Reading Signals

A gentle mist was falling for my noontime Wednesday walk and Lily and Chubby were rarin’ to go. Oh, how they love rainy days, which greatly enhance their scenting capabilities, producing a rambunctious hunting gait, tail in a joyous, eager wag reminiscent of how I once felt those first few days outside for baseball practice. Of course, such euphoric states of mind could lead to trouble that kept you off the diamond for disciplinary reasons … but that’s a story for another day, one many can identify with.

We’ll stick to Wednesday for now, though, one of those spring days when you could feel the yard and the forest understory greening — yellow daffodils drooping to the ground, anxiously awaiting the strong upward pull of a bright sun, one rhubarb plant ahead of the other, it ready to pick, entirely obscuring the narrow-brick facing below the base of the red barn boards. There is no rhubarb better than the first pick. So, don’t let it get too tall. Even early rhubarb is better young, small, sweet and tender, even better when mixed with native strawberries still to come. Yes, yes, asparagus also coming soon, then my own raspberries and blueberries to sweeten morning cereals.

But enough spring thoughts sprung by soft, warm rain. There’s a story to tell about that Wednesday walk with the dogs, one I’ve been waiting longer than anticipated to finally tell …

Lo, I finally saw my first Greenfield Meadows turkey of the year last week, on Friday I believe, a mile of so down the road from home in a field where I have often seen turkeys during my 20 years living there. A small, drab hen, it was feeding not far from the road, head down, scratching at the turf as it slowly walked. I’d call it somewhat curious behavior by a hen at this stage of their annual cycle when, typically, you don’t see just one. Then again, maybe there were others nearby that I didn’t see. I can’t say I spent much time studying the scene. Yes, my first spring sighting, but I knew there would be many more, probably sooner than later.

Monday morning on my daily walk, I bumped into a couple of women, hired hands for a local farmer, walking their dogs around noon. I passed them once without exchanging greetings, again down along a narrow wetland and, to my surprise, a third time when they had doubled back along the Green River. There I had a chance to address them, sharing the fact that I had seen my first Meadows turkey of the season a few days earlier.

“Male or female?’ asked one.

“One lonely hen,” I responded.

“Interesting,” she responded. “We saw two nice toms in that field by the red house, probably the same day.”

Yes, interesting indeed. Turkeys are back in the bottomland just in time for turkey season, which opens Monday.

Back to Wednesday, anxious to get my walk behind me, I drove out into the hayfield farther than usual and, on a whim, took a few passes at some muddy ruts I had created one stupid day weeks ago when I was in a hurry to run the dogs and get home to meet the furnace man. I had been waiting ever since that unfortunate day for the right conditions to try and flatten those embarrassing ruts out on a wet day, employing the same vehicle and tires that foolishly created them. The Wednesday project helped a little, but I must return with the proper tools to make those annoying ruts disappear.

Anyway, we got around the gate leading down from hayfields to Sunken Meadow, followed the surging Green River to the bottom of the short hill and headed straight south toward a narrow wetland where I’ve been playing with two pairs of mated wood ducks. Which reminds me: my naturalist brother-in-law from Maine told me last week that he had seen my narrative about wood ducks perching in trees. The topic has been a fascination of his for years, he said, before directing me to YouTube videos demonstrating how nestlings use their claws to scale the vertacle inner walls of manmade duck boxes on their first trip out to the wild. Check it out. It’s interesting. Wood ducks can climb trees, too, apparently; which makes sense, because they do nest on woody cavities.

Just past the place where I’ve flushed the wood ducks several times in recent weeks, at a staghorn sumac corner, I caught something out of the corner of my eye and spotted a large bird ascending through a riverside softwood stand. It must have heard us, I thought, because Chub-Chub and Lily were near me, totally unaware of the flush. Not for long. Uh-ah.

Chubby, scenting with his head high, picked something up and increased his speed toward where I had seen the bird flush. Not sure what it was, I had considered a large bird of prey or maybe a goose or duck, though I thought the latter unlikely because of the way it flew through, not along the perimeter, of the wood lot. Then I noticed Chubby downshift to achieve his fastest, wildest hunting sprint that’s fascinating to watch. He was on a furious chase that told me it was definitely a turkey I had seen. That’s why it went so effortlessly and comfortably through the woods. Turkeys can fly through the crowns of trees like partridge when spooked.

Well, sure enough, seconds later, four more big birds flushed from just inside the woodlot and followed the path of that initial flush across the Green River. Just as the last one flew, Lily, maybe 50 yards out, picked up the same scent line Chub-Chub had followed and picked up the pace faster than a 13-year-old bitch who’ll turn 14 Saturday should be capable of attaining. Yes, that warty, fatty-tumored, scraggly, old hag ran like the frisky 6-year-old I remember well on the trail of a pheasant flush or retrieve. This, mind you, after two mini-strokes I witnessed with my own eyes. What an incredible dog she’s been. Near the end, I presume, she may yet fool me again. Her spirit is indomitable and quite extraordinary for a dog her age. And take it to the bank: her hips are tight as they get. No problem there. Her genes are good. That I knew before she arrived at my my home in 2004, no papers of proof required.

As for the five turkeys I witnessed flushing with ease through the tall, riverside, softwood canopy, well, I gotta believe that first, unprovoked flush was a wary gobbler, the subsequent four his spring hen harem. Call it experienced observation borne of watching turkeys and turkey behavior for decades. I may be wrong, but just the way it all unfolded suggested to me that the gobbler took flight as a warning of impending danger and the hens hung in there until Chub-Chub sent them scurrying off to find their sultan.

You can’t make it up.

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