Man’s Best Friend

Catalpa pollen, fawn prints, second nests and puppies: that’s where we’re headed today after an otherwise uneventful week by a careful observer in the fertile Meadows.

Catalpas? Well, my itchy eyes and allergic tickles should have told me they were blooming. As kids we called them banana trees, and they bug me every year around my birthday, a seasonal irritant. Still, I had no clue the trees had flowered until taking a quick trip south Wednesday for meat, veggies and berries. Grandson Jordie is coming to town for the weekend. He told his mother he wanted to go to Massachusetts, and we’re always glad to have him. The kid’s so similar to his late dad; inquisitive, full of questions, sometimes even bossy in a good way. He’ll enjoy little yard chores, splash around in the brook and accompany me on daily Sunken Meadow walks with the dogs, including a new male puppy tagalong, one I may or may not keep. I guess it all depends on what develops and how fast. In the meantime, I better stop calling the little fella Chub-Chub, though, because I don’t expect it to be appropriate for long. For me, yeah, sadly it works. Not for him. Quite the contrary. He’ll soon be lean and leggy, strong and athletic, especially when bounding off his hind legs like a kangaroo through heavy, thorny cover, front legs outstretched high and gracefully over the top when fresh, intriguing scent fills his nostrils. For now, though, he’s just a baby figuring it all out, tagging along with his parents, responding surprisingly well to Chub-Chub or Chubby-Chub or variations thereof. Yep, I better find him a home or a real name soon.

There’s no hiding Chubby’s aristocratic English springer spaniel pedigree, national champions from three countries and two continents lining up behind him on both sides; that and many plain-old field champions, dynamos from the national circuit, all good, some extraordinary. My wife warned me long ago to advertise, said she didn’t want me to get attached. And, to be honest, I told myself “never again” the last time I owned three gun dogs. It’s too many. But when it comes to companionship for my daily meanderings, I can still lean toward masochism, so here I sit with three dogs.

Having only two pups to sell, I figured a lawn sign would suffice. The female went fast, is named Sarah and settled into the Colrain/Heath highlands. She’ll have hundreds of picturesque upland acres to roam, much of it open; pheasants, grouse and woodcock, to boot. Could it get any better for an energetic field spaniel? I don’t know how.

So now it’s just me and Chub-Chub, who’s getting more spoiled by the second. He enjoys free reign of the backyard alcove between woodshed and barn, both open, just biding time until a passerby stops to buy a new pet. I keep thinking it’ll be a New York or southern Connecticut family heading to its southern Vermont country home. I’d clearly prefer that to a local hunter. I’m always reluctant to supply competing dogs for my favorite coverts. Frankly, if the dogs I sell are going to hunt, I’d rather they do it elsewhere; either that or chase a Frisbee or tennis ball along some gilded shore. Take it from the local owner of a closely related bitch purchased from my old softball/hunting buddy. Midway through his second year in the field, the hunter phoned my friend to scold him for not warning he’d need an extra freezer, too.

Anyway, enough of that. I’m not sure I can part with Chubby, anyway. Off to Sunken Meadow, a private spot where I’ve been running the little guy twice daily since the weekend. Just eight weeks old and from the start more timid than his littermate, I only had to lift him from truck bed to ground once. Ever since, to my surprise, he’s followed his parents, leaping down without fear, never once losing his feet. We all know the idiom “hit the ground running.” Well, he literally did. Once on the ground and bulldozing through green, shin-high cover, it’s comical to watch him sprint to intercept his mother or father as they approach at full speed, totally on a mission, tails wagging, searching for scent, be it rabbits or turkeys or grouse or woodcock or whatever; even a noisy chipmunk works when bored. Although I’m not certain little Chubby-Chub quite understands exactly what they’re up to just yet, he’ll get it real fast. All he needs is a few more incidents like the one he witnessed Monday morning; it even surprised me a little, and answered a question I had internally entertained a few weeks back.

The question was: Did that long, rainy stretch of late May wreak havoc on turkey nests? I suspected not because the worst danger for such nests is drenching rains soon after the hatch. Such untimely rains saturate nestlings, which quickly develop pneumonia and die, wiping out entire broods in rapid fashion. On the other hand, hens are usually able to protect eggs from rain by sitting on them, although it’s true that overprotective mothers can be vulnerable to predators by staying with their nests too long. From what I witnessed Monday, at least one local hen lost its brood this spring and has re-nested.

For the second time in three weeks my dogs flushed a hiding mature hen from close quarters among Christmas trees. I figured it was a nesting hen the first time I saw it flush and watched it fly across the field and down the Green River flyway, Buddy sprinting after it at full speed. This time it was Lily who flushed a tight-holding hen from a different location in the same quadrant of the field. I didn’t check for a nest for a couple of reasons but figured there was probably one there, snuggled up to a Christmas tree, similar to the duck nest the dogs found for me last spring. A few days later, the ducklings were swimming the river behind the hen.

It was interesting to watch that turkey explode from the field. I knew Lily had winded something, probably a rabbit judging from the frantic way she was working. Then, after we had walked past the concealed bird and Lily had broken through a dense multiflora rose border into the tangled wetland, she quickly reversed direction and popped back into the field, sprinting straight down a path between two rows of trees and flushing the big bird three feet from her nose. I happened to be watching when the bird flushed, its flapping wings clearly audible from maybe 50 feet away. Little Chubby caught the commotion, too, and promptly scooted back to me for protection as Lily streaked after the bird, which took a similar route to the one Buddy had flushed. I figured it had to be the same bird, this time setting on her second nest, which would soon hatch a clutch of nestlings, then fledglings looking nervously down at us from their hardwood perch. Had the hen’s first nest survived, her poults would have been there Monday. She was alone.

With that little performance behind us, we continued our trek around the meadow’s perimeter, songbirds serenading, bluebirds flashing, a brilliant Baltimore oriole shining in bright background sunlight as it flew out of an apple tree along the river’s edge. There, Buddy and Lily jumped over the undercut bank and ran into the water, slurping as they walked shoulder-deep upstream, then cooling off with a leisurely swim, Chub-Chub watching from the bank, tail wagging excitedly. Soon he’ll join them, on his own terms.

When the adult dogs left the river, they shook a simultaneous rainstorm, jumped back up onto the meadow plain, shook again, and sprinted down the final leg of a familiar journey. Following a riverside farm road, strip of grass down the middle, toward a tall sycamore, I noticed deer tracks in the hard, sandy soil, some big, others tiny. I could have covered the tiny prints with a quarter. Soon I hope to see the spotted fawn or fawns that left them, a sight I never tire of.

Who knows? If I keep little Chubby, he may soon meet his first fawn and turkey brood down by that river. In fact, I’d say it’s pretty likely. I visit the sanctuary often, so peaceful and quiet. But don’t tell my wife. I don’t think she wants to hear it. Two dogs is enough for her, and me.

Maybe I should select an old biblical name like Jedediah or Hezekiah or Zachariah, something to celebrate his Old English ancestry, and mine. If not, I’ll come up with something else, if I hold onto him. In fact, I’m not sure I’ll be able to part with him, now. The more I observe him, the better he looks.

Yes, I think Chub-Chub’s a keeper.

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