a good question,” he answered. “It could have been the same animal. Truthfully, I never even thought of that. He was bigger. That’s for sure. But he did seem awful comfortable around me and my yard. Maybe it was learned behavior. It’s possible.”

Did it favor a front leg?

“No, I don’t think so,” he answered, “but it’s possible because I was too focused on the bear itself to look for that. Maybe I can zoom into the photo and see if I can notice any imperfections in a front leg. Plus, if he comes back, which I wouldn’t doubt, I’ll check for a limp.”

It’s difficult to estimate the size of the bear, but my buddy stands 6 feet, 5 inches tall, weighed about 280 the last time I saw him and would blend nicely into any offensive-line quadrant of an NFL locker room. He said he had to go to the peak of his reach to hang his suet tubes from a rope, and the bear had no trouble tearing them down. He estimated it to be seven feet long on all fours.

“Those tubes are more than eight feet off the ground,” my buddy estimated, “and that bear’s head, standing on his hind legs, was right in the neighborhood.”

Ah, yes, nature’s classroom and the beautiful sights of big shiny-black bruins. They’re beautiful indeed to watch, but nothing even a big man like my buddy would want to wrassle, or invite in for dinner, for that matter. One playful swipe could ruin your day fast.

 

Photo Finish

I can’t claim shock because I had an idea a neighbor or random passerby had probably seen that bear my dogs and I recently jumped out of a narrow strip of wetland before it tore up five plastic-covered hay bales nestled along an adjacent tree line above.

In fact, I was confident additional information would come my way. Hey, maybe even a photo — definitely not out of the question these days when most people carry cell phones and are thus camera-ready. That’s one good reason why I wrote about my close encounter with that burly black beast last week. I was smoking out a story. It has always worked for me. And, well, I guess I can chalk this one up as another success.

Yes, indeed someone did get a photo of that bear, albeit not atop the hay bale as her husband, then she had seen it before she was unfortunately forced by uncooperative traffic to pass the site and return. By that time, the bear was getting out of Dodge, heading west across the paved road. Her faraway cell-phone snapshot caught the fleeing beast climbing over the flex-beam guardrail and into a small marshy depression. I betcha from there it followed Allen Brook right to Angie Menard’s tasty bird feeders. No, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if that beast got a little taste of Angie’s treats.

When on Tuesday morning I told my next-door neighbor about the new developments pertaining to last week’s bear column, she wasn’t surprised. A hardy lady, she rides her horse and sometimes 4-wheels on the ridge above our homes, where she said she often runs into bears. In her opinion, there are many bears in the neighborhood, and she’s concerned that her dog, Molly, a chocolate Lab, could on the wrong day find conflict requiring vet bills. Most interesting from her perspective are the yearling twin cubs she’s happened upon more than once, very cute.

But, back to that Monday email with photo attached that was waiting in my inbox late Monday night at home. There it sat, just before midnight as I was preparing to run the dogs one last time before winding down into bed following my nightly Recorder shift. The sender, identified only as Keith, who later confirmed that we are “kinda neighbors,” opened his message with this creative little yarn:

“I was headed to town and saw a tall man in a black gorilla suit leaning against the white plastic hay bales and scratching them open. Hard to miss the contrast of black against white. I thought, ‘Can’t be,’ backed up, then, ‘No, that’s a bear,’ and watched it for quite a while as it continued to scratch open the top of the hay bales. (I was wondering if there were still grasshoppers/grubs alive in them.)

“At one point the bear climbed on top of one and was on all fours when it took a mouthful of hay and dropped it. After a while I rolled down my window and yelled to knock it off because (the farmer) would be upset getting his bales all messed up. I was ignored. I went to town and called my wife to take a picture, which is attached.”

Had his wife enjoyed an open road to herself, there would have been more than enough time to snap off a few shots of the bear atop the hay bale. No such luck. The traffic dictated and she had to drive past the site, turn around and come back from the south, by which time it was too late.

Oh well, better late than never, because we still did smoke out a citizen photo, an accomplishment to savor in this game I’ve played for many decades. I attribute the stroke of luck to constructing a personal relationship with readers, which I think is crucial to getting information. If sources don’t trust or respect a scribe, they don’t offer much.

Anyway, I’m sure that bear has negotiated its way around me and my dogs for days or even weeks, and will likely continue to do so for days and weeks to come. To their credit, my dogs, carefully bred pursuers of birds and beasts, must know better than to pursue the big black beast even though they’re aware of its presence along with the deer that routinely allow us to pass, always ready to spring up out of their beds and flee if we make a move in the wrong direction or get too close.

I guess by now we have become part of that riverside habitat, not unlike the hunter who secrets himself for hours on stand in the woods and can palpably feel himself blending into the landscape, senses sharpening acute. To me, settling into that fascinating place is more pleasing than touching off my weapon’s loud roar.

Must be getting old, I guess, although, to me, age is only a state of mind, one that affects people differently. While some get wiser and hone their face-to-face communication skills to a fine-art form, others grow cranky, unapproachable and totally uninterested in anything resembling open and honest discussion.

I prefer sage listener/communicators.

I passed my first summer acorns on the ground along the edge of a young cornfield over the weekend, and the sight told me woodshed time is closing in. The area is littered willy-nilly with deer tracks, yet the hoofed creatures don’t seem to be eating the small, round nuts. No tree expert, I always thought those big oaks standing atop the first escarpment overlooking the river were red oaks, which they may indeed be. But judging from the tiny, plump acorns, there could be a black oak squeezed in there. Then again, maybe I should ignore the size of the nut. Perhaps they’re immature and fell prematurely in a strong, stormy updraft.

 

Summer Bear

It started early last week with a startling sound, an invisible burst of energy, a rumble in the jungle, a rustling, brush- and stick-busting sprint by something near and heavy fleeing up the escarpment from a narrow wetland framing the northwestern perimeter of Sunken Meadow.

It was a Tuesday morning and the dogs and I were working our way around a large sumac tree poking prostrate out into the second row of Christmas trees and obscuring our beaten path. As I studied its drupes, which had changed color from gold to red since it had fallen in a windy rainstorm perhaps a week earlier, whatever was harbored nearby bolted off, starting maybe 20 feet from me and 10 feet from Chubby, the dog standing statuesque along the dense, thorny, tangled wild-rosebush border. Frozen, head high, ears perked, Chub-Chub bounced excitedly south a couple times along the border, threatened to pursue and decided against it.

Hmmmmm, I wondered, what the hell was that? Maybe a bear, because I hadn’t seen any white flashes and, frankly, it just didn’t sound like a thin-legged deer bounding away. Furthermore, Chubby’s tentative reaction was not indicative of a deer, which he will, more out of playful curiosity than anything else, briefly chase before returning. Whatever it was that we had disturbed, Chubby took the cautious approach, which set my wheels spinning. In fact, I often thought back to it over the next few days.

Something I was happy about in that familiar setting was that the landowner had finally harvested the upper hayfields, which I had been patiently awaiting to extend my walk an extra mile through scalped acreage. I had seen the man to wave to many times in passing but hadn’t had the opportunity to rattle his cage. You know, something playful like, “Hey, Buddy, what’s going on? On vacation this week?”

Well, I finally got my chance Saturday upon catching the man outside his barn with a young hired hand. I pulled over, slid down my window, smiled, and started in on him about taking advantage of “vacation,” which seemed to humor him some before he informed me that he had a new job teaching at vocational school, a great transition that’ll provide him more free time for summer farming. Fact was, though, that he had something else he’d been wanting to share if he caught me. So, see, we’d been trying to catch each other for days.

“Yeah,” he said, eyes wide with excitement, “did you know there’s a bear down there where you walk? It’s a big one. Tracks like this (holding his hands 10 inches or more apart). It tore through the plastic wrap into five of my hay bales lined up along the woods.”

I was now certain — given this latest revelation, and combining it with what I had heard with my own ears, seen with my own eyes, plus heard a neighbor report a few days earlier during casual conversation that a large bear had crossed the road less than a quarter-mile west of my home — that what I heard flee four days earlier had been a burly bear.

It made sense to me that bears would hang low around wetlands and agricultural plots in the summer. Soon the cornfields would be prime for foraging, then the berries and fruits before the big omnivores would head for the uplands in search of ripe, protein-rich hard-mast available in hickory, beech, oak, walnut and butternut groves. But before I put that assessment in black and white, I figured I better talk to a bear expert for confirmation of my deductive suspicions about an animal I’ve never studied, hunted or observed much.

The first two sources who came to mind were a couple of wildlife biologists — Ralph Taylor, now MassWildlife’s Connecticut Valley District manager, but formerly a bear man; and Dr. John McDonald, now a Westfield State University professor, formerly a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service specialist, MassWildlife’s Deer Project Leader and before that a member of the agency’s bear-management team. I knew either or both could tell me about summer bears, and they didn’t disappoint.

I first called Taylor but was forced onto a circuitous route back to him through a third party in the 617 area code and actually received my first response from McDonald, vacationing with his family and their new cocker spaniel on Cape Cod. Rrrrrrrrrrr! The press filter Bay State scribes must go through to get benign information from state employees with whom they may have enjoyed decades-long professional relationships is annoying indeed. But I won’t go there. Why beat a dead horse?

Obviously, McDonald didn’t have access to his office files but nonetheless wrote back that he found it interesting my neighborhood bear had torn into hay bales. He speculated the beast must have done so because it smelled something sweet and enticing.

“This time of year, bears are eating mostly vegetation, getting off skunk cabbage, which has toughened,” he wrote. “Swamps are often good summer habitat because they’re cooler and provide succulent (easy to digest) vegetation. …

“I’m trying to remember what we found in the summer scats we analyzed, and think it was a pretty wide array of foods this time of year, mostly vegetation, ants and sunflower seeds. No one food made up more than five or 10 percent of their diet.”

Taylor, finally cleared to respond by early afternoon, phoned me at home, apologized for the delay and concurred with his old friend and colleague McDonald.

“Bears will investigate anything that smells strong,” he said, “even something they aren’t familiar with. Those large circular bales wrapped in plastic give off a strong odor when they ferment in the hot sun. My guess is that’s what attracted the bear.”

He was in lock-step with McDonald on summer bear diet, saying, “They’re in their vegetarian stage now, plus insects and grubs. Soon they’ll convert to mast crops.”

When told of a rich, dense, shin-high, two-acre field of red and white clover I walk through daily with the dogs, he said, “Yes, they’ eat that, too. In fact, I think we may have a photo on our website of a black bear eating clover. They’ll also eat alfalfa and pick at carrion in freshly hayed fields.”

When told of a large, dead snapping turtle hit by a mower not far from where we jumped the bear last week, Taylor chuckled and said, “I’d expect that once that turtle got ripe and the bear caught wind of it, it got eaten.”

Told of two wood turtles that were killed during the same mowing chores, Taylor sounded sad.

“We’re concerned about wood turtles,” he said, “and have been working with farmers to delay cutting riverside hayfields until after their eggs are laid in early June. A lot of wood turtles die in June hayfields.”

Off I go.

Oxbow Summit

It’s a hot, hazy mid-afternoon, storm threatening, me standing atop Mt. Sugarloaf, a Pioneer Valley landmark whose summit view never gets old to an old guy who climbed it often as a kid.

Standing beside me on the lower tier of the observation tower is Dr. Marjorie Holland, a scholar passing through old haunts from her current Ole Miss station, where she teaches biology and, according to her online profile, specializes in: plant ecology and systematics, wetlands ecology, landscape ecology, riparian-systems ecology, biogeochemical cycles, and ecological functioning of constructed wetland systems.

After several phone and email conversations, we had finally met an hour earlier at Pasiecnik’s Creemee Stand, where we studied a couple of topographical maps she brought along before driving the length of Hopewell Plain to Hatfield, where we dropped down to a dusty farm road following the eastern bank of Hatfield Pond, took it to the paved road and crossed to The Bashin, looping back to River Road and Sugarloaf for a bird’s-eye view of what we had just seen from the ground. On the walk from my parked truck to the summit observation tower, I told Dr. Holland that I had spent much time as a boy atop the mountain, dating back to the days before the white, wood-frame summit house burned to the ground on the night of a March 7, 1966 blizzard. Actually, though, I had to admit to her that I preferred North Sugarloaf back in the day, because, well, you know, on that northern secluded ridge there was never adult supervision, something I would rather not climb a mountain for. She chuckled, got the gist.

I had learned from a winter house guest about Ms. Holland’s groundbreaking work, written in collaboration with Dr. John Burk of Smith College, exploring the three western Massachusetts Connecticut River oxbows located in Northampton, Hatfield and Whately — all of them veritable wildlife sanctuaries, not to mention popular, soggy hunting, fishing and trapping habitats dating back perhaps 14,000 years. In fact, the Whately oxbow that Holland and Burk discovered and brought to light in the Seventies was the last local refuge for Indians, who clung to their traditional hunting grounds there until 1763, when the last French and Indian War ended. At that time, these copper-skinned stragglers released their white-knuckle grip, moved to the nearby western hills around the Whately Glen and Mt. Esther, and slowly migrated away.

Because of UMass and family connections in the Pioneer Valley, Ms. Holland returns here in the summer to see old friends and colleagues and reconnect with Burk about ongoing oxbow research. Their fresh new paper on the subject is due out soon, with Burk’s current focus primarily on the oldest part of the Northampton Oxbow off South Street. That site never held water in historic times but certainly did just prior to European contact. Most interesting is that they discovered the Whately Oxbow, tucked into the old Canterbury section of Hatfield, during an impact study focused on a proposed project to divert Connecticut River water into the Quabbin Reservoir. At issue were water quality and river impact, the latter putting the crosshairs on river history dating back to pro-glacial Lake Hitchcock, its drainage and subsequent river evolution.

The focus of our Whately meeting was its oxbow, by far the least known of the three. Never, not even during peak historic flooding in 1936 and 1938, has the boggy channel stretching more than two miles south from the base of Sugarloaf ever filled with water. Yet still my family, the first colonials to farm that land, called a narrow agricultural terrace now holding Jimmy Pasiecnik’s shin-high potato field “The Island,” very likely an Indian name carried on after cultural transition.

“Look!” pointed Holland to a line of three thin elevations, one much longer than the other two, on the topo map she held flattened out on a windy picnic table. “There’s the island, or at least what’s left of it after years of leveling due to farming.” And, yes indeed, there it was displayed on the 1971 map right where the late Winthrop Sanderson told me Dr. Edward Hitchcock mined an old Indian village for artifacts displayed for years in Amherst College’s Gilbert Collection that seems to have gone missing.

Later, as we stood on Sugarloaf looking down on the valley — framed on the south by the Mt. Holyoke and Mt. Tom ranges, with Mt. Warner poking up between, its distinctive apple orchard visible on the western slope — I thought back to how exactly I got to intimately know that foreboding swamp immediately below, where once the ancient Oxbow lay, isolating a two-mile-long island. I first learned the contours of that swamp trailing a Pasiecnik-Farm black-Lab named Smoky to pheasants, grouse and woodcock. Later, impressed by Smoky’s performance after hunting far and wide for a season through wetlands on both sides of the river, I myself purchased a black Lab and got to know that swamp even better behind Sugarloaf Saro Jane (call-name Sara), accompanied by friends such as the late Timmy Dash and Eddie Urkiel, an old pal who still displays that trademark exuberance and youthful spirit despite orthopedic issues brought by a storied career as one rugged union laborer. They don’t make many like Fast Eddie. Trust me.

A young man’s swamp thick with thorns, vines and tangles that produce many berries, we used to give it hell and depart black and sopped to our knees, black splatters literally to the top of our heads. And praise heavens Sara was jet black, because had she been white like my springers, what a mess she would have been. That dog would plow through the mud and tangles, tail wagging furiously on hot scent, and I can still hear Fast Eddie hollering, “Uh-oh, Bags, she means business!” before the sound of a flush and a thundering roar or two. We killed most of the pheasants and some of the woodcock and partridge, all of them retrieved by trusty Sara.

Back then, it was just a swamp to us. Now, after years of investigation, it’s much more. And do you know what? I’m still learning, and find it exciting to be still interpreting a place I’ve walked for almost 50 years. Hopefully the fact-gathering mission won’t stop until the day I drop face first into the black, oily bog and soar off to a loftier place.

I can think of worse departures, few better.

 

Slowdown

The summer solstice has passed, gentle summer breezes are intermittently dislodging small white mock orange flower petals and dropping them to the ground by the bulkhead, the Connecticut River temperature had passed 70 degrees, and the American shad run is, for all intents and purposes, over.

Although it has been many years since I’ve been down to the water’s edge to witness the annual phenomenon, I am quite familiar with the drill. By now, the female shad have established lairs, where small schools slowly circle in the shallows, performing what appears to be an egg-laying ritual concluded with intrusive male fertilization, the dirty rascals. I vividly recall being quite frustrated trying to coax a strike out of such fish performing their spawning ritual. They were interested only in reproduction, and I have an idea that by this period of the annual shad run, ancient people who arrived at the river each spring to gather fish in advantageous locations by waterfalls and man-made weirs left the spawning fish alone to guarantee future harvests. Unlike modern man, the ancients respected nature and allowed it to function without unnecessary disruption of critical processes.

Anyway, it appears unlikely that the 2014 run will hit the 400,000 mark. With the Holyoke river temperature at 71.6 Fahrenheit Tuesday, the fish lift there transported a paltry 137 shad above the dam, bringing the annual passage at that site to 367,869 and the total-river passage to the slightly higher figure of 373,171.

What it all means is that the Connecticut River still attracts a large enough shad run to provide adequate sportfishing opportunities for local anglers. That’s the good news. The bad? Well, I recall years when more than 1.5 million shad swam upriver, now referred to by those who were there to enjoy it as “the glory years.” I suppose if you know what you’re doing and are in the right place at the right time, you may still walk away with weary arms tired from furious downstream runs and strenuous upstream retrieves. Been there, done that — great while it lasted.

Perhaps more interesting to me these days is the fact that Atlantic salmon stragglers are still returning upriver in this the second spring since the plug was pulled on the failed restoration program. No, they’re not coming like gangbusters. But when did that ever happen in historic times? Through Tuesday, a total of 32 salmon had been counted in the river system, captured and tagged by state and/or federal personnel. Anglers are reminded that if such a tagged salmon is hooked, anglers are required to release it unharmed. Officials ask that those who catch and release such tagged salmon call 413-548-9138 x 121, as indicated on the yellow tag protruding from below the dorsal fin. Researchers are interested in any information they can glean about the experiences. Plus, those who catch tagged fish are asked not to remove the tags.

A monitoring-station-by-station rundown of salmon passage shows 26 through Holyoke, one through the Leesville Dam on Connecticut’s Salmon River, three through the Rainbow Dam on Connecticut’s Farmington River, and two through the DSI Dam on the Westfield River. Above Holyoke, nine salmon have passed Turners Falls, seven have passed Vernon, Vt., and one has found its way past the fascinating petroglyphs below Bellows Falls. The falls at that site marked the annual termination point of the annual Connecticut River shad run, where Abenaki people set up shop each spring for fishing. Among the images carved into the fenced-off stones at the base of the falls there are sacred thunderbirds, an ancient symbol found in rock and cave art from coast to coast in North America.

—

I finally roused my first hen turkey over the weekend at the site I daily walk not far from home. I have always found summer broods there if my memory serves me well but was surprised when Lily flushed a solitary hen from the tall hayfield Friday morning. I had already passed the flush zone when I heard the tell-tale, alarming “putt, putt, putt,” turned and saw Lily chasing it high onto a tall red oak limb. Fearing there could be a nest of little ones that were unable to fly, I whistled Lily back to me before she could return to the site and find them. I have not seen hide nor hair of a turkey since that day, which leads me to believe my dog flushed a barren hen that had one way or another lost her nest. We’ll see. The little ones and the hen may yet show up. I’m looking.

—

Although I can’t say I’ve been impressed enough to dig out my gear and actually wet a line, I must say from personal daily observation that the Green River looks prime for angling. Which reminds me … on an exploratory Sunday-morning walk with anthropologist/historian Howard Clark, through the forested, terraced ridge facing the Turners Falls dam from the west, my friend handed me a printout from a 17th century narrative that referred to the Green River in a Samuel Drake footnote as “Green’s” River. I had never before seen the river called by that possessive name and, frankly, have assumed the origin of the river’s name was it’s greenish, high-water hue, not an English surname. Maybe someone can enlighten me. Or, then again, perhaps Drake just had it wrong, an innocent little 1862 mistake that’s irrelevant in the big picture.

 

Shell, Stone

The loud, sudden, crunching, crashing halt to a power mower’s roar — the kind of sound you’d hate to hear when mowing your lawn — and a maiden voyage to the top of a Pioneer Valley landmark are on the front burner of discussion this week.

First, the grinding, earth-rattling sound I heard while walking the dogs Monday morning. I had just turned the corner onto the short second leg of my daily Sunken Meadow ramble. It sounded bad, like the mower attached behind a John Deere tractor had hit an outcropping of hidden, immovable bedrock, bringing the rotating blades to a loud, grinding stop. My first fear was the dogs, but I had heard no tell-tale yelp, so I paused and saw them both rollicking freely faraway from danger. After the tractor had been briefly idled down, I soon heard the mower restart and mowing had resumed before I turned the corner of dense, eight- or 10-foot-high sumacs hanging overhead. The farmhand who, on the side, keeps the Christmas-tree farm tidy, was mowing toward the beaver pond when I spotted him. I knew we were on a collision course and would soon cross paths. When that moment arrived, he stopped, again idled down the tractor, pulled out his earplugs and said, shaking his head in bewilderment, “I just hit another turtle in the tall grass.” Then, pointing north, “It’s in that row right there, back by the split. All I can tell you is it’s big with big claws.”

“Oh, so that’s what I heard?” I answered. “Probably a snapper. I’ll take a look when I get there. It sounded like a rock.”

I continued on my merry way with the dogs, who, at the large riverside apple squeezed down a thin beaver lane to the river and submerged themselves for sloppy drinks before returning back onto the floodplain and continuing on our normal path back toward the truck. At a crossroads 100 feet north, I turned west, walked through another crossroads, identified the fourth mowed lane and walked down it to investigate the carnage. Sure enough, a snapping turtle about a foot wide and a bit longer, overturned with a small hole through it’s under-shell exposing eggs. I poked it with my polished chestnut crook cane and it moved its legs and head. Not sure if it was living or just a twitching bundle of nerves performing its death dance, I flipped it right side up to at least give it what appeared to be a slim chance of walking away. Though the big shelled reptile was in better than expected shape for what it had been through, I figured I would find it dead the next day, perhaps on the spot where I left it.

I was wrong. Twenty-four hours later, that big turtle had vanished, nowhere to be found, and, trust me, they don’t move fast, especially when wounded. No only that, but I don’t know of a predator that could have carried the beast off — too heavy and awkward. My buddy was down there cutting up a fallen beaver tree that’s been protruding out into the Christmas trees for weeks, and he said he hadn’t touched the turtle. So I figured it must have walked off, maybe to die, maybe not. I’d look around and try to keep my dogs away from an ornery snapper, which they would smell long before bumping into it, then proceed with caution. I had no idea if a big snapping turtle with a hole poked through it’s lower shell could survive, but I didn’t doubt it. They sure look like tough prehistoric hombres to me.

But, no, that turtle didn’t make it. My buddy was again out mowing Wednesday morning and, in passing, he stopped, half-grinned wryly and said, “Can you smell it? It’s right there. She didn’t go far.”

Yup, the dogs had already discovered the stench and were rolling in it five feet from where the critter had snugged up to the base of a small Christmas tree and died. It might have walked 20 feet before expiring, no more.

Which brings us to Mt. Tom, a distinctive Pioneer Valley peak I’ve known for most of my life, can identify from afar by its shape but had never before last week climbed to the summit, looking down at the Northampton Oxbow. The closest I had ever come to the summit visited on a rainy, foggy Thursday morning with South Deerfield friend Bud Driver and Mount Holyoke College geology professor Steven Dunn had been boyhood trips to Mountain Park. Dunn was interested in ancient chert, or flint, quarries I had written about a few months back and had contacted Driver — the discoverer who named the stone “Roisin Dalby chert of the Pioneer Valley,” and who had brought various scholars there to collect and analyze samples in 1998. When I shed new light on the subject recently after a minuscule percentage of “bi-face yard” chips collected at a Paleoindian excavation site below Mt. Sugarloaf was identified as local chert, the word got out to the Five-College Consortium through Greenfield Community College geologist Richard Little. That’s when Dunn called Driver to request a tour of the high site overlooking Northampton and Easthampton. Driver agreed, invited me to join them and the rest is history.

We met at the state Department of Conservation and Recreation office on the lower eastern slope of the range, where we met manager Robert Carr before driving to a parking area on a western promontory and walking to large, flat, mountaintop outcropping of reddish-colored ledge Driver dubbed the “Sitting Stone,” where ancient Stone-Age flint-knappers once fashioned tools and left many flakes still to be recovered with minimal digging. Even more interesting to me were the many geometric designs carved into the flat stone. Dunn examined and was intrigued by the lines, stating that many appeared to him to be man- made, definitely not marks carved by sliding glaciers, which typically point southeast. Were we looking at ancient graffiti related to constellations? Who knows? More research is needed, and I know just the man for the job.

Anyway, the Mt. Holyoke scientist gathered many loose chert samples off the steep upper-western slope and brought them back to his college laboratory for careful thin-section analysis. Although he doesn’t question published findings by Connecticut lithics experts Anthony Philpotts and Barbara Calogero, he wanted to confirm that the stone was indeed chert. Such stone was formed in ancient marine environments and should not, in his opinion, exist on Pioneer Valley ranges like Mt. Tom, Mt. Holyoke and Pocumtuck.

I’ve said it before and will again state that what makes this subject and many related offshoots so interesting is what little really is known. Yes, there are many heady hypotheses, but just when the experts feel confident they have one pinned down — Whammo! — along comes a new discovery to roil a clear liquid into cloudy uncertainty.

 

Mystery Solved

I guess you can teach old dogs new tricks. Again, I learned the hard way.

The latest caper began with a lazy, unfortunate fact-checking mistake in a cutline I wrote three weeks ago. Or perhaps it wasn’t laziness at all, but rather just an innocent, misguided assumption about an old, far-too-familiar topic. The problem is that above the misidentification in bold black print was a gruesome photo for all to see in living, gory color, the type of shot that pulls you in.

The good news is that as a result, I now know the difference between painted and wood turtles, shelled creatures native to our valley that look similar from above. However, when you flip a wood turtle over and examine the yellow-orange under-shell, you’ll discover unmistakable, black, D-shaped tabs spaced evenly around the outer rim.

The first hint that I had erred in identifying the mangled female turtle that had been crushed by a tractor mowing a Christmas-tree farm came from an old buddy I call “Killer,” not because he’s assaultive, but rather a dear bird-hunting pal who has consistently gotten the job done on many gun-toting adventures through various wet and tangled habitats. Plus, many years before getting to know him as a friend, I had seen him in action at a few smoky poker tables and, in those settings, he is indeed a ruthless assassin who ain’t bashful about it. If you don’t believe me, play with him sometime, or ask the real poker players from the old days at the Fireside or Carney’s or K-Street or you name it, where the fellas played for real money in back rooms, and dire consequences could destroy a man’s finances, quite unlike the benign $25 buy-in tourneys of the current pokerheroes.com era. But why ruffle feathers? Back to that unfortunate turtle that never got to bury her eggs at that favorite haunt of mine dubbed Sunken Meadow, which, incidentally, judging from the green, 1.5-liter, rooster-labeled wine bottle and fresh campfire ashes my dogs and I discovered on a rainy Monday morning, was the site of a little weekend mischief with which I am from distant memories quite familiar. Distant, yes, but I confess without shame or hesitation that they weren’t rare, some were better than others, and I have no regrets or guilt for sins of youth.

Anyway, my buddy wasn’t trying to bust my chops when he called to correct me the day that unfortunate turtle’s photo hit the street. He was, as a friend, just trying to set me straight.

“Has anyone called you yet about that turtle?” he asked in baritone. “It’s no painted turtle. That’s a wood turtle. I can tell from the bottom shell. Google it. You’ll see.”

When I searched “Massachusetts turtles,” I found two sites that showed photos of the various species native to our state but, because they showed the reptiles standing head-on with a side shot of their head and neck extended, I was unable to make the call and said so in last week’s column, describing the photos I had viewed as “inconclusive.” Given that conclusion resulting from what I admit was cursory “research,” I wrote that I’d trust my mother’s teachings and still thought I had seen a dead painted turtle. Well, all I can say now is that it wasn’t my mother’s fault at all. No, I’m sure the turtles she identified to me as a boy were indeed the more common painted turtles you’re apt to find along sluggish brooks and muddy ponds. It was me, and me alone, who misidentified what I had found dead and seen alive many times in my travels through Sunken Meadow. Yes, I am familiar with turtles — snappers, too — but had never studied them enough to know all species.

Well, the little mystery was finally solved by another reader and veritable turtle expert who wanted to put my little public dilemma to rest. A Greenfield woman by the name of Patricia Serrentino emailed me with a National Heritage attachment showing several shots of wood turtles. The final line of her email signature was the title “Wildlife Ecologist,” which was more than enough to authenticate her ruling for me.

On consecutive mornings, Tuesday and Wednesday, I passed two more wood turtles in that same field I circle daily, it now filled with the most pleasant sweet wild-rose aroma. I picked up both critters, one a little bigger than the other, turned them over and was immediately able to identify them by the black Ds along the outer rim of their lower shell. I also informed the hired hand still mowing to their locations. That way, he could keep his eyes open. Wood turtles are not endangered but are classified as a “species of special concern.” I know the man will avoid hitting them if he can.

Now I, soon to be 61, will forevermore know the difference between painted and wood turtles. Credit my buddy “Killer,” the poker assassin, woodsman and old trapper who’s always done it his way but is no fool. A straight shooter, the man’s a precious dying breed. Precisely why I call him friend.