Early Antlers?

Full moons, phone calls and velvet. Enticing indeed.

So let’s go back to Sunday morning, July’s Buck Moon  in the overnight sky waxing toward its full Tuesday splendor. And, oh, how beautiful that full moon was at 3 a.m. Wednesday, casting a surreal silver light across the front yard that even fooled the cat, which usually awaits  daybreak to climb the bedroom screen window to inform us that it’s time for an additional bedmate.

Back to Sunday morning, I had returned home from a robust walk with the dogs and the caller-ID indicated that old friend Rogie had called while I was away. I grabbed the phone, sat down, selected his name on the screen and returned the call. We’re old friends. Good friends.

He immediately picked up, knew who was calling and, not unexpectedly, opened with a customary smart-aleck remark. “Hey, why don’t you throw your dogs in the truck and drive down here to go looking for deer. Then, when we’re done, we can go down to the bottom of the hill and split some cordwood.”

“Yeah, right,” I responded. “Not today, Pal. I work Sundays.”

He wasn’t serious. Just cranking me up. Whate else is new? On his mind was an interesting deer sighting that had unfolded before his eyes an hour or so earlier on the lush lawn bordering the forest out his den’s large back windows. From the underbrush slid three handsome, antlered bucks — twin spikehorns and another older deer with larger antlers. All three of the deers’ antlers, covered in a thin, silky, olive-brown velvet, seemed to him to be fully grown. It doesn’t take long for bucks to remove this soft, thin layer and put a hard sheen on their antlers by rubbing saplings that keen hunters’ eyes always search for in an attempt to assess the buck activity in a given woodlot. Deer continue polishing their headgear right through the fall rut. By then, dominant bucks rub more aggressively and leave gummy saliva on branch tips, pine needles or even leaves while pawing furiously to make wide, splashy scrapes on the ground. Centered in the ripped-up turf at the base of these rutting trees is a prominent single hoof-print depression into which a “calling card” is urinated to mark territory.

Most interesting of the three sets of  antlers my buddy viewed was one of the spikehorn’s drop-tine lying flat against its face between its ear and eye and curling back toward its shoulder. “When I first noticed that heavy line running back across the face, I thought it was a gash or cut, so I grabbed my binoculars and glassed him,” he said. “Then I could see it was an antler bent back. He must have caught it on a tree or fence or something when it was still soft. I’ve read about that happening to deform antlers.”

The topic happened to be apropos for me. I had been giving much thought to bucks in velvet ever since a prolific emailer I hear from daily sent a photo of twin Leverett 4-pointers with velvet antlers that appeared fully formed on June 27, three days before my birthday. Long years of monitoring such natural wonders told me it was early for fully-grown deer antlers in velvet. I use my June 30th birthday as a measuring stick for that particular phenomenon, and sightings have always occurred after my birthday, with full growth typically occurring over the second half of July. But perhaps I was misremembering, like witnesses or suspects sometimes do. Or, then again, maybe  deer antlers, like virtually everything else during this spring and summer following an unusually mild, snowless winter were ahead of schedule.

Well, it didn’t take long for more data to appear from a colleague and neighbor I affectionately call Big Boiczyk. The young man often shares Greenfield Meadows wildlife sightings because he knows I like to keep track of such things. He told me of nearly hitting what he called “my buck” trying to cross Plain Road near the Nims Farm just after Fourth of July Weekend. He was referring to  an animal that is now a dominant 5- or 6-year-old racker with a distinctive splayed front hoof print I can  easily and do often recognize, having observed this wise old deer since he was a spotted fawn nursing his mom. Big Boiczyk claimed that deer was sporting a full set of nice  antlers in velvet, which, again, seemed early to me.

Then, just like that, more local data from buddy Rogie, another reliable, experienced and knowledgeable wildlife spotter, adding to the mystery with his Sunday sighting. So, fellas, take it to the bank — local bucks greeted Tuesday night’s soft, silver Full Buck Moon wearing full headgear in velvet.

According to the Farmer’s Almanac narrative explaining full-moon names, that’s uncharacteristic of June/July antlers. The almanac explains that the Indians called this moon the Buck Moon because, “July is normally the month when new antlers of buck deer push through  their foreheads in coatings of velvety fur.”

So, see, just like the broken-off, pointy-green-leaved, red-oak limb-tip I found floating down the Green River a couple of weeks ago, it sporting good-sized acorns that were, in my assessment, more indicative of August, deer antlers in this neck of the woods are also ahead of schedule.

Even though it’s vacation time and the two “credentialed” sources I tried to reach did not respond in time to add their insight before deadline, I’m more than confident that I’ve received enough evidence to confirm my suspicion, one based on many years of observation and formed with knee-jerk immediacy upon viewing that June 27 email photo of the twin Leverett 4-pointers on my high-def computer monitor.

Never in my recollection have I seen full velvet antlers like that before my birthday.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

——————

Updated numbers that will be “final,” at least for American shad passage in the Connecticut River basin, arrived this week from Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle, who oversees our river for the United States Fish & Wildlife Service and announced that the regular spring lift schedule concluded Friday.

The shad numbers (392,067) dropped  a bit from  last year’s hefty total of 416,355. But,  on a more  positive note, the passage through Turners Falls and Vernon, Vt., to the historic Bellows Falls, Vt., terminus was better than most over a long restoration effort. A total of 54,069 shad made it past Turners Falls this year, and of those fish, 35,732 passed Vernon and 1,973 were counted at Bellows Falls. Sprankle noted that the Bellows Falls number was a record while Vernon’s was No. 3 all-time.

Meanwhile, according to Coordinator Sprankle, “(Endangered) shortnosed sturgeon continue to enter the Holyoke facility in strong numbers, with 10 fish trapped on July 14 and eight more  trapped on Friday. Holyoke Fish Lift will operate on a shortened lift schedule specifically for shortnose through the summer and into the fall. … Many of the passage numbers remain provisional but are not expected to change much, with only a few end-of-operation dates/counts at upstream ladders missing at this time.”

As for Atlantic salmon, another has been counted since my last report, with a total of six now, compared to 22 last year. The sixth salmon was captured and tagged below the Leesville Dam on Connecticut’s Salmon River. The other five salmon were counted on the Westfield River (2) and at the Holyoke dam (3).

This is probably  this space’s final anadromous-fish-passage report of the season.

——————

A reader who viewed the photo accompanying last week’s column about a round, narrow, cement-filled, barrel-like obstruction (new photo from a different angle on Page D1) that log-jammed in the Green River — creating a high-water eddy whose swirling water had built a midstream sandbar or small island since last fall — believes the object is an old water heater. He’s probably right, and I must admit I initially considered water heater due to the one-inch pipe protruding from the capped top end. The reason I didn’t mention that potential identification was that the 12-inch, tube-shaped object seemed too narrow for a water heater.

“No,” said the reader, “some of those old water heaters were only eight- or nine-inches wide and a lot of farmers used them for different things, including culvert pipes. It looked like an old water heater to me in the photo.”

Case closed. I have reinspected it and do believe the reader is correct. It is an old water heater filled with coarse-gravel cement and used as a footing for a small bridge or riverside pier.

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