Roadside Rambler

Two phone calls, a month apart, reporting separate sightings of a New England phantom, added perspective gleaned from a morning trip to my old stomping grounds, and here I sit, molding it into an outdoors tale for the sports page.

So let’s begin with the apparition, otherwise known as mountain lion or catamount or panther or puma or, heaven forbid, Eastern cougar — an agile, secretive and potentially dangerous beast that once roamed these parts as a top-of-the-food-chain North American predator, which has now, for the second time in four years, been declared extinct by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. This declaration comes despite claims of many card-carrying wildlife biologists with impeccable credentials that there never was a genetic difference between cougars in the East, West, North or South. That’s right. No subspecies. Just one big cat that grew larger in northern climes. So put that in your carved calumet bowl and smoke it. While you’re at it, pull that sacred tribal smoke deep into your lungs, hold your breath and savor the enlightenment that may invade your consciousness. It won’t harm you. The truth never does. In fact, it can be liberating. Well, of course, that is unless someone in power is determined to hide it, which, naturally, I am in no way suggesting here. Just something to keep in mind.

The freshest sighting is new indeed and came my way from old South Deerfield acquaintance Eddie Jablonski, known in town as far back as I remember as “Jabber.” A couple of years older than me, he lived as a boy across town off Sugarloaf Street, patrolling “The Desert,” barren sand drifts out by the old town dump between West Street and the East Whately line. He remembers well the days before residential development — Gromaki and King Philip avenues — and the Route 116 bypass changed the landscape forever by the early 1970s. Jabber also remembers great brook-trout fishing in lower Sugarloaf Brook between the Brookside Cemetery and Herlihy Park, and so do I, though not nearly as well as he and the Sadoski boys. Their backyards, it was a hike for me.

First word of Jabber’s cougar tale came my way Friday afternoon from work. Colleague Jay Butynski left a message on my home phone alerting me to a breathless message on my work phone asking for a call-back. The man had seen a real, live four-legged cougar at midday in North Hatfield and was anxious to speak to me. I finally reached him Monday afternoon, by which time his excitement had abated little. All he knew was what he, with his own eyes, saw trying to cross Depot Road through Bradstreet in broad daylight. He didn’t care what anyone thought or said.

On his way to Golonka’s Farm Stand on the North Hatfield/Whately line, Jabber was cutting across from River Road to Routes 5 & 10 when, just past the outflow of Cronin Hill Road on the left, four telephone poles down the road, he spotted what he first assumed was a deer. When it walked out into the road and presented a clear broadside view, he knew it was not. The musclebound cat briefly froze, turned its head toward Jabber’s oncoming vehicle, reversed direction and vanished in a jiffy into a tall, deep silage cornfield.

Jabber continued to the spot of the sighting, looked north into the cornfield, saw nothing and was so stunned that he turned around and went home. Forget the sweet corn. He had a story to tell, returning straight home to wife Patti, who wondered why he hadn’t snapped off a cell-phone photo?

“You know how that goes,” he quipped. “By the time you dig the phone out of your pocket, flip it open and prepare to take a shot, it would have been gone. I know what I saw. It was huge. The long tail, face and ears told me it was no deer. Definitely a cat. Big. Took up half the road. I was flabbergasted. I turned around to go home and call you. What a beautiful sight.”

OK. So that’s the eyewitness report delivered before 4 Monday afternoon, three days after the fact, yet still vivid. The plot thickened Tuesday morning when I was about to leave Grybko’s Garage after an oil change and a lively, meandering gabfest with Leonard Grybko, father and son, always good for a chat. As though predestined from above, lo, who walks through the door but North Hatfield’s own Bernie Smiarowski, who with his three brothers runs a vast River Road farm where I often buy spring asparagus. The Jablonski cougar sighting had occurred right in his neighborhood, and — go figure — it didn’t surprise the man one iota.

“Really?” he pondered. “I didn’t hear anything but sure would like to see one.”
“Why does the state deny they exist?” he continued. “I’ve heard other stories from credible sources. There’s one guy who not long ago claimed he saw a mountain lion down by the (Hatfield) sewage-treatment plant. Why would he lie? I believe him and think you would, too, if you heard his story.”

Which brings me to that first phone call, about a month back, from local historian/photographer Ed “Gizmo” Gregory, who’s collaborated with another local historian, Greenfield’s Peter S. Miller — yes that Peter S. Miller — on many photographic-history books of Franklin County towns. Well, Gizmo must have had an interest in Colrain’s Catamount Mountain because there he found himself during the last few days of June with hilltown historian Muriel Russell. Walking the wooded ridge-top lane in search of cellar holes and old mill-sites, Russell heard something, looked up, pointed and said, “Look at the deer running off,” and Gregory, camera slung around his neck, saw fleeing movement of a peculiar tawny beast.
“As I followed it’s movement, I knew we weren’t looking at a deer because it wasn’t bounding and showed no white flagging,” he told me on the phone during the first week of July. “I said to Muriel, ‘That’s no deer. It’s a cat.’ It was low to the ground and powerful, not a graceful deer bounding off. I know I can’t prove it, but it was a cat. It was tan and long, no bobcat.”

And, of all places, he saw it up on Catamount, which got its name from the big cats that lurked there in the early days of 18th-century Scots/Irish Coleraine settlement.

A ghost?

Perhaps.

You be the judge.

Wild Apples, Bees and Stuff

Good news for deer hunters: From what I’ve encountered, there’s a bumper crop of wild apples.

I guess it all starts for me in the front yard, where, just off the road at the driveway outflow, stands an old, tired, scabby, partially hollow apple tree I cannot identify. In nearly 20 years of observation, this mystery apple tree, which may soon be identified if I take a sample apple to Tom Clark at Clarkdale Orchards, has had many sparse years, some with almost no apples at all, and one memorable year two years back, when it was so overloaded with deep burgundy-red, blemished, pear-shaped fruit that a major limb broke off and fell to the ground. A similar catastrophe is a distinct possibility this year, and it could happen soon from the looks of the sagging tree limbs and still smallish fruit.

When I described the apple and its peculiar, red-streaked, pinkish fruit under the skin to Clark and told him my brother-in-law who raises apples in Maine figured it was probably an old apple grafted from an adjacent cider orchard once associated with my tavern, he perked up, pondered briefly, asked a few questions and ventured a guess that it could be some sort of sheepnose apple, which I had never heard of. Not so with my brother-in-law. He was indeed familiar with sheepnose apples, and said he believed they had a strong western Massachusetts association. So, it won’t be long before I again pester Clark, sample in hand. If it’s a superior cider apple, maybe I can even find someone to utilize the fruit and make a batch of old-fashioned, pesticide-free, convivial beverage for the most special occasions only. In fact, I tried last time, querying my old buddy Steve Coutu, who once made a fine country hard cider I sampled around softball socials. He told me he had had his eye on it over the years and would love to make a batch if he still did so, but he quit his cider-making hobby long ago.

Oh well. Bad timing.

But enough on that neglected front-yard apple. I pass other wild apple trees in my daily travels, ones similarly loaded with tiny fruit, it green. Following windy rainstorms, some small apples wind up on the ground below, where my dogs eagerly search for and devour them daily, crunching down one after another until I move on. They’re definitely competing with wild critters, likely deer given the fact I have seen not a trace of bear scat in the vicinity.

The largest of four apple trees along Sunken Meadow’s perimeter is thus far the most prolific. It stands just off a high, steep, undercut-gravel, Green River bank in the southeast corner of our daily ramble. There are many green apples of various sizes in the tree, along with many daily overnight drops. The drops vary in circumference from a quarter to a dime. The dogs prefer the bigger ones and search them out vigorously. I stand and watch as they search and eat them, then allow them to submerge themselves up to their bellies in the refreshing stream below for a lusty, slurping drink before giving them a friendly whistle to embark on our final leg back to the truck.

Before we reach that tree, three others stand in a sheltered southwestern Sunken Meadow nook bordering marsh. These trees are holding green fruit that doesn’t seem to be shedding. Maybe the trees are protected from winds, or perhaps they’re just later apples. Whatever the reason, there don’t appear to be any drops because I have not seen my dogs find one despite daily diversions. Must be they can smell the fruit in the tree. Give it time and that fruit will be on the ground for my dogs and whatever other critters look for it, coyotes as well as deer and bear. Even squirrels, I think. Maybe rabbits. What I see that suggests small animal foraging is nibbled, partially eaten fruit on the ground. Who knows, maybe mice or chipmunks, too. Likely someone will chime in on this subject to straighten me out. Possibly even my naturalist brother-in-law, who raised rabbits as a free-roaming Hampden lad.

Speaking of whom, ole Buzz told me his Montville, Maine, orchards are swollen with fruit due to great spring weather for pollination. When I asked if he had beehives, he said no, not honey bees, which are less-prolific pollinators than the native New England mason bees he intentionally attracts to his vast acreage of open mowings, orchard and woodlots by creating ideal habitats. He rotates cutting many different portions of his clover fields on a structured schedule to ensure there’s always simultaneous young and old growth, some sprouting, others flowering, still others gone to seed and ready to cut and reseed. Deer, turkeys, moose, bears and you name it take advantage of his private wildlife refuge protected with pure passion. One hen turkey he has named and figures to be 3 years old is with 17 chicks this year. Although he can’t be certain this bird hasn’t taken on an orphaned brood, he suspects not. The poults look like they all came from the same nest, judging from size and appearance.

But, back to the wild bees … he created ideal habitat for them by tidying up stonewalls and girdling selected trees to kill them and attract boring insects that leave holes, which mason bees, including the blue orchard type, make their home. The University of Maine at Orono has done a lot of research on these wild pollinators and online displays show drilled, vertical, 4-by-4 boards with drilled holes on the sides standing in fields for bees to populate. My brother-in-law says he has more than enough man-made bird nests to maintain, thus he goes the au naturel route with wild bees; economical indeed.

What I find interesting about these wild-bee pollinators, including bumble bees, is that I have read so many gloom and doom reports about the imported European honey bees placed willy-nilly throughout the valley on farms and around orchards. Yet not a word about the native-bee alternative, although I have to believe many local orchard growers are using them much like my creative brother-in-law, who’s always been good at saving a buck while living the good life.

Can’t fault that — in and of itself, an art.

Cream-Caddis Delights

To me, I see this as a dredging chore. That is, write in detail about a skill I honed years ago, have not used in many moons but am confident I could quickly remaster if, on a whim, I decided to dig out equipment and head to my old lower-Deerfield River flyfishing haunts.

The dredging image my imagination presents in vivid color involves a muddy-bottomed, spring-fed meadow pond — my aging mind — and the murky depths of sediment that must be activated to recreate an activity I perfected long ago before moving in other directions. I think I can do it. And even if I mis-remember, or some young whippersnapper writes to say he does it differently, well, so be it. Maybe we just fish the same hatches for the same trout with slightly different artificials or by slightly different methods using the same fly. No problem. I can live with that.

What brought me to this subject was a pre-midnight sighting of a fluttering, flickering insect casting a shadow in bright onion-lamp light Tuesday night out by my carriage sheds. Not five feet from my face, a solitary cream caddis fly soared away from me to the dark heavens, its erratic upward flight immediately drawing my attention and reminding me of a conversation two days earlier. Speaking on the phone with my cerebral brother-in-law, a retired college professor and observant man, as usual, he was reporting this and that from his secluded Montville, Maine, retirement farm and naturalist’s Nirvana.

Somehow we had touched upon his stocked trout ponds from which he harvests many brook trout each spring, and he told of standing on the bank with his mate and noticing peculiar, tubular, inch-long, clumps of small sticks underwater near the shore. Suddenly, his lady friend, Leigh, pointed down and said excitedly, “Look, those sticks are moving.” And, sure enough, upon closer inspection, they discovered a well-camouflaged head and a couple of legs protruding just enough for whatever was inside to walk along the pond floor.

“Yes,” I told him, “I’m quite familiar with that aquatic insect from fishing. I call it a stick-case-building cream caddis and used to have great fun catching trout with a wet-fly imitating the pupa that exits the case and soon pops to the surface like an air bubble to fly away as a winged insect.” The strike and the ensuing battle are always worth the trip when they’re hatching.

But, hmmmm? Why do these things happen to me at such opportune moments? Not that it’s unusual to see caddis flies in my yard. With a clear, clean trout stream acting as my rear property line, I often see Mayflies and caddis flies around my home. But I can’t recall seeing a cream caddis this summer and, planning to dredge the depths of my flyfishing memories for a column this week anyway, I had an ideal segue and an exciting subject in the world of flyfishing. Coincidence? Uh-uh. I believe things like this happen for a reason.

Nonfishermen who pay little attention to stream entomology would probably identify the fluttering insect I saw that night as a tan moth because that’s exactly what it looks like in flight, day or night, the flight pattern similar to that of a woodcock without the accompanying whistle. I know it because it was my favorite Deerfield River fly. Astream, the first clue that such a hatch is underway is the athletic rises of trout chasing it to the surface. First you identify the rise. Then upon closer inspection, you notice cream-caddis flies flickering toward streamside vegetation perches. The next step is to dig out your flybox for a cream-caddis pupa or sparkling emerger, which can bring exciting angling indeed when the artificial is manipulated with the rod tip to simulate the quick upward emergence of this fly that’s tied in several styles, some winged, some not, some shiny, others drab. You can make them all work, though everyone has a favorite. Old fishing buddy and commercial fly-tier “Indian Al” Niemiec of Chicopee used to tie a couple of beauties that produced many nice trout for me over the years.

Myself, I had more success with the cream-colored wet-fly version in the larva and pupa stages. But I always carried identical flies in olive green to imitate a pebble-cased caddis cousin that hatches from the same waters and can be fun. Though it’s been a long time since I’ve wet my line in the Deerfield, I remember such flies being effective at riffle tails dropping into deeper channels with strong current. The first clue that trout are feeding on cream caddis pupa is aggressive rises exploding skyward like torpedoes, fish out of the water head to tail. The reason for the urgency and energy is that the caddis emergers don’t dilly-dally on the surface like many other flies, which float for many feet while drying their wings for flight. Not so with cream-caddis emergers, which shed their stick cases from the larva to pupa stage and leave the water in a hurry when ready, rising from the stream bed like a released bobber and forcing trout to pursue them with a quick, powerful surge that carries them through the surface totally airborne, landing with a loud, showy splash.

I used to fish this fly most often using sink-tip line and a short leader. Floating line and a weighted fly works, too. I’d cast 45 degrees upstream and swing the fly down a 135-degree arc, basically sacrificing the first 45 degrees to mend line and get the proper drift with my rod-tip low. Then I’d lift the rod tip to sink the fly to the bottom before twitching the rod-tip upward several times and letting the fly sink again before repeating the process throughout the final 90-degrees. Sometimes feeding trout would take the hook on the upward motion and clear the water with hook in mouth. Other times, you’d get an aggressive strike on slack line in the process of letting it sink before another erratic twitching ascension. When they’re hitting, it’s a ball. If not, you go to plan two and dig out another fly you’re comfortable with.

The beauty of flyfishing is that you’re always occupied with casting and fishing, not to mention mending line and manipulating the fly to entice a strike. Plus, there’s always other chores to keep you occupied, such as tying tippets, changing spools from wet to dry lines, and selecting different flies when nothing seems to work. When the action slows, you can always move to another spot and give it a shot. Or maybe just surrender and call it a day.

The name of the game is identifying what the trout are feeding on and having something in your flybox to fool them.

Rainy-day fishing

I guess it was the two galvanized tubs hanging among cobwebs high along the carriage-shed’s north wall that stirred uplifting memories on a gray, still Tuesday morning — air heavy, storm brewing — on my way out back to the kennel.

The smaller, round tub is familiar to one at my previous South Deerfield home and that of my great-grandfather, Willis Chapman Sanderson, who was discovered unconscious in the road from Whately and carted to the Greenfield hospital. There, he died a few days later (Jan. 23, 1913), a week shy of his 47th birthday. A milkman, grist-mill electrician and town constable, foul play was suspected but never proved, thus the final life-insurance ruling of accidental death by fall from carriage on the way home for supper. Officials figured maybe the horse got frisky and dislodged him airborne from his seat and onto the back of his head.

My father used to play basketball in his late grandfather’s large dairy barn out back. By my time, though, it was totally dismantled, only a memory, the outline framing grandfather Waldo Willis Sanderson’s large summer vegetable garden with a battered chicken coop and broad ash tree standing sentry on the west side.

It was in that backyard between garden and driveway, then in the old north pasture behind the garden, on Frontier Regional School property taken at some point by eminent domain, where my youthful, intermittent night-crawler hunts began on hot summer nights with wet, dewy grass covering rich, foot-deep black loam. Unfortunately, that prime soil was trucked away to who knows where during the Frontier athletic-field upgrade of the 1990s. All I know is that the project was well underway when I decided to pull up stake and move to Greenfield in the spring of 1997.

I truly believe there was no better place on earth to pick crawlers than on those mowed green acres book-ending north and south my Pleasant Street home — a sliver of which dated back to Revolutionary times, when Scots-Irish Colrain soldier William Anderson and family bought a 60-acre parcel. The first owners I remember finding in deed research were three Deerfield soldiers who had obtained it as a land grant following one of the French & Indians Wars that consumed the first two-thirds of the 18th century.

In the cellar, on a waist-high mound of dirt supporting the piled-stone footing for the kitchen fireplace — near a narrow, white rectangular gravestone wearing the initials T.A. — I kept my night crawlers in a squarish-round galvanized tub covered by a window screen for air ventilation. Inside was six or eight inches of moist loam covered by a thicker layer of wet leaves that fell far below tub top. About once a week, or on the day before predicted thunderstorms and flash flooding, I’d mix in wet grounds from a morning pot of coffee, just to keep the bait caffeine-buzz lively, oh-so enticing to feeding trout in sanctuary pockets of muddy-brown storm water. How I appreciated those deluges as a young man, heading off on eager trips to West Whately and Conway streams that were always productive at such times.

Although concealment could be a factor that draws big feeding trout out of hiding places and into muddy water during summer rains, I believe the primary reason for coming out is to take advantage of the diverse feed liberated into the flow by turbulent water. The increased flow riles up the sediment and accepts runoff carrying unwilling insects, reptiles, rodents and even unfortunate baby birds out of nests along the banks and those of tiny storm tributaries. Never is it easier to catch nice brown trout you would otherwise doubt existed in such streams when running slow and low. And it’s not only browns. There are also big brookies and even rainbows that come out in high water but are rarely caught from low summer daytime streams. Not even from deep, dark pools, where little trout and immature salmon tend to bite instead.

It’s not rocket science. Once streams recede to their shallow summer trickle, most big trout hold tight out of sight and become nocturnal feeders. All you catch during the day are fingerlings, which many meat fishermen prefer, anyway. Not me. I like big fish that tug hard and leap into the air like sky pilots trying to shake free of the hook.

Astream, it helps if you can identify lanes, pools and eddies where feeding trout lurk — in other words, know how to read water. But even beginners ignorant of such stream dynamics will catch fish, and very nice ones, during summer rains like this week’s. You must experiment with different sinker combinations to get your bait to the depth at which fish are feeding, and you may find a need to add or subtract a split-shot from location to location. That’s fishing savvy. In fact, you’re better off in some spots with a fat crawler and no weight at all. Honest.

My preferred routine, whatever the flow, is to cast upstream 45 degrees and dead-drift the live, frisky “speed-worms,” which contract and expand through feeding lairs. There, usually on the final 90-degree swing, is usually where you set the hook start the entertainment.

You can catch fish on fly tackle using the same dead-drift, but roll casts and back casts under overhanging foliage on small streams requires expertise. For brooks, I always preferred and open-face spinning reel, a five- or six-foot ultralight graphite rod and 4- or 6-pound test line. With it, I’d lob delicate pendulum casts upstream, quickly correcting the loop by mending line to create a realistic bait drift. If you allow the loop to precede the bait, an unnatural drag alerts wise fish that something’s amiss.

It all comes down to presentation, reading water and knowing where fish feed. Once you learn the basics on small streams, it will transition nicely onto larger streams like the Deerfield, Millers, Green, Falls, North and Sawmill rivers.

Rainy summer days can’t be beat for trout fishing. And, while you’re at it, get a good, light, hooded raincoat with elastic wrist bands.

Shad, salmon and cougars

Although a few stragglers may yet appear here and there in different watersheds, it’s July and the 2015 Connecticut River anadromous-fish-migration season is, for all intents and purposes, over as usual.

A rule of thumb is that once the river temperature stabilizes around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, American shad stop running and start spawning, Atlantic salmon have found or are zeroing in on streams where they’ll reside till fall spawning, and all the rest of the migratory fish, such as herring and lamprey eels, follow similar, run-termination demeanors.

It was a good year by recent standards on the shad front, where a total of 416,346 were counted at three stations in Windsor, Conn., West Springfield and Holyoke, where the lion’s share (412,656) were seen passing the Barrett Fishlift on the Holyoke Dam. Last year’s total of 370,506 was in the same ballpark. Prior to that, over the past 22 years, only the 2012 total of 490,431 tops this year’s, which is the sixth best on record. No. 1 was 720,000 in 1992, followed by 530,000 in 1983, 520,000 in 1991 and 500,000 in 1984.

The total Connecticut River count has not been computed since 2005, when changes to facilities and operations made it impossible to accurately track numbers throughout the river basin. Prior to that, the all-time high total-river run was 1.63 million in 1992, right on the heels of 1991’s runner-up run of 1.57 million. Five other years topped the million mark, with 1.23 in 1984, 1.2 in 1991, 1.14 in 1970, 1.13 in 1971, and 1.11 in 1969.

So what does it all mean? Well, for one thing, there’s still a viable shad fishery here in the Pioneer Valley, and anglers do aggressively pursue the spring sportfishing opportunity, primarily between the Westfield River and Turners Falls. That includes prime Deerfield River fishing opportunity for those who can identify migration channels that attract aggressive, ornery running fish which can be coaxed to strike shiny darts, lures and streamers.

As for salmon, well, the restoration program is over and it’s very illegal to fish for the king of game fish, which could not be brought back to our river in sufficient numbers to justify sportfishing. Which doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared. No, sir. The stubborn wayward travelers keep showing up, albeit in small numbers, yet not that much smaller than the final years of the program’s existence. Thus far, a total of 20 Atlantic salmon have been counted randomly or passing monitoring stations, where most are captured and equipped with tags that allow their movement to be tracked.

You have to wonder when the returns will stop. Or, better still, ponder if perhaps some salmon would have found their way back to the Connecticut one way or another, regardless of an expensive restoration initiative. Although that’s probably a question that’s impossible to answer, my suspicion is that random fish with independent spirit would have found their way back to their historic New England breeding grounds. Why not? The first salmon to find their way up the region’s largest river weren’t born there.

Food for thought.

I suppose it’s time to chime in briefly on the latest eastern cougar twist many readers caught in the newspaper a couple of weeks ago and have ever since asked me about in my travels, email and telephone conversations.

In case you missed it, for the second time in four years, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service took it upon itself to send out a press release reclassifying the Eastern cougars subspecies from endangered to extinct.

My knee-jerk reaction is, “Hey, haven’t we already been through this?”

Hmmmmmmm? Curious indeed.

Not only that but, in case you’ve forgotten, three months after that previous official reclassification in March 2011, lo, a dead, 140-pound cougar showed up as road-kill on a southern Connecticut highway. Oh, but wait a minute. That wasn’t an eastern cougar. It was a wayward western cougar “disperser,” that is a young love-sick whippersnapper forced into eastern maneuvers by dominant male competitors west of here.

The absurdity doesn’t end there. No. Get a load of this. Quoting Cougar Rewilding Foundation expert Helen McGuiness from four years ago, “Eastern and western are NOT separate species. They are not even a subspecies. The comprehensive study of cougar DNA throughout their North, Central and South American range, done by Melanie Culver and associates in 2000, concluded that there are only six subspecies of cougars and only one in North America.”

It gets wilder. According to more than one source, there is today an Ontario, Canada, cougar population of around 400. If the Connecticut cat could wander to the Nutmeg State all the way from South Dakota, what in the world is there to stop Ontario big cats from crossing into the United States and turning up in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and/or Maine? And when that happens, what will the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service call them? Canada cougars? Certainly not eastern cougars. Those are extinct.

Oh my?

What a silly little game of rhetorical semantics, one only government hacks would have the audacity to float through the public square and hope it will stick.

It bounces off of me like a hail pellet.

Tick Talk

Yes, it came out of the blue a couple of weeks ago by email from someone I did not know. No, her question was not unique. In fact, it seems I am asked the same question on every visit to my longtime vet’s office, and often in the public square: Are you finding a lot of ticks?

Now, let me say I can understand why folks figure that, because my dogs and I routinely patrol off-road habitats with thick cover — traipsing through chest-high hayfields and swampy edges — ticks must be a recurring annoyance. Well, I hate to disappoint but would not rate ticks as a vexing problem in my world. Why? I can’t say for sure. Entomologist I ain’t. But I have thought about the subject often, usually in conversation with friends, readers or people I meet socially. Not only that, but I’m confident I know the answer resulting from simple comparative analysis of habitats visited and the seasonal occurrence of ticks in different cover.

Let me begin by saying I am certain ticks prefer sandy, woody terrain like, for instance, the pine barrens of Montague Plains, where I have never walked for any length of time without finding ticks on my dogs and/or me during snowless months. Another sandy plain along the South Deerfield/Whately line, minus the dense scrub pine and oak of the Montague Plains, produces reduced tick issues but increased occurrence nonetheless.

Plus, never have I removed more ticks from my dogs than after killing frosts during the fall bird-hunting season. That’s when the little buggers seem to most aggressively search out warm bodies, including humans, on which to burrow in and get warm and comfy in moist spots, such as the crevice between your clavicle and neck, armpits and nether regions, where they’re not always easily detectable and can thus linger long enough for Lyme-disease complications to develop.

Also, as I wrote to my latest inquirer, my travels tell me I’m more apt to pick up ticks in woody terrain than in open, fertile, loamy fields, be they hayfields or goldenrod/aster patches on colorful wetland cuffs. On the other hand, move a few feet from these flowered tangles and into alders, sumac, poplar or other bushy, woody swampland, and the possibility of picking up ticks increases dramatically. Same can be said of upland forest from personal observation, which again most often occurs during the fall, in my mind clearly “the season of the tick.” Apparently others differ with my assessment, suggesting spring as the season they find most problematic. And I will admit that I did occasionally pick up ticks during the May turkey-hunting season, when my dogs never accompanied me, removing prime tick targets and guinea pigs.

Thus far this spring, I have seen a total of six ticks, all of them wood ticks that do not as far as I know bring dangerous Lyme Disease into the mix like minuscule deer ticks. Three of those little, creepy, crab-like buggers were detected walking on the back of my hand after morning walks. Another came off my neck after I twice knocked it off my temple with the back of my hand while reading after a shower. Other than that, I pulled one engorged bugger from behind bitch Lily’s left ear one night a couple of weeks ago, and I removed another attached to my cat’s neck more than a month back.

So, despite many opportunities to collect ticks in my travels or by transference from my three pets, I would not consider ticks a problem in the flatlands I patrol.

Before I transition briefly to another pressing subject, just a little gimmick pitch to throw off your timing. Either last year or the year before, probably in April, I took a walk on my colleague’s fertile produce farm less than a mile south and west of the spot where I have walked daily for many years without encountering tick problems. After an hour or so in the field exploring wetland cover, I returned home and, sure enough, pulled two ticks off the back of my hand and another later that day off of dog Chubby.

During that pleasant walk, I ventured maybe 100 yards through a narrow strip of woods hiding a spring brook between fields, broke through the perimeter of wild rose and alders in another spot way out along the back corner at the base of Greenfield Mountain, then went a short distance into the woods at the site of a old dried-up pond, now marsh, where Chubby got jacked up and flushed a couple of whistling spring woodcocks. So, again, same plain yet different types of cover.

I’m convinced that we picked up the ticks in the woods that day, and my colleague concurs. In discussion this week, I asked him how often he picks up ticks working his family’s vegetable plots and hayfields, the hay typically harvested up to three times a year.

His answer?

Never.

’Nough said.

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In case you missed it, deer hunters participating in the two-week shotgun deer season this year will be able to kill random black bears that cross their path.

All deer-hunting regulations will be in effect except for the use of buckshot, which will not be permitted during a extended slugs-only bear season.

Hunters have for years proposed bear-hunting during deer season like way back when. Now, the state has finally accepted the rule-change I long ago predicted was inevitable as a partial solution to a problematic expanding bear population without ample bear hunters to stabilize it with sufficient annual harvests.

Now, with the burgeoning bear population spilling into pockets of suburban central and eastern Mass. communities, apparently MassWildlife believed it was time to act. The fact is that, with the hunter density greater during deer season (60,000 statewide) than any other time of the year, the new measure will help but not solve the growing bear-population issue.

More will likely have to be done in the not too distant future to maximize the bear harvest in a state where the last population estimate in 2011 was 4,000 to 4,500, with an estimated annual growth rate of eight percent.

Another population assessment is due next year.

Hon. Walter T. Was One Of The Guys

A gray, rainy afternoon brought news of the same somber hue to my Recorder desk late Monday afternoon: old friend Walter T. Kostanski Jr., known playfully to me as Honorable Walter T., was dead and gone at 91.

I had just put to bed the first draft of a column suggested by a female reader explaining my unscientific take on ticks when Recorder advertising sales rep. Mike Currie passed by as he often does at that time of day. He stopped to chat, not unusual, but this time his quip suggested something worse.

“Isn’t it strange how things happen sometimes?” he said, standing over my right shoulder in a tight cubicle. “Chip (Ainsworth) and I were just talking about Walt Kostanski and the 1942 Turners Falls High School state-championship baseball team this morning.”

“Why? Did he die?”

“Yes … I guess this morning.”

It didn’t surprise me. Walter had been through a rough go in recent years, including risky open-heart surgery he took in stride five or so years ago. No, I would have never known his perilous situation from the limited exposure I had to my old friend with those kind, confident, compassionate, pale blue eyes that met yours square and whispered he had nothing to hide. A regular, affable guy always chock full of local news, he could mix it up with just about anyone, and made a habit of it.

The man did OK for himself, rising from Depression hard times in Erving/Millers Falls to make a name for himself in the athletic arena before going off to war, coming back and building a successful funeral enterprise with brother Henry. He then moved on to a stint as a popular state representative before a long tenure as Franklin County’s elected Register of Deeds. Once there, he was not one to hide out behind closed doors and his desk, either. No, that wasn’t Walter’s way. He was there to greet you with a warm glow, a man of the people who loved to chat and laugh and join in playful banter with the fellas, be it under the Statehouse’s glittering golden dome, at formal glad-handing affairs or just playing pinochle with his K Street cronies.

I got to know Walter in my early Recorder years, when he used to pass through daily from his courthouse office across the street. That was back around 1980, and we’d talk mostly baseball, maybe salmon and shad, better still bluegrass music — whatever spontaneous subject came to mind.

Like I said, Walter was a talker, and so am I. In many ways, we were made for each other, despite being cut from radically different political fabric. My rebel bedrock was formed during the Sixties and early Seventies, his, more conservative, was borne of The Depression and World War II era, when he joined the Navy and toured the world in service for his country, likely robbing him of a chance at pro baseball. A tall, blonde, lanky righty pitcher known in youth as “Whitey,” he was a pretty fair country ballplayer in his day. You never know where his talents and fierce competitive spirit would have taken him had it not been for Pearl Harbor. Nonetheless, he never lost his love for the diamond game. One of his favorite baseball sayings I heard many times was, “The change of pace is the back-breaker.” No truer words have ever been spoken.

Once we got tight, Walter often called me on the phone just to chat, and even stopped at my old South Deerfield home when passing through. Quite the organizer, he set up many a trip to Lake Ontario for memorable charter-boat excursions, which, for me, brought more interesting camaraderie than rich fishing memories. I’m what they call a fish hunter, preferring hip boots or waders to a swivel chair and trolling-rod holsters. But what a cast of authentic Franklin County characters those trips lured in for two or three days away from it all with the fellas.

Had it not been for Walter’s promotional acumen and encouragement, I would likely never had the chance to know county characters the likes of Zip Caldwell and Sid Parsons, both long dead and gone, like I did. And although I knew Walter Jones and Bruce Van Boeckel before the fishing trips we attended, I definitely got to know them much better through those unforgettable junkets on which sleep was limited, if not prohibited. Bruce and I were young then. The others were old enough to be our fathers, maybe even grandfathers, yet they were tough to keep up with, always eager for all-night poker games that left a man impaired indeed when afloat the next day in the hot summer sun. Thank God for Walter’s Tupperware-cased onboard “schnackies,” and marine coolers of convivial refreshments to take the edge off.

Even my wife mentioned “schnackies” when told of his passing Monday night.

“I have nothing but fond memories of him,” she said, “such a nice man. I remember him taking you and the kids ice-fishing and telling me not to worry about the kids because, ‘we have plenty of snackies.’ But, as I recall, he had a special way of saying it.”

“Yes,” I responded. “He put a ch in there, pronouncing it ‘schnackies’.”

“Oh yeah,” she smiled, “that was it.”

I got to know Hon. Walter T. best on our one-on-one rides to and from the annual “fishing derbies” hosted by the late Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R-Mass.) at his vacation home on Pittsfield’s Lake Onota. We’d leave early in the morning, bluegrass music blaring, and have quite the spirited conversations driving Route 116 through Conway, Ashfield, Plainfield and Windsor before descending into Dalton and passing the Tyler AC and Wahconah Park to get the lakeside retreat early enough for kitchen prep work. There — cutting up fruit, vegetables and finger foods with Conte’s retinue of aides, political hacks and retired-military body guards, one with a black patch over an eye — was where the banter got real interesting over a stiff bloody Mary or bourbon on the rocks. By the time the rest of the cookout crowd arrived, our chores were done and the conversation only got louder and livelier, enduring way too late for early-morning anglers.

Then, after awaking to pre-derby coffee and pastries, we’d head out onto the lake, fish until an early-afternoon cookout and light-natured awards ceremony, pack up and head home the same way we came, through the hilltowns.

There was one minor modification for the travel plans home. Instead of keeping my Jeep Cherokee on the pavement, I’d kick it into four-wheel drive and show my buddy the big woods over unimproved roads long ago discontinued. He’d often provide the fatherly advice to turn around and retreat once I reached for groaning low range, but I had been there, done that and knew we’d make it unscathed. And make it we did, albeit a bit jostled.

Walter got quite a kick out of those rides, interrupting the bluegrass fiddle riffs with, “Wow, that fiddle goes right through you, doesn’t it? Sends shivers up my spine.” And oh how he loved the off-road yarns I spun, reminiscing about hunting maneuvers and hormone-fueled teenage shenanigans on Henhawk Trail or Grass Hill Road. Walt often laughed out loud, suggesting he wished he had been there for the more outrageous capers. Then we’d hit the pavement again and re-enter the respectable world he handled with aplomb, far better than his chauffeur.

The last time I sat down and talked to Hon. Walter T. was maybe four years ago at his Turners Falls home on “The Hill.” I don’t recall why I stopped. I was probably in the neighborhood and figured I’d say hello to an old pal I’d lost steady contact with since I stopped playing softball in the early Nineties. Recovering from open-heart surgery, he was weakened but far from defeated or feeling sorry for himself. Those kind, soft, pale blue eyes of his were clear, confident and compassionate, still wearing a glint of mischief. We chatted under a comfortable canopy table out back, me, him and his wife, Virginia, a retired registered nurse doing what she was born to do. I knew he wasn’t right. It was sad though predictable for a man north of 85. But his eyes and diminished laugh, probably softened by post-op chest pain he refused to acknowledge, were still full of that playful spirit that took him a long way in life, be it at the ballpark, the Statehouse or over a friendly game of pinochle in a dark, smoky barroom.

I will never forget that grin, his eyes — those of a good man who wanted to be friends … and beat you at any game you played.

Hidden Wonders

Gray, damp, windy. Storm brewing. Wild-rose buds bursting into fragrant white blossoms emitting that sweet, unmistakable scent that money can’t buy. I look forward to the two weeks it annually lingers, making our daily rambles all the more pleasant.

I should have known what was coming next. So predictable if you keep a journal. Yes, as is customary when the sweet fragrance of multiflora rose fills Sunken Meadow and my front yard, I can expect turtle migration from marsh to field to lay eggs. And, sure enough, there one was Monday morning, a wood turtle standing, perpendicular, right on my trodden trail. A big one, she’s the biggest I have ever encountered, and the first I ever heard hiss as she retracted her thick neck, head and all four clawed legs into an enclosed, solid defensive posture. I do hope she escapes mower blades that can’t be far away.

Last year you may recall I found two dead wood turtles, invisible victims of modern mowing machinery. Apparently that big, green, noisy mower didn’t get them all, though, a comforting thought. The protected marshland turtles wouldn’t be there if they didn’t serve an important role in the habitat, and the same can be said of their more aggressive cousins, snapping turtles, a big one of which I heard hit by a mower with my own ears last spring. It was a horrendous, crunching, grinding racket that jammed the machine to an abrupt halt, creating total momentary silence.

I think I had run into that turtle two or three previous springs before it finally ended up in a vulnerable place at the wrong time, which proved to be its last. Like I said last week about fawn carnage during mechanized haying season, these things didn’t happen in the old days when hay and grasses were cut with a curved, sweeping, long-wooden-handled farm tool called a scythe, which did the trick with far less death and destruction of field beasts.

Which brings us to a reader affectionately known by friends as “Sheik,” a man who, as he often has over the years when he has something to say, chimed in by email Sunday evening about freshly dropped fawns hidden in tall hayfields awaiting their first cut. As it turns out, he wrote to recount a two-day sequence of events that ended with a tiny spotted creature popping up from its
West Whately nest and cautiously walking away from him.

It all started Saturday when, during a pleasant after-supper evening walk from home with his wife, they spotted two deer run off in opposite directions from a field, and the pretty sight got his wheels spinning.

“I thought immediately of your column about fawns hiding in fields and was wondering if there were any there,” he wrote. “Then, about 20 minutes later, my wife heard coy dogs howling in the general area of our sighting and we hoped they hadn’t found a fawn.”

The next day, Sheik thought it high time to address a lingering project and took one of his boys for a quick ride across the field from which the deer had fled the previous day. The chore was to clear a large winter limb that had broken off and was still lying along the perimeter. Once there, he hollowed out a space in a patch of bittersweet vines along the edge to make room for a pile of smaller branches before attacking the downed limb with his chain saw. That’s when the cute little surprise popped up out of nowhere.

“When I went to start the chain saw, a spotted fawn jumped up a couple of feet from where I had just been working,” he wrote, astonished. “I can see why a farmer could run one over hiding in a hayfield. Curled up, they would be real hard to see. This one tiptoed away, hopefully to lie down and wait for its mother to return.”

So there you have it, fellas. It’s fawning season and some of the little ones are already on the ground. A telltale sign is tiny hoofprints the size of a quarter.

Since his sighting, the Sheik’s neighbor told him of a recent fawn playing tag in his yard with his little lap dog, which the Sheik took in stride, ending his message with, “I haven’t seen a hen turkey with a brood yet. But tis the season.”

Yes, indeed. Tis the season of birth and nests and the most nutrient-rich green growth of the year.

Speaking of deer, the farmer who owns the property I walk daily stopped Sunday morning to shoot the breeze about this and that. When we got to talking about mature, shoulder-high, blue-green winter rye with wheat-like seed heads he was cutting in his cornfield, plus the mix of grasses in his adjacent hayfields, I told him about the migration of spring deer I had witnessed to the lowlands the minute they smelled the deep green clover stubble clinging tightly to his hayfield soil.

“Yes,” he answered, nodding in agreement, then. “I counted 15 in the field one evening. There’s one big one among them.”

Yes siree. That’s a fact. He’s speaking of the buck mentioned here last week — the now 5-year-old I’ve watched since a spotted fawn still being nursed by its mother many summers back. That mature buck’s track, which I have seen many times, developed a distinctive, exaggerated splayed hoof print I am always on the lookout for.

That deer by now feels like a neighborhood pal, a night traveler running high and low, one that has likely had enough close encounters with hunters toting bows and guns over the years to have learned to avoid them. Sooner or later he’s likely to make a mistake. But it might not be for the benefit of human consumption. Perhaps a winter, deep- or icy-snow coyote pack or random passing automobile will ultimately get him. Then again, maybe he’ll succumb to old age in these days of a dwindling hunter pool.

Sticking to deer, good news from the wilds of New Hampshire, where the white-tailed deer population has shown zero evidence of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), based on data gathered during the 2014 hunting season.

First identified in 1978, CWD remained isolated in Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska for about a decade, but has found its way a far east as New York, Pensylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. Thus the concern in New England, where it has not yet reared its ugly head.

Oh yeah, before I go, back to the subject of snapping turtles. I saw one, medium sized, trying to cross Colrain Road north of Harper’s Store in the Greenfield Meadows Tuesday afternoon on my way into work. It reminded me of something a longtime friend shared with me last spring in response to a column I wrote. Not that I mentioned it in the column, but he was perplexed why he passes so many ugly messes in the road left by runover snappers.

“Why do people run them over?” he asked with anger in his voice. “They move slow and are easy to see and avoid. People must run them over on purpose.”

If you’re one of the people who do so, then you better hope my buddy isn’t around to witness it.

“If I ever catch anyone running one over, I’ll confront them with something like, “What the *&^% is wrong with you, anyway?

“It’s hard for me to understand people like that.”

He’s not alone.

Beaver Dynamics

If you keep plugging at subjects of personal interest like I do, moving from one source to another — focused always on this place called home, it’s history, deep and shallow — you’re bound to stumble across something that instantly brings a big fuzzy picture into bright, stunning focus.

Well, glory be, I had one of those pull-it-all-together moments Tuesday morning before running the dogs. Sitting in my customary La-Z-Boy by the south window, wearing a wool cap of all things due to unseasonable cold and rain we so sorely needed, I was reading “Colonial Encounters in a Native Landscape,” by Columbia University anthropologist Nan A. Rothschild.

Go figure. It had to do with beavers. You know, those furry little buggers wreaking havoc on meadows, croplands and upland hollows countywide, a subject I have many times in different contexts discussed in this space over the years, usually pertaining to infamous 1996 Massachusetts Ballot Referendum “Question No. 1.” The overwhelming statewide vote in favor put an end to leg-hold trapping in the Bay State and brought back beavers with a vengeance.

Of course, that’s far from the only perspective we’ve touched upon here relative to beavers. A close second would be discussion of the Algonquian beaver myth associated with a Connecticut Valley landmark called Mt. Sugarloaf, that distinctive, twisted South Deerfield mountain which has served as a recognizable guidepost for faraway foot and float travelers since the first bipeds arrived in this fertile valley. It’s possible travelers knew it even before the unusual geological formation appeared with the Lake Hitchcock drainage some 14,000 years ago.

To refresh your memory, the myth tells of a giant, problematic beaver residing in Lake Hitchcock, eating fish and occasionally coming ashore to devour people. Hobomock, a spirit giant who shows up often in Northeastern Algonquian lore, was said to have killed the beaver by chasing it into the lake and smashing its neck with a well-placed blow from the trunk of an uprooted oak tree. The beast sunk to the bottom of the lake and showed only traces of its head, shoulders and back before the 200-mile-long glacial Lake Hitchcock burst through an obstruction near present-day Middletown, Conn., exposing the petrified carcass.

What some folks reading this may not know is that our beaver (Castor canadensis), which can grow to about 70 pounds but is more commonly in the 40-pound class, evolved from a much larger Pleistocene predecessor (Castoroides ohioensis), which was closer in size to our black bear. Fossil evidence shows giant beavers that likely weight 600 or 700 pounds, which begs the question as to whether that supposed “natural obstruction” damming a tight constriction in Rocky Hill, Conn., could have instead been a beaver dam. Don’t beavers usually reside in their own ponds? But we won’t go there on this little narrative. Back to Rothschild and the little tidbit that got my wheels spinning about what our landscape would have looked like during the early Connecticut Valley contact-period days of the Pynchons and Parsons.

What drew the Pynchons and Parsons here was beaver pelts, and William and John Pynchon monopolized Connecticut Valley fur trading by establishing a depot at Agawam, now Springfield, in 1636. Joseph Parsons, an ancestor generally associated with natal Northampton, was the Pynchon’s agent who probably would have known all the local Indian villages and fur-trapping clans of this corridor better than anyone of his era. It is likely that when he first started patrolling today’s Hampshire/Franklin hills and dales in the early 17th century, beaver dams and ponds were rampant on sluggish streams high and low in the landscape. But that would have soon changed when overharvesting of beavers removed them from the habitat, forcing trappers farther and farther north in search of the valuable pelts. Then, by the last quarter of the 17th century, the commodity had become difficult to come by indeed.

Rothschild discusses this phenomenon with a focus on the nearby Hudson and Mohawk valleys of upstate New York, then an important component of the Connecticut Valley fur-trade map. Rothschild describes the devastating impact local beaver extinction had on ecosystems, and what she articulates would definitely have also simultaneously, or even a little earlier, occurred here. Despite reading William Cronon’s classic “Changes in the Land” and Howard S. Russell’s lesser work, “Indian New England Before the Mayflower,” more than once, plus much else on the subject, I had never seen the dynamic laid out quite like Rothschild, who pulled her information from Dartmouth College scholar Colin Calloway’s “New Worlds For All.” Having read plenty of Calloway, a cutting-edge New England anthropologist, I was not familiar with the 1997 work Rothschild cited, but will soon add it to my collection of place-based scholarship.

What Rothschild describes is a diminishing wetland habitat that impacts many other important critters that depend on beaver ponds to survive. “The decline in beavers and their dams meant that pond levels were not maintained and species such as muskrat and otter were frozen or flooded out,” writes Rothschild. “Mink and raccoon could not get the frogs, suckers and snakes on which they normally fed as ponds dried up, becoming marshes and finally meadows. Migratory birds flew north to breed on ponds that could still be found in Maine. In some places, the absence of dams meant faster stream flow and changing fish habitats; it led to flooding and erosion.”

OK. So now put on your thinking cap and try to picture the watersheds our local tribes would have patrolled. We’re talking about streams like the Mill, Deerfield, Green, Millers, Sawmill, Falls and North rivers, and others reaching deeper. Once the beavers were removed by fur-trade overharvest, the landscape would have undergone a radical transition from a series of descending step-ponds and saturated wetlands to marsh and open spring holes perfect for colonial settlement in the bottomlands and uplands alike. By the Civil War era and even earlier, many of the 18th century hardscrabble farms established in what are now the towns of Conway, Whately, Williamsburg, Ashfield, Goshen and beyond had lost their thin, annually manured topsoil to erosion. A result was diminishing crop yield, which triggered a mass migration to fertile valleys in other states, such as Vermont, New York, western Pennsylvania, Ohio and on and on and on, clear through eventually to the West Coast in that romanticized process known to later participants and patriotic defenders as Manifest Destiny. Meanwhile, to the many tribes today called our First Peoples or Native Americans, it added up to dislocation and/or indiscriminate slaughter.

It all began right here, fellas, at, among other places, the Pynchon plantation described as a “market town” by late 20th century historian Stephen Innes in his acclaimed book, “Labor in a New Land,” about earliest Springfield’s economy.

Although I did not sit down here to condemn the Pynchon enterprise, let’s be real and admit that it wasn’t strategically established above the fledgling Connecticut settlements of Hartford, Wethersfield and Windsor in the name of conservation and fair trade. It was, with no apologies, an exploitive, colonial outpost seeking maximum profit.

Some of that Pynchon fortune likely still exists today, which cannot be said about the landscape our First Peoples maintained for more than 10,000 years.

Worthwhile Walk

The tomatoes are in the ground, the rhubarb is tall, ripe and a tad tart, asparagus reaches to the heavens, robin-egg shells are underfoot, the smell of red clover is a sweet reminder of the summer to come, and things are starting to happen in the wild kingdom.

Just the other night, approaching 8 on a long holiday weekend, I figured I’d give the dogs a little bonus romp through the upper hayfields. The weather was nice, and I knew it would be worth the trip, always the potential of catching the five deer that have been lurking for weeks out and about for their evening feed. Plus, I knew the dogs would love it, searching the wind for scent, any scent, to pursue.

I exited the truck, walked to the back, lifted the cap hatch, dropped the tailgate, opened the two porta-kennels on my truck’s bed and the dogs were off like heat-seeking missiles, first Chubby, then Lily, racing off in different directions. Chubby, obscured in a tall, verdant tangle of grasses, took the overgrown double-rutted road east while Lily went south, roughly following my path through the field. Even though the grasses are taller than the dogs, their dominant color is white, which, combined with their pogo-stick movement, makes them easy to track through high cover.

I was walking a brisk pace east, not paying a whole lot of attention to what the dogs were up to when a sound from Lily’s direction drew my attention.

“Putt, putt, putt,” was the unmistakable alarm audible, and there it went, a big, handsome turkey that looked too big and black for a hen, flying low due east ahead of Lily in hot pursuit. The big bird cleared the treeline overlooking the Green River from the lip of a steep escarpment along the west bank and disappeared into the woods on the other side. Because Lily followed the flush without turning back to pester any potential poults left behind, my suspicion of a gobbler was reinforced. It was probably the same bird I heard flush that morning from the woods overlooking a swamp about a quarter-mile south of the evening flush site. I never did get a glimpse of that bird, but I heard it putting out over the dense brown cattail depression before Chubby doubled back and burst through the tree line on an all-out, jacked-up mission across the acre or two Christmas-tree plot full of fragrant red clover.

I wonder if that tom, which survived the four-week spring turkey-hunting season that had closed that very Saturday at noon, was drawn by the mature clover. Could be. Or maybe we just happened upon it by being at the right place at the right time on its weekly rounds. Whatever, it was there and old Lily, a frisky, rambunctious 11, found it. Surely hens and young broods will follow, then the first hoof prints, no bigger than a Liberty quarter, will appear, signalling the arrival a new fawn crop. We’re entering perilous times for fawns, which spend their first few days buried, still and nearly odorless in tall hayfield whelping nests to avoid predators. The biggest danger is haying season, when the little ones instructed to lie still when the doe’s away cannot escape mowers. Thus some nests are unavoidably wiped out before the farmers can react. Chalk it up as “progress,” I guess, because it likely wasn’t an issue when farmers cut their hay with scythes and piled their crop in hayricks before getting it under cover in the barn.

It seems to be the same five or six deer people are seeing in my neighborhood. Not that they’re always grouped. No. There are reports of five, more commonly three, plus occasionally one solitary big one, which I have seen three of four times coming home at night from work. I have also seen its familiar splayed track, which I have grown familiar with the past five years. I was convinced that buck was dead because I hadn’t seen its distinctive track since late last summer. Not so. He’s alive and well, probably the dominant buck in the neighborhood; or at least one of them. Don’t ask me where he went all fall and winter, but he’s back patrolling the fields and wetlands where he was born.

I bet it was that big spring buck that I moved Tuesday morning under two large oaks and a couple of nice shagbark hickories. When I heard it run off, I knew it could be a deer but thought it was probably Chubby chasing scent down into the swamp. Curious, I stepped into the woods and noticed a quick flash of white headed toward a deep swamp, then saw Chub-Chub racing toward me from behind on the upper terrace I was standing on. It definitely wasn’t Chubby I had heard or seen. Ten minutes later, down in the far southwestern corner where I had seen the white flash, both dogs indicated something had passed through recently, and both of them pursued the scent through a dry, brittle swamp hole and back through a thorny border into the deeper swamp. I will likely be bumping into that deer and four or five others for the remainder of the summer. They usually don’t go far.

Which, because of the location on that floodplain bordered on the south by a beaver pond, reminds me of the most peculiar sight I’ve seen this spring. Walking with grandson Arie, 5, on the morning of May 17, Chubby was running wide and headed right for the beaver pond, which he is well aware can at any moment hold flocks of ducks. He hit a sluiceway circling a wooded spine, lay down and slurped a lusty drink before circling the small beaver pond and returning into sight. With he and Lily both out in the field among Christmas trees, I heard an unusual, unfamiliar “squawk,” overhead, looked up and, lo, there was a young Great Blue Heron taking what looked like one of its first flights. Call it learning on the fly. Why would I come to that conclusion, you ask? Well, just the way it squawked four or five times as it awkwardly flew along the wood line, over the river, and right back to where it had come from. Both dogs watched it, alerted by its, “Hey look at me fly” squawk, but neither of them took chase. Instead they went toward the river, took a hollowed-out beaver channel to the river’s edge, stood in the water up to their chests and slurped water to their hearts’ content.

Arie and I had kept moving on our circuitous trip back toward the truck when the dripping-wet dogs blew past us and chased around in and out of a small woodlot and through Christmas-tree rows before we climbed back to the upper terrace for the final flat leg of our journey. I didn’t know it at the time, but that young heron had made quit an impression on little Arie. Even though he didn’t accompany me on any of my daily walks over Memorial Day weekend, several times he mentioned that “baby blue heron and the funny sound he made.” Familiar with the unusual, almost prehistoric profile of a flying adult blue heron because I had pointed it out many times before, he knew what he had seen was his first young one.

A worthwhile trip indeed. In my book, better than a rigid summer camp or nature’s classroom any day of the week.