Thoughts Of Spring

Hallelujah! Spring has sprung. Always welcome.

It’s the time of year when surges of optimism and newfound energy propel  you through your daily rounds, placing  a gleeful hop in your step. In the background are the happy melodies of songbirds celebrating the arrival of mating and nesting season, as vociferous turkeys establish territory with loud, daybreak gobbles from distant hardwood ridges. You can’t miss the sights, sounds and smells of spring, all gleaming harbingers to days of Bermuda shorts, cotton T-shirts and Birkenstocks. What a rush.

Unfortunately, there’s no denying spring can also be  a time of potential mischief and conflict for the young. I know. I lived it. Yes, I  endured many confrontations with classroom disciplinarians who couldn’t teach and could indeed keep you away from the baseball diamond. Then, when you got to play, some coaches were more focused on character-building and discipline and dress codes than fundamentals and winning, a regimen that typically ends badly. To me, the regimented routine was too stifling, providing little wiggle-room for free-spirited enthusiasm. You know that tired old team concept that offers little space for autonomy as everyone wears the same jackets, hats and haircuts, speaks the identical diamond jargon, toes the same authoritarian line with no room for meander. Those days are long behind me. Though I have not forgotten them, I hold no lingering resentment. What did it mean? It’s history. You only live once. Why dwell on the negative? I had my day, had my fun, moved on and have not missed it a bit. Honest.

Spring, to me, always signaled fishing free-flowing streams away from the watchful eye of authority and, later, getting into my spot before dawn to hunt turkeys, deer or bear occasionally passing through dawn’s ground fog. But more than anything else, to me it meant the crack of flame-tempered, wooden Louisville Sluggers, backhanding tough trap-hops, chasing down a gapper and snagging it fully extended over your shoulder. It was trying to beat out a ground bal in the hole for an infield hit, dumping the double-play pivot man head over heels on a takeout slide, stealing a base, racing from first to third or second to home on a single. Yes, back in the day, there was nowhere I’d rather be than on a baseball diamond, or even playing three-man stickball against a brick wall for that matter.

What was not to like? It was all good, right down to playful dugout banter with teammates on the bench between at-bats, stepping into the pressure-packed batter’s box in do-or-die situations, focusing on the pitcher’s release whether batting, playing in the field or kneeling in the on-deck circle, studying the man on the mound you were about to face.

“Your at-bat starts in the on-deck circle,” I was told by a friend and former pro ballplayer I respected greatly. I never forgot his valuable advice, and passed it on to kids I coached in later years. Hitting is all about focus, discipline and having a plan. You can’t  be anxious. It’s all about being patient, waiting for your pitch, laying off the junk a pitcher wants you to chase. If confident, you succeed. If not, you fail. And dealing with failure is essential even for the great ones, who are unsuccessful more than 60 percent of the time.

When you think of it, stream-fishing for trout is  not all that different. An angler must first learn to execute pinpoint casts, placing bait where fish are feeding without spooking them. Over time, all anglers learn where fish position their feeding lairs relative to the stream’s flow. Then, once you know where to find them, you must be able to present your bait in a natural, dead-drift manner that doesn’t spook them with detectable drag. It takes timing and finesse, not all that different than spiking a curveball to the opposite field. They’re transferable skills from the diamond to the stream. Both tasks require strategy, the three-step checklist of identification, patience and execution. When all three components flow in unison, success is probable. Screw up on any one of the three and the odds are against you. Which doesn’t mean you can never make a loud splashy cast and catch a fish, or drop an ugly bloop single over the infield despite being totally fooled on a pitch. It happens, but not often enough to remain relevant for long.

Same with turkey hunting, which also requires a heavy dose of discipline and patience, even after you have learned about wild-turkey behavior. That means not being overaggressive with your calls, sitting painfully motionless and waiting for precisely the right moment to squeeze the trigger. Though I don’t recall ever squeezing the trigger on a turkey and returning empty-handed, I have seen it happen and, yes, even the best of the best can make mistakes, then, most importantly, learn from them. If you’re patient and wait till the bird’s no more than 25 yards  (preferably 10 or 15) out with his head straight up, it’s automatic. This waiting game requires total concentration and focus, a lot like a right-handed hitter recognizing a good outside slider, waiting, cutting down on his swing and shooting a line-drive single over the second-baseman’s head. Have the discipline to make contact off your back hip and you succeed. Try to pull it, and, unless very lucky, you’re done. Hitting is all about discipline. Success is less apt to visit overaggressive, undisciplined hitters swinging from the heels, just like it’s elusive to anglers who make bad casts or turkey hunters who move too much. The wrong approach seldom produces good results.

Hmmmm? What inspired this midday, first-day-of-spring ramble? Must have been that morning walk with the dogs. Even gray skies, frozen ground and predicted overnight snow couldn’t dampen my spirits. Who cares? Spring is here. I guess old-timers get the fever, too.

Deer Radiate Pure Freedom

The view from Hinsdale Brook’s southern bank behind my home — between the cook-shed, where I feed my dogs daily, and their kennel — covers maybe 100 yards north before coming to an abrupt halt at a narrow, 15-foot-high, wooded spine climbing west and obscuring a small, hollowed-out sand pit behind it.

There, while feeding my dogs a little late at noon Friday, unfolded a sight I have seen many times from a deer stand and a few times from that very spot. Such sightings never get old. That’s why I’m always alert when standing there, waiting for the dogs to finish eating, taking in the calming, soothing melody of the stream’s rattle.

Anyone who has hunted deer with a gun or camera has borne witness to this beautiful sight. First, subtle movement blending into the backdrop. Second, identification of legs, then the torso of the deer belonging to them, then the slight twitching of a tail, perking of ears, on total alert. I love to watch deer move through their habitat. Whether they suspect your presence or not, it’s the same cautions, graceful movement. Single file they pass, first one, then another, and another and another, the lead deer stopping spaced in line, attentive to the others following while scanning the terrain for danger. This time there were six. Some big, others small, all devoting full attention to their surroundings.

I knew they had heard me as they surely have many times before when they remained undetected. Deer grow to recognize environments within their range where they pass often and are never bothered. This is such a place, through my neighbor’s posted backyard, where they know they can feed in the hayfield without harassment, even within spitting distance of the home’s windows. Plus, obviously, they know my dogs are there, and they also know that they’re no threat, even at close range in the dark of night. I’ve seen their tracks follow my snowblower’s path within 10 or 15 feet of the kennel, yet never so much as a bark from Lily or Chubby. The deer and dogs have learned to coexist without commotion. Too bad humans have such a hard time duplicating this process of living with one and other and sidestepping potential conflict. Yes, these days it seems Nature’s way is seldom our chosen path. We’re of a law-and-order ilk, bellicose and belligerent, ready to raise a ruckus and put up our dukes before attempting a diplomatic resolution. Sad but true. Just look at what we have elected to run our country. That pretty much says it all. Like the old cigarette commercial used to say, all of them “would rather fight than switch.”

Not deer. They try to avoid confrontation and are instinctively more than capable of doing so. That day out by the brook, I spoke softly to those six deer in a warm, friendly voice. They knew I was there, heard the initial commotion of me greeting the hungry dogs and likely froze before cautiously advancing in an attempt to secretly skirt me. Nope, not this time. I wanted them to know I was there and said, “It’s OK, kids, I won’t hurt you. I just like to watch your quiet gait and athletic grace.”

They stopped, lifted their heads, cupped their erect ears toward me and froze, all six facing me broadside, tails still as daybreak air. What a picture, six deer of various sizes frozen like statues, senses fine-tuned to the max. The distance between the first and last of those deer was about, oh, say 50 yards, maybe a little less. They didn’t seem too alarmed, just cautious, all partially camouflaged by trees and brush. They know my voice and whistle, have heard it often, both from my yard and along my daily walking path a half mile east and little south, down along the Green River, where we share hayfields, swamps and a couple Christmas-tree fields, one small, one large. One high, one low.

I have many times seen deer through my back windows following the trees lining the opposite bank of Hinsdale Brook, which feeds the Green River over by the old Polish Picnic grounds. Just downstream and behind my neighbor’s home, they actually go under the bridge and show themselves to my neighbors across Green River Road. They are also often spotted through the back windows of folks living on the north side of Meadow Lane. Deer are creatures of habit, this group safe because no one hunts residential neighborhoods, minus the occasional bowhunter slithering into a stand unannounced and totally quiet, even when he or she takes a shot. Then again, I can’t imagine a bowhunting meat-hunter or two haven’t let fly right off their decks in such suburban neighbohoods where deer are a problem.

It won’t be long before some of those deer I spoke to last week sprout summer antlers as the does tend to spring fawns I’ll get to know. Other times, during my nighttime travels home from work, I’ll have occasional sightings of two, three or even four bucks feeding together in hayfields close to the road. Among them will likely be that big buck I came to know last fall and into the winter, bumping him twice up close and personal while walking the dogs in broad daylight during deer season.

It’s a cycle of wildlife I love to watch. Though by choice I no longer hunt them, I still love watching deer. I try to understand their habits, predict their movements, report interesting observations to hunter friends who share my interest.

Just Tuesday night I prepared about a pound of carefully butchered, gifted venison stew meat from a 5-point Vermont buck. I started by seasoning the meat with salt, pepper, garlic and rosemary in its freezer-wrap package, adding flour and shaking it before searing the chunks in hot bacon fat, then simmering it in French onion soup in a covered Griswold skillet all afternoon on the stove. On my may to work that evening, I took the pan off the cook stove and placed it on a trivet atop the soapstone wood stove, where it warmed until midnight. Then I removed it and let it cool some before placing it overnight in the refrigerator.

Served over egg noodles Wednesday night before work, it was superb. Tasty and tender. Healthy, too. Not a sliver of fat. I love venison and deer, hold the utmost respect for them and enjoy watching them.

If ever hungry and fallen on hard times, I’m confident I could put food on my table. I hope it never comes to that. Then again, maybe it would be the best thing that could happen to man like me, one devoted to something I long ago learned about in college philosophy class. It’s called individual sovereignty, a noble way indeed, and one that’s more and more difficult to live in the modern world.

Look it up. It’s vaguely synonymous with autonomy … and another dirty A word that once could get a man hanged here, and still could in places where real freedom is frowned upon as dangerous, seditious individualism.

If you want to see freedom at its finest, study a small herd of deer moving through their place. They’re governed by nature, the grandest of all deities.

Fishing Fantasy

Wouldn’t you know it. Over the weekend, I dug out a Sewell N. Dunton & Sons Tonkin-cane flyrod I’ve never cast astream, attached an Orvis CFO IV reel of chartreuse, floating, weight-forward 6 fly-line and took a few out-of-sight backyard casts for old-time’s sake. I guess I was feeling it, seeing hints of green on lawns and hayfields. Now, here I sit, early Wednesday afternoon, brisk walk with the dogs in the rearview, Mother Nature’s wet, white fertilizer falling from the sky, accumulation or lack thereof to be determined.

Call it wacky New England weather, the clocks about to be turned ahead for warmer Daylight-Savings Time, when shorts and T-shirts will replace pants and long sleeves, and the steady flow of hard-earned cash exiting our chimneys comes to a merciful halt.

The Dunton rod isn’t my best. I own better. But it’s not bad, either. In like-new condition with a spare tip to boot, I don’t even remember where I bought it. Probably at the Hadley outdoor flee market, where I used to find many treasures before sunup. I guess Dunton bamboo rods have become quite collectible in recent years. For me, its value is sentimental. Dunton was a Greenfield rod builder who lived on Green River Road a mile or so north of my current home when I was a South Deerfield lad. Dunton’s downtown rod shop was on Fiske Ave, down by today’s Mesa Verde. He salvaged Montague Rod & Reel stock, tools and machinery after the company closed in 1955 and continued pushing out rods until selling out to Thomas & Thomas in 1974.

Anyway, rod in hand out back by the brook — not in it, despite wearing knee-high rubber boots after walking — I found room for back casts and tried to recapture a rhythm I once had down pat. A low-hanging maple limb about 20 yards ahead was my challenge. The question was: Could I sneak the hookless leader underneath the branch tendrils without snagging them. The answer was no. Sure enough, the leader got hung up on the first attempt, even without a hook, getting tangled in the lowest buds and branches. Thankfully, I had my glasses on. Otherwise I could have never untangled the mini-rat’s nest, which wasn’t all that bad compared to some I’ve seen when younger and capable of freeing them along the stream without glasses. Oh well. So be it. My eyes were excellent back then, good enough to hit a baseball and tie blood knots with the finest of tippets. Today, I’m farsighted and need glasses for reading, but my vision has never been better. I can live with the realities of aging. What choice do I have?

I’m not sure what got me thinking about fishing and flycasting on this noontime whim. It may have been the swollen, green-gray Green River I had followed and observed with the dogs. It sure did look about perfect for fishing down by the big riverside apple tree. But the impetus could also have been that body of a Connecticut man found recently off South Station Road in Conway, where I caught many a nice trout and even retrieved a deer down in the gorge below the dam. Then again, maybe it was that unlikely pre-midnight telephone call at work from old buddy Peter Mallett, founder of the Millers River Fishermen’s Association. I hadn’t spoken to the man in months and, not surprisingly, we touched on a dear and familiar subject: big squaretails, that is, our native Eastern brook trout that we both happen to favor over all others. In the course of the conversation, I mentioned 15-inchers and he asked me if I could remember the last time I caught one.

“Yes,” I relied. “I remember it well.”

How could I forget that big fish which surprised me on a thunderstormy summer afternoon, the roiled river running milk-chocolate brown. Fishing a deep pool from a large overhanging ledge along the steep northern bank downstream from the roaring South Station dam, I was bait-fishing a nightcrawler backed up by attractant red beads and a silver spinner. Not my typical routine, I must have been pulling out all the stops on a slow day. I lobbed my first cast upstream into the head of a riffle and dead-drifted the bait downstream, allowing it to sink. Once the current tightened the slack, I mended my line and let it straightened again before slowly retrieving it upstream, gently twitching my rod tip now and then to entice a strike. It’s the same way you’d fish a streamer on a flyrod, but I was using open-faced spinning tackle.

When I spotted the spinner and bait coming to the surface below me, I raised my rod tip to lift the bait from the water and make my second cast when, suddenly, I caught the flash of a big fish following it to the surface before darting back under the ledge. “Hmmmmm,” I thought. “I hope it’ll come after it again.”

I rearranged the lively crawler on the hook and lobbed a shorter pendulum cast out into the current, carefully working it back toward me and lifting the rod-tip trying to tease the trout out of its lair with the shiny spinner. Bang! This time I was ready and the fish was on, running deep to its undercut refuge before racing downstream and making my drag sing in an effort to shake the hook. I fought and tired that strong fish, a female full of roe, before netting her, snapping her neck, gutting her and later baking her in aluminum foil for supper. If I caught that beautiful trout today, I’d likely throw her back. But that was back in the 70s, before I got married and slowly changed my ways.

Though I didn’t weigh or measure that fish, there was no need to. I had grown quite familiar with squaretails in the 14- and 15-inch class, and bigger, from other sites I knew and protected with silence and secrecy. Brook trout like that weigh a couple of pounds, their pink meat moist and succulent. One can only imagine the type of native brookies the first colonial settlers found working their way up into Connecticut Valley watersheds for their fall spawning runs. They must have been incredible specimens — world-class squaretails.

It’s fun to reminisce, sitting near the woodstove in the deafening silence of a damp, gray, snowy March afternoon. So, here I sit, falling snow peripherally visible out the kitchen window. I’m confident it’ll melt fast and sprout the most nutritious clover stubble of the year, drawing deer in need of sustenance after a long winter. I’m glad my idle kitchen thoughts were pulled back to that whimsical trip to the backyard with my Sewell N. Dunton bamboo rod and WF-6 floating line. I’m glad the elements got me thinking about flycasting and squaretails and free-flowing, free-thinking mountain streams that have always attracted human beings.

Hopefully, my Vermont grandsons will hear the same call of the wild I’ve passionately chased and will continue pursuing till my ashes are scattered in the wind. Maybe the boys will want me to teach them to catch trout to the soothing symphony of birdsong, babbling brooks, roaring rivers and cold, trickling mountain springs. If so, I’ll be there to introduce them to woodland magic, hooking them snugly through the upper lip and gum. The only way to escape that grip is to leap high, create slack, snap the line on the rebound and wave goodbye.

In the world of angling, there exist only those who have witnessed that escape … and liars.

Off I go.

Nesting Eagles, Nervous Turkeys

A friend called Saturday to report what he viewed as an unlikely development on a Connecticut River island near his South Deerfield family homestead sitting in the evening shadow of North Sugarloaf.

There, upon an island he has passed daily for more than 60 years, he noticed something high, large and new in a tree. Upon closer inspection, he discovered it was a bald eagles’ nest, a big one in progress. Ever since, he’s monitored it often, watching construction that’ll accept a comfortable spring brood, one or both mates in it at times.

One day, heading toward the nest from Sunderland Bridge in broad daylight, he noticed one of the eagles on the ground picking at something along the perimeter of a turf field. He at first suspected the large, white-headed raptor was eating something, perhaps a rabbit or woodchuck or wild turkey, all distinct possibilities at the location. But, no, the bird wasn’t eating at all, but rather gathering long, dry, brown grass with which to line its woody nest. That he knew when the bird took flight — peregrine falcon nests in the Mount Sugarloaf cliffs above — flying low and carrying a beakful toward the nest. Having never witnessed such a sight, he wondered aloud what his late father would have thought had he seen it. When his dad died unexpectedly at his much-loved Vermont hunting camp more than 40 years ago, there were no eagles or peregrine falcons near his home. Poisons, barnyard snipers and hunters who objected to predators competing with them for small game had taken a mighty toll on our national bird and symbol, not to mention other birds and beasts of prey. You know the mindset: kill my rabbits or turkeys or partridge or raccoons, my barnyard fowl or lambs, or especially my deer and you’re dead, Dude.

Well, times have changed. Eagles, hawks, owls and falcons are now protected, and today all are much more common locally than they ever have been in my lifetime. Predictably, we’re again beginning to hear grumbling objectors complaining about dwindling gamebird, waterfowl and small-game populations that birds of prey are impacting. Yep, now raptors are right up there with coyotes as public enemy No. 1 among some sportsmen who don’t want to hear about the interactive, complementary predator/prey relationship. Fact is that predators makes prey smarter, more cautious and elusive than the same species in habitats minus natural predators. There is much to be read about this interesting topic, which reared its ugly head after Teddy Roosevelt and his big-game-hunter ilk went the route of ridding the West of mountain lions, wolves, bears and coyotes to build deer, moose and elk populations, among others. When all of those predators except resilient coyotes became endangered species, go figure, deer, antelope, elk and mountain goat populations multiplied too fast, ate too much of the forest understory, died of malnutrition and ultimately became easy, open targets for hunters. Look it up if you don’t believe it. It’s current. Hunters with a conscience didn’t want to shoot easy targets grazing out in the open prairie with no fear of danger.

But, let us not digress … back to the eagles, a follow-up to last week’s topic of eagles preying on wild turkeys, as depicted in a west Northfield photo published here last week. Though I had never thought about eagles hunting turkeys, it made perfect sense. Now, since that column hit the street, I have had the opportunity to speak with one of my go-to guys about subjects related to birds, wildlife and habitats, all of which he passionately studies in daily observation. That man would be brother-in-law John Twomey, whose book, “Retiring To Not From,” is now in its third printing. A retired UMass professor, the book is about his lifestyle on an expansive, secluded, Waldo County, Maine gentleman’s farm, where he lives a Thoreauvian existence while managing mixed acreage as a wildlife refuge. It has been a hit among back-to-the-earthers and folks seeking a simple, efficient, off-the-grid lifestyle similar to his. Yes, this cerebral man is enjoying what used to be known as “The Good Life,” fashioned by Scott and Helen Nearing, first in Jamaica, Vt., then in Harborside, Maine, where they died and left their Good Life Center for posterity.

The man family and friends call “Buzz” phoned last weekend as he often does to speak to my wife and his sister, and I took the opportunity to inquire what he knew about eagles preying on turkeys. Bingo! A subject he was eager to discuss.

“Oh yes,” was his knee-jerk response on speaker from my wife’s chair. “In fact, my neighbor just called the other day to tell of a bald eagle taking a turkey outside his home. He watched the whole thing play out. It’s getting to be a common sight. We have 600 nesting pairs of eagles here in Maine. If you want to see video go to YouTube and search ‘eagle vs. turkey.’”

He added that he always knows when an eagle is around his slice of nirvana, where turkeys and deer are common sights in the hayfields and lowbush blueberries surrounding his home and outbuildings. He said gobbler flocks are always keenly aware of eagles and great horned owls, two mortal enemies.

“It doesn’t matter how high the eagle is soaring, the turkeys always detect it and display an alarm signal by spreading their tails and running and partially flying to the edge of the woods,” he said. “The eagle can be a speck in the sky and they see it because they are always wary. When I see a group of full-grown toms spread their tails and run and/or fly to the woods edge, I always know there’s an eagle about. Interestingly, I have never seen toms react this way to hawks or ravens.”

He expanded upon his observations by saying hens with young display the same tail spreading and fleeing to the woods (as long as the young are big enough to run well or fly) when a hawk, eagle or sometimes even a raven pass by.

“From what I have observed, the two behaviors appear to be almost identical — the difference being that toms do this in reaction to eagles, and hens with young react this way to eagles as well as hawks and ravens.”

So, there you have it from an astute observer who studies wildlife relationships in his leisure. Plus, having always raised chickens, he’s always tuned-in to birds and beasts of prey.

White Tale

Old buddy Tom White — known to many as an affable Northfield potter, avid hunter/naturalist and plain old nice guy — phoned Monday morning. Though I missed his call, he left a message and we hooked up later that afternoon.

Always monitoring wildlife around his rustic home and studio, where his domestic turkeys have been known to attract wild cousins for him to assess each spring. White had an interesting observation to share. It seems that inspection of his weekend trail camera had revealed three antlered whitetail bucks. Imagine that! There it was, pushing toward March, long after most deer have shed their antlers, and all three were still sporting headgear — two pronghorns, one with brow tines making it a 6-pointer, and a big, handsome, trophy 8-pointer he recognized.

“I’ve seen the big one before but never when hunting,” he said, which would not be surprising to anyone familiar with elusive big bucks. Think about it: buck grow large due to wisdom. Yeah, yeah, I know some may be lucky. But wisdom trumps dumb luck any day of the week, and tends to be longer lasting.

So there you have it. Three more Franklin County bucks still wearing their antlers this late in the game. Interesting indeed. Then again, word from Leverett during blackpowder season had it that some of the bucks being killed were losing their antlers on the drag from the woods. Different strokes for different folks in nature’s games.

Meanwhile, on the home front Monday morning, day after the snowstorm, I cut several tracks of the same solitary deer frolicking through the Christmas trees populating Sunken Meadow along the Green River. Given the erratic behavior displayed by the foot-free tracks, that deer appeared to have enjoyed its post-storm romp through the bottomland, bounding here and there, walking elsewhere. The tracks meandered here and there around and through the meadow, where I kept bumping into them walking the perimeter.

In one spot, approaching a large riverside apple tree that always drops early apples in the summer, I noticed straight-line tracks ahead. When I reached them, I discovered they were about five feet apart in a straight line, which seemed odd to me. I examined them carefully to confirm they were made by a deer, then backtracked maybe 12 steps to inspect the stride, which remained consistent and seemed long to me.

“Gee,” I thought. “I wonder if that deer is walking on three legs, thus a long stride caused by a hop?” But, no, that was definitely not the case. This deer just had a long stride; or at least it looked longer than normal to me. Even more intriguing, it wasn’t the track of the trophy buck I had bumped many times last year. I know that buck’s wide, heifer-like hoofprint. This long-strider’s prints, heels prominent, were narrower and without question not his.


Well, that set of tracks continued bugging me long after passing them and, once I got home, I thought to myself, “Why didn’t I measure them with the chestnut crook cane that always accompanies my walks? Then, I would have an accurate measurement for discussion.”

The reason for my diligence regarding this subject was that I had shared the observation with White on the phone Monday afternoon and my description was greeted with silence, as though he was silently questioning it. I just let it pass.

Next day, walking the same route, the tracks were melted a little but still intact and exactly the same distance apart as the previous day. So, I laid down my cane, marked the top of the crook and found the stride to be a cane and a half long. Once I got home, I put a yardstick to the cane and discovered it was 37 inches, making the stride about 56 inches, just shy of five feet. Maybe that’s not a long stride for a deer, but it stuck out to my eye and I have seen many deer tracks. No, it wasn’t over five feet as I had suspected, but it was basically a five-foot stride, longer than usual, in my opinion.

Enough of that … but sticking to the same subject of neighborhood deer, my friend and neighbor who spotted 15 baldies in back of his home last week saw them again, this time heading down to his yard from Smead Hill in the evening. You can bet the folks at the Alexlee House up the road have seen those deer many times, likely eating their ornamental bushes.

Which reminds me: it’s getting to be that time of the year to drive through the upper Country Farms section of Greenfield by the intersection of Eunice Williams and Leyden roads, where many deer can be seen just before dark coming out of their yard on a southern exposure above the Webb Farm. It’s a sight to behold. Well worth the drive. And if you want to see more deer, take Barton Road home. They seem to like the ornamental bushes in people’s yards there, too, after a long winter.

Don’t dilly-dally. The Country Farms deer phenomenon is here today, gone tomorrow.

Neighborhood Wildlife

Damp, cool air, corn snow, puddles in meadow depressions, treacherous ice booby-trapping nighttime, backyard paths — all signs that spring is creeping in. Plus, just Tuesday morning, taking out a fresh pailful of ash and embers from my woodstove, a crimson cardinal was perched in an ornamental cherry singing his happy tune, an even better harbinger.

Down where I walk, little worth reporting. One lonely raccoon’s tracks traveling northward along the upper hayfield’s rim, across a double-rutted farm trail and over the escarpment to high, steep, undercut refuge. Also, random coyote traffic. Not much. They’re probably hunting rabbits. As for deer, well, some sign is starting to reappear, but nothing like the fall and early winter. They’re around but there’s nothing in the hayfields for them these days. Queried this week, my friend and upper Greenfield Meadows neighbor reported seeing 15 in his yard recently just before dark.

“I counted them twice,” he said. “Fifteen. They were out back along a line of white pines, feeding toward Green River Road. They wandered around, regrouped and headed up Smead Hill for the night.”

“Did one appear much larger than the rest?” I inquired.

“Yes, there was one big one that really stuck out, and some that were much smaller than the rest.”



This final report told me the big trophy buck I’ve tracked for months is still touring the neighborhood. Another neighbor had reported in December that he often saw eight does feeding along his fence line. I know one of those deer had been killed in the road during a snowstorm soon after that report. Now 15 in my buddy’s yard, not a mile away from where the eight were regularly appearing. Do the math. The winter neighborhood herd has picked up eight deer since December, likely three or four bucks that have shed their antlers. Looks like next summer will be a good one for deer sightings around home after the does drop their fawns.

Something else I’ve often seen over the past 10 months is bald eagles, never more than one but one many times around the same location. They may be different birds, or perhaps the same one over and over. Who knows? Most often, I notice one circling high above, easily identifiable by its white head and tail. Another time I wrote about jumping one out of a riverside tree and watching it gracefully fly upstream over a dwindling brood of common mergansers. Then, there was the day after a fresh snow when I watched one circle a hayfield low and perch in broad daylight in a tall tree between a Plain Road home and a squash field. A half-hour later, it was still there, its white head signaling its presence in a naked gray tree, most likely a soft maple.

Last week, a neighbor stopped by and later called after his knocks had gone unanswered. I don’t know how I missed them. He had come straight to my home after passing two low-flying bald eagles headed east toward the Green River, just upstream from the Greenfield Pool at the Colrain-Plain roads’ crotch. Later that same day — you can’t make it up — an email from west Northfield reader Bill Copeland arrived with an interesting photo attached. After viewing last week’s photo of a deer’s remains after coyote predation, he wanted to share a backyard photo (below) of a bald eagle on the ground, wings stretched high, talons securing the wild turkey it was devouring to the ground.  The eagle dwarfs the turkey, which looks more like a partridge underneath the giant raptor.

“I meant to send you this earlier,” Copeland wrote. “Your latest column (of the deer remains) reminded me. Though not a good photo and maybe not rare, this sight of eagle-on-turkey in west Northfield is a lot gorier than eagle-on-fish.”

Honestly, I never pondered eagles preying on turkeys, but it makes a lot of sense given turkeys’ aggressive response to owl hoots emitted by hunters trying the initiate gobbling. Also, it offers another explanation why eagles are attracted to my agricultural neighborhood, where there is no shortage of turkeys to go along with fish, waterfowl, woodchucks, rabbits and many other prey. Though I can’t say for sure, I have an idea an eagle or great horned owl could maybe even take down an infant fawn embarking upon its maiden voyage out of the nest on four shaky legs. I wouldn’t bet against it.

Live and learn.

Photo Feedback

Winter is a time of random opportunity and peril in the wild kingdom, two realities that are vividly displayed by two reader correspondents who sent photos to my home last week.

The first photos arrived a week ago by snail-mail, displaying a big, live, hungry bear. The others came by email and showed a dead, devoured deer.

First, the bear, likely a big bruin in the 250- to 300-pound range. It is said that males are more apt than pregnant or nursing females to leave their dens in search of food during hibernating winter thaws, thus my assertion that it was a boar. Plus, it’s a big sucker.

Anyway, someone dropped the envelope containing three trail-camera photos of the black beast into my mailbox a week ago. On the envelope was scratched a handwritten note that read: “Gary, notice the date on these photos 1/24/18.” Likely from my neighborhood, I have an idea who provided them. It doesn’t matter. The photos do.

I must admit that when I read the envelope, I was not expecting bear photos. I assumed I had been sent photos of an antlered buck, given recent discussion about the timing of bucks shedding their antlers, a phenomenon that can differ greatly from deer to deer. But, no, it wasn’t an antlered buck at all, but rather this large bruin, patch of white snow on his rump from sitting, out and about on what was probably one of those foot-free spring-like days we all enjoyed following three weeks of deep-freeze. Check out the accompanying photo on Page D3. You’ll get a kick out of the white patch of snow on his butt.

I have to wonder if this wasn’t the same bear a man from up on top of the ridge south of my home wrote to me about a month or so back. This correspondent was bemused by a bear he had often seen coming to his birdfeeder when it should have been hibernating. He figured it was a big male, one he dissuaded from birdfeeder feedings by stinging its rump with a pumped-up BB gun.

The man was concerned that maybe the beast was injured, though it displayed no signs of a limp or disorientation. No, probably just a healthy bear living in a nearby den with knowledge that an unnatural food supply was available for easy picking.

As for the deer photos, they came from Brian Delaney, a Frontier Regional School teacher who came upon the gruesome scene walking his dog in West Deerfield. Tom and Ben Clark are OK with winter mortality of deer, browse foragers that eat fruit-tree buds, reducing the fall harvest. “Every bud they eat is one less apple,” son Ben told me one day when I was on a December cider run.

Delaney, took photos of the carnage scene with his cell phone and sent them my way when he got home.

“Just in from crispy morning hike with my young German shepherd down Old Albany Road,” he wrote. “Shayla sniffed out the deer-kill along a stream and I was surprised at its size. I first noticed many coyote tracks, then signs of a struggle or takedown. I took some pics, then noticed a left hind leg with a significant fracture that may have been the result of an automobile or train collision.”

He sent two photos of the torn-up deer carcass, a pathetic sight winter hunters, woodsmen, snowshoers, cross-country skiers and snowmobilers are apt to encounter. In Mother Nature’s game, such a deer’s demise is a coyote jackpot. Just the way it is.

“Thanks, Brian,” I wrote. “Mother Nature can indeed be cruel. Or is it not just harsh reality?”

He quickly responded with: “I go with the harsh reality of the big game called life.”

Enough said.

The preliminary numbers are in and 2017 Massachusetts deer hunters have already set an all-time harvest record with 13,220 kills. The archery (5,191) and primitive-firearm (2,754) also experienced record harvests. A breakdown of the rest of the seasons shows 109 kills on the one-day Sept. 30 youth hunt, four during the three-day (Nov. 2 through 4) paraplegic hunt and 5,162 shotgun kills. If the trends follow the norm, the final harvest numbers figure to only grow.

The previous record (12,249) was set in 2016.

The Bay State deer herd is estimated at 95,000. MassWildlife’s deer-density management goal is 10 to 15 per square mile. Some oversaturated eastern Mass. areas have densities reaching 80 per square mile. Thus, after decades of western Mass. carrying the total harvest during most of the 20th century, the tables have turned in the 21st and eastern Mass. hunters are bagging far more deer than folks in this neck of the woods, where the forests are bigger, the deer-densities thinner. Plus, because of better success rates in suburban areas, our hunter-density has significantly diminished. Central and eastern Mass. hunters are no longer traveling here to hunt deer. Why should they? Their chances are far better close to home.

It’s too early to evaluate and compare the zone-by-zone harvest breakdown. We’ll wait for the final harvest before going there.

Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

A blue, super moon in the midnight sky can stir thoughts to the surface, spin a man off to pondering …  especially Cancer moon children like me.

Enter a topic I’ve been exploring in recent days, one focused on our government and its approach to the air, the water, the forests and wetlands. The prevailing Washington wisdom these days seems to be, “Hey, if there’s a profit to be made, that’s a good thing, environment be damned.” Well, maybe so if you’re coming from the exploitive capitalistic perspective of Mammon’s kingdom headquartered at  Wall Street.

Then again, there are those of us who view it a little differently, like, “Look at the fires and floods and ocean storms, the melting glaciers and rising sea levels, the mudslides. Don’t you understand that this is our work? That we’re destroying the planet on which we live for the love of money and corporate greed?” Well, to some, including those today pulling the strings, it doesn’t matter. Fossil fuels add up to riches. Keep burning them, the more the merrier. Let the good times roll.

What I find particularly interesting is that there were canaries in the coal mine many, many years ago, prophetic little yellow birds with credible warnings countered at every turn by shouts from corporate spinmeisters. My god! Rachel Carson, her of “Silent Spring” fame, has been dead for more than a half-century. She saw it coming and screamed a clarion call for help. Then came a chorus of articulate support from fellow deep-ecologists like Edward Abbey (Monkey-Wrench Gang,” “Desert Solitude”), Gary Snyder (“Good, Sacred, Wild,” “The Practice of the Wild”), Wendell Berry (“The Gift of Good Land,” “The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture”), Doug Peacock (“Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness”), Gary Paul Nabhan (“Enduring Seeds: Native American Agriculture and Wild Plant Conservation”), Peter Matthiessen, David Quammen and Robin Wall Kimmerer. That’s just a small sampling of the voices of reason. Yet now we’re back to the “good old days,” when conservation and its protective  regulations  were dirty, filthy words worthy of censoring.

You have to wonder how we got to where we currently are and who is pulling these destructive, diabolical strings? How could they possible have regained such traction in a modern, educated land like ours. Money talks, boys.

I think part of the problem is a short, collective memory I have many times encountered among bright, young folks. When I tell such  people that, as a boy riding my bicycle across the Sunderland Bridge to a pickup baseball game, I wouldn’t have put my little toe in the Connecticut River. Why? Because back then, in the early Sixties, it was a toxic cesspool of raw human and industrial waste. Who of my vintage can forget the trips along Route 2 through Erving, when the color of the Millers River matched the toilet paper being produced that day. And that’s just the half of it. We couldn’t see the PCBs and heavy metals running untreated through metal pipes into the river. Contemporaneously, on a summer-long trip I took with my grandparents, venturing us as far west as Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, the Great Lakes were dead, so full of toxic chemicals that it was said a match could ignite the water into flames at certain hot spots. Don’t doubt it? It’s true.

That was the result of coast-to-coast industrial pollution that went unchecked before the likes of Carson went public and the “Flower Power” generation started advocating conservation and regulations aimed at ensuring that raw sewage and industrial waste could no longer flow untreated into our precious waters, that smokes stacks had to release clean emissions into the atmosphere. Yes, the captains of industry and Wall Street have been screaming bloody murder for decades, complaining loudly that federal regulations are killing our economy. While there’s no denying that regulations add to the bottom line, isn’t the cost justifiable as a way to keep out planet clean and healthy?

Not anymore. There’s a new sheriff in town. To the cheers of his throng, he’s opening our coastlines and National Parks to oil and mineral exploration. Industrialists and investors are licking their chops as a hungry, drooling fox stands sentry at the henhouse door. You have to wonder where it’ll all end, and when.

Hopefully soon. We’re swimming in dangerous waters.


The 2017 bear harvest is in, and a total of 268 were harvested during the three-segment hunting season. This represents the second highest total, just below the 283 bears taken in 2016. A breakdown by season shows 151 taken during the Sept. 5 through 23 season, 26 taken during the November 6 through 25 season and a whopping 91 taken during the Nov. 27 through Dec. 9 shotgun deer season. Seaking of which, it looks like deer hunters are paying dividends in the bear-management game.

Still Antlered?

Early afternoon last week, post-snowstorm … Wednesday, I think. The phone rings. It’s Killer, my buddy. He gets right to the point.

“I guess your buck may still have his horns,” he reported, basing this assessment on reliable second-hand information he had received from an old friend and hunter who lives in Bernardston.

“Andy saw a nice buck with a big rack eating under his neighbor’s apple tree this morning,” he explained. “I guess the guy doesn’t pick up his apples. He just rakes ’em into a pile around the tree trunk and the deer feed on them. He was watching the big buck feed out his window and noticed another deer moving in. Once it came into full view, it too had horns, a little 5- or 6-pointer. I just thought you’d appreciate the information that they both still had their horns. Seems late to me.”

Yes, interesting indeed. This same friend had called me a few years back in early February surprised that his step son’s trail camera set up near his northern Greenfield home had revealed a buck sporting a nice set of antlers. He thought it unusual, believing most bucks shed their antlers before February, which does in a general sense seem accurate; however, the formula dictating precisely when a buck sheds his antlers can vary greatly from deer to deer, depending on such factors as testosterone levels, available feed and general health of individual bucks. According to reliable sources, though rare, a buck can keep his antlers into April. Nonetheless, it’s true that more typical antler sheds occur in late December and January.

Which reminds me … after Christmas, with the blackpowder season winding down, a friend from Deerfield called to chat and, in the course of our conversation, said one of his employees, and avid hunter, had reported that bucks being killed by his Leverett/Shutesbury buddies were losing their antlers when dragged from the woods, not an unusual late-December phenomenon. So, bucks have been shedding antlers for at least a month now, just not all bucks.

The buck my buddy referred to as mine is a neighborhood deer I’ve watched and written about over the past month. A big, dark, regal animal familiar to many Greenfield Meadows neighbors and passersby, no one seems to have spotted him in recent weeks, since that deep-cold snap enveloped the valley. I had speculated that this buck may have shed his 8- to 12-point rack and was thus no longer easily identifiable. Well, that may or may not be true. That’s why the Killer called. An inexact science, my buck may well have dropped his trophy rack weeks ago. Then again, he may well still be sporting antlers while secreted away in a sheltered southern exposure near available feed.

Obviously, local bucks’ testosterone level has diminished greatly by now, thus the two Bernardston bucks traveling and feeding together under that apple tree. This is not unusual during most of the year. But it all changes during the fall breeding season or “rut,” when friends become rivals and spar for dominance and ultimately “in-season” does. Then, once the does are bred and pregnant, dominant and subordinate bucks that have traveled together as friends all spring and summer, reunite to ride out their winter’s travails. They are definitely right now at that stage, antlers or no antlers.


Hmmmmm? An interesting U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFW) notice was forwarded to me Tuesday afternoon by old friend Karl Meyer, a longtime non-believer of any cougar-sightings who labeled it “fresh off the presses.” What it was is a “final ruling” declaring Eastern cougars forever extinct.

Which reminds me: there was an unfortunate inaccuracy in this column last week, when I placed the infamous cougar road-kill on the Merritt Parkway in Miilford, Conn., in 2013. A slip of the pen, that cougar was actually killed on June 11, 2011, three months after USFW first introduced the concept of changing Eastern cougar status from endangered to extinct.

Since then, the extinct status was officially proposed on June 17, 2015. Now, as of Monday, it’s official. So, it’s official: According to USFW, Eastern cougars are extinct.

The problem with this ruling is that it may be a moot point. Why? Because many credible authorities  believe there is only one species of North American cougar, not sub-species in the West, South and East. In fact, wven the USFW’s 16-page, small-print Monday ruling, which includes many online links leading to various related cougar studies, admits there may not be sub-species at all. Likewise, USFW admits there is existing eastern habitat fully capable of supporting a cougar population and/or population expansion of western cats into the East. Nonetheless, they’ve made their ruling and are sticking by it: Eastern cougars (if there is such a thing) are until further notice, extinct — long gone and impossible to find.

So, go figure. Although this newest ruling is described as “final,” my guess is that it’s far from the last word on the matter.

Stay tuned. There will undoubtedly be more western “dispersers” passing through a nearby neighborhood. Take it to the bank; that and the official, knee-jerk denials by state and federal wildlife officials who will tell people reporting such sightings that they’re seeing things. Eastern cougars are extinct.


Cougar Crossing

Noontime Saturday. Sunny. I’m running a fever indoors as the outdoor thermometer is forecast to drop. Sitting on a burgundy leather wing chair near the dining-room woodstove, I’m pulling on tall, green rubber boots with aggressive treads for a trip out back to the dogs under icy conditions. No reason to take another tumble like the one that broke a couple of ribs on my right side four or five years back.

I feel a cool breeze, detect commotion, then hear conversation moving my way from the carriage-shed door, through a parlor, a bedroom and the kitchen, where an unfamiliar man in sunglasses appears. It’s Craig Herdiech, who I last heard from by telephone years ago in connection with some columns about  rattlesnakes. His mother had grown up in Greenfield, where she remembered a neighborhood rattlesnake den along the southern periphery of White Ash Swamp before the area around Cherry Rum Plaza was developed or the Route 2 bypass existed.

I knew his baseball-coach dad, Bill, a Greenfield native, long before I knew him, and had met his mom, Joan. I first became familiar with the kid when he was a ballplayer during the early years of my Recorder tenure. He was then a teen making his way through high school and playing on the Vets Field diamond. These days, no longer a kid, he enjoys dabbling in the some of the same type of stuff that keeps my wheels spinning, my gears grinding — that is, what he refers to as “bushwhacking” with his pal “Franny” Welcome and others. Welcome, too, first came into my viewfinder as a high school athlete, he at Turners Falls. Then I crossed paths with him on the local semi-fast softball diamonds. He’s always been friendly when we’ve bumped into each other.

Anyway, back to Herdiech, following my wife through the kitchen Saturday, his facial expression and gestures screaming with excitement. The man wanted to talk to me about something.

“Oh, there he is, Craig, sitting right there,” my wife says, pointing.

I look up, don’t recognize him.

“Hi Gary.”

“Hi. Did she say Craig?”

“Yeah. Craig Herdiech.”

“Oh, hi, good to see you.”

I rise to shake hands.

“So, what brings you out here today?”

There’s no hiding it. He’s all jacked up.

“You’ll never guess what I just saw in Northfield, coming back from Winchester, New Hampshire,” he blurts.

I had a pretty good idea.


“Yep, a mountain lion,” he reported. “I can’t say I saw much of it because it was hauling ass, bounding across the road. It crossed right in front of my car soon after I turned west onto Route 10 toward the bridge.


“About a half-hour ago. I came right here.”

“There was no mistaking it,” he continued, transitioning into his next phase of description by spreading his arms wide. “Its tail was this long. It all happened fast. Just a few long bounds and it was gone,” over the bank headed south toward Llewelyn’s Farm.

OK. There you have it. Another Franklin County cougar sighting. How does one assess such a sighting; even one who’s evaluated many? Well, No. 1, observation told me the excitement was real and palpable, No. 2 the man ventured far out of his way to report it face to face, and No. 3, this has to be the fifth or sixth credible Northfield sighting that’s come my way over the past 15 or 20 years. Remember, there’s no shortage of deep, mountainous woods around Northfield, no matter which side of the Connecticut River you’re on, and I’ve received credible reports from both sides.

I see no reason to doubt the man. Well, that is unless I follow the policy of state and federal wildlife officials who refuse to accept any sightings as evidence. It’s true that all reports of cougar sightings are not accurate. There is such a thing as a mistaken identity. I have seen it myself, when people send me photos of bobcats or orange tabbies walking along a distant wood line. Still, to assume that all sightings are misidentifications, hallucinations, LSD flashbacks or wild hoaxes by publicity seekers is not a wise or valid predetermination. Cougars were historically here, much of our landscape has reforested, deer populations have rebounded, and bears and moose and turkeys have come back. So why not the return of the big cat? How could it be impossible?

Remember, officials chose to ignore several reported sightings in southern Connecticut back in 2013, then had to explain a cougar carcass on the highway, one ultimately identified by DNA as a South Dakota “disperser.” Then, closer to home in June of 2016, the attack on a Petersham horse that officials said could not possibly have been committed by a cougar was indeed proven to be a cougar-attack by two reputable forensic labs that analyzed the biological materials gathered on the scene by the horse’s irate owner. Like many cougar reporters before her, she felt disrespected, believing condescending officials called to the scene had treated her like an idiot. That’s what you’re up against if you want to report a cougar sighting in New England.

So now, here we go again. Huh? A noontime Saturday cougar passing through Northfield at an unlikely riverside spot?


Why not?