Worthwhile Walk

The tomatoes are in the ground, the rhubarb is tall, ripe and a tad tart, asparagus reaches to the heavens, robin-egg shells are underfoot, the smell of red clover is a sweet reminder of the summer to come, and things are starting to happen in the wild kingdom.

Just the other night, approaching 8 on a long holiday weekend, I figured I’d give the dogs a little bonus romp through the upper hayfields. The weather was nice, and I knew it would be worth the trip, always the potential of catching the five deer that have been lurking for weeks out and about for their evening feed. Plus, I knew the dogs would love it, searching the wind for scent, any scent, to pursue.

I exited the truck, walked to the back, lifted the cap hatch, dropped the tailgate, opened the two porta-kennels on my truck’s bed and the dogs were off like heat-seeking missiles, first Chubby, then Lily, racing off in different directions. Chubby, obscured in a tall, verdant tangle of grasses, took the overgrown double-rutted road east while Lily went south, roughly following my path through the field. Even though the grasses are taller than the dogs, their dominant color is white, which, combined with their pogo-stick movement, makes them easy to track through high cover.

I was walking a brisk pace east, not paying a whole lot of attention to what the dogs were up to when a sound from Lily’s direction drew my attention.

“Putt, putt, putt,” was the unmistakable alarm audible, and there it went, a big, handsome turkey that looked too big and black for a hen, flying low due east ahead of Lily in hot pursuit. The big bird cleared the treeline overlooking the Green River from the lip of a steep escarpment along the west bank and disappeared into the woods on the other side. Because Lily followed the flush without turning back to pester any potential poults left behind, my suspicion of a gobbler was reinforced. It was probably the same bird I heard flush that morning from the woods overlooking a swamp about a quarter-mile south of the evening flush site. I never did get a glimpse of that bird, but I heard it putting out over the dense brown cattail depression before Chubby doubled back and burst through the tree line on an all-out, jacked-up mission across the acre or two Christmas-tree plot full of fragrant red clover.

I wonder if that tom, which survived the four-week spring turkey-hunting season that had closed that very Saturday at noon, was drawn by the mature clover. Could be. Or maybe we just happened upon it by being at the right place at the right time on its weekly rounds. Whatever, it was there and old Lily, a frisky, rambunctious 11, found it. Surely hens and young broods will follow, then the first hoof prints, no bigger than a Liberty quarter, will appear, signalling the arrival a new fawn crop. We’re entering perilous times for fawns, which spend their first few days buried, still and nearly odorless in tall hayfield whelping nests to avoid predators. The biggest danger is haying season, when the little ones instructed to lie still when the doe’s away cannot escape mowers. Thus some nests are unavoidably wiped out before the farmers can react. Chalk it up as “progress,” I guess, because it likely wasn’t an issue when farmers cut their hay with scythes and piled their crop in hayricks before getting it under cover in the barn.

It seems to be the same five or six deer people are seeing in my neighborhood. Not that they’re always grouped. No. There are reports of five, more commonly three, plus occasionally one solitary big one, which I have seen three of four times coming home at night from work. I have also seen its familiar splayed track, which I have grown familiar with the past five years. I was convinced that buck was dead because I hadn’t seen its distinctive track since late last summer. Not so. He’s alive and well, probably the dominant buck in the neighborhood; or at least one of them. Don’t ask me where he went all fall and winter, but he’s back patrolling the fields and wetlands where he was born.

I bet it was that big spring buck that I moved Tuesday morning under two large oaks and a couple of nice shagbark hickories. When I heard it run off, I knew it could be a deer but thought it was probably Chubby chasing scent down into the swamp. Curious, I stepped into the woods and noticed a quick flash of white headed toward a deep swamp, then saw Chub-Chub racing toward me from behind on the upper terrace I was standing on. It definitely wasn’t Chubby I had heard or seen. Ten minutes later, down in the far southwestern corner where I had seen the white flash, both dogs indicated something had passed through recently, and both of them pursued the scent through a dry, brittle swamp hole and back through a thorny border into the deeper swamp. I will likely be bumping into that deer and four or five others for the remainder of the summer. They usually don’t go far.

Which, because of the location on that floodplain bordered on the south by a beaver pond, reminds me of the most peculiar sight I’ve seen this spring. Walking with grandson Arie, 5, on the morning of May 17, Chubby was running wide and headed right for the beaver pond, which he is well aware can at any moment hold flocks of ducks. He hit a sluiceway circling a wooded spine, lay down and slurped a lusty drink before circling the small beaver pond and returning into sight. With he and Lily both out in the field among Christmas trees, I heard an unusual, unfamiliar “squawk,” overhead, looked up and, lo, there was a young Great Blue Heron taking what looked like one of its first flights. Call it learning on the fly. Why would I come to that conclusion, you ask? Well, just the way it squawked four or five times as it awkwardly flew along the wood line, over the river, and right back to where it had come from. Both dogs watched it, alerted by its, “Hey look at me fly” squawk, but neither of them took chase. Instead they went toward the river, took a hollowed-out beaver channel to the river’s edge, stood in the water up to their chests and slurped water to their hearts’ content.

Arie and I had kept moving on our circuitous trip back toward the truck when the dripping-wet dogs blew past us and chased around in and out of a small woodlot and through Christmas-tree rows before we climbed back to the upper terrace for the final flat leg of our journey. I didn’t know it at the time, but that young heron had made quit an impression on little Arie. Even though he didn’t accompany me on any of my daily walks over Memorial Day weekend, several times he mentioned that “baby blue heron and the funny sound he made.” Familiar with the unusual, almost prehistoric profile of a flying adult blue heron because I had pointed it out many times before, he knew what he had seen was his first young one.

A worthwhile trip indeed. In my book, better than a rigid summer camp or nature’s classroom any day of the week.

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