Danger On The Home Front

Blossoms of hydrangea and purple loosestrife, summer-green Japanese maples hinting red, and acorns subtly plopping to the ground — all familiar hunt and harvest harbingers. Likewise, yet slightly different in my travels was a road-crossing bear, a hooting neighborhood owl, questionable mushrooms, an snarling garden snake, and an aggressive woodchuck on his or her hind legs, playing out what could have been a fatal last stand from a most vulnerable position. Yes, it seems stuff’s happening with fall approaching.

The mast crop, hard and soft, appears to be bountiful this year. I heard my first acorn drop in front of me two weeks ago on my daily rounds along the hardwood lip of an ancient river cut, or escarpment, overlooking riverside flood plain. It’s the type of terrain that trappers used to work for fox and coyotes, raccoons, mink, otter and you name it. Not anymore. Legislation removed trappers more than 20 years ago, leaving one less predator for furbearers to fear. Plus, it was an open invitation to beavers wishing to repopulate old haunts, places where landowners hadn’t seen them in decades, if not centuries. Call it progress, I guess.

Black bears, rare in my early life, are no longer so. The shiny midday example my friend and I saw on our way to a potential edible mushroom he had spotted on a familiar old sugar maple alongside a dirt road he often travels, ran in front of my truck and into an overgrown state Wildlife Management Area I often hunt during pheasant season. Not long ago, my friend had witnessed another crossing at the same spot. Usually there’s good reason for repeat sightings. This was no exception. Though we didn’t get out to investigate, I later told him I’d bet my house and its contents that the two or three apple trees I routinely pass during pheasant season are full of fruit. They’re within 50 yards of the crossing. I’ll know the answer soon enough, am confident my hypothesis is sound. There seems to be fruit everywhere this year.

The serpent? Agh … nothing to fret about. Just a garter snake sunning itself along the edge of a hayfield. The dogs passed it and, lo, I then proceeded to step right over it before, after the fact,  noticing something underfoot. Turning to double-check, I discovered a partially coiled, foot-long snake. I playfully poked it lightly with my handy chestnut crook cane, attempting to send it slithering off into the brush. Uh-uh, no such luck. In no mood for shenanigans, it aggressively struck at the rubber-capped base of my cane, which can come in handy when unsuspected threats appear. I moved on. The snake stayed put. I know not why it held its ground. Maybe something in the air.

What about mushrooms, you ask? Not an oyster, it was the same white mushroom that had once fooled a friend of mine who inspected and advised against eating it. Recognizing it immediately, years ago his wife had eaten some and suffered disruptive consequences. She was in the room to verify his tale, and agree against eating it. My buddy was stubborn, though, not deterred. He took the mushrooms home, prepared a panful and ate a generous sampling that night. Aware that mushroom hunters had harvested it in previous years, he was confident it was edible and suffered no ill effects.

I guess, mushrooms will affect different metabolisms different ways. The rest of the five-pound bag is now sliced up and in my buddy’s freezer. Me? No. I trusted my pal Killer and will stick to the few mushrooms he taught me: hen of the woods, chicken of the woods and oysters. I’ve also eaten what they call “stumpies” and would pick them if someone taught me the identification keys. I’d never advise anyone to experiment with mushrooms by trial and error. Not a smart move.

The woodchuck? Oh yeah. A wacky woodchuck it was. Chub-Chub disappeared one day on our daily walk and didn’t return after a couple of loud whistles from my lanyard. Finally, my spirited springer spaniel responded to an audible warning from his electric collar and came racing back. First, I heard him rustling through the woods. Then he appeared with a woodchuck dangling from between his jaws, his grip on the back of the chuck’s neck firm but not injurious.

“Drop it,” I commanded when he got to within 10 feet of me. And drop it the dog did, out in the open, mowed hayfield, 50 feet from a brushy edge. The uninjured woodchuck knew running was not an option. Instead, the mature beast stood and audibly clattered his or her teeth while standing on two back legs in an intimidation dance.

“Leave it,” I ordered, as the chuck took a run at Chubby. The dog couldn’t resist, diving into the critter head-first, rolling it over and biting at its underbelly before I could again separate them. The chuck got to its feet and took a run at me and the dog before Lily joined into the “fun.” Praise the heavens I carry that chestnut cane, which I employed to keep the chuck and dogs at bay. Try it sometime. Though no easy feat, I was finally able to create enough space for the chuck to disappear over the brushy bank. Then I was able to convince two oppositional dogs eager for the chase to follow me in the other way.

Next day, I reluctantly took the same route and Chubby clearly recalled the incident, racing straight to the site where we had left that woodchuck. Quickly arriving at the distant site of escape, he sniffed around and raced south along the tree line, nose high, looking for fresh scent of the animal. I called him off the chase, got him back to me and continued on our path through the heart of the roadside hayfield before entering a hidden, one-acre Christmas tree field. Just before exiting the tree farm on a path through a narrow patch of woods, there stood the woodchuck, lying low while eating clover. No more than 10 feet away from me while Chubby searched the woods, the chuck was likely still feeling ill effects from Chub-Chub’s mauling the previous day. The wild animal stood on all fours before turning and trotting toward me in an aggressive manner. I poked the critter with my trusty cane and rolled it over. Luckily, when it regained its footing, it ran away before the dogs knew it was there.

I have not returned to the scene for two weeks now. Why tempt fate? I have over the years witnessed similar woodchuck/dog confrontations that ended badly for the chucks. So, I can’t say I was overly alarmed. But remember, my dogs are immunized from bad stuff animal bites can bring. I’m not. Better safe than very sorry.

With that potential danger averted, more appeared closer to home. Around 3 a.m. Tuesday morning,  I was awakened by what I first thought must have been the sound of rain. Honestly, the only sound I heard at first was a faint trickling of water running down the roofline gutters maybe 10 feet from my head. Could that have really broken my sleep at that time of night, I pondered? Probably not.

It wasn’t long before the wee-hour silence was broken by another sound — that of an owl I’m not used to hearing. No, it wasn’t that familiar “who cooks the stew, who cooks for you-all” call of the barred owl. This was the more threatening hoot of another owl I haven’t heard for years but won’t soon forget. I do believe what I heard was the haunting hoot of a great horned owl, known in vernacular as “the tiger of the northwoods.”

Years ago, I learned that such an owl had nested above my upper Greenfield Meadows home situated along Hinsdale Brook at the base of Smead Hill. The rare local nest, I was told late that summer, had been built in a tall tree halfway up the hill. The big owls had occasionally been spotted by neighbors and passersby up near this massive nest.

Well, two or three months later, while out back after midnight with the dogs, sure enough, an unfamiliar owl hoot that screamed, “Take notice!” from somewhere close along the brook banks. This midnight bird of prey was obviously near, and the call was spooky. This continued nightly for close to a week, during which time my dear calico manx cat, Kiki, went missing never to return. She loved hunting out back along a brookside stonewall, where many a chipmunk met its maker. Sadly, it appears that Kiki got a taste of her own predatory medicine. Late son Rynie was sick, searching weeks for that cat before resigning to the fact that she was dead.

My current Kiki, a long-tailed gray tiger and habitual nighttime prowler, survived that Monday/Tuesday overnight. She’s super cautious and knows her territory well. Even so, she’s likely no match for a hungry great horned owl. Hopefully, that tiger of the northwoods was just passing through for a one-night stand and is by now long gone. Haven’t heard a peep since.

Phew! What a weird couple of weeks it’s been. Then, just when I thought I was living in a dangerous neighborhood, I turn on the TV and watch all hell breaking lose.

Mother Nature’s kind and compassionate compared to torch-carrying, gun-toting fascists marching the streets to Presdential winks and nods.

Personally, I’d rather face down great horned owls, angry snakes and vicious woodchucks any day of the freakin’ week.

Rattlesnakes, Falcons And Riverside Fish Racks

OK. A little of this, a little of that this week.

First, a new topic I almost addressed a few weeks ago, then pushed to the side. Plus, I intend to rehash a couple of often-discussed subjects, both classic re-emergers that seem to boomerang now and again. Remember, I have filled this weekly space for nearly 40 years … a long time, no matter who’s counting. Thus, some topics are bound to keep resurfacing here and there from new or slightly different angles.

Let’s start with the timber rattlesnake that showed up in Springfield’s South End this summer to a lot of television-news commotion. It was back on July 16 when a Massachusetts Environmental Police lieutenant responded to a Springfield residence from which city animal-control officers had captured a three-foot-long timber rattler five blocks from City Hall. When there was official speculation that it could have been a released pet, I got a little chuckle and, after pondering for a moment, decided against a critical assessment spiced with a pinch of ridicule. Why not wait to see what developed down the road, after the snake had been thoroughly examined?

Finally, last week on a Friday-afternoon whim, I reached out to MassWildlife public-relations maven Marion Larson to see if there was anything new about the poisonous viper and was pleased to discover that my email query was timely indeed. The issue was right there on Larson’s front burner.

“Left a voice mail at your home regarding your inquiry,” she promptly responded while I was in South Deerfield. “There is an interesting update about this snake. We’ll be posting on our Facebook page, probably Monday. … FYI the Environmental Police had two posts about this on their Facebook page. They are very interested in trying to get some leads.”

Bingo! How’bout that? A story. Maybe old news by today, but Larson wasn’t so sure when it would hit the street. Seeing that I haven’t heard a word about it anywhere yet, well … why not?

Upon examining the snake, a protected endangered species, scientists discovered that it had been microchipped by state wildlife officials in the Berkshires two weeks before the South End incident. So, the serpent was returned to its western Massachusetts home at an undisclosed location. And, no, Dick Cheney is not and never has been there.

Because snakes do not travel as far as the great distance between of the snake’s home and Springfield, officials are certain it was illegally captured and set free for city slither. This is a violation of the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, which forbids anyone from possessing, transporting, harassing or disturbing endangered wildlife. A first offense brings a $500 fine or imprisonment for up to 90 days or a combination of fine and imprisonment. Repeat offenders are subject to increased fines of $5,000 to $10,000 and imprisonment for up to 6 months.

An investigation is underway. The telephone-tip hotline number is 1-800-632-8075.

*****

Turning to last week’s discussion about Mount Sugarloaf’s historic “duck hawks,” which turned out to be peregrine falcons, interesting feedback came my way from three knowledgeable sources. All three knew the Sugarloaf cliffs facing the Connecticut River still housed peregrine nests.

An employee called to report that morning crews opening the state reservation’s gates often find peregrines perched along the chain-link fence separating sightseers from the dangerous cliffs on the east face. Also, he told of a naturalist from the Teddy Roosevelt Administration visiting Sugarloaf in the early 20th century to get rare motion pictures of the fast, showy, acrobatic falcons. Later, when birds of prey were growing scarce due to the pesticide DDT and wanton slaughter by humans protecting favored falcon prey, a movement to collect peregrine eggs was greeted with catcalls, boos and hisses in Recorder-Gazette letters to the editor. Many Franklin County readers apparently were opposed to re-establishing falcon populations. Instead, they favored exterminating an efficient airborne predator that killed popular songbirds, not to mention barnyard fowl and beautiful wild ducks sought by licensed hunters in the Connecticut River flyway.

South Deerfield resident Rob Ranney-Blake, who identified himself as a birder, wrote to tell of today’s Sugarloaf peregrine nests. He did so in a long, handwritten, heartfelt note written inside a folded card, his pencil sketch of Sugarloaf’s eastern face gracing the cover with current peregrine nests marked.

Old friend Karl Meyer had been the first responder, emailing me before 7 a.m. the day last week’s column appeared. Meyer wanted to point out information related to why peregrines were called “duck hawks” back in the day.

“You probably already have this, but you only have to go back a couple of generations to get these three common names for local falcons:

“duck hawk – peregrine

“pigeon hawk – merlin

“sparrow hawk – kestrel.”

He surmised that they were named according to the largest prey hunted.

“Though not a big part of their day-to-day,” he wrote, “peregrines are capable of taking ducks on the wing.”

I responded that I was much more familiar with the term “chicken hawk,” which I assume we’ve all heard. Meyer’s quick reply was that, locally, the term  most often refered to red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks. Days later, when I queried my avid bird-watching brother-in-law from Maine, he explained that many types of hawks were called chicken hawks within different domains. Such hawks were, he wrote, “‘buteo’ hawks, not in the ‘falcon’ class.’”

*****

Finally, just a little note about a common Native American riverside fish-curing procedure that shows up coast to coast in North America.

This interesting topic is always appropriate here in the Connecticut Valley, home of many pre-Columbian riverside fishing sites. To name some of the more prominent places where native people gathered for fishing activities, we have the Enfield, Conn., falls, Chicopee Falls, South Hadley Falls, Turners Falls, Shelburne Falls, the Vernon, Vt. falls, and Bellows Falls, Vt., where spring migrations of anadromous fish (salmon, shad, herring, sturgeon) were harvested by many clever methods.

In recent weeks, I have pored through a great volume of West Coast poet/linguist/ethnologist/anthropologist Jaime de Angulo writings, many of them published after his 1950 death yet still in print. De Angulo came to America in 1905 to become a cowboy but became fascinated and lived with western Indians. While there, he studied their Stone Age cultures, their languages and oral traditions, recording his research in published and unpublished reports. In his well-known “Indian Tales,” a series of ancient stories written for his children and published posthumously as a delightful little novel that’s still in print, he described a fish-processing station along a remote, mountainous northern California river.

Having fished a river with much success, fictional characters Grizzly and Bear decide to preserve the surplus fish they’ve taken by smoking them along the river. To do so:

“They made a platform of sticks and green twigs, like a grill, with a slow fire underneath, burning all day, and at the same time the sun was shining. On this grill they laid the fish, after they had opened them with obsidian knives, and then they turned them over and over while they were drying.”

I have read of this identical fish-curing process with and without smoke (most often with) covering territory from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean. I assume the procedure differed little if at all from what you would have found throughout the ancient Connecticut River basin.

This curing method would have been practiced when the Connecticut Valley was “discovered” by Europeans during the second and third quarters of the 17th century. We are left with no descriptions of these riverside work stations because European interlopers and their ministers cared little about indigenous culture and custom before the Indians were driven out. It makes sense when you consider that the focus was on “Christianizing” the native people and wrestling away their land, not respecting their culture and beliefs and recording their deep-history tales of the landscape.

From what I’ve read, Indians did not fillet their fish – that is separate the meat from the bones with a sharp, thin knife like contemporary fishermen. Instead, they opened their fish along the belly, removed the guts, lightly split the backbone lengthwise and laid the joined sides flat on drying racks. Visually, it wouldn’t look much different than grilling a skin-on boneless breast of chicken held together by the blistering skin. The fish skin would have held both halves together while smoke, sun and frequent flipping sped the dripping, drying, evaporating process.

Once these fish were dried and ready for storage, they were placed in sealed, bark-lined, earthen pits or “barns” that could be opened and emptied months later to be eaten. In this cured state, the skin is easily removed and discarded, hot or cold.

Sugarloaf Cliff-Dwellers?

Peripherals are sweet little morsels that, during historical research, arise like wandering spirits searching for their lost shadows. A case in point occurred Monday at the former downtown fire station of my South Deerfield childhood.

Now the creative upstairs home of New York transplants Ken Schoen and Jane Trigere — with Schoen Books filling the street-side bays where fire trucks once sat parked under cover — I was visiting Jane to pore through the Betty Hollingsworth Papers under the scholarly couple’s temporary care. Hollingsworth, a spitfire, died in December at the age of 87. Trigere is a member of the Deerfield Historical Commission, a town board on which the late Hollingsworth was a mainstay.

My first memories of Hollingsworth are as the principal’s secretary at Frontier Regional School, from which I graduated in 1971. A South Deerfeld native who was born Elizabeth Harris, she was my late dad’s classmate, a committed local-historian and packrat of historical information. Curious as to what hidden gems the Hollingsworth collection would reveal, friend Peter Thomas and I were going through papers and photos while engaged in a running conversation with Jane and Ken, he in and out, focused primarily on his online book-dealing chores.

Myself, I was searching for photos of the old dance pavilion at the base of Mount Sugarloaf; that and photos of the downtown Red Men’s Hall that was demolished in June 1978 and replaced by today’s Deerfield Spirit Shoppe building. Back in the days of the Frontier Men’s Softball League, we referred to that downtown package store as the “Spook House” because of the ghosts displayed on the uniforms of the modified-pitch team it sponsored. Fun hometown memories.

Anyway, enough stage setting. On to the matter at hand.

Among the Hollingsworth jewels packaged mostly in loose-leaf binders and envelopes was a typed sheet of paper with the centered, bold-faced, underlined title, “Mount Sugarloaf” (interestingly, not South Sugarloaf as some insist on calling it these days). Below the title were two, flush-left, bold, underlined subtitles: “Wildlife” and “History.” I skipped over the short “Wildlife” entry at the top and went right to “History,” which chronicled important events, constructions and even a little folklore pertaining to the Pioneer Valley landmark’s evolution as a tourist attraction. I’ll get to that stuff in “Native Insight,” my Saturday history column. For now, though, let’s focus on the “Wildlife” entry that’s more appropriate here.

Described in the little note is a cliff-dwelling raptor that was, back in the day, a resident of the now fenced-off Sugarloaf cliffs facing the Connecticut River. I read the description and immediately thought I knew the bird of prey, though not by the name given or residing in the Sugarloaf cliffs. Who knows? Maybe this bird still nests there, but not that I know of.

Probably written after 1950, the cited paragraph reads:

“For many years, the more inaccessible ledges of Mount Sugarloaf have served as nesting places for the Duck Hawk. This is a falcon, like those trained for falconry in medieval Europe. Unfortunately, this daring flyer is a natural predator on many attractive and useful birds. The remains of prey found in its nests include: bluejays, kingbirds, nuthatches, chickens, grosbeaks, doves, and warblers. Summit House photographs include one of a three-day-old and another of a two-year-old Duck Hawk.”

Hmmmmmm? Please bear with me, permitting me to don my royal pedantic robe and query as to why the author of the above snippet capitalizes Duck Hawk and lower-cases all the other birds listed? Are Duck Hawks from a higher ornithological order? Just wondering. A little something to think about, maybe. Then again, maybe not. Depends how you’re wired. Myself, I can’t imagine a logical justification. But that’s neither here nor there. Back to the capitalized Duck Hawk.

“That bird must be the peregrine falcon,” I speculated aloud to Thomas, sitting to my right for our little Monday-afternoon project. He nodded in distracted agreement, focused on the material he was skimming through.

These days, you read about peregrine falcons residing in city skyscrapers and feeding on pigeons and sparrows and other feathered city dwellers. Never before have I heard of them referred to as Duck Hawks. Where did that come from? Aha! An ideal Google project.

During a free moment at work later that night, I Googled duck hawk and, sure enough, up pops a pageful of information on, you guessed it: peregrine falcons. Isn’t Google great? Instant gratification at your fingertips. These days you can even ask the question orally. Oh my! No wonder the founder is sitting on gazillions. Information’s a valuable commodity.

Viewing a few entries, I discovered that the origin of duck hawk dates to the first decade of the 19th century, which means it was probably in 18th century vernacular usage here in New England. Always a fascinating bird to observe, today you can watch them videotaped 24/7 in Springfield nests, maybe even on UMass high-rises, if my memory serves me, and also in Boston, New York and many other eastern cities.

I do find interesting the pejorative description of these falcons for preying on birds enjoyed by human beings. OK. So, let me try to get my head around this way of thinking. Because a wild creature eats game hunted by humans or birds humans feed or watch and/or hunt, this predator is a nuisance, a varmint, a blood-thirsty undesirable worthy of bounties and horrid poison? It’s the same kind of selfish logic that went into the annihilation of wolves and coyotes and cougars and grizzly bears and other large predators competing with humans for deer and moose and rabbits and turkeys and you name it, while also creating mortality problems for livestock and poultry farmers.

Well, that’s wrongheaded thinking that paddles against nature’s current. Fact is that prey under the constant watch of predators is healthier, stronger, smarter, warier and more apt to survive difficult times than members of identical species living in protected places where humans have eliminated predators to suit there personal desires.

If you don’t buy that argument, do a little research. You’ll find much written on the subject from the past 50 years. It’s not difficult to find, and it’s not rocket-science, either — just nature-based common sense, which really ought to be placed on the endangered list nowadays.

Magic Moon

Green corn and smoked sturgeon, anyone?

Huh?

OK. Fair enough. If it doesn’t sound like standard fare, it probably shouldn’t. Which isn’t to say it was always meaningless in these parts, thus the name of the new August moon, which began Sunday in the midnight sky. Called the Sturgeon or Green Corn Moon, it carried much significance when our indigenous people lived by what is now referred to in literary circles as “The Old Ways.” That just happens to be the title of a charming little 1977 Gary Snyder book of essays well worth reading and heeding. If you can find this California poet/new ecologists’s tiny little treasure in hardcover for a reasonable price, buy it. Then count your blessings. The heavens must smile upon you to stumble upon such a discovery.

Actually, the Sturgeon Moon fits “The Old Ways” profile much better than green corn, because old ways suggest a hunting/gathering lifestyle, not the more sedentary horticultural village life. Snyder strongly believes that the human mind, body and soul were built for hunting and gathering, not tending crops, which ultimately brought out “civilization” and metropolises and their associated pestilence and organized religions, all of the above dizzily spinning mankind into new directions. In Snyder’s way of thinking, the spearing of caribou in steep, narrow, ravines or sturgeon by torchlight in summer river shallows beats tending a “three sisters” crop of complementary corn, squash and beans any day of the week.

Connecticut River sturgeon and their cousins in other ecosystems have been a personal fascination for several years due mainly to scanty documentation explaining why the large migratory fish was important to ancient local tribes. You hear plenty about Atlantic salmon, game fish for kings, and American shad, a prolific New World spring migrant worthy of harvest from the beginning of the New England colonial period. Yet only sparse mention of Atlantic sturgeon, a fish that can grow from seven to 12 feet long, providing savory meat and roe for human sustenance.

Yeah, yeah, I know most of the local chatter about sturgeon these days concerns the endangered shortnose species, which only confuses discussion of Atlantic sturgeon. And, yes, perhaps native people did value the shortnose species in their annual hunter/gatherer larders. Still, giant Atlantics and several landlocked cousins found in lakes were more desirable to fish harvesters. Because the large sturgeons of the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain were easiest to catch in August, that month’s moon adopted the fish’s name among tribes there.

Focused as I have been in recent years on Native American ethnology, anthropology, archaeology and literature — that is oral history told in song and verse and recorded by ethnologists and linguists before the Native languages in which they were recited became extinct  — I have searched for non-culinary uses for or tales of sturgeon. Truth be told, the references are few, but there are two that most interest me, both suggesting use of some internal substance for glue or gum used for everyday repairs and/or to seal canoe seams and secures their ribs.

One of the references came from James Willard Schultz, who married into the Blackfoot tribe and chronicled upper Great Plains Indian life in several 19th and early 20th century volumes. The other came from Brian Swann’s coast-to-coast anthology of Indian folklore, “Algonquian Spirit: Contemporary Translations of the Algonquian Literatures of North America,” book three of his comprehensive trilogy devoted to Native American literature. In a Cree narrative he presents from the Great Lakes region, there exists a reference to fetching sturgeon for a canoe job requiring gum and glue.

I can’t imagine that the Pioneer Valley’s so-called “River Indians,” all of them Eastern Algonquians who fished anadromous-fish runs at the falls of Enfield, Conn, South Hadley, Turners Falls and Vernon, Vt., didn’t also used this bodily sturgeon fluid or gel for all-purpose gums and glues. And, yes, of course the giant Connecticut River fish were also highly valued valued for their meat and roe. Indians wasted little.

Told of sturgeon as a glue source, an archaeologist friend speculated that the sticky substance may have been extracted or decocted from the fishes’ cartilaginous skeletons, most likely the backbone. Because of their soft-tissue composition, skeletal surgeon remains quickly vanish from the archaeological record. The lone archaeological trace of this prehistoric fish is rugged, exterior scutes, which appear on the fish’s body in five exterior rows of triangular, bony, scale-like armor. So hard and indestructible were these rigid medieval armor plates that those from large sturgeon are said to have been employed as scrapers and knives in some indigenous tool kits.

As for green corn, well, a different context altogether. Most Indian cultures that grew corn saluted the mid-summer ripening season with green-corn ceremony and celebration. These seasonal galas would have included dancing, feasting, fasting, ritual and storytelling. According to Wikipedia, “Historically, (green-corn ceremony) involved a first-fruits rite in which the community would sacrifice the first of the green corn to ensure the rest of the crop would be successful.” This rite was observed here in the valley by indigenous people, all members of corn cultures by the time Europeans set foot in the Connecticut Valley in the early seventeenth century.

Oh well, that’s about all I have this week. … Just a little something to think about as the Sturgeon or Green Corn Moon builds in the midnight sky. Come Aug. 7 at 2:11 a.m., it’ll bloom to its full celestial splendor, casting soft silver light over earth and sky, slate roofs illuminated in the softest of grays.

The Vermont Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can’t beat that.

Nature Reigns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deer, Turkeys And Deaf Ears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sad. Would it hurt to listen to opposing views?

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

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

The Season Of Plenty

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

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

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

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

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

He wasn’t satisfied. Wanted to know more.

“Where do you live?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I tend to agree.

 

*****

 

Little to report on the anadromous fish-migration front.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nature’s Ways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*****

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds good, but where did that get them?

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

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

Yeah, right. Maybe.

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

Anadromous Countdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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