Yard Work

After a long, frigid, snowy winter, spring is peeking over partially exposed stonewalls poking through snow beneath naked hardwoods gathering bright midday sun on southern slopes. Soon, on these same sun-splashed hillsides, the first maple sap will flow freely as dense deer yards break up and scatter hither and yon.

In fact, sap buckets are already dangling from taps on stately old maples gracing our early, muddy, rutted upland roads. Yeah, I know tubing is the way to go for maximum production, but forgive me for being old-fashioned and preferring lidded buckets, the sight and the syrup they produce. But that’s just me. Old-timers will tell you plastic tubing cannot duplicate the “fancy” first-run syrup gathered by bucket, a chore for real men, especially in deep snow. It is said that even the lightest amber gathered by tubes is always a hint darker than bucket fancy, even when the tubes siphoning sugar-bush gold into large basin vats are diligently steam-cleaned before each season, a process which, according to those who know best, happens rarely in frugal New England Yankee land. Why? Simple. Because it takes too big a bite out of profit.

I’m sure some will get hopping mad at me for saying such a thing in print, but those who know best say sap collected in galvanized pails produces lighter syrup in every grade. Being no expert, I’ll take them at their word. But, enough of that, I’m not here to discuss the idiosyncrasies of maple-syrup production. Let’s talk about deer, which, like the maple orchards where they sometimes seek winter refuge, can sense spring approaching, thus the many recent predark sightings along our country roads.

Reports of abundant deer sightings started reaching me early last week, when a friend and hunting buddy called to say he had taken a half-hour ride through north Greenfield and Leyden and counted no fewer than 42 deer. “If you have a chance, you ought to take Joey out for a ride some night before supper,” he said. “I think she’d enjoy it.” And, yes, I may take such a ride if everything lines up just right. But to be honest, it’s not urgent. We have seen it before: fields full of deer exiting their winter yards to feed before dispersing to their home ranges.

During a winter like we’ve endured, with deep, cumbersome snow making travel difficult, deer yards draw more animals than during mild winters. A respected deer biologist and friend once told me that a local deer yard near my home likely draws animals 30 to 50 miles from the north and west. When the snow gets deep, dangerous and daunting, deer leave the high country and settle into southern valley slopes that make life easier. Once the snow melts and the woods open up, the deer disappear, wandering back where they came from. That day is now near. But the next couple of weeks should be ideal for sightings of large deer herds. They seem to love the southeastern Leyden hills, along that first upland plateau west of the Connecticut River.

Less than a week after the first of three rapid-fire reports from my hunting buddy, there came a phone call at work from an old South Deerfield friend who’s ventured into photography in the comforts of retirement. He said he’d been watching several deer eat his evergreen landscaping for weeks but had noticed a significant spike last week. He counted 27 deer as we spoke that night and said he probably missed some. He was curious why, suddenly, his backyard herd had tripled or quadrupled. One of his photos accompanies today’s piece; another, of a coyote with a bloody snout from a fresh deer-kill, accompanied last week’s piece. Obviously, there is a deer yard not far from his home. Those deer are gaining mobility and are now traveling deeply trodden trails to his yews, arborvitae and rhododendron. “Maybe I ought to start buying something to feed them,” he chuckled. “It would probably be cheaper.” Yes, most definitely. In fact, a friend of mine likely feeding some of the same deer puts out dried corn on the cob.

The locations I’ve mentioned in Leyden and Deerfield both rest on elevations not far from the Connecticut River, overlooking rich, Hadley-loam bottomlands. Several recent rides I’ve taken through higher country to the west have revealed little if any deer sign. Then, at a party Saturday night, I had a discussion with an upland resident who lives a little more than a mile up the hill from me. He supported my opinion that the deep snow had chased deer into the lowlands. Asked to assess the regular deer crossings along the steep road behind my home, my neighbor said there were none, zero, and there haven’t been any since the New Year. His last deer sighting on daily commutes to and from home occurred during deer season, when the snow was still manageable.

Soon, along the fertile flats that sprout our first tender, green growth of spring, or around cornfield spilth, motorists will observe unusual herds of 50 to 70 evening deer feeding like cattle, not fleeing when cars slow down to watch. In no time they’ll be gone and smaller groups will again start appearing in the upland meadows.

Yes, this winter’s mortality rate was likely higher than normal, but it’s nothing the herd cannot tolerate. Nature doesn’t work that way without human interference.

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