On The Trail: Rattlesnake, falcons and fish racks

Thursday, August 10, 2017

OK. A little of this, a little of that this week.

First, a new topic I almost addressed a few weeks ago, then pushed off to the side. Plus I intend to rehash a couple of often-discussed subjects, both classic re-emergers that seem to boomerang now and again. Remember, I have filled this weekly space for nearly 40 years … a long time, no matter who’s counting. Thus, some topics are bound to resurface now and again from slightly different angles.

I’ll begin with the timber rattlesnake that showed up in Springfield’s South End this summer and caused to a lot of television-news commotion. That was back on July 16. A Massachusetts Environmental Police lieutenant responded to a Springfield residence from which city animal-control officers had captured a three-foot-long timber rattler five blocks from City Hall. When the first reports speculated that it could have been a released pet, I got a little giggle and, after pondering for a brief moment, decided against a critical assessment spiced with a pinch of ridicule. Why not wait to see what developed down the road, I thought, after the snake had been thoroughly examined?

Finally, last week on a Friday-afternoon whim, I reached out to MassWildlife public-relations maven Marion Larson to see if there was anything new about the poisonous viper. I was quite pleased to discover that my email query was timely indeed. The issue was right there on Larson’s front burner.

“Left a voice mail at your home regarding your inquiry,” she promptly responded by email while I was on the road in South Deerfield. “There is an interesting update about this snake. We’ll be posting on our Facebook page, probably Monday. … FYI the Environmental Police had two posts about this on their Facebook page. They are very interested in trying to get some leads.”

Bingo! How’bout that? A real, live story. Maybe old news by today, but Larson wasn’t so sure when it would hit the street. Seeing that I haven’t heard a word about it anywhere yet, well … here it is.

Upon examining the snake, a protected endangered species, scientists discovered that it had been microchipped by state wildlife officials in the Berkshires two weeks before reaching the South End. The serpent was immediately returned to its western Massachusetts home at an undisclosed location. And, no, to my knowledge, Dick Cheney is not and never has been at the secret location.

Because snakes do not travel as far as the considerable distance between of that snake’s home and Springfield, officials are certain it was captured and set free to slither in the city. This is a violation of the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, which forbids anyone from possessing, transporting, harassing or disturbing endangered wildlife. A first offense brings a $500 fine or imprisonment for up to 90 days, or a combination of fine and imprisonment. Repeat offenders are subject to increased fines of $5,000 to $10,000 and imprisonment for up to 6 months.

An investigation is underway. The telephone-tip hotline number is 1-800-632-8075.

Turning to follow-up focused on last week’s discussion about historic accounts of Mount Sugarloaf’s “duck hawks,” which turned out to be peregrine falcons, interesting feedback came my way from three knowledgeable sources, all of whom identified Sugarloaf’s eastern cliffs facing the Connecticut River as a present-day peregrine nesting site.

An employee called to report that morning crews opening the state reservation’s gates often find peregrines perched along the chain-link fence separating sightseers from the dangerous cliffs below. Also, he has learned of a naturalist from the Teddy Roosevelt Administration who visited Sugarloaf in the early 20th century to get motion pictures of the fast, showy, acrobatic falcons. Later, when birds of prey were growing scarce due to the pesticide DDT and wanton slaughter by humans protecting favored falcon prey, a proposal to collect Sugarloaf peregrine eggs for preservation of the species was greeted by catcalls in Recorder-Gazette letters to the editor. Apparently, many Franklin County residents were opposed to any effort to re-establish falcon populations. Instead, they wanted the raptors exterminated to spare songbirds and barnyard fowl they ate, not to mention colorful migratory ducks that folks enjoyed hunting in the Connecticut River corridor.

South Deerfield resident Rob Ranney-Blake, who identified himself as a birder, wrote to tell of today’s Sugarloaf peregrine nests. He did so in a long, handwritten, heartfelt note written inside a formal folded card, his pencil sketch of Sugarloaf’s eastern face gracing the cover, with current peregrine nests marked.

Old friend Karl Meyer was the first responder, emailing me before 7 a.m. the day last week’s column appeared. He wanted to point out why peregrines were called “duck hawks” back in the day.

“You probably already have this,” he wrote, “but you only have to go back a couple of generations to get these three common names for local falcons:

“duck hawk — peregrine

“pigeon hawk — merlin

“sparrow hawk — kestrel.”

He surmised that those three falcons were named according to the largest prey they hunted. “Though not a big part of their day-to-day,” he wrote, “peregrines are capable of pouncing on ducks on the wing.”

I responded that I was much more familiar with the term “chicken hawk,” which I assume we’ve all heard. Meyer’s reply was that the term, locally, most often referred to red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks. Queried Wednesday morning on the phone, my avid bird-watching brother-in-law from Maine explained that many hawks were called chicken hawks within their domain. Such hawks are, according to Meyer, “‘buteo’ hawks, not in the ‘falcon’ class.’”

Finally, a little narrative about a common Native American riverside fish-curing procedure that shows up coast to coast in North America. This topic is always appropriate here in the Connecticut Valley, home of many pre-Columbian riverside fishing sites. To name some of the more prominent places where native people gathered for fishing activity, we have the Enfield, Conn., falls, Chicopee Falls, South Hadley Falls, Turners Falls, Shelburne Falls, the Vernon, Vt. falls, and Bellows Falls, Vt., where spring migrations of anadromous fish (salmon, shad, herring, sturgeon) were harvested by many clever, perfected methods.

In recent weeks, I have pored through a great volume of West Coast poet/linguist/ethnologist/anthropologist Jaime de Angulo’s writings, many of them published after his 1950 death yet still in print. De Angulo came to America in 1905 to become a cowboy and soon became enthralled and lived with western Indians. There, he studied their Stone Age cultures, their languages and oral traditions, recording his research in many published and unpublished reports. In his well-known “Indian Tales,” a series of ancient stories written for his children and published posthumously as a delightful little novel still in print, he described a fish-processing station along a remote, mountainous northern California river. Having fished a river with much success, the characters Grizzly and Bear decide to smoke the many fish they’ve caught for preservation. To do so:

“They made a platform of sticks and green twigs, like a grill, with a slow fire underneath, burning all day, and at the same time the sun was shining. On this grill they laid the fish, after they had opened them with obsidian knives, and then they turned them over and over while they were drying.”

I have read of this identical fish-curing process with and without smoke (most often with), covering territory from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean. I assume the procedure differed little if at all from what you would have found throughout the ancient Connecticut River basin.

This curing method would have been practiced when the Connecticut Valley was “discovered” and settled by Europeans during the second and third quarters of the 17th century. The problem is that these invaders recorded little about Indian culture and customs before the indigenous people were driven out. It makes sense when you consider that the focus was on “Christianizing” these people and wrestling away their land, not respecting and understanding their culture, beliefs and deep-history tales about the landscape.

From what I’ve read, Indians did not fillet their fish as we know it — that is separate the meat from the bones with a sharp, thin knife like contemporary fishermen. Instead, they opened their fish along the belly, removed the guts, lightly split the backbone lengthwise and laid out the joined sides flat on drying racks, like skin-on boneless breasts of chicken, the halves held together by skin. The fish skin held the halves together while smoke, sun and frequent flipping sped the dripping, drying, evaporating process. Once the fish were dried and ready for storage, they were placed in sealed, bark-lined, earthen pits or “barns” that could be opened and emptied months later to be eaten. In this cured state, the skin is easily removed and discarded, hot or cold.

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.