The Vermont Way

Approaching noon Wednesday, three hen turkeys peacefully feed on grasses, flowers and bugs in the hayfield down the road. Barren hens with grey-brown heads, they seem content without broods to tend. Despite losing their eggs or broods to nasty, snarling Mother Nature, the hens appear no worse for the wear, displaying not a hint of melancholia. Grieving is a human emotion, not for wild creatures who accept nature’s ways.

Busy, with a wee-hours Boston trip looming to beat the weekday traffic to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the sight of those turkeys in that field I pass several times daily spins me back a few weeks to an extended visit by my sister-in-law from Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom – home of hippies, rednecks and, well, I guess you’d call them libertarians, some maybe even of a peculiar anarchist ilk, the primitive, uneducated, angry type. Bernie may have carried the hardscrabble polls up there but, trust me, The Donald got plenty of votes as well. Of that, I’m confident. Have you ever spent any time in Island Pond? No? Well, check it out. You’ll get a good sampling of Northeast Kingdom culture. Then, of course, there’s always Glover and its Bread and Puppet Circus, populated by an altogether different breed of cat. Though you can never be certain what to expect up there, more times than not, you’re dealing with rugged individuals, whether they’re wearing peace symbols, wampum pendants, Confederate flags or swastikas. Honestly, I’ve seen them all.

Anyway, Jan and Tom keep a garden and a couple of cottages in a little East Haven Sixties community called “Lost Nation,” nestled high atop a mountain just north of the Burke Mountain Ski Resort. In laid-back conversation one afternoon, we touched upon turkeys and I was quite surprised to learn they’re now common in Lost Nation. Shocking!

“Where do they winter?” I inquired, knowing that 15 feet of snow and 40-below-zero weather is the norm up there. “They must find silage piles down along the river flats, huh?”

“No,” she answered. “They stay right up on top. We see their tracks all winter out around the garden and in the woods. They seem to make it through just fine.”

Interesting. Perhaps just one more clear sign that our planet is indeed warming, no matter what Comrade Trump says; because this much I can say with confidence – wild turkeys were not found in East Haven, Vt., in the days of Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys. One hundred and fifty years earlier, when Europeans started settling coastal New England in the 1620s, there were massive flocks of wild turkeys populating southern New England, ranging up as far north as southern Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. But you would not have found them high in the Green and White Mountains, and not in the Northeast Kingdom, either. Turkeys are a new phenomenon up there in northern climes.

Now, were you to speculate that historically there were turkeys in the lower Champlain Valley, well, maybe. I could see that. Perhaps there were even some in the northern Champlain Valley, say, up around Shelburne or Middlebury, where fertile plains are warmed by lake effect. Not the higher elevations of Green Mountain and White Mountains ski country, and the cold country and deep snows of the Northeast Kingdom, though? Uh-uh. Can’t see it. Not then. Now they’re definitely there, though, and, in Northeast Kingdom vernacular you’re apt to hear in the Concord convenience store, “They ain’t going nowhere, neither, ayuh.”

Folks like sister-in-law Jan are happy to have them. She says she’s learned about flock talk and gobbling and roosting trees, and loves to watch the hens and their broods skirting her when working out in the vegetable garden. She’s also learned an awful lot about ruffed grouse that live around her small orchard and are always moving about and uttering interesting sounds along the margins of her clearing.

Then again, not all Lost Nation critters are harmless. Jan raises chickens and has from time to time had problems with fisher cats and weasels and minks and raccoons and black bears … big black bears you wouldn’t want to irritate. A case in point occurred just this week. Having been away for the weekend, Tom and Jan went to their tranquil mountain retreat on Monday to garden and relax. When they broke through the woods into their clearing, they sensed trouble in the air and, sure enough, a telltale henhouse sign: a missing four-light window. Upon closer inspection, the window had been smashed and broken through by a bear that made quick work of their chickens. Bears will do that when hungry, necessitating a little annoying carpentry and a trip to the feed store or a neighbor’s for a fresh flock of chickens.

“Oh well,” says a back-to-the-earth Sixties man like Tom, who fled the Big Apple for the hinterlands 50 years ago, committed to “Living the Good Life” championed by Scott and Helen Nearing. “Just think of the problems I could have brought upon myself by staying in New York.”

Yeah, Dude, I hear you loud and clear. No comparison to a bear in the henhouse. That’s for sure. At least up there in the People’s Republic of Vermont, where they’re still feeling the Bern after getting burned big time, you can inhale without getting ill. And now they’ve even got turkeys to humor them.

Can’t beat that.

Nature Reigns

The Buck Moon has passed and tiny green apples are already finding their way to the ground. My dogs stop to find and eat them in shin-high grass. Figuring it’s a nutritious digestion aid, I myself search, picking up the largest, removing their stems, feeding some to the dogs on the spot and carrying a handful away to intermittently feed them on the final leg back to the truck.

It’s a glaring reminder that soon the wetlands will be splashed with bright colors of goldenrod and purple loosestrife, and — Horrors! — I’ll hear that haunting beep-beep-beep of the dump truck backing up to the backyard woodshed. Honestly, I can’t say I ever looked forward to that sound signaling imminent chores. But as I age, I must admit my reaction is trending toward dread.

Anyway, since suggesting last week that many hen turkeys lost their first nests to cool, wet spring weather, many confirmatory comments have come this way by email, telephone and convenience-store chatter. Then again, just Tuesday, a hopeful email report with accompanying photos arrived. So, as the observations keep coming, we’ll have to reserve judgment regarding a final assessment, but it does appear that many first nests are no longer with us.

Similar to last week when Conway pal Bill Gokey chimed in with concerns that he had not seen a poult in his Shirkshire neighborhood, where spring sightings are common, if not abundant, things changed quickly this week. If you recall, a few hours after his initial observation, Gokey fired off another email to report a sighting. This week is no different. Having sat down Tuesday morning to compose a first draft of this column recounting turkey sightings by me and my neighbors, spontaneous changes occurred fast. First, old friend Kevin Wesoloski, a devoted hunter and expert turkey-caller, sent photos of a Conway hen with 13 poults. Accompanying the shots was a short note reading, “Hey Bags, Mother Nature was nice to a few!”

When I responded that they appeared small for this time of year and queried whether he thought the birds could be a brood from a second nesting, he replied, “First week of June is normal hatch time, but I’ve seen them as early as mid-May and have seen little puffballs in August, so these are probably just a later hatch from a first-year hen.”

On my way to work an hour or two later, right there in a field I pass several times daily, and where I had the previous two days observed five jakes feeding, sure enough, a hen and two poults. There could have been more poults, but I saw only two, heads low, feeding, likely on bugs. They were the first little ones I’ve encountered in my neighborhood since early June, when my dogs flushed five or six that were much larger than Tuesday’s brood. So, definitely this week’s birds are from a later or second nest. Maybe they had been chased out of adjacent hayfields that had been harvested this week (see below).

Backing up a bit, the prevailing wisdom for weeks now has been that we endured a poor spring nesting season complicated by cold, wet weather. Like me, people coming into the week reported many adult-turkey sightings but few if any poults. Just this week, I had seen those five jakes feeding in a scalped hayfield. At first, I thought, “Gee, I hope that’s then hen and five or six little ones Chub-Chub flushed about a month ago, not a half-mile away.” Then, after pondering it, I concluded, “No, too big. It was way too early for there to be no clear size-distinction between hen and poults.” Sure enough, later that day I saw the same birds again, closer, and could see they were red-heads with little beards protruding like an artist’s brush bristles from their breasts.

Last week, a neighbor and colleague inquired at work as to whether I had seen the hen turkey and her little brood in the identical freshly hayed field. I had seen the hen a couple of times, feeding back along the bordering tree line, but no little ones. Maybe they were out of sight in the woods and I missed them. I asked if they could have been the same group I had flushed from a nearby chest-high hayfield in early June? No. He didn’t think so. In his opinion, the poults he saw last week were too small to fly. A farmer familiar with turkey broods, he said he was surprised the birds he had seen survived that day’s mowing of the field. Hmmmmm? Maybe some did perish. Either that or they were lucky little critters, out of harm’s way at a perilous moment.

This week, the same colleague had additional observations that came to me second-hand from his father, who hayed his western fields extending back to the base of Greenfield Mountain. That whole plain is “POSTED” turkey country, and he ran into broods of young birds for which he had to stop his tractor, jump off and flush them out of harm’s way.

“My Dad joked that he’s teaching the little ones to fly,” chuckled my desk mate, whose latest neighborhood report suggests a late or second nesting. Birds from a typical first nest would have been flying a month ago and by now fully capable of escaping the danger of farm equipment and predators alike.

On a related, curiosity-piquing note, the same haying farmer had another interesting observation, this one pertaining to field mice. When cutting hay over the years, he’s grown accustomed to watching mice flee from his tractor into the uncut part of the hayfield. Then, as he reduces the second half of the field, the mice have no choice but to scamper out across the scalped field, where they become easy prey for opportunistic hawks, coyotes and fox, which have learned to interpret the sights and sounds of haying equipment as a come-and-get-it dinner bell. For some reason this year, the man has noticed far fewer mice. He wonders why.

Hmmmm? Could it be that the cold, rainy spring that did a job on immature turkeys also did a mortality number on mice nests, too? Maybe so. But it’s also a fact that gray, wet, low-pressure days are scent-enhancers for gundogs, and such days also improve scenting conditions for foraging predators like foxes, skunks, raccoons, coyotes and you name, all of which could detect and make quick work of mice nests.

Fun indeed are the twists, turns and mysteries of nature.

Deer, Turkeys And Deaf Ears

It’s early summer and wildlife sightings are coming at me like bugs at a streetlamp.

One, emanating from an old South Deerfield friend of my late sons, Gary and Rynie, reported five nice whitetail bucks in velvet feeding and enjoying each other’s company in a lush, clover-laced hayfield. “Is that unusual?” he wrote. “We’re not used to seeing five bucks together like that.”

No, not unusual. Early summer is a time when bucks, even dominant rivals, maybe twin brothers, will hang out together while does are focused on raising fawns. The bucks will remain friendly through summer and into early fall, at which time the dynamic changes dramatically during the breeding season or “rut,” when competing bucks spar to establish territory and breed does. Then, after the rut in winter, they become   buddies again.

The first and only buck in velvet I’ve seen thus far was feeding on the side of Greenfield Road in Montague. I caught him eating fresh green grass above the retaining wall on the new section of road one Friday afternoon three weeks ago on my way to the Bookmill, Sunderland and South Deerfield.

Standing tall, straight, alert and still, head raised high, that buck’s antlers already stood twice as long as his ears and may have been forked. I can’t say for sure. Couldn’t concentrate on him with a  car coming down the hill toward me. My guess is that his antlers were relatively new and may sprout a few points on both sides before they’ve matured.

Curiously, I have not yet seen a velvet buck  in my own neighborhood, where they seem to have avoided me on foot and wheeled travels, day and night. That doesn’t mean they aren’t around. I pick up fresh deer tracks daily — some large but not any fawn tracks, the size of a quarter, yet. The prints I’m finding seem fresh indeed on my morning walks through an infant cover crop of rye, and my dogs’ reaction often confirms my suspicion.

Sunday morning about 11, Chub-Chub stopped suddenly, stood alert, nose high along the thick edge of an escarpment dropping down into a swamp, and gave out a little playful yip of a bark before I heard a large animal flee. He broke through and went after it before I called him back. He responded, returned quickly, all jacked up, but I never went to the escarpment lip to investigate the wetland below. I assumed from his reaction that it was a deer. It must have been bedded in the shade. Could have been a coyote, I suppose, but I doubt it.

Keith Bardwell of West Whately sent the photo of a fawn he discovered during wood-cutting chores a couple of weeks ago. “I came close to stepping on it,” he wrote in a short email that arrived Monday. “I had cut the tree the previous day. When I came back the next day, hidden in the brush was this fawn. I took the picture about 5 to 6 feet away and went about cutting and splitting 30 or 40 feet away for an hour. It never moved.”

Which makes me wonder how many invisible fawns I’ve passed on my daily rambles, be it plowing through chest-high hayfields, before they were scalped, teddered and baled, or walking along the many dense wetland borders I skirt.

In recent years, I’ve encountered big, antlered, midmorning bucks standing still and hidden along the edges. These smart, clever animals play a game of chicken with me, hoping I’ll pass without seeing them, only to get spooked when my dogs scurry too close. A fawn hidden like the one shown in Bardwell’s photo won’t move. It’s almost certain that I’ve passed a few, undetected, in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, I’m not seeing broods of wild-turkey poults, just a barren hen that my dogs have flushed several times over the past two weeks. I can always tell when Chub-Chub catches wind of her. He carries his head high and bounces as though springing off of four pogo sticks, before busting through the dense border, popping out down the way, and aggressively circling, darting and searching. I never know quite when, where or if the flush will finally occur, but sometimes I eventually I hear that telltale “putt-putt-putt” and whooshing wings before seeing flashes of pursuing white — Chubby and Lily — in dogged chase. It’s just a game, maybe even for the turkey, too. Hide and seek. Catch me if you can. Kid’s stuff.

Old pal Bill Gokey of Conway’s Shirkshire section near the Ashfield line often chimes in to report wildlife sightings or nature observations around his hilltown spread. His latest email arrived Tuesday afternoon. He’s worried about the crop of immature wild turkeys: “Lots of deer, bobcats and bear. Adult turkeys are everywhere, but I haven’t seen a poult, not one, so far this year. Cold rain early, maybe?”
Yes, entirely possible, especially given what I’ve been seeing in my own neighborhood. Obviously, not an ideal spring for hatchlings, nestlings or fledglings. But why worry? Mother Nature has a way of managing things far better than human beings can. Last year was a great year for nest survival. This year, not so good. Cool and wet, which can wipe out nests with pneumonia. It all evens out in the end.

Too bad we refuse to similarly allow forest ecosystems to manage themselves. They’re capable of it, you know. Cutting-edge forestry experts and deep ecologists claim our woods would be much better off left alone than they are under entrenched management initiatives that view forests as tree farms — economic commodities to be harvested for timber in 80-year cycles. The status quo committed to tired, old forest-management policy doesn’t want to hear new, progressive voices. I witnessed that reality up close and personal at a private presentation in Charlemont about a month ago, aimed at countering overwhelming “official support” for the much-publicized Mohawk Trail Woodland Partnership (MTWP) initiative. The meeting was crashed by uninvited local MTWP promoters who basically shouted down speaker Michael Kellett, calling him unfair and biased and eliminating any hopes of open and honest post-presentation discussion.

Sad. Would it hurt to listen to opposing views?

Oh yeah, back to turkey poults, a few hours after Gokey chimed in with his dire report about the status of this year’s crop, he sent an email update: “Ironic that I said no poults. An hour after I emailed you, I saw a hen a two newly hatched little ones,” he wrote. “Maybe a second go round?”

Yes indeed. That’s what it sounds like. Not unusual after turkeys lose their first broods. The problem is that these late arrivals enter winter a little smaller, younger and weaker and can be susceptible to mortality. Of course, Mother Nature can overcome that, too, if you let her.

The Season Of Plenty

Looks like it’ll be a great year for raspberries. Blueberries, too, if my own are any indication.

That’s what I was telling the woman ringing up my morning purchase of lettuce, radishes, cukes, beet greens, zucchini and summer squash earlier this week. Oh, how I love the season of berries and vegetables and fruits, the good stuff for those who want to eat healthy.

As we’re chatting, a smiling customer done paying joined in with a cautionary comment about raspberries.

“Yeah, they’re good alright, if the birds don’t get ’em first.”

“Well, the birds do eat them,” I responded. “Can’t deny that. But there’s always enough to go around.”

He wasn’t satisfied. Wanted to know more.

“Where do you live?”

“Just up the road, 714 feet from a better place called Shelburne.”

“Oh, then maybe the bears will get them.”

“Could be. There are bears around, but they’ve never given me any problems.”

It was the perfect opportunity to share with the man a different development on the home front. For the past couple of years, I’ve had woodchucks living under my backyard woodshed that extends into the crawl space below my home’s western wing. Woodchucks have spring litters that show their faces in June. Last year my grandsons were interested to watch six little ones feeding on clover and grasses through the back dining-room window at various times of day. This year there are only five — cute little buggers at that. Various sizes and shades of brown, they rarely venture far from safety under the woodshed.

Some claim woodchucks raise hell with their vegetable and flower gardens, which is not a personal concern, even though my wife claims she did lose parsley to the little critters last year. Aaah, I guess I can live with that. Just stay away the basil I use with my heirloom Sicilian sauce tomatoes, please.

The man I was speaking to  (I never asked his name or gave mine during our spontaneous conversation) wasn’t finished.

“Woodchucks are good eatin’, ya know,” he added. “They eat grasses and plants and the meat is quite good. Most people probably don’t know that. My brother-in-law used to prepare woodchuck and I tasted it. You’d be surprised. It’s good.”

No, actually, it wasn’t surprising. I’ve sampled woodchuck at game suppers and have often seen ancient calcined (roasted) woodchuck bones listed among remains discovered in archaeological refuse pits around Native American cooking hearths and village sites.

I’m sure I’d eat woodchuck if I fell on hard times, am certain tender young little critters, sauteed, would be tasty indeed. But for now, well, I think I’ll pass, enjoy their company and introduce them to the grandsons next time they visit.

I think the kids would find the concept of eating such a thing repulsive. I guess most would these days. And they call that progress? Well, maybe so. Depends on how you view it. Some would tell you we’re headed in the wrong direction on that score?

I tend to agree.

 

*****

 

Little to report on the anadromous fish-migration front.

As predicted last week, with Connecticut River temperatures in the 70s and the various spawning rituals well underway, the annual spring run is over. Finished. A new cycle has begun.

Although it was a great year for American shad, that evaluation goes only so far as Turners Falls, known to some as Powertown, where conservation and ecology take a backseat to power production. The power industry, no matter what it proclaims at power-point presentations or writes in rhetorical press releases, is no friend to American shad instinctively aimed for Bellows Falls, Vt., their deep-history terminus.

Indians knew the importance of the waterfalls between Bellows Falls and Walpole, N.H. They traveled  there each spring to gather and process fish, and at some point many moons ago decorated the stone river outcroppings with petroglyphs that symbolize their fishing activities. Did the images have something to say about the end of the road for shad, and the valuable food source they provided indigenous people after a long, barren winter? Were there hints in the imagery saluting Atlantic salmon for overcoming powerful rapids to reach upriver spawning grounds? Probably the answer is yes and yes. All of the above.

In the meantime, listen to wise words of ubiquitous, pedal-powered, political gadfly Karl Meyer, a local activist whose attacks on greedy power companies never wane. He writes about what he calls the Turners Falls dead-reach, where anadromous fish — including his pet shortnose sturgeon — come to die. He’ll speak to you on the town common, the Post Office, in the market or on the radio about power companies using a public resource for private gain while failing to hold up their obligations to optimize fish passage at their dams.

OK, OK, It’s true that Holyoke dam’s fish lift is efficient, passing nearly 540,000 shad this year, second most all-time. But what reasonable excuse is there to justify the fact that most are unable to get past Turners Falls? There is none, other than the greed of bottom-line devotion. As our electric bills continue to rise, anadromous fish continue to languish in the Powertown backwash. It’s gotten to the point where they don’t even count the fish passing through Turners anymore. Why. Because the numbers are pathetic, the passage facilities pitifully inadequate.

Who’s there to defend the river and the fish in the dam-relicensing process currently underway? Fishermen and women who frequent the river for walleye, bass, shad and you name it between the Turners Falls dam and the Gen. Pierce Bridge aren’t typically activists or articulate public speakers capable of delivering an impassioned message at public hearings scheduled for citizen input. No. The only articulate voices are those from the commercial whitewater community, which screams for regulations favorable to strong flows that buoy their profits. But do these people give a hoot about anglers? Truth told, absolutely not, no matter what they say. What they want is river flows conducive to wild, splashy, photogenic rides through the rapids, not favorable fish migration or spawning unless their whitewater flows happen to be compatible.

In the end, it seems that commercial interests always win out, and fishermen and women are left to sweep up the windblown crumbs, which are not fulfilling.

Sad but true. If you don’t believe it, ask Karl Meyer. He’s real and he’s committed … that and ridiculed as irrelevant by the bloated, belching captains of industry.

Nature’s Ways

Nature’s riddles and mysteries can at times really get your wheels spinning. Then again, when you stay active, probe the intricacies of place, and ponder all the possibilities, well, doesn’t such bewilderment keep life worth living?

A case in point is my recent avoidance of a nesting sanctuary along a Green-River floodplain bordered on the west by a slim wetland lip of alder, poplar, wild rose, cattail and much more. This strip of marsh terminates at a steep 20-foot escarpment, undercut in places, where large beech, hickory, maples and oaks reach south and east, forming a solid, narrow tree line framing the upper shelf. On that roadside terrace stand hayfields, a couple of  greenhouses and a small commercial vegetable garden, with a string of homes across the street .

I wrote recently of two close encounters I had with birds whose nests my dogs had disturbed, and vowed to skirt the area until the nestlings and fledglings became “upwardly mobile,” so to speak. I have learned that it isn’t long before these helpless little creatures can fly from danger and easily elude my alert gundogs as they romp toward damp, enticing  scents through tall grasses.

Since my last mention of this topic, I have not seen hide nor hair, not so much as a downy woodcock breast feather. They’re around. Of that, I’m confident. But we have not bumped into them since the day Lily flushed the hen, who tantalized her and Chub-Chub away from a vulnerable nest by flying low and teasingly slow. A few days later, maybe 100 yards south of this nest, another nest-disturbance occurred. Cubby was the joyous culprit this time, flushing a big, putt-putt-putting hen turkey, who, similar to her small timberdoodle neighbor, craftily drew the dog away from her nest with low, slow flight uncharacteristic of adult turkeys that are not protecting young.

Because I do not keep a daily journal, it’s difficult to pinpoint the day, but late last week, probably noontime Friday, truck in sight as I approached the final left turn of my daily mile-and-some walk, all hell broke loose in a place where similar commotion has presented itself in the past. I was first alerted  by a telltale “putt-putt-putt” and a whoosh of wings, and there she was: a hen turkey on the upper level, some 400 or 500 yards north of my first  encounter. Again, Chub-Chub had sniffed her out and — Oh, my! — was he fired up. His adrenaline only soared when five or six little ones subsequently took flight into the eastern tree line about 10 yards away. Chubby sprinted after the low-flying hen, heading toward a distant bend in the river and totally ignoring the little ones that had perched in an oak. The mother’s strategy had worked to perfection against a world-class flush-and-retriever, who my buddy Cooker claims has “a big pump,” meaning heart … and tireless endurance.

I called Chub-Chub and Lily off, walked 100 yards to the truck parked behind a greenhouse, boxed-up the dogs and returned home, certain I would get to know this family of birds much better in the weeks to come. But now, after consecutive sightings on Tuesday and Wednesday, I’m not so sure.

First, before noon Tuesday, nearing the end of our daily journey not 20 yards from my truck, Chubby flushed a putting hen out of the tall, dense hayfield and chased her to the back corner, where she disappeared over the tree line.

Hmmmm? Where were the little ones? Crouched, concealed and ready burst into flight from the deep hayfield? Dead? Then again, maybe we were dealing with a different hen? No way of knowing. Perplexing indeed.

Next morning, around 11 Wednesday, I arrived at my walking place and the farmer was working the field in his tractor, teddering windrows of hay he had cut the previous evening. I parked out of the way in a different location and took the dogs on an abbreviated romp in dry, breezy  summer  air. We looped the perimeter of the lower meadow and returned to the truck, where the dogs jumped into their porta-kennels. Well, truthfully, I helped geriatric lion-heart Lily, but don’t tell anyone. She’s not proud of it.

I fired-up the truck and followed a double-rutted trail down the edge of the scalped hayfield toward the road. Crossing a little rise with loose hay lying on the ground, shockingly, about 100 yards south of where Chubby had flushed that Tuesday hen, up came another, or maybe the same, less than 10 feet in front of my front right wheel. She must have been crouched  flat, hoping I’d pass without incident. No such luck. I would have run her over had she not flown.

The big bird flew the same path the previous day’s bird had flown — heading diagonally to the back corner near a friend’s riverside home.

Hmmm? Was it the  same hen I had seen the previous day? The same one I had seen the previous week with five or six little ones? A different, barren hen? You tell me. I have no answers.

Time will tell. I do hope those little ones I avoided for a week or two didn’t fall prey to something. I’m anxious  to meet them again. If not, oh well, that’s life.  Nature can be kind …  cruel and unforgiving, too.

 

*****

 

Sing farewell to the 2017 Connecticut River American shad run. It’s over. Now starts the fun.

Later this summer, millions of progeny will populate the river, providing a great food source for foraging predators that’ll take many but not nearly enough to devastate future runs. Again, Mother Nature doing what she does. No supervision required.

Water temperature at Holyoke reached 72 degrees this week. The run starts to slow down about 68, signaling that it’s time to establish spawning lairs, where immature fish that will return to the river as adults in two to five years are hatched.

This year’s run through Holyoke was No. 2 all-time. The 535,936 thus far counted passing the Barrett Fishway was surpassed only by 1992’s total of 721,000-plus. All said, the fellas had a great year of shad fishing. Unless I’m missing something, the future seems bright indeed on the shad front.

How about that! Finally, we’re concentrating on the anadromous fish run that matters and always has mattered  here in the valley. Shad should be the focus of recreational-fishing initiatives, not Atlantic salmon, the king of game fish which have been doomed since the Little Ice Age ended and the Industrial-Revolution began.

Most interesting is that there were always minority New England fisheries biologists who predicted the Connecticut River salmon-restoration program’s demise. As it turns out, they were right, which didn’t save them from being rudely drowned out by true-believer colleagues shouting them down at meetings.

“Silence!” true-believers  would roar as they slipped on their black, opaque blinders. “We don’t want to hear it.”

And hear it they didn’t for 50 pathetic years, when top dogs had the audacity to plead with the press to “Ignore the numbers because they don’t matter.”

Sounds good, but where did that get them?

The rest is history, nothing ventured, nothing gained the best justification.

In the meantime, 16 lonely salmon were counted in the river this year. That’s 11 more than last year, and probably about what we can expect until they stop coming entirely. Then again, maybe a new  wild salmon will magically appear for future anglers.

Yeah, right. Maybe.

Don’t hold your breath waiting. Salmon restoration in our fertile valley was doomed from the start. There were just too many factors pulling against it, as the captains of industry gave their heartfelt, public pledges to do everything in their power to make it happen. Everything, that is, except threaten the bottom line.

Anadromous Countdown

As the spectacular strawberry moon wanes in the midnight sky, the sweet scent of wild rose fills the meadow, pink weigelas are in full, fragrant bloom, and mock oranges are opening their buds to white blossoms, adding another subtle dimension of spring sweetness.

Yes, signs abound of a slow spring transitioning into summer, including a slowdown of anadromous-fish runs up the Connecticut River basin, to be expected this time of year. Numbers released on Tuesday morning, when the lift on Holyoke’s Barrett Fishway was closed due to high, turbulent river flow, indicate it has been a great year for the annual American shad run, and a surprising yet largely insignificant season for Atlantic-salmon migration.

On Tuesday, the river temperature was still low for this time of year, lingering just under 65, which is a bit surprising given the hot days and warm nights for three or four days beginning over the weekend. The wild card in the formula is the water volume in the Connecticut, which is taking substantial runoff from heavy rains up and down the watershed. Once the river settles down, the water temperature should rapidly rise, with sunny days and warm nights forecast through today. Then it looks like extended wet, overcast weather is on the way, which could delay shad spawning if the river remains under 68 or so degrees.

There was no word from Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle by Wednesday evening, so it’s likely there was no change with continued shutdown of the Holyoke lift. When you have tracked these annual anadromous fish runs as long as I have, you learn to expect reliable patterns coming down the stretch. It’s all water-temperature driven. Once the river reaches shad-spawning temps, the shad run halts and the shad begin selecting spawning lairs, unaffected from that point forward by water-temperature-reducing rains.

So, take it to the bank: come hell or high water, the most-recent shad-passage numbers through Holyoke (505,580) do not figure to grow much. That said, 505,000-plus through that traditional counting station is a big number by recent standards; in fact, the highest total since 721,000-plus in 1992. That number is obviously out of reach, but it’s not out of the question that we’ll approach or even pass the other two top-three runs through Holyoke, 528,000-plus in 1983 and 523,000-plus in 1991. It probably won’t happen but definitely could with a heavy pulse of fish passage the day the gates open.

It seems overall that things are looking up in recent years on the shad front, and recreational anglers are the beneficiaries. Word has it that the fishing at Holyoke, Turners Falls and points in between has been awesome, and probably still is today at sites like Rock Dam in Montague City. That’ll all stop rapidly as soon as the spawning ritual begins. Shad running to upstream spawning lairs are likely to strike shiny, colorful attractant lures out of surly aggression, and have a lot of current-aided fight in them once the hook is set and the battle ensues. That’s what brings out anglers in droves.

Big shad weigh seven to 10 pounds. The average is probably more like three to five. Many folks ask if they’re good eating, and the answer is, yes, if you know how to prepare them. Boney and labor intensive to remove the scales, I have sampled smoked, canned shad as finger food that’s excellent with crackers or mixed into noodles and rice. Taste it and you’d think it’s salmon but is of a whitish-brown hue, not pink. The best I ever tasted was prepared by South Deerfield native Tony Plaza, a well-known high school basketball official from Hatfield, not to mention an avid fisherman in his day. I attended a couple of sportsmen’s functions at which his smoked shad laid out on a large platter was a hit on the hors d’oeuvres-table.

The shad counts through Turners Falls and Vernon, Vt., are not even worth reporting because they’re so dated. The last report through the Powertown was 28,500-plus on June 2. The last Vernon report showed 10,600-plus had passed, through May 26.

As for salmon, well, thus far 14 have been counted in the river system, almost three times last year’s figure of five. Eight of those fish were counted passing Holyoke. The rest were tracked on the Salmon (1) and Farmington (1) rivers in Connecticut and the Westfield River (4) here in the Pioneer Valley. One salmon has been monitored passing Turners Falls, and two have been seen passing Vernon.

The only other number that sticks out on Tuesday morning’s report is the lamprey eel count, which stood at a paltry 14,793, less than half of last year’s average total of 36,914. Not that anyone fishing the river misses the orange-colored eels swimming between their waders, but there was a day when many more migrated up the river. The modern-era record is 97,000-plus in 1998. The 42-year mean is 33,540.

Nesting Season

Sunday morning, after 8, sunny sky, still air. I’m driving between fields to a fork in the road south of my Greenfield Meadows home. There, in a calm, waist-high hayfield, stands a thin, healthy, mature doe, tail slowly twitching from side to side as she feeds toward the woods less than 100 yards west.

It’s an unusual sighting for that time of day. Deer typically reserve such open-field foraging for nighttime, enveloped in darkness, shiny eyes the only hint of their presence to passersby. I pass that field many times daily and rarely catch a deer feeding in broad daylight. So, yes, this blatant variable suggests to me that the deer may have fawns concealed nearby and is out replenishing nutrition to build her milk supply.

Don’t let May and early June’s April-like weather fool you. The smell of clover and wildflowers is in the air. It’s nesting season. I’ve been on the lookout lately during my daily mindful meanderings with the dogs, the animals so picturesque and graceful as they bound through tall hayfields due to be harvested whenever they dry. Which reminds me. Six-year-old Chub-Chub — my male English springer spaniel, registered as Old Tavern Farm’s Rabble Rouser — has his first litter on the ground. Yes, five beautiful white and liver pups of aristocratic field-trial pedigree will be 3 weeks old Friday, secure in their kitchen whelping pen with nursing mother Cinda in Florence.

Last week, I wrote about spry, geriatric Lily flushing a woodcock hen from her marshy nest. Days before, the same 13-year-old bitch I had written off a year ago was lagging behind as she always does, scouring the meadows for scent when I gave her a whistle. She soon appeared, racing gleefully around the one-acre, upper Christmas-tree farm’s northeast corner some 50 yards east of me. Maybe 50 feet shy of me, she stopped on a dime, lifted her head into the breeze and lunged into the edge before I could react. She dug her head into the brush and I heard the telltale sound of a distressed baby robin, which she killed instantly, intending to devour it.

“Leave it,” I ordered.

Lily just stood there looking at me, a few feathers protruding from one side of her mouth, the bird beyond saving. She dropped it and I picked the wet, limp creature up, snapping off its head in case it had not expired, and tossing it over the escarpment edge. I was not happy but accepted what had unfolded before my eyes as an unfortunate act of nature that prematurely ends many young critters’ lives. I called off the dogs and proceeded along our daily path. I regretting the death of that young bird, which, to be honest, I poignantly thought about several times over the next few days.

Days later, at an adjacent site along the lower level I call “Sunken Meadow” — in fact, on the very day after my tale of Lily’s woodcock flush hit the street — I was turning the corner 50 yards south of that woodcock nest when the silence was broken by sudden commotion. I heard a sharp “Putt, putt, putt,” a rustling of brush and whooshing wings. Chub-Chub had flushed a hen turkey from her nest some 20 feet to my right. The big bird flew low toward the same oak knoll along the swampy tree line that the woodcock had fled to. Chubby, in aggressive pursuit, saw the turkey glide gracefully into the largest red oak on the knoll, rooted on its western tip. The bird perched maybe 30 feet high as Chubby raced through perimeter cattails to the base of the tree, tail wagging, looking up. I whistled him back and he raced straight to the flush site, circling it, ears alert. I called him off.

Ever since, I have skirted that wet corner to avoid further conflict. Why disturb a fledgling nest? I’d hate to encounter the need to save a pathetic little nestling retrieved by Chubby or Lily. Once I know that the little ones are out of their nest, off and running and able to fly, I don’t give them a second thought.

Actually, I’ve been hoping to pop a doe out of her brushy nest one of these days. I know the dogs will be interested but will not harm little spotted fawns. No, they’d just perk up their ears, excitedly wag their tails and attempt to play with the little critters much in the manner fawns play with each other — prancing and hopping and running in snappy, little, light-footed circles. I know I’ll soon be running into river ducklings and goslings, turtles and snakes and frogs along the edges, probably even dead little rabbits and baby birds killed by my cat, Kiki, around the yard. I can’t say I enjoy the sight of what’s left of those pathetic little bunnies and birdies, but I guess I’m hardened to death, accepting it as a distressing inevitability.

Although spring’s a time of birth and life and optimism, even nesting season is laced with death and destruction, natural and manmade. There’s nothing anyone can do to stop it? Not a thing. Sad but true.

That’s life.

 

Showtime At Sunken Meadow

It was a gray, wet, low-pressure Tuesday afternoon, about 4 o’clock, and I was wearing light, fast-drying athletic shorts and Classic-Clog Crocs, running the dogs through saturated, waist-high grass.

Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s tick season; and, yes, I have been finding the annoying little buggers lately. Saturday, I even medicated the dogs for the second time this spring. Still, I don’t live in fear of ticks, which I don’t recall ever hearing a word about as a free-range South Deerfield kid. So, I refuse to allow them get in the way of healthy daily exercise for me or my pets. If I find one crawling up my arm, my leg, my face, my neck or wherever, I just kill them, sometimes teasing my nervous wife that the poor critter walking up my arm or across my hand appears cold before I stroll into the dining room to flick it into the hot woodstove. End of story.

Then again, when not fortunate enough to detect one before it digs in and establishes residence — rare for me — I just rip  it free and live with the ugly red mark that remains for weeks, confident the tick wasn’t imbedded for the required 72-hour Lyme disease-incubation period. Knock on wood. It’s always worked for me without a bout  with the potentially debilitating disease.

Enough of that little tick digression, though. I didn’t sit down to write about ticks. I’d rather recount an interesting sighting that made my day soon after swiping my debit card for $712 and change for Tacoma service at  Greenfield Toyota. Needing fresh air and exercise after a dry-docked day indoors, I returned home, put on my knee brace and went out back for the dogs, both of whom were anxious  to ramble.

Down in the bottomland meadow, I passed and evaluated a couple of patches of four-foot ostrich ferns that were, a month or so back, tiny, tender, salubrious-green fiddlehead tendrils … yum. I turned the corner and looked up to the 20-foot escarpment lip, where my friend and I harvested five pounds of beautiful, snow-white oyster mushrooms Friday … yum, yum. I had spotted them growing along a horizontal, red-oak deadfall limb on my walk and knew they were fresh. They had not been there the previous day and had emerged overnight in the rain. When I got home, I phoned my buddy to ask him if oysters came out in the spring. “Yes,” he said, “Absolutely.” In fact, he had visited a couple of his favorite spots that very morning and come up empty. I was willing to share.

I hopped in the truck to pick him up and drive to the site, where the two of us made quick work of harvesting chores, cutting them off at the base with a knife and carrying them back to the truck in two plastic shopping bags. Oh, how I yearned for a package of venison chops to fry in bacon fat and complement them. No such luck. I cut the mushroom into long strips, sautéed them in avocado oil with onions and garlic, and “settled” for sirloin hamburgers with the wild mushrooms, onions and garlic smothered in sharp cheddar cheese. Superb. Venison would have been better. Oh well, deer-hunting is too much work for this old man, who has many other interests to occupy his time.

Ooops. There I go again. This time a mushroom digression. Damn it! Back to my Tuesday ramble with the dogs …

I continued following my path through high, dense grass, passed a couple of wild apple trees that recently lost their white blossoms and took a sharp right around a staghorn-sumac corner toward a small young poplar stand that juts out a short distance into the field. Just three short years ago a small patch of cattails stood there in six inches of beaver backwater. It’s amazing how fast those infant poplars took over. Today, there’s no trace of cattails, just a clump of 3-year-old poplars about 12 feet high. Small, random poplars have begun to appear out among the Christmas trees, which will soon be overtaken if the plot’s neglected.

Approaching these poplars along a narrow, densely vegetated alder swamp bordered by sumacs, Chub-Chub got a noseful of something that revved him up. He noticeably picked up the pace and went into those showy hops of his to elevate his noose over the cover. “Find it!” I said three or four times in an excited tone and, trust me, he knows the drill. In his prime, Chub-Chub was off in a powerful athletic pursuit.

Suddenly Old Mother Lily, 13 and apparently fully recovered from a couple of mini-strokes last year, darted around the sumac corner, well aware of what “Find it!” means. I didn’t know she heard me before she appeared in her excited, hunting gait, nose high, tail joyously  wagging. She was anxious to join the chase and immediately detected the same scent that jacked up Chub-Chub. An old pro, Lily raced forward, stopped on a dime, turned into the breeze and slid quickly through the infant poplars on a straight line into the tangle behind them. In seconds, out came the most colorful, beautiful, long-beaked woodcock hen, slowly and silently flying straight at me. She angled to the right  head-high within five feet of my face and Chubby, 20 yards out in the Christmas trees, caught the flight and took off after her.

As a man who’s seen many woodcock flushes over the years, I have never seen an easier target. Standing right there in my spot, I had an absolute sucker shot, not the typical scenario. Woodcocks typically burst out of a covert in erratic flight, like feathered knuckleballs, presenting difficult targets for novice, impatient wing-shooters. Because woodcocks are scarce compared to my younger days, I no longer kill them. When I did, I knew enough to be patient, waiting for the flush to peak and level off after reaching the apex of its 45-degree ascension. Then, the erratic flight smoothes out into a relatively flat, straightaway shot at a gentlemen’s trap range.

When Lily re-entered the field, the bird and Chub-Chub were out of sight, the dog bounding through tall green cover full speed ahead toward a forested marsh on the meadow’s southern perimeter. Into the trees he thrashed, and out of a dried-up beaver pond flushed that woodcock hen, angling across the open field and hooking left into a slim marsh halfway back to where Lily had flushed her. I knew from her slow and low initial flight that she was tantalizing the dogs to chase her and  pull them away from her ground nest. So I called off the dogs, headed toward the Green River and back to the truck.

Once we were out of earshot, I’m sure that wild wetland game bird returned to her nestlings. By August in the hayfield above, Chub-Chub will be flushing the young timberdoodles  daily, one by one, every last one of them flying back to the treeline overlooking the lower meadow where they were hatched. I saw it happen many times last year and expect a replay with this local brood.

It’s these little things that keep me ticking. The wonders of nature. They brighten my days and lift my wild spirits.

 

*****

 

I took two friends this week to a place where the finest, cold, clean, wooded, native brook trout stream I know runs through a steep, deep, ravine. There,  I often  watched in boyhood amazement as fall squaretails, some very large, accumulated in a settling pool before jumping up the step falls alongside an old sawmill footprint to upstream spawning grounds. Maybe I have been there too early or too late, but I have been to that spot in recent autumns — sometimes shotgun in hand hunting partridge and woodcock while scouting for deer — and  the squaretails have not been there. I wonder what the status of our native trout population there is these days? Has acid rain taken its toll? Are the summer fingerlings still there for the taking  in cool, hard rains? How about the big boys we used to catch in the impoundments, using  Thomas buoyant spoons, Mepps spinners and artificial Mayfly spinners or duns and  Wooly Buggers? Getting in there to assess  the brookie status sounds like a great retirement project, one well worth exploring and writing about. I do hope they’re still there, but suspect it ain’t what it used to be. And guess what else? The good days I remember were probably better when the sawmill was operating, better still before our ancestors  arrived to displace the true and tawny North Americans.

 

*****

 

The Connecticut River shad count has already surpassed last year’s respectable total with more to come. How do I know  the numbers will grow? Because water temperature is still below 65 and  should remain fairly stable with rainy weather and cool nights forecast for the rest of the week. The run typically stops when water temperatures approach  70, which triggers spawning ritual and lair establishment. The river total through Tuesday was 416,108. Last year’ total was 392,057.

Record-Breaking Shad Surge

With turkey season in the rearview, irises bloom, Memorial Day looms and woodstoves limp to the finish line, burning just hot enough to kill the chill as hayfields, soon to harbor newborn fawns, whine for their first cut.

Overall, it’s been a cool May, one that’s apparently excellent  for American shad migrating up the Connecticut River Basin for their annual spring spawning run.

Recent numbers indicate that conditions have never been better for optimal shad runs. On three consecutive days, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, incredible single-day totals passed the Barrett Fishway on the Holyoke Dam. A record-shattering 76,554 were lifted Friday, followed by an all-time second-best 58,544 Saturday. The Thursday record of 55,078 sure didn’t last long. Combined, a total of 190,186 shad passed Holyoke in three days. Amazing! No other three-day run has ever approached it. The fishing in Holyoke has been superb, and should be great here in Franklin County by now, too. So, fellas, clearly it’s time to act now, before it’s too late.

According to rounded-off figures supplied by Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle, the previous best single-day shad run through Holyoke occurred on May 12 last year, when 54,000 were counted. No. 2 all-time was 53,000 on June 14, 1983, a long time ago. The record shows that there have been no other single-day runs reaching 50,000 since counting commenced 50 years ago, in 1967. There are, however, 17 additional daily counts in the 40,000s on record, including Tuesday’s run of 43,455.

Last week’s record runs likely resulted from heavy river flow that has kept the water temperature in the low 60s Fahrenheit, necessitating frequent shutdowns of the Holyoke fish passageways. Such delays temporarily halt migration, accumulating big numbers of fish awaiting  a lift past  Holyoke to upstream spawning lairs. When the river settled down and the lift opened late last week – Bingo! – the shad came like gangbusters, and they’re  still coming in big numbers. In an email from Sprankle that arrived just prior to deadline Wednesday, he reported the aforementioned Tuesday run and a Monday run of  31,481. An incomplete Wednesday total hinted  an approximate 50 percent decrease from the previous day.

Sprankle’s Friday and Monday reports could not hide his enthusiasm. A mid-afternoon Friday email, written after a revealing telephone conversation with the Holyoke fishway supervisor, reported that crews there were “observing the same high passage counts (as Thursday).” The report also noted that “the tailrace and the spillway lift entrances were experiencing ‘full buckets,’ with hopper buckets cycling as fast as they can (every 15 minutes).”

Regarding water temperature, perhaps the key factor in shad and salmon passage, Sprankle reported that a favorable “long-range weather forecast would suggest prime fish-passage conditions for the next week.” So, it’s safe to assume that last year’s run through Holyoke (385,930) is well within reach. Through Tuesday, the number transported upstream there stood at 333,614.

Monday’s report also showed a mere 281 shad had passed Turners Falls and an insignificant two of those fish had made it past Vernon, Vt., and neither of those numbers had changed on Wednesday’s report. Although unreported, those numbers have by now surely increased dramatically. Pressed for time, Sprankle apparently was unable to get new upriver numbers Wednesday. Take it to the bank: for those so inclined, it’s high time to hike down to Rock Dam or other favorite Franklin County shad-fishing sites.

The long-term average for annual shad passage through Holyoke since 1976 is 310,000, with highs of 721,000 in 1992, 528,000 in 1983 and 523,000 in 1991. So we’re already ahead of the 40-year mean this spring.

*****

As for Atlantic salmon, well, 6 stragglers have thus far been reported in the Connecticut River Basin. However, Sprankle reported that “a few more have been lifted, with some being picked up for swim tests at Conte Lab in Turners Falls, including one there now.” Several other salmon have been tagged and released, according to his report. One of those fish passed the Turners Falls Gatehouse Ladder Sunday. Additional salmon may yet appear before this year’s counting stops around the Fourth of July. Although I suppose it’s true that every salmon still matters, the future for this regal game fish in our Connecticut Valley is bleak indeed. Sad but true. And with Cheetos the Clown guarding the national-environmental-policy henhouse these days, the end could arrive sooner than later. Oh my! Can you believe the mess Boob-Tube Nation has gotten itself into?
*****

There’s nothing else really worth reporting about anadromous-fish passage this spring in the Happiest of Valleys but, for the record, here’s what the numbers look like thus far: alewife 86, blueback herring 533, American eel 13, sea lamprey 3,622, striped bass 16, gizzard shad 517 and white sucker 2,002. Question: Where have all the bluebacks gone? Not so long ago, the river swarmed with hundreds of thousands of these small, robust migrants annually. Now, four figures is worthy of celebration.

Tempting Fate

Ominous swords of Damocles have leaned out over my daily path for years — first three, then two, now one; same species, same size, same menacing presence. Yet there we were last Dec. 1, my friend and I, with the help of an aluminum, 24-foot extension ladder, harvesting five pounds of late oyster mushrooms from what is today the last man standing.

I’m speaking of three mature poplar trees with deeply furrowed bark, all of them once standing in solemn, simultaneous silence along the perimeter of a familiar Green River floodplain, all of them girdled around the base by beavers and condemned to slow, tedious death. I knew from the beginning they were doomed to tumble, and have indeed entertained daily caution on my approach. Obviously, if  any of those trees twisted and fell as  I passed, I would  likely  be erased from this planet. But why, I ponder daily while  accelerating  out of harm’s way, would such a tree fall on me? What have I done to deserve such a cruel, random fate? Plus, I guess, I’ve  always tempted the fates and lived to tell about it.

I am reminded of those three threatening amigos when traveling to Montague’s Bookmill or taking the back way to Sunderland and Amherst. On my way down the hill from Poet’s Seat Tower to the Montague City bridge, I pass the flowered, white-cross memorial at the big roadside maple down by the old Kells Farm. There, many moons ago, for reasons beyond human comprehension, that tree decided to shed a muscular overhanging limb onto a passing car, instantly killing the unfortunate, unsuspecting young lady driver. The site to me symbolizes that random tragedy can strike you down from the heavens at any moment. What did that young woman ever do to deserve such a sudden exit? Not a thing. Purely a wrong-place, wrong-time phenomenon. The kind no one chooses or even suspects.

But, let us not digress. Back to my personal conundrum, one that flicks my cranial wheels a whirl daily, and has done so for some 10 years. It all started with a burgeoning beaver colony that eventually passed and left the three ominous, outward-leaning, softwood threats. Two of them, about 10 feet apart at the base and more than a foot wide, leaned out of a marshy backwater over my perimeter path as it neared the lower, southwest corner of a Christmas-tree farm. The other, girdled more recently, was along the riverbank in the opposite northeast corner. I knew that sooner or later, all three would fall out into the tree farm. The question was when and by what force of nature?

Then, maybe five years ago, during a windy, overnight, summer rainstorm, down came one of the big twins in the southwest corner. The deadfall destroyed Christmas trees and necessitated clean-up chores by a hired hand with whom I often spoke. That tree’s partner, girdled shallower, still stands, bark and limbs dropping to the turf now and again. Sooner or later, it too will fall, hopefully when I’m away.

Noontime Tuesday, I’m running a little late due to phone calls and emails discussing an interesting Friday Northampton Meadows archaeological excavation I visited. I’m walking the first leg of my daily ramble with the dogs under cloudy skies, through a lush, shin-high hayfield, the dogs bouncing and looping out in front, heads high in search of scent. Approaching a manure pile and parked farm equipment behind a roadside greenhouse, I notice a young woman sauntering out greet us. I stop to exchange pleasantries and introduce her to Lily and Chub-Chub before wading into a spontaneous political discussion about the sad state of national affairs. Her youth, long black hair, tattooed left shoulder, warm brown eyes and Vermont smile told me she was cool. So, why not engage in brief political/philosophical discourse before parting ways? I am quite familiar with and friendly to Vermonters’ refreshing state of mind. You gotta love it. Why couldn’t Hillary have just stepped aside for Bernie? He would have won.

Our meandering conversation over, and I walk away, take a short path into the upper Christmas trees, circle them and take a deer run through a thin slice of woods between fields, stepping over three strands of grounded barbed-wire. I break into the open and follow the tree-lined upper escarpment edge a couple hundred yards before dropping down into the lower river meadow where poplar danger looms.

I get to the big, girdled poplar in the southwest corner and pass it without incident before swinging east to the riverbank and following a small, rectangular, riverside woodlot, the floor colored green with a deep ostrich-fern shag carpet. About halfway to the northeast corner, near a Christmas tree stripped of its branches last fall by an antlered buck, I notice something out of sorts. The beaver-girdled poplar there has fallen to the ground among Christmas trees, blocking a farm road hugging the edge.

No lie, just the previous day I had stopped and looked into the woods at that familiar tree, examining the trunk all the way to the crown before moving on. Next day, there it is on the ground, broken and battered. I thought it would be the last to go. Not so. Two down. One to go. I do hope that lone wolf soon crashes down to eliminate potential danger.

In fact, I wouldn’t mind being there to see, hear and hopefully not feel the crash.