Springtime Observations

What a day. One delay after another. Not a one of them unwelcome. Must be the springtime air. Positive energy. The season of optimism. Mating and nesting. No wonder birds are singing their happy tunes.

On my way out to the dogs, delayed till noon, a blind man couldn’t have missed that brilliant cock cardinal sitting in the naked, budding, front-yard sugar maple that’s seen better days. Battered and bruised, it’s a survivor, and then some. Hit by lightning before I moved to Greenfield 21 springs ago, I’ve had it tended to a few times, including the time some 15 years ago when a June microburst swept in from the northwest and toppled a tall spruce tree at the tip of my driveway island. When I returned home, the 60-foot tree was uprooted across the eastern leg of the driveway and onto the front yard, taking out several large maple limbs that threw the tree way out of balance toward the house.

The damage necessitated a visit from my friend Blue Sky, a tree man with a conscience who removed the spruce and shaped the maple by crowning it, that is shaving maybe 15 feet off the crown. Today, it still stands, a big chunk hollowed out of the trunk’s eastern face, again in need of a little trimming, which worries me a little but not my cat, who uses it for security, or that bright red cardinal sitting there Wednesday. The bird’s joy was loud and obvious from the happy springtime melody it was singing, likely waiting for me to leave so he could fly down to the bushes to eat rose hips, mock-orange and/or burning-bush seeds, his choice, all three plentiful under his sunny maple perch.

Those quacking ducks I reported hearing last week and promised to eventually identify did indeed show themselves the very next day. This time, the wind was right for rambunctious Chubby, who entered the swollen wetland under two wild apple trees, ran through the marshy tangles and entered the standing water backed up under the escarpment lip. I could tell by his alert, playful gait and aggressive splashing that he had a noseful of something he liked very much. Sure enough, after I turned the staghorn-sumac corner and headed south toward water protruding out into the tree-farm meadow, out flushed two vociferous wood duck drakes, head extended straight out, flying fast toward a wet woodland south of me. An excited Chub-Chub wasn’t far behind, mighty proud of himself for displacing those woodies, not to mention sopped to the bone, oozing euphoria.

There is no New England duck more beautiful than the wood duck, which I stopped shooting many years ago out of respect. Woodies love beaver ponds, forest brooks and the type of wetlands where I often flushed them hunting grouse, woodcock or pheasants. Their distinctive sound in flight makes them easy to identify as soon as go airborne, and they are the only ducks I know of that perch in trees. Look it up as I did many years ago when softball buddy Pres, a talented speaker-maker and baseball nut, asked me if I had ever seen a duck perched in a tree. The bemused look I responded with told him I figured he must be having a flashback of some sort from the late Sixties. He chuckled: “I’m serious, Bags. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

I can’t remember if his unforgettable sighting occurred in Colrain, where he once lived, of Conway, where he liked to explore, but it was one or the other. I knew he was serious. Later, looking for confirmation before you could just Google it, I queried former Connecticut Valley Wildlife District Game Manager Mike Ciborowski, asking if ducks perch in trees. “Yes,” responded the fellow South Deerfield native with no hint of a wry grin or jest in his voice. “Wood ducks perch in trees.” I have still never seen it myself, but don’t doubt it, either. Ciborowski knows his birds.

Something else that stirred my curiosity this week unfolded Tuesday and Wednesday out in the middle of a hayfield near home. Walking south with Chubby and Lily Tuesday morning, Chub-Chub lit up on a scent that captured my fancy. His reaction told me it was a bird, maybe a turkey, although I have yet to see one this spring where I walk daily. On a full sprint, he ran a broad circle, crossed it through the middle back toward me, passed me and sprinted to a distant tree line along the lip of an escarpment bordering Sunken Meadow. He followed the tree line south to another tree line heading west, then started snooping around a garden, green houses and haying equipment. No luck, he knew the chase was over. “Hmmmm? Wonder what that was all about,” I pondered as I continued along my merry way. Toward the end of the walk, within sight of my truck some 100 yards away, I heard the distinctive call of an airborne killdeer passing in front of me, Chubby racing behind it with purpose. It was my first killdeer sighting of spring. Maybe that’s what Chubby was after, I thought.

Well, next day, Wednesday noontime, retracing my path of the previous day after exiting my truck, I noticed a big solitary bird standing out in the middle of the field. From afar, the profile told me Canada goose, possibly a duck, maybe even a turkey, the latter a long shot. As I got closer, dogs roaming between me and the road and unaware of the bird, I could see it was indeed a goose, which was fully tuned into our presence and ready to flee. Standing right where Chubby had gone wild the previous day, I figured goose must have been the scent he had chased.

I walked up to within maybe 60 yards of the big bird and thought maybe it was hurt and unable to fly. I hoped not, because my dogs would definitely catch it if injured, and I’d have to try to rescue it. No easy task. But, no, it was fine, honking and angling away from me on the run before taking a slow, low, laborious ascent across the field. It had no reason to hurry. Chubby caught sight of it late and pursued in a half-hearted chase that soon ended. The sighting seemed peculiar to me. No. 1, why was it alone? No. 2, why the slow ascent? Aaah, I guess it was OK. It had no reason to overreact.

A hour later, pulling into my driveway, it’s later than I like when I have to crank out a column. I park temporarily next to the hitching past west of the barn, open my pickup’s tailgate and release the dogs from their porta-kennels. They aren’t on the ground more than a second or two and, above me, the whistling sound of a wood duck passes, headed for Hinsdale Brook. I wasn’t the only one who heard it. Chubby was tuned in, standing statuesque and watching, ears perked, as the duck hooked down into the stream 20 yards upstream from the kennel.

“Leave it,” I said, and he made no effort to pursue.

He knew better. Been there, done that. Tomorrow another day.

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