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.

 

Springtime Hothouse

Hectic week, saturating overnight rains, torrential at times, backyard brook roiled to a soothing roar.

Although it may be impossible, I suspect the upper hayfields I walk each day grew eight inches in a day, downpours soaking our fertile, engorged Earth Mother, pushing seed heads toward the heavens, awaiting bright sunlight to stretch them taller. I just walk the dogs and watch the magic unfurl. And oh how the animals love it, dense, stuffy gray air, them springing up over the covert, zigging and zagging, bouncing, noses high, seed-splattered ears flopping, bodies more drenched with each bound, their delight visible in their gait, low-clinging scents enticing indeed.

I noticed last week that the field swallows were back, swooping and gliding; now bobolinks, which I love to watch flip and flap and flutter and squawk around a hayfield, scolding my spirited gun dogs, white and totally liberated in a most exhilarating open-field ecstasy. Well, sort off. I can control them with remote-control collars if they venture perilously near the road. But why, other than that, bother with control issues? I know the joy of free, unrestrained rambling, and always have tried to grant the same freewheeling privileges to others, including my late kids. They may or may not have benefitted. Does it at this point really matter? Not in my mind.

The Connecticut River temperature was recorded at 62.6 Fahrenheit Tuesday and American shad were running like gangbusters, with 15,000 more through Holyoke, bringing the river count up to 324,473 and climbing, the river temperature likely to dip, stabilize and extend the spawning run. Who knows? We may get a half-million this year. We’ll see. No predictions. Looks promising.

Even the pathetic Atlantic salmon — following to oblivion the same sad trail of tears trudged by the old River Indian tribes before them — are still appearing despite the demise of the Connecticut River’s defunct restoration program, which failed and fled after a valiant half-century effort. Through Tuesday, 18 salmon stragglers had been counted in the river system, and they’re still being captured, tagged and tracked for research. I wonder how long they’ll keep returning? Better still, I wonder if they ever stopped? I guess we’ll never know. Maybe questions like that should have been answered before embarking on the expensive restoration program many years ago.

As go the migratory fish, so goes the information coming my way in the mail, on the phone, in strings of email some who received it would shudder if they knew I was privy. It’s very exciting, and for another day. And, yes, it is news in the opinion of many, including me. All I can say to my sources is, thanks and please keep it coming. I’m tasting, nibbling and gulping it down, storing away the surplus like a sweet cache of seasoning, subterranean butternuts available for later digging and devouring. Though the high-protein cache belongs to me, I’m more than willing to share when the time is right and hollow bellies gurgle and yearn.

Which reminds me, it seems I ruffled some feathers with that symbolic turtle tale last week. Oh well, comes with the territory, I suppose, although I must admit I’m always amused when attack dogs object to scribes nipping at their heels. Yes, I get a kick out of that, and haven’t even checked the chat boards to see if they’re harpooning me. Who cares? Last I knew, we were all entitled to our opinions in this, the land of the free and home of the brave, where politicians are always fair game.

But wait. Are we really free, given that West Coast bombshell that exploded into a national feeding frenzy after TMZ went public with private, secretly taped in-home conversation between spouses or whatever the hell they were? Talk about Big Brother watching! What happened to that gazillionaire who uttered stupid, in-home racist remarks may be more frightening than his unacceptable comments. But that’s just me, a man spawned during the glorious Sixties, when idealism prevailed and we thought we were headed in a new direction before the assassinations. Damn! I knew I shouldn’t have read Hunter S. Thompson. Dr. Gonzo still does strange things to me. But yes, I do keep coming back for more.

Back to that turtle mangled by a tractor tire in a mowed riverside field I walk daily, a friend called to question my identification of it as a painted turtle in the gruesome photo accompanying the column. He claimed it was no such thing, but instead a wood turtle. My response was that I had since patrolling Bloody Brook and Stokarski’s Pond as a kid always known that particular creature as a painted turtle. Maybe I have been mistaken all these years, but a Google search proved inconclusive, so I’m still trusting my nature-loving mother’s teachings.

Well, that’s all I have for this week. Back to reading and pondering, talking to myself and to folks on the phone, writing emails to those who know more than I, and trying to put it all together in sharp composition. I may be getting old but it’s what makes my world go round. No apologies, no regrets.

Off I go … this familiar Wednesday routine again in the rear view.

 

Meadow Mayhem

I suppose it would have represented unavoidable carnage to most observers. Yes, just another pathetic victim of the modern, mechanized world. But to me, the mangled painted turtle said much more, some of it unprintable in old-fashioned news.

It’s spooky in a sense. I had been on the lookout recently for turtles I annually pass down by the river, the shelled creatures seeking sandy plateaus on which to bury their spring eggs. I discover the critters by watching the dogs, recognizing their cautious demeanor upon detecting a turtle in their rambunctious rambles. It seems to me that, for the most part over the past three or four springs, we’ve been dealing with the same four turtles — a medium-sized snapper down by the beaver pond on the south end, two painted turtles, one on the north end, the other along the east-side woods, and a big box turtle with its distinctive humped shell. I have over the years seen far fewer of the latter than its two aforementioned cousins. Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps that other creature is just an oversized painted turtle. But I don’t think so.

Something interesting about the place where I annually intercept the spring turtle pilgrimage is the fertility of the floodplain. I have only once in 15 years witnessed the maybe 10-acre field underwater, the tips of only the tallest Christmas trees exposed in what appeared to be a small lake during Tropical Storm Irene a few years back. Afterwards, you would have thought from looking at the fine sandy silt left behind that it was barren but, believe me, it was anything but. The hayfield above, sitting on a plain some 15 feet higher and out of harm’s way during floods, is manured a couple of times a year yet always behind the fertile riverside meadow in clover and rye growth, proving once again that there is no substitute for natural fertilizer deposited by Mother Nature.

Because of the height and density of the grasses on that bottomland plain I walk, wet after rain and sticky humidity, I was reluctant to walk the dogs Monday morning and get my fresh jeans sopped to the knee. But I knew the dogs were rarin’ to go after breakfast, so I rolled up my pant legs to the knees, threw on a pair of Keen Keeks (my grandsons call theirs “water shoes”), and decided to pick my may through the seedy tangles. Then, to my delight, friend Mark Blanchard was down there mowing behind a smallish John Deere tractor that in some 30 years has been swamped only twice by Sunken Meadow floods. So it’s not like the place is often underwater, just enough to keep it more fertile than the plain above, which natives claim is composed of deep, rich “Hadley Loam.” At least I think Greenfield Meadows is blessed with Hadley Loam. Yes, I’m almost certain I’ve heard it referred to as such. But I’m not from Greenfield, just a temporary transplant from nearby South Deerfield, where I know Hadley Loam exists on both sides of the Connecticut. I also know there is no soil in god’s kingdom that grows better asparagus, which I go out of my way to purchase when the time is right. Ah, yes, then the native strawberries, no comparison in my mind to those sad Driscolls we’re forced to eat in the offseason. I wouldn’t be surprised if Isaac and Penny prefer those store-bought berries. That’s OK. To each their own. They can have them.

But, back to Sunken Meadow on Monday, my pal mowing as I kept the dogs distant, we took a quick buzz all the way around the piece, plowing through mostly high, wet, unmowed fields, flushing a pair of ducks back by the beaver pond before circling back, ascending the short ramp to the hayfields above, and heading for the waiting truck.

It was on the next morning, Tuesday, when I came across the mangled painted turtle, broken eggs strewn about, scavenging flies swarming and buzzing. I had walked mowed grass all the way around that first leg of my daily route and stopped at the back to talk with Mark about the fertility difference between the upper and lower levels. He was in agreement, said he wouldn’t have to mow the upper tree-farm rows for many weeks, and could actually let the job go till fall because the grass grows that much slower there. It didn’t surprise me. I see it with my own eyes, and happen to pay attention to that kind of stuff.

I wouldn’t have noticed the dead turtle had I walked my customary route but, instead, I cut the daily walk short, staying on mowed ground and circling back rather than swinging wide toward the beaver pond, through high, wet, uncut cover. Just before I reached a tall, handsome smooth-bark or pignut hickory, I noticed Lily sniffing at something, then saw the crushed turtle. When I yelled back to Mark that he’d killed it, he yelled back, “Yeah, I know. That was yesterday,” and my wheels started spinning, my mind jumping from one place to another, mimicking the flight of that green hummingbird I recently watched feeding on the red front-yard quince blossoms.

I thought about that turtle’s demise under the aggressive tire of a John Deere and thought that perhaps it was a better world when farmers cut hay with a scythe, maybe even later by horse-drawn contraptions. It got me thinking about “progress” and its many victims. When I got home and went to the mailbox, my newest Orion magazine awaited, in it a short, insightful Wendell Berry essay on his kind of simple farming, a literary gem accompanied by old-style sepia-toned photos showing stewards of small organic Hudson Valley farms who reject mechanized farming and pesticides and mass-production.

I read on and found an essay by a 20-year-veteran journalist who became an activist, bravely fled conventional routine and went off on his own to start a nonprofit focused on saving the earth from global warming. He wrote about camping in a parched Southwestern desert with his teenage son and lamenting what will soon become of this once viable arid land lived on by proud, respectful Indian tribes. From there, I found in a section of essays titled “Voyages” a gripping piece about ancient western-Kentucky Mound Builders, written by a descendant of that prehistoric Mississippian Culture that eventually became the displaced Chickasaw Tribe, driven west during “Old Hickory’s” vengeful reign to Oklahoma wastelands and tumbleweed.

Inspired by my reading, I grabbed the phone, dialed a young lady photographer I work with and asked if she was in the mood to take a ride and get a quick shot of my mangled turtle. The timing was right. She was just getting started, and thinking about potential photo opportunities. “Do me a favor,” I promised, “and I’ll take you for a little ride through the hills behind my house.” She came. We went.

The impetus was that pathetic smashed turtle, an image I just couldn’t shake. I wish that painted pregnant lady could have escaped the tractor wheel. Who knows? Had it done so, it may well have outlived me. I’m not sure how long turtles like that live but suspect they can survive for decades.

Yeah, yeah, I know what Isaac and Penny would probably say. They’d tell me to get over it. Sunken Meadow will do just fine without that turtle. Others will soon appear to replace her. Maybe so. But I still think that peaceful meadow was a better place with her presence.

I must be a little weird, I guess.

 

Skirting Issues

Another week, new impetus, birds still at the fore. That time of year, I guess: nesting season.

What crossed my daily path this time, on a bright, sunny, Wednesday morning, a cool, gentle, westerly breeze keeping my brow dry, was a pair of Canada geese and eight or 10 tiny, day-or-two-old, golden fuzzy goslings paddling up the Green River, the little ones — which I didn’t bother to count — vulnerable indeed. For all I know, they could have been eggs earlier that morning. That small.

I was first alerted to their presence from afar by distinctive, intermittent adult goose honks that to me suggested distress or warning as Chubby stood statuesque, straight and rigid, ears perked, head and nose high and alert. He barked. Not crazy, threatening barking. More like, “I see you over there t’other side the river, and if you don’t quit teasing me by honking and nervously swimming away, then I may just take chase.”

I was perhaps 80 yards away, just passing the beaver dam along the southern perimeter of the field, heading for the tall riverside apple tree in blossom that may someday slide into the river along with the escarpment lip on which it stands. That undercut bank where trout are known to lurk is slowly eroding during annual violent high-water acts and will in my lifetime likely topple into a raging river.

When Chubby’s barking began, I picked up the pace as Lily trotted out of the swamp below the beaver dam to join me. She stood momentarily in the lane along the woods and trotted enthusiastically toward her unruly son, joining him under the apple tree before circling left and threatening to drop down over the bank to further investigate the mouthy geese, still honking to keep the little ones on high alert and ready to kick it into high gear. On the scene looking down at the situation, I figured that the little ones weren’t yet nimble enough to escape, and I didn’t want to test my theory.

It’s during precarious situations precisely like that, when things can happen fast, that my Tri-Tronics collars are most useful. When I can see the dogs are ready to make a move I’m not comfortable with, I give them a soft, friendly, vocal “No,” then an audible buzz on their collars. That sound is a warning that can, when necessary, be backed up by a mild electric tickle, the strength of which is controlled by the remote dangling from a lanyard around my neck. The remote-control collars are invisible half-mile leashes, for my money, much better than any leash on the market, including those popular extendable/retractable contraptions with the sporty handles. My collars give the dogs far more freedom to roam, promoting free-wheeling exercise minus emergency trips to the vet for traumas of the road, porcupine dens or other misfortunes capable of striking suddenly and costing dearly during active daily rambles off the beaten path.

Anyway, we got through the situation without a glitch, I’ve described it the best I can and now, here I sit, pondering where to go next. Better still, where do I dare go because, regarding a familiar old subject that drew more response from an interested readership than any subject I have ever tackled over parts of four decades of filling this space, the damning evidence just keeps coming at me like the dam-break that unleashed Lake Hitchcock some 14,000 years ago. It’s incredible. No wonder there are those out there who want to silence me.

All I can say is that that kind of control usually only works temporarily. I’ll find a way to get the news out. So, to those of you out there supplying info, inquiring how things are going or where I’m headed next, I ask you to please be patient. I’m searching for a weakness in the paddock fence and am confident I’ll soon again be liberated to run unrestrained and uninhibited as we all should be allowed to ramble.

 Fish finder: On that same morning walk with the dogs that spawned my above segue about geese and beyond and now brings us to tired old nuts-and-bolt outdoor-column fodder, a river image leading down into Sunken Meadow sent my imagination awhirl with thoughts of years passed. Yes, it harkened back to the days of early awakenings, double-hauls and roll-casts, tight loops into difficult crosswinds and mending line on the water to create a proper dead-drift capable of attracting large, wary Deerfield River browns feeding in riffles before the birds sang.

The Green River was running freely but had receded some and cleared, a lot like my backyard brook that feeds it, and I must say it looked ripe for fishing where a long section of flat water dropped into a riffle and swung around a gentle bend to a deeper run where I knew trout were lurking. I can’t say it was impetus for going home, digging out one of my bamboo fly rods and catching a few sky pilots, just that when I look at a river this time of the year, or anytime for that matter, I still think like an angler, reading water and understanding how to catch fish that are surely there after several Valley District stockings that’ll end this week.

Anyway, no matter where you go, you’re going to find trout from the local hatcheries. So, if that’s what turns you on and proves your manhood, get out there and have a ball. The trucks are making their final “official” spring runs this week.

Meanwhile, the shad are running strong with Connecticut River temperatures at 60 degrees and climbing. By Wednesday morning, 161,000 shad had passed Holyoke and are now swimming somewhere between here and there. Those, too, I understand how to catch on fly tackle, and I even know how to make the willow-leaf lures that’ll out-produce any shad dart money can buy. Not only that, but I have hundreds of them piled on shelves in a big old Plano tackle box in the attic. The attraction is for me dull at this time in my life. Been there, done that. More pressing are two books that arrived in the same load of mail this morning — one a scholarly report on the Nipmuck Indians that was costly, the other a biography of French novelist Jean Giono, an artist first published in this country by the late, irascible Jimmy Cooney of Poplar Hill.

Lastly, three lonely Atlantic salmon have thus far been counted in the Connecticut River system. State and federal authorities warn that these fish are being tagged and monitored, and demand that any shad anglers who by accident catch them must promptly release them. So, even though salmon-restoration is over, salmon protection is not. Don’t worry fellas, it won’t be long before all salmon temptations in our rivers are gone forever.

Off I go … undaunted, still reading and hiking and talking and meeting new people, not hesitant to poke my nose into topics some officials think strongly should be hidden from public attention. Forget it, fellas. You’re barking up the wrong tree. In my soul, I’m still the same incorrigible teen that many remember from decades back. Yes, in fact I’m just warming up, and ain’t going away anytime soon; just observing, listening, learning and storing up mountains of material for a fair and furious crescendo that will spare no one.

That, friends, is a promise.

Birdie Babel

Birds are in my brain today as I sit down to hammer out this weekly chore. So, yes, it’s birds I plan to discuss while, of course, fighting off Satanic urges to meander off into the perilous terrain of sensitive topics, which it seems to me readers prefer.

As for birds, well, no, I honestly can’t blame this thought train on the mated pair of mallards Chubby flushed out of a cold, slim channel slithering between tall, verdant cattails painting the beaver-bog edge this morning. No, that fleeting, flying, whistling encounter, which happens often, was just a brief reminder of the many bird tales that have for some reason crossed my path this week, starting with a wood duck hen and her brood of perhaps 10 tiny ducklings I stopped to literally let cross the road in front of my truck on the way to work Monday evening. I was surprised to witness such a sight, thinking it a bit early for hatchlings during this cold, late spring as I watched their nervous, disoriented waddle across the road’s center stripes, over the gravel shoulder and into an old, overgrown Christmas Tree farm planted t’other side of the guardrails by a radiologist who some years ago split Down East.

Then, in rapid fashion came a phone call from an old hunting buddy curious about a turkey vanishing act that had endured for more than a week, and, from the same source, especially his surreal tale of a peculiar partridge that befriended and frankly bemused him during a mid-morning turkey hunt behind his friend’s barnyard on the way to Leyden. Accustomed to being startled by flushing partridge fleeing for cover in a burst of energy from the forest floor as he’s tiptoed through his haunts for better than 60 years, this bird, to his utter disbelief, walked right up to him as he sat concealed in a turkey stand. Then it lingered like a pet and proceeded to follow him around like a dunghill hen, flying across brooks to join him t’other side. When he finally decided to call it a day and backtrack to his truck, the bird followed him all the way back to within sight of the barnyard before spotting a fat barn feline in the double-rutted road and flying off with that familiar whooshing flash.

“I never thought I’d live to see the day that a partridge would follow me around in the woods like a pet,” my friend marveled. “I really believe I could have reached out and picked it up a few times when it got real close.”

Suspecting the bird had been raised, fed and tamed by his farmer friend or a neighbor, my friend asked his old National Guard pal if he was familiar with the partridge. He received a wry grin and quick response. Yes, he knew the bird well, said it had been around for some time and was remarkably tame, but no one to his knowledge had raised it. No, he figured it was just a freak of nature — one of those things that happens from time to time. And when I think of it, hasn’t Thoreau or Muir or some naturalist of that ilk written about unusual relationships with odd wild creatures? It seems to me I’ve read such accounts, though please don’t ask me to cite verse and line.

Regarding my buddy’s turkey dilemma, well, not being out there as an observer, it’s difficult to ascertain the reason for this reported disappearing act, though I can say from experience that there’s always a stage of the spring mating season when the action slows noticeably for hunters. My buddy’s initial question to me was, “Hey, when’s the last time you saw turkeys out in the fields you monitor?” And he was indeed onto something because, although I hadn’t really given it much thought, I realized that, yes, I had not seen in a week or more the turkeys I had been watching all spring. Such a phenomenon usually occurs when toms are content with the harems they’ve assembled while their loyal mates are busy tending and building nests full of eggs.

My buddy claims to have spoken to many experienced hunters and farmers, all of whom concur that they’re not seeing turkeys, either, and that they were seeing them regularly not long ago. So it appears that we’re experiencing that familiar part of the season when things slow down, which doesn’t mean no one is scoring. Trust me, there are random daily successes here and there in the Hampshire/Franklin hills, where hunters situated in the right place at the right time are bagging trophy longbeards that charge in with a vociferous fatal passion.

Then again, this time of year one must always beware of silent approaches by wise, wary gobblers that creep within range without a peep.

Fish finder: MassWildlife crews are working toward their Memorial Day trout-stocking crescendo, after which will likely come one surplus June stocking followed by a fall stocking that’ll signal the end. By now, there are trout everywhere they’re typically found, so don’t hesitate to dig that old rod out of the shed. … Meanwhile, things are picking up on the Connecticut River anadromous-fish-migration scene, with 51,634 American shad having been counted in the river system through Tuesday. With the river temperature in Holyoke at 55.4 degrees Fahrenheit Tuesday, more than 36,000 shad were lifted at Holyoke, representing the best day so far, and it should only get better as the river temps rise to 60. … No Atlantic salmon to report yet. Who knows? We may get a few stragglers. Maybe not. Only time will tell. By now, with the once-aggressive restoration project defunct, does it really matter? The time was not and is not right for salmon restoration on New England’s largest river. Sad but true. Had the authorities done their homework or listened to the doctoral-level naysayers who warned them from the start that the project was not viable, they could have saved taxpayers tens, if not hundreds of millions. Too late now. Chalk it up as water over the dam.

Outgoing: Affable Elna Castonguay — a cheerful, humble, friendly, committed and loyal public servant with whom I’ve dealt for many years in her post as MassWildlife’s Western District administrative assistant — retires today, the lucky dog. With an old-fashioned enthusiasm for her job, Elna is a dying breed, the likes of whom are most often replaced by those who think they’re overqualified or just plain “too good” for their job, making life difficult for people like me seeking information in a timely fashion. All I can say is that in more than 35 years covering this beat, there were none better than Elna, thus the praise. Elna will be missed. Trust me.