On The Trail: Nature’s way

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Nature’s riddles and mysteries can at times really get your wheels spinning. Then again, when you stay active, probe the intricacies of place, and ponder all the possibilities, well, doesn’t such bewilderment keep life worth living?

A case in point is my recent avoidance of a nesting sanctuary along a Green-River floodplain bordered on the west by a slim wetland lip of alder, poplar, wild rose, cattail and much more. This strip of marsh terminates at a steep 20-foot escarpment, undercut in places, where large beech, hickory, maples and oaks reach south and east, forming a solid, narrow tree line framing the upper shelf. On that roadside terrace stand hayfields, a couple of greenhouses and a small commercial vegetable garden, with a string of homes across the street .

I wrote recently of two close encounters I had with birds whose nests my dogs had disturbed, and vowed to skirt the area until the nestlings and fledglings became “upwardly mobile,” so to speak. I have learned that it isn’t long before these helpless little creatures can fly from danger and easily elude my alert gundogs as they romp toward damp, enticing scents through tall grasses.

Since my last mention of this topic, I have not seen hide nor hair, not so much as a downy woodcock breast feather. They’re around. Of that, I’m confident. But we have not bumped into them since the day Lily flushed the hen, who tantalized her and Chub-Chub away from a vulnerable nest by flying low and teasingly slow. A few days later, maybe 100 yards south of this nest, another nest-disturbance occurred. Cubby was the joyous culprit this time, flushing a big, putt-putt-putting hen turkey, who, similar to her small timberdoodle neighbor, craftily drew the dog away from her nest with low, slow flight uncharacteristic of adult turkeys that are not protecting young.

Because I do not keep a daily journal, it’s difficult to pinpoint the day, but late last week, probably noontime Friday, truck in sight as I approached the final left turn of my daily mile-and-some walk, all hell broke loose in a place where similar commotion has presented itself in the past. I was first alerted by a telltale “putt-putt-putt” and a whoosh of wings, and there she was: a hen turkey on the upper level, some 400 or 500 yards north of my first encounter. Again, Chub-Chub had sniffed her out and — Oh, my! — was he fired up. His adrenaline only soared when five or six little ones subsequently took flight into the eastern tree line about 10 yards away. Chubby sprinted after the low-flying hen, heading toward a distant bend in the river and totally ignoring the little ones that had perched in an oak. The mother’s strategy had worked to perfection against a world-class flush-and-retriever, who my buddy Cooker claims has “a big pump,” meaning heart ... and tireless endurance.

I called Chub-Chub and Lily off, walked 100 yards to the truck parked behind a greenhouse, boxed-up the dogs and returned home, certain I would get to know this family of birds much better in the weeks to come. But now, after consecutive sightings on Tuesday and Wednesday, I’m not so sure.

First, before noon Tuesday, nearing the end of our daily journey not 20 yards from my truck, Chubby flushed a putting hen out of the tall, dense hayfield and chased her to the back corner, where she disappeared over the tree line.

Hmmmm? Where were the little ones? Crouched, concealed and ready burst into flight from the deep hayfield? Dead? Then again, maybe we were dealing with a different hen? No way of knowing. Perplexing indeed.

Next morning, around 11 Wednesday, I arrived at my walking place and the farmer was working the field in his tractor, teddering windrows of hay he had cut the previous evening. I parked out of the way in a different location and took the dogs on an abbreviated romp in dry, breezy summer air. We looped the perimeter of the lower meadow and returned to the truck, where the dogs jumped into their porta-kennels. Well, truthfully, I helped geriatric lion-heart Lily, but don’t tell anyone. She’s not proud of it.

I fired-up the truck and followed a double-rutted trail down the edge of the scalped hayfield toward the road. Crossing a little rise with loose hay lying on the ground, shockingly, about 100 yards south of where Chubby had flushed that Tuesday hen, up came another, or maybe the same, less than 10 feet in front of my front right wheel. She must have been crouched flat, hoping I’d pass without incident. No such luck. I would have run her over had she not flown.

The big bird flew the same path the previous day’s bird had flown — heading diagonally to the back corner near a friend’s riverside home.

Hmmm? Was it the same hen I had seen the previous day? The same one I had seen the previous week with five or six little ones? A different, barren hen? You tell me. I have no answers.

Time will tell. I do hope those little ones I avoided for a week or two didn’t fall prey to something. I’m anxious to meet them again. If not, oh well, that’s life. Nature can be kind ... cruel and unforgiving, too.

Sing farewell to the 2017 Connecticut River American shad run. It’s over. Now starts the fun.

Later this summer, millions of progeny will populate the river, providing a great food source for foraging predators that’ll take many but not nearly enough to devastate future runs. Again, Mother Nature doing what she does. No supervision required.

Water temperature at Holyoke reached 72 degrees this week. The run starts to slow down about 68, signaling that it’s time to establish spawning lairs, where immature fish that will return to the river as adults in two to five years are hatched.

This year’s run through Holyoke was No. 2 all-time. The 535,936 thus far counted passing the Barrett Fishway was surpassed only by 1992’s total of 721,000-plus. All said, the fellas had a great year of shad fishing. Unless I’m missing something, the future seems bright indeed on the shad front.

How about that! Finally, we’re concentrating on the anadromous fish run that matters and always has mattered here in the valley. Shad should be the focus of recreational-fishing initiatives, not Atlantic salmon, the king of game fish which have been doomed since the Little Ice Age ended and the Industrial-Revolution began.

Most interesting is that there were always minority New England fisheries biologists who predicted the Connecticut River salmon-restoration program’s demise. As it turns out, they were right, which didn’t save them from being rudely drowned out by true-believer colleagues shouting them down at meetings.

“Silence!” true-believers would roar as they slipped on their black, opaque blinders. “We don’t want to hear it.”

And hear it they didn’t for 50 pathetic years, when top dogs had the audacity to plead with the press to “Ignore the numbers because they don’t matter.”

Sounds good, but where did that get them?

The rest is history, nothing ventured, nothing gained the best justification.

In the meantime, 16 lonely salmon were counted in the river this year. That’s 11 more than last year, and probably about what we can expect until they stop coming entirely. Then again, maybe a new wild salmon will magically appear for future anglers.

Yeah, right. Maybe.

Don’t hold your breath waiting. Salmon restoration in our fertile valley was doomed from the start. There were just too many factors pulling against it, as the captains of industry gave their heartfelt, public pledges to do everything in their power to make it happen. Everything, that is, except threaten the bottom line.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gsand53@outlook.com.