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.

Hmmmmm?

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.”

“Antlers?”

“None.”

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.

Enough!

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.

“Cougar?”

“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.

“When?”

“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?

Hmmmmmm?

Why not?

Foot-Free Winter Thaw

It wasn’t expected. In fact, I was surprised … before I tossed it around and thought it out.

Oh yeah. That’s right. I forgot. Animals can’t reason. Hmmmm, really? Well, believe what you will. Myself, I have other views, give animals more credit than that, am convinced they are capable of thinking, understanding and forming judgments based on logic and buttressed by keen instincts.

When you think of it, that midday deer sighting — five of them in the bright 1 p.m. sunlight Tuesday, walking right down my neighbor’s driveway and across Colrain Road, forcing me to stop my truck and let them pass — was perfectly predictable. They, like me, had been immobilized by the frigid cold and were, on the first thaw in two or more weeks, off on a joyous caper the minute snow softened. Frankly, that was my precise reason for delaying a daily walk with the dogs. I was consciously awaiting snowmelt to start dripping off my slate roof before my departure.

Still, the sighting surprised me. Five deer strolling through my residential neighborhood in broad noontime daylight has never been a common sight. It occurred on my way home, not 100 yards from the southern tip of my property. I knew the deer, have been familiar with them since summer: two mature does, one with two fawns, the other with one. I knew they liked to travel together. From what I witnessed Tuesday, I’d say it’s a family unit composed of a grandma, her 2016 daughter and their fawns. I’d guess the older, larger doe had two fawns, her daughter one, but it could well have gone the other way around. Yes, perhaps the younger adult dropped two fawns to her mom’s one. Does it really matter? The fact is that there are two mature does and three fawns that have been enjoying each other’s company since June.

Why this extended-family hypothesis? Well, because of the way the larger of the two does seemed to be in charge during the Tuesday sighting. She crossed the road first, the other four close behind. Then, once she had safely crossed the road, she displayed her dominance by taking a couple of bounds 25 yards ahead, stopping in an angled forward pose looking back and waiting for her four companions to pass before following them into a small hayfield and toward a wooded brook lane. She was obviously the leader.

It didn’t take long to get additional information about the deer. By chance, as I was putting my dogs in their backyard kennel, I heard something, looked back and saw my neighbors, husband and wife, standing in the yard by a stone hitching post along the gabled south end of the barn. They wanted to chat.

I closed Lily and Chub-Chub into the kennel and walked toward my neighbors, him with a pair of cross-country skis in hand. They were headed up the closes Brook Road

“Did you see those five deer that just walked down Bernie’s driveway,” I asked.

“No, we missed ‘em.”

“Well, I didn’t really investigate closely but I had to stop and let them cross the road. I think they walked right down the driveway. Take a look. There’ll be tracks.”

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said the ski-toting man. “The deer have been up on the hill behind the paddock for a couple of weeks. Alan logged off a piece and they’ve been feeding on the browse. There’s tracks everywhere back there. Plus, Bernie dumped a pile of pumpkins under his apple tree and they’ve been feeding on them regularly, too.”

“Makes sense,” I responded. “Plus, they get a lot of sun over on that sidehill. It’s been brutally cold.”

Deer are interesting critters. Smart, too. Never cease to amaze me. After two or three weeks feeding on browse and hanging tight where there was sun and feed, they were eliminating wide travels on slick, crunchy snow that places them in peril. Now, with a melt on, they were moving to familiar haunts through snow softened by the afternoon sun. They looked healthy, alert and agile, their coats dark and full. I was happy to see that all five of those deer that have been skirting me all summer and fall had survived hunting season. Not only that, but the small doe I was told got killed by a car on Plain Road in the greasy snowstorm falling on the final day of shotgun season eve had not been one of the fawns, as I had suspected. Given where it was hit, it was definitely one of the eight does a Plain Road couple had told me they often saw feeding in front of the home during deer season. Just not one of the fawns. I’m cool with that.

As for the trophy buck I’ve been watching, well, who knows his whereabouts these days? He may have rejoined those two bucks he traveled with all summer, if they survived deer season. Then again, maybe he’s off on his own, or traveling with other neighborhood bucks that have dropped their antlers on the forest floor. Come to think of it, he may have made his way to the well-known Leyden Glen deer yard on a steep southern exposure that’s been attracting dozens of migrant winter deer for decades. According to a deer biologist I queried, some of those deer likely travel 40 or 50 miles to that yard, then disburse to their home haunts when spring breaks.

If you want to see evidence, take a ride in March to the intersection of Greenfield’s Eunice Williams Drive and Leyden Road once the snow starts meting and see the spectacle of fields full of feeding deer for yourself. My sons used to count 60 or 70 in one field right off the road, calling me all excited on their cell phones encouraging me to hop in the car to take a look. They weren’t exaggerating. I’ve seen those deer with my own eyes, an impressive sight indeed, one you’d have a hard time believing without witnessing it.

Yes indeed, the deer in my Greenfield Meadows neighborhood seem to be multiplying rapidly these days. I shouldn’t be surprised. But apparently not everyone is experiencing similar phenomena. Just a week or two back an old friend called to chat from t’other side of Eaglebrook Hill, where many a big buck has been killed by hunters in my lifetime.

“Have they been killing any big bucks in your neck of the woods this year?” I asked.

“Nahhh,” he scoffed. “To be honest with you, there aren’t as many deer up here as there used to be, and hunting is dying. There used to be a lot of hunters up here years ago, their vehicles parked along the roads. Now it’s hard to find a hunter. Soon there will be none. The times they are a changin’.”

The man  knows. He’s a straight shooter.

By the way, he’s not saying the overall deer herd is down on Deerfield Mountain, just up on his plateau overlooking the Connecticut River. The deer aren’t far away, though. A bottomland farmer a mile or two up the road has told my friend his croplands are overrun with bold, nuisance deer eating his crops.

As fewer and fewer deer are killed by hunting, the state’s deer-management tool, this problem will spill over into residential gardens and home landscaping, like it already has in many suburban southern New England neighborhoods.

 

Bucking Trends

By the time this column hits the street, the snow will be falling and I’ll probably be suspended in anxiety about throwing another pulley from the snowblower mounted to my John Deere tractor. Just Wednesday, my friend and I replaced the one I found on the ground after the last storm cleanup. With two more adjacent ones in the same assembly, what’s to stop the other idler from going, or even the bigger drive pulley? It’s going to bug me until I’m done with this latest storm.

Yeah, yeah, I know I shouldn’t get all worked up about it but, hey, I’m not 30 anymore. Far from it, in fact, and such worries just becomes more bothersome as I age. Seems like there’s always some vexing issue, be it the mower or snowblower, weed-whacker, hedge-trimmer or leaf blower, a frozen pipe, a leak in the heating-oil tank, filling the woodshed and woodstove, removing the ash into a stove-side bucket, roofing, painting, the dogs, running to Vermont in a snowstorm for the grandchildren. Years ago, I took  it all in stride, smiling and joking along the way, putting one foot in front of the other, picking away to put chores behind me in a timely fashion. Some call it putting your nose to the grindstone. Been there, done that. It just gets more difficult with the physical deterioration age brings. That cord of wood which once took half an hour to toss into the woodshed now takes an hour. The heavy chunks I used to flick in with my right hand and wrist now take two hands and a jolting surge of energy  traveling all the way from the tip of my toes to my fingertips, with a heavy dose of calf, thigh and shoulder power in between. I get the idea that if I live long enough, wood chores will be too much.  I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.

I suppose similar dynamics affect a big buck like the one I’ve been watching in my neighborhood this year. Which is not to suggest that this regal animal is losing it. Uh-uh. He’s in his prime. A big, healthy, trophy buck with a beautiful, wide set of antlers, the nicest buck I’ve seen in my 20 years of residing and walking the fertile, terraced, Greenfield Meadows bottomland, framed on the east by the meandering Green River. Though I’ve seen others to rival him, he’s the best. Sort of from the we’re-all-in-this-thing-together perspective, I can’t imagine that some sort of melancholia has not set in for this proud beast these days. Exhausted from the doe-chasing rut or breeding season and needing protein to rebuild his strength, he has likely dropped those massive antlers by now and must battle bitter cold that requires additional calorie intake. Acorns are preferred feed in such cold if deer can break through the dense, icy snow to get them. If not, they must settle for browse, which can get them through lean times but not for the whole winter.

This extended deep freeze also complicates river crossings, which, in icy conditions can change a deer’s habits and reduce his range. I have not found a river-crossing in more than a week. Not one, even at the spot where that buck has been crossing regularly for weeks. Deer are wary of ice and search for shallow riffles to cross. These days, with most of the river frozen solid, even the riffles are inaccessible because of treacherous ice creeping out farther and farther on both sides of the riffles. Deer avoid ice because their hooves are not made for it and they can get splayed out a helplessly stranded and unable to regain their feet. Predators like coyotes and coywolves know this and actually work in unison to force a deer they’re chasing toward pathetic, icy kills. In recent days, I’ve crossed more canid than deer tracks in my travels, which tells me they’re on the prowl for vulnerable deer. Why not? There’s ice everywhere, including across wind-swept hayfields. One ill-placed bound on an open field these days can quickly place a deer helplessly and fatally on its belly, in a position well known to opportunistic canids, who move in for a lightning kill. I think you can probably find graphic photos of such deer-kills online from the Quabbin or Great Lakes and other bodies of water where wildlife photographers capture icy, crimson mortality in living color.

I have not crossed my big buck’s track this week, but I did check out a place where he was seen crossing the road by a neighboring farmer who knew the deer from a backyard sighting. He spotted him two weeks back near a winter-rye cover-crop where deer were feeding following the last snow before the deep freeze. Since then, he’s only seen the buck once, maybe two miles north, crossing the road in front of his SUV at night. How did he know it was the same deer? Because, simply stated, he doesn’t believe there is more than one buck like that in the neighborhood. All right. Fair enough. He’s been in The Meadows three times longer than I have.

Well, this week, taking the back-way home from Vermont through Bernardston, over the Pumping Station covered bridge, I cased out the neighborhood with houses I refer to as Sewell Dunton’s or Bob Dobias’, a likely spot for that buck-crossing which unfolded before my neighbor’s eyes. There, in that neighborhood a mile north of my home, a blind man could have seen the deeply carved deer run cutting across an open field behind a weathered barn leading into territory I have often hunted.

When I pointed out the run to my disbelieving wife, she said, “Deer made that path?”

“Definitely,” I responded, “and I’d bet the house that’s where our neighbor saw that big buck cross. Just making his rounds and staying apprised of the late-rut situation, always in search of one last doe to breed, probably a young one coming into season for the first time.”

I called my buddy Killer Wednesday to alert him about the run in an area he still religiously hunts with his stepson.

“You ought to get over there before the snow falls and take a look at that run,” I told him. “It may alter the way you hunt it.”

Killer did take a 6-pointer in late November about a mile uphill from the site, but he and his stepson went through that little wetland, apples here and there, and the sidehill several fruitless times during deer season. Despite lots of deer sign, they never saw so much as a flag in there.

Could it be that the deer leaving all that sign were a football field or two north of where they were hunting?

One never knows.

“I’m going to take a little ride out there right now to scope it out,” Killer said. “It ain’t far. Thanks for the information.”

My pleasure. That’s what friends are for.

A deer hunter never has enough eyes scanning the landscape, appreciates every little edge he can find to be successful. Then again, dumb luck can drop the deer of a lifetime into your lap as though delivered from heaven.

The trick is to get in the woods. I’ve never heard of a guy shooting one while reading with his feet up in front of a woodstove.

Bottomland Buck

The cold, waxing Wolf Moon peered from the low southern sky through the black upper limbs  of my struggling front-yard sugar maple — it long-ago struck  by lightning but still hanging on — spinning my thoughts a half-mile or so down the road to my daily walking path, bordered east by the Green River, known to  Eastern Algonquians in deep history as the  Picomeagan or “boring river.”

There, walking late mornings with my dogs, rain or shine, hot or cold, I’m always searching, detecting subtle  hints of the critters who share this riverside wetland, sometimes freezing silent and still to let me and my pets pass. Plus, when the time is right, I’m always looking for salubrious fiddleheads and occasional oyster mushrooms, healthy, wild sustenance to warm my simmering soul.

Although I once hunted deer and still love hunting pheasants over my gundogs, I am no threat to the whitetails who were born and live where I ramble. Down there, they are seldom far away. Signs of are everywhere: in the hayfields, through the Christmas-tree farm, up and down escarpment paths, and at riffle river-crossings. I have learned their patterns and do believe they know mine, not to mention the sound of my voice, my whistle and my black Tacoma pickup. The deer along the periphery of my daily walks have accepted me as a non-threatening intruder sharing a place, just passing through with a lame, robust gait. Even my dogs are no threat. They occasionally alert me to deer presence, most often Chubby, who’ll stop and face a scent or soft sound in an erect, attentive stance that points me in the right direction.

Always alert and examining the landscape, I can’t deny my once-exceptional eyesight has diminished. Now more than ever I rely on my dogs to sharpen my senses. It works. The dogs have no interest in chasing deer, treating them the same as thorses and cows, sheep and goats — as four-legged curiosities with whom they’d just as soon sniff, touch noses and befriend.

Over the past four weeks, I enjoyed my annual December vacation, time I once reserved for deer hunting, which no longer excites me. Frankly, it’s too much work, especially when fortunate enough to kill one. Though I love venison and it’s good for you, it just isn’t worth the drag, hoisting the carcass to the barn rafters by block and tackle, skinning and butchering chores. That’s a young man’s game. They can have it. I’m now more than content savoring occasional venison handouts that come to me by way of gifts from family and friends. It always tastes great, especially chops, seared in bacon fat and served with onions, peppers, garlic and mushrooms, the wilder the better. Even the cholesterol is good for you.

I do miss sitting on stand and blending into the habitat in a place where deer are likely to pass, and I also miss quietly departing those morning stands at 10:30 or so and picking my way along a slow, observant path, still-hunting along upland spines and dropping down through marshy depressions, always checking for daily feeding and breeding sign. Fact is, I still do a lot of that stuff without gun in  hand, and that includes during deer season, walking where deer lurk, even trophy bucks, the likes of which few hunters ever kill. This was such a month. Yes, as hunters searched the uplands for trophy bucks, I was entertained by a bottomland beauty, often in places too close to occupied dwellings for legal hunting. Smart buck. Why chase through the hinterlands for does when neighbors are reporting eight routinely feeding at dusk in the hayfields bordering their lawns? Plus, along the terrace rims on both sides of the river, there are many giant oak trees with acorns scattered across the forest floor. So why test the upland ridges echoing out shotgun roars? A fool’s errand.

All summer this big, handsome buck has lived in The Meadows where I reside, feeding through croplands and hayfields with a couple of subordinates until rutting season began. Then the tagalongs were on their own, taking precaution to stay out of the dominant buck’s way. In the week leading up to shotgun deer season, I had twice seen that big buck tending a doe off the side of the road during my pre-midnight drive home from work. Then, at 11:10 a.m. the day before shotgun season began, with a Sunday trip looming to transport my grandsons home to Vermont, there he was again, in broad daylight, looking me square in the eye from 20 yards away, his wide antler spread extending far out beyond his ears. I couldn’t count the points, but there were at least eight, and off he ran, halfway across the open field, stopping broadside 60 yards out to look back at me and the dogs, the three of us standing in awe. Then he disappeared across a driveway and down into a marsh, probably hot on the scent of does.

A tall, dark, distinctive deer, I saw him again just after 11 a.m. on the final day of shotgun season while walking with my dogs down into a secluded floodplain, snowstorm brewing. Head down, the big buck was drinking along the opposite bank of a bend in the river. My eyes aren’t what they used to be but I thought it was a deer, obscured through a thin patch of young trees, my dogs out ahead of me. Not certain I wasn’t seeing an optical illusion created by flood-strewn tree trucks tangled along the S-turn riverbank, I continued 20 yards down the hill to an broad opening that provided an unobstructed view. Sure enough, the big buck raised his head and faced me, clearly displaying his incredible antlers from some 80 yards away. Seemingly not alarmed, he proceeded to take three or four slow steps toward me before dropping his head to within a foot of the riverbank and pawing at the cobbles a couple of times, like a bullfight bull, before slowly turning left and taking three or four smooth steps, disappearing into the thick, brown, riverside knotweed, never a trace of a flag. What a sighting. For the second straight time, not so much as an alarmed white tail, just a graceful stroll into cover concealment.

Since that day, I have tracked that big buck’s movements. I know his wide track, where he’s bedding, where he prefers crossing the icy river, and when he seems to prefer passing through. A neighboring farmer reported to his son that he saw the buck in his backyard last week, describing it as a beauty, the kind you don’t often see, sporting “at least 10 points.” I’m sure others in the neighborhood have seen him. Maybe someone has a photo. Plus, I must admit a hunter appeared to be aware of him. I crossed the man’s boot prints in fresh blackpowder-season snow, likely trying to pick up the buck’s trail. If it hasn’t already happened, that buck will soon lose his antlers, making him off-limits to hunters. Though I’d love to find the sheds, I won’t kill myself looking.

“You ought to pile corn or apples along a fence to feed him,” offered a clever old friend. “That’s what some people do to get a buck to drop his antlers where they can find them.”

Hmmmm? First I’ve heard of that trick. I think I’ll pass. Is it legal?

Hopefully, the big neighborhood buck will be back next year, bigger, better and smarter. Maybe his face will gray. Honestly, I’m not sure I could kill that buck. I guess I’ve grown softhearted with age, have over the years developed great respect for old-sage bucks with trophy antlers.

Like they say, you can’t eat the horns, or even get soup stock out of them, no matter how long they simmer. Young bucks are better eating, anyway, but not nearly as fun to watch.

Family A-Fare

What better way to traipse off to my annual December vacation than by telling a Thanksgiving tale – one about a Warwick hunter-gatherer family with a freezerful of healthy game-meat before the first shot of the Massachusetts shotgun deer hunting season is fired?

Yes, that long passed Harvest Moon in the midnight sky smiled favorably upon the Wayne and Tracey Kirley family, which has had one of those years a hunting family will never forget. Some years are tough, day after day without so much as a glimpse of a distant whitetail flag waving goodbye; others, well, they’re quite the opposite. For some reason beyond human comprehension, you just seem to be in the right place at the right time more often than anyone could dream of. It just happens that way … sometimes. Not often.

“I’ve got a lotta meat in the freezer,” said 49-year-old Wayne, caught at home Monday evening on the phone after slaughtering a dozen holiday turkeys. “We’ve got 12 (beef cattle) out back that I won’t need for meat this year. Maybe I’ll sell a couple.”

Thus far, with the Bay State shotgun deer season right on the doorstep, the Kirleys have killed three nice bucks totaling over 500 pounds field-dressed, plus meat from a 445-pound bear in the freezer. Quite a harvest season.

First, 15-year-old son Joshua (who’s since turned 16) bagged a 7-point, 121-pound buck during the one-day, Sept. 30 Massachusetts Youth Deer Hunt held annually on the fourth Saturday following Labor Day for young hunters. Then came Wayne’s opening-day, Nov. 8 New Hampshire buck sporting a beautiful 12-point rack and tipping the scales at 195 pounds, a nice buck regardless of where you’re hunting. But the Kirley crew wasn’t done yet. Uh-uh. Not by a long shot.

Wife Tracey made her contribution by bagging a nice 8-point, 175-pound New Hampshire buck on Nov. 14, four days before Wayne, hunting New Hampshire deer and Bay State bear along the Richmond, N.H./Warwick line, spotted the big bruin sauntering through the Warwick woods and dropped it with two well-placed .243 bullets. His work had just begun. Then all he had to do was field-dress the cumbersome beast that would have tipped the scales at 523 pounds in the round and get the 445-pound carcass home. Praise the heavens that son Josh was in a stand within earshot.

When the Franklin Tech teen heard the shot at around 8 a.m., he knew it was his dad. Confirmation soon arrived beneath his tree stand, where Wayne arrived wearing a furtive, cat-that-swallowed-the-canary grin.

“Come with me,” he said to his son, signaling him to descend his tree stand. “I’ve got something to show you.”

“What?”

“You’ll see.”

Wayne made quite a playful ordeal of the hike by blindfolding his son and leading him by the hand to the top of the ridgeline where the dead bruin lay. On the scene, blindfold removed, the awestruck kid took one look and gasped, “Wow! What do you think he weighs?”

The answer was soon discovered … the hard way. But first they had to return home to retrieve an ice-fishing sled for assistance in dragging the carcass some 400 yards to a trail they could access with a 4-wheeler. Hoping to tan the hide for a bear rug, Wayne did his best to protect the fur.

“I’ll tell you we had a helluva time getting that bear out of the woods,” Wayne recalled. “I shot him at 8 and didn’t get home till 5. We needed the sled, a 4-wheeler and a tractor with a bucket-loader. I think in the future I’ll be happy with a 200- to 250-pounder.”

The tractor became necessary because the 2-wheel-drive 4-wheeler could not haul the bear up a hill encountered. So, Wayne stayed with the bear as Josh went home for the tractor. When he returned, they were able to roll the beast into the bucket, tip it back and drive it home, where Wayne was determined to quickly get it to the Grrrr Gear checking station in Orange, then back home to skin it before the meat spoiled. Because bears have heavy coats and a thick layer of insulating fat underneath for hibernation, Wayne knew the meat would quickly spoil if he didn’t skin it.

“They say the guy who shot that big bear last year (in New Salem) lost all the meat,” he said. “So, I wanted to get the hide off quickly and do everything I could to prevent that from happening to me.”

Good thinking. According to wife Tracey’s father, the Orange butcher who carved up the carcass had 150 pounds of fat with the packaged meat. Asked what he planned to do with the fat, Wayne said his family will render it, fry it up and eat it.

“It’s delicious, very similar to pig fat, which is good for you when properly prepared,” he said. “I guess it’s full of vitamin K2,” which sounds like it came straight out of the Paleo-diet playbook.

Could it be that some of that ancient, sizzling fireside delicacy will wind up on the Kirley Thanksgiving table alongside homegrown turkey and wild venison? You bethca. And, hey, while they’re at it, why not a little pan-fried backstrap of bruin seared to tender, tasty perfection in its own fat?

What a good, old-fashioned, New England meal – in fact, probably closer to the first Thanksgiving feast of Pilgrim and Wampanoag lore than what’s on the plate these days.

Like they say, it’s tough duty but someone’s gotta do it.