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.

q

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.

Season Of The Fish

Fish are on the platter this week. And why not? This is, after all, the week leading up to Memorial Day weekend, thus the week that annually signals the end of MassWildlife’s spring trout-stocking program, which, quite by chance, I innocently happened upon while on my daily routine Tuesday morning, eager dogs porta-kenneled under my pickup’s cap, both rarin’ to romp through shin- and knee-high, rain-drenched hayfields and unseasonably dry floodplain marsh below.

On the way to my customary spot, yes indeed, there it was, insignia on the door, purring rectangular tank on the back, passing as I approached a stop sign — a stocking truck tooling down the road, likely headed for the Green River Swimming and Recreation Area. I figured I’d follow and shoot the breeze as well as check out the trout they were depositing into the river.

Not surprisingly, I recognized the driver and he recognized me. We have bumped into each other many times during pheasant season, when he also travels the stocking routes with the same trucks and ring-necked, feathered cargo. Riding shotgun was his brother, along for the ride. I shook hands with the passenger and watched as the driver, standing atop his truck’s bed with a long-handled net, scooped four netfuls of lively McLaughlin Hatchery rainbow trout out of his tank before handing it down to his brother, who hustled the fish to the river’s edge for release. I left after that fourth load, but they must have dumped a couple more after I left. I’d guess there were a dozen of the Belchertown fish, all in the 12- to 15-inch class, in each scoop. Nice fish. Fat, colorful and wiggly. The fellas’ day began along the Vermont border at East Colrain and they had worked their way down to Greenfield.

“We must have made 20 stops,” said the driver, looking at me, then his nodding brother.

The question is, how long will these stocked fish last? It’s been a strange May indeed, with little rain, and the dry weather has left rivers like the Green lower than normal but not nearly as low as their feeder streams, which are at summer levels. When the water’s high, stocked fish are quickly dispersed naturally throughout the stream. But with low water levels, these same trout are apt to stay put more and are thus easy to catch where dumped, and potentially quickly fished-out. So we’ll have to wait and see on that.

If the boys are back stocking next week, it’ll be with a load of surplus trout, which, if available, go out to selected waters for one last round before taking the summer off and returning for a final fling around the first of October. Relying on 35 years or tracking such things from this perch, it’s a rare year when a surplus is not available.

Trout are not the only fish Connecticut Valley folks have an interest in this time of year. There’s also the annual upstream migration of anadromous fish seeking freshwater spawning beds in the Connecticut and its larger tributaries. American shad spawn in the spring, Atlantic salmon in the fall. And, yes, the salmon are still coming, albeit slowly, several years after pulling the plug on the expensive Atlantic Salmon Restoration Program. After nearly a half-century of disappointing returns, politicians could no longer justify the cost. But still they come, a grand total of seven through Wednesday, four this week alone. These determined stragglers are captured, tagged, released and tracked for research.

As for shad, the river conditions have thus far been very good for migration, which is typically disrupted by rains that drop the water temperature and increase the flow, both factors that slow migration, especially when flooding and high-water events necessitate the closure of fish ladders and lifts. The first shad monitored this spring appeared on April 29, and the first email report from the Connecticut River Coordinator’s office arrived in my inbox on May 2. Since then, we have had just one quick overnight rain that impacted local rivers in a big way, and even that swell didn’t last long. Thus the shad have been coming like gangbusters for three weeks, with the number likely up to 300,000 by today.

Something interesting I discovered in recent reading was that Indians utilized anadromous sea lamprey for food. I must admit I was surprised, because I have never heard of anyone eating them. Plus, I thought they were pure trash and total undesirables in the big fish-migration picture. Not so. After reading of their importance to our First Nation, I Googled lamprey recipes and found many in use today. Apparently they were a welcome spring delicacy for local tribes situated in the spring at “Great Falls” in Montague and South Hadley. I must admit to never being fond of the thick, orange, snake-like creatures bumping my legs as they swam between my waders — or, worse still, shorts and Tevas — when shad fishing. Not only that, but there were always many gross, decomposing carcasses in the river this time of year, so they did not hold a high place in my Deerfield/Connecticut rivers fishing experience. The fact that many die after spawning is all the more reason to eat them, I guess. Leave it to the Indians to find a use rather than ignore a resource that visits their habitat annually.

One more little tidbit related to the subject of local anadromous fish, thanks to an email from a consistent reader/emailer. Curious about a new antenna he spotted on Sunderland Bridge, this Vietnam vet chimed in to say he thought it had something to do with fish monitoring. I doubted it but, sure enough, my correspondent’s suspicion was confirmed when I checked with Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle.

“The FERC relicensing studies (for hydro facilities on the Connecticut River) that agencies have requested are underway,” Sprankle wrote. “Those antennas will be tracking adult shad, sea lamprey and, in the fall, juvenile shad and American eel. The monitoring covers from Holyoke upstream to Bellows Falls, Vt. I will be doing my own monitoring downstream of Holyoke.

He says the two power companies involved will capture and release about 550 radio-tagged shad combined. As for sea lamprey, it’ll be about 150 and, “for fall fish I don’t have the numbers in my head at moment. So there are/will be very large numbers of radio-tagged fish loose and being monitored, both with dozens of stationary sites plus regular mobile tracking runs each week.”

So, no conspiracy enthusiasts, Big Brother ain’t watching. Well, at least not from Sunderland Bridge.

It’s Happening Fast

Before eight chimes on the Monday-morning tall clock — gray sky, heavy air, cup of coffee in hand and headed for my customary parlor reading station by the window — it walloped me like an open, clammy palm across the puss from Mother Superior. Ah yes, that first overpowering fragrance of spring lilac, a sweet harbinger of summer. So uplifting a scent to brighten a new day, a new week.

Four hours later, exiting my truck for our daily mile or two walk through upper hayfields and around the perimeter of lower floodplain marsh, large riverside apple displaying its white-blossomed coat, I was immediately greeted by visual stimuli. This time it was a new, invigorating, sea of deep yellow dandelions pulsating in the same strong south breeze that had earlier delivered lilac to my nostrils. Again, what a splendid way to start a walk, sensory stimulation everywhere to unleash effusion. The dogs seemed energized, even liberated by the bright yellow carpet complemented so nicely by a verdant clover underbody like only nature can match it, a rich sight indeed. Stunning. Fresh. New. Inspiring.

It doesn’t stop there. I cooked my first batch of local asparagus from the Hatfield/Whately line Saturday evening for dinner guests. Plus, upon retuning from my Monday-morning romp with the dogs, there was sister-in-law Jan from the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont on her knees collecting our first cut of rhubarb from a small patch at the barn’s sunny southwest corner. Oh how sweet that first cut of rhubarb, even if it does occur before you can mix it with native strawberries. No problem. That tasty alternative will soon ripen. But rhubarb crisps and pies are just fine without strawberries, thank you. Some even prefer it.

And, oh yeah, how can I forget yet another long overdue sign of spring that appeared? Yes, last Thursday, finally my first neighborhood turkey sighting, a solitary hen, about 11 a.m. A small drab bird, it was walking south in snappy caution, head and neck extended toward a neighbor’s gray, knoll-top colonial home. On my way home a few minutes later, there it was again, scratching under the same home’s front-yard apple tree. She must have had a nearby nest temporarily covered with loose brush for a quick feeding maneuver. I knew I’d bump into a turkey sooner or later but was actually starting to wonder. I’m confident there will be more.

Next day, Friday morning about 9, sitting comfortably in the front parlor talking to an overnight guest — an old Vietnam triage nurse and college friend of my wife’s — a gray Ford pickup truck pulled into the yard. Hunting buddy Killer was passing by on his way up the hill turkey hunting. He walked the sidewalk up to the open window, sheepishly apologized through the screen for invading my privacy and, smoking a butt, asked me to come outside. He wanted a quick tutorial on the art of making an old Lynch box call sound like a love-infested hen turkey.

The box, his late uncle’s, was in great shape, looked like cedar, maybe walnut. He had never used it and wanted to give it a try. Desperate, he wanted to offer a new voice to silent turkeys in a habitat where he had yet to hear so much as a gobble, despite twice running into a boss gobbler on his way into the woods, shotgun slung over his shoulder, hands occupied by decoys. He had solved the problem of being unable to quickly shoulder a shotgun with his hands full of decoys by tying them to a backpack for transport. Now he wanted a little primer in the art of getting a box call to mimic the sounds of an amorous hen in waiting, sounds that may just lure in a big lonely boss man with long beard and spurs.

Unfamiliar with his rubber-banded contraption, I fiddled around with it from different angles, got it singing a sweet, seductive song, and handed it back to him for further instruction. Just then, departing guest Marylou exited my home and requested a little lesson of her own, which, of course, produced a suggestive, humorous narrative to explain precisely what a caller is trying to accomplish with a series of yelps, clucks and purrs. Hey, you’re apt to have a lot of flexibility when dealing with an old Vietnam triage nurse, even if she did rise to the rank of lieutenant colonel before recently retiring from the Air Force Reserves. Trust me, she can handle gutter talk with aplomb. Been there, done that. Seen a little of everything. Can handle about anything to the horrors of bloody, mangled young death. And when the conversation touches the right chord, she can even contribute, and then some.

A beautiful, cool, bright sunny morning had me in a playful mood. So, I figured it was high time to get my old hunting buddy cranked up.

“Hey, by the way Killer,” I interjected, “with a proud retired Air Force lieutenant colonel here with us on this fine spring day, what again was your classification as an military marksman?” I asked.

“Expert,” he replied with a gleam.

“See that,” I told her, “here with us today is a man who could cut it on the rifle range. He just never liked to follow orders.”

They both laughed, he in full agreement with my assessment, her understanding those who aren’t cut out for the military. Then she was gone, off to Quincy in her Subaru sedan, he up the hill in his truck on a turkey mission.

I hadn’t seen the last of my buddy. Just after noontime, me sitting on my John Deere tractor to start mowing the lawn for the first time this year, my buddy was back, his day of hunting complete. He parked in my driveway, exited his truck and quickly approached, saying, “I can see you’re busy and don’t want to hold you up but … I have to share with you a little conversation I just had.”

I disengaged the mower blades and idled the engine down to hear his tale, which I trusted would be either amusing, interesting or both. As it turned out, the story was, more than anything else, a confirmation of something he had told me earlier. Finished hunting and on his way to his vehicle parked on the side of the road, a shiny black SUV had pulled up to a stop and the driver hit the switch to slide down the tinted passenger-side window. The man, an expert turkey hunter with whom my pal and I are both familiar, wanted to inquire as to what my buddy had been seeing, if anything, while hunting.

“Well,” he said to me, clearing his throat, “I wasn’t going to lie to the man. I told him I’d been out for two weeks and hadn’t heard a freakin’ gobble. He wasn’t surprised. He said he hadn’t heard one, either. He hadn’t been out at the crack of dawn because of a new puppy. But he’s surrounded by turkeys daily, was up early enough to hear gobbles and hadn’t heard a one.”

Hmmmmm?

I can’t say I doubt either of them for a millisecond. On the other hand, I do believe that due diligence could put a gobbler in their game bags regardless of whether there’s gobbling. Silent approaches are not rare. They’re just not nearly as exciting as big boss toms sounding off with earth-rattling enthusiasm as they race toward hunters’ romantic invitations.

All hunters must learn that sometimes it’s necessary to settle for boring yet successful alternatives.

Fiddleheads, Turkeys and Springtime Mystique

Fiddleheads and turkeys are today’s topics, plus potential peripheral musings that can always develop.

It’s that time of year, I guess, when nature’s magic pokes through the forest floor overnight in bright green color, or maybe furtively peeks from behind a large, stately shagbark hickory anchored atop the edge of an escarpment, below which a bulbous Paleo lake once lay as a Lake-Hitchcock-drainage puddle.

Let’s start with fiddleheads. I have been monitoring a patch for some weeks and was thus stunned when stems shot to the heavens six inches or more overnight after just the previous day displaying only an inch-high, tightly clenched, scaly brown fist protruding from the forested wetland floor. There were many other tall ostrich ferns nearby, all of them first appearing like dense little brown periscopes camouflaged among dead fallen leaves two weeks ago, following a soaking midnight rain. And there they sat for two largely uneventful weeks, monitored daily and showing little progress until Monday morning, when, likely inspired by hot daytime temperatures and summer-like nights under a bright Full Corn-Panting Moon, they shot up like curlicue-capped stilts, growing an unbelievable six or more inches in 24 short hours. Ah, for the wonders of nature and springtime fertility.

It’s funny. A week earlier, an old friend and fiddlehead picker I’ve on occasion joined for the spring ritual phoned to inform me he’d picked his first batch not a mile upstream from the ones he knew I monitor. “We didn’t go all-out because I still have a lot of frozen fiddleheads and fiddlehead soup piled in my freezer,” he reported. “But I thought I’d warn you that they’re out, and that someone had already beaten me to mine. I don’t know what’s happening in your spot, but you better watch them. It’s going to happen fast.”

No truer words have ever been spoken, because fast indeed it did happen when they finally popped this week. Overnight, in fact, with a light touch of Mother Nature’s wand. If I get around to it, I’ll pick a plastic-bagful and go through the labor-intensive cleaning process in the sink before placing them into a hot cast-iron skillet and aggressively stir-frying before tipping down the heat and sautéing them in olive oil to the desired tenderness. When done to perfection, just a dab of butter and a dash of salt and pepper to please my pallet and nourish my body with wild greens, all natural, no preservatives or pesticides. Fiddleheads are fine for those trendy Paleo diets so many health nuts have wandered to these days, and they complement that diet’s wild game just fine.

As for wild turkeys, well, although I still haven’t seen any in my neighborhood, word has it that someone else has, right were I’m accustomed to seeing them. Maybe they’re there early and late in the day when I’m away, because they are not there midmorning to late afternoon.

If I had time or wanted to run on fumes coming down the stretch on work nights, I’d gather my gear and climb a familiar trail up to a large red pine tree inside an old stonewall where I have shot many toms. I’d set up comfortably at the base of that tree before first light and wait for the sky to light up with the sound of throaty roost-top gobbles piercing the gray, twinkling twilight air.

Without hesitation I’d sacrifice sleep and punish my body to set my grandson up for his first kill. But the kid’s young yet. His day will come. I can’t wait to watch him light up like I once did to the sights and sounds of turkey hunting, which, if it doesn’t get your blood boiling, you had better get your pulse checked.

I can’t say I don’t think about turkey hunting when the season begins. These days, during my self-imposed respite from an invigorating, challenging spring activity I genuinely enjoy, I’m still learning about turkeys’ springtime routines and habits. To be honest, when hunting the birds and calling them to my customized shotgun, I didn’t fully understand what was happening in the turkey world. All I knew was that I’d get them going early off the roost, hear the fly-down, and call them in by simulating the yelps, clucks and purrs of amorous hen turkeys as frantic gobbles approached my stand, momentum building. My assumption was that the nesting and hatching occurred after the season, which, from talking to my professorial Maine brother-in-law and state Turkey Project Leader David Scarpitti, I recently discovered was not quite so. The fact is that increased daylight triggers breeding activity as early as March in these parts, and many turkeys are now already into their nesting mode and unreceptive to gobblers’ advances.

By late May, some broods are indeed already on the ground, while some unfortunate hens have lost a nest or two to skunks, raccoons, bobcats, opossums or other predators and egg-eaters that contribute to a woeful 70- to 80-percent mortality rate. The renesting that results provides eligible gobblers with additional spring mates in addition to others that become receptive to late breeding due to biological and physiological factors. For instance, yearling hens that survive from second and third nests and then winter, develop late and can provide last-ditch mates for aggressive males that are always searching when without.

From what I have gathered of late, once a hen is bred by a gobbler, an internal string of up to a dozen eggs will form in decreasing size from back to front. Hens lay an egg a day until they’re all in the nest, covering their clutches with brush when they leave the nest briefly to feed and patrol. The eggs laid early lay dormant in delayed development until all the eggs are assembled. Then the gestation period begins and lasts 25 to 31 days, at which time the whole nest hatches en masse. Heavy spring rains are murderous to hatchlings, which die of pneumonia from cold saturation, again stimulating rebreeding and renesting by hens that provide more mates for gobblers and opportunities for diligent, late-season hunters seeking a late kill.

So, fellas, take it to the bank: With more than two weeks remaining in the annual four-week season, there’s still plenty of time to bag a nice gobbler, even for hunters who prefer bankers’ hours. Not me. It’s first light or nothing in my world, and I know when the time is right that my grandsons will rise and shine in darkness with eager smiles.

Turkey Talk

The Full Corn-Planting Moon is building as the landscape greens, turkeys gobble and shotguns roar from distant hills. Yes, it’s spring turkey season, a fine time of year for a man so inclined. And, word out of Montville, Maine, indicates the time is ripe.

But first a brief diversion — the first of two little housecleaning chores from last week, thanks to longtime reader Wild Bill the forester, who did well to catch an inaccuracy he suspected to be a slip of pen, which it was. I inadvertently identified the Green River as a Connecticut River tributary, which ain’t far off. But the fact remains that the Green flows into the Deerfield River across from Old Deerfield’s North Meadows and Pine Hill, and the Deerfield joins the Connecticut a mile or so below.

Enough said. It was an innocent overlooked personal error spotted by an astute reader. Call it citizen editing if you will, because he caught me red-handed. Fact is I’ve been on both sides of the Deerfield River where the Green meets it, and on both sides of the Green along the Deerfield’s north bank at Cheapside. Yet still misinformation crept into my column like a mischievous attic spirit entering the bedchamber through a crack in the narrow door leading into the closet beside the fireplace. As for the other clarification point, patience please. It’s coming. Promise.

Back to turkeys, my scholarly brother-in-law, a retired college professor always fascinated by birds, chimed in from his gentleman’s farm peacefully nestled into hilly Waldo County, Maine, where wild turkeys are a relatively new comeback phenomenon that disappeared years ago. Some wild birds spilled over on their own from southern New Hampshire, while others were captured elsewhere and transplanted by state fish and wildlife crews. I clearly remember reports of the first sightings in Maine, when they were rare indeed and being tracked by a Brattleboro native I know named Stu Bristol, now a veteran Maine Guide. These days, the big birds have repopulated the central and southern part of the state, where flocks are commonly seen on the road.

Most interesting about my Sunday conversation with a trusted in-law was his disclosure that the birds on his farm have been breeding for some time. That surprised me, given that he’s a good two weeks behind us after enduring a winter that dumped 10 to 12 feet of snow. There, it’s mud season, with snow remaining in shady, north-facing forest depressions and under north-side right-angle junctions of barn roofs. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by early mating. This week a New Hampshire press release from state turkey guru Ted Walski arrived and he claimed his state’s turkeys have been breeding since March. So, fellas, take it to the bank: gobblers in this neck of the woods are already henned-up to a point — which can be bad news. But relax, they’re still gathering more mates to hoard and protect, and are jacked up in pursuit of their spring harems.

Walski is confident Granite State hunters will find an abundance of birds despite the difficult winter, and the same should be true here as well. He pinned his optimism to availability of a plentiful acorn crop entering winter, and favorable early-winter conditions, when crusty snow allowed the big birds to walk comfortably atop without expending precious energy almost into February. Then came the deep powdery snow that can do a number on turkeys, which must work hard to maneuver through deep snow if they don’t get trapped in a death grip following fly-down from a tree perch. Which isn’t to say they don’t find suitable survival options. Walski said that when the going got tough, New Hampshire’s turkeys closed in on civilization, congregating around barnyards, backyard bird feeders and plowed driveways and parking lots near food sources.

Although I didn’t personally witness such winter flocks here in the Happy Valley, I wouldn’t hesitate to say it was no different; however, I must admit I’m a little concerned about the disappearance of turkeys I’m accustomed to seeing in my neighborhood. I have yet to see so much as a turkey track in my springtime travels, which has never before happened in 18 years living at my current Greenfield address. Yet, still, I’m supremely confident I wouldn’t have to travel far to find them. Thus I’m predicting another state record by the time all the cards are counted after this year’s four-week season.

As for the other housecleaning project, I give thanks to MassWildlife Turkey Project Leader David Scarpitti, with whom I traded emails and spoke on the phone this week about a subject I covered a month or so back about a turkey disease experts are tracking in the East. The column, titled “Scabby mess,” was based on Internet research of many articles written about a virus with the acronym LPDV, which, apparently, I confused with another turkey disease known as Avian Pox. According to Scarpitti, “Some birds with LPDV also are contracting Avian Pox, which is often the scaly, scabby lesions you are seeing. LPDV more commonly presents with internal issues.”

So, what I wrote a while back may have been a little misleading. This should set the record straight.

Meanwhile, Scarpitti added that, despite the fact that the diseases have infiltrated Massachusetts and been detected in all our neighboring states: “Without any definitive proof, it’s tough to say how meaningful they are to the turkey population. It seems that they are strong and thriving in most places, suggesting that these diseases are not greatly influencing abundance. I’d say the outlook at this point across all the Northeast is that it’s something biologists are aware and watchful of, but at this point it doesn’t seem to be of great concern. Of course, there is substantial research being conducted on the topic. So more is being learned every year.”

I guess it’s no wonder that the folks I’ve polled in Franklin/Hampshire County hot spots are reporting only healthy turkeys displaying no signs of illness. But consider this little disclaimer from my observant, cerebral Maine brother-in-law, who has seen scabby turkeys on his acreage, but not this spring.

“I’m assuming that any birds which went into the winter sick didn’t survive,” he speculated.
So I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens come summer and fall.”

Stay tuned.