On The Trail: Deer, turkeys and deaf ears

  • This fawn, hidden in a brush pile created by Keith Bardwell during cordwood-cutting chores, didn’t budge while the West Whately man cut and split wood for an hour 30 to 40 feet away. contributed photo/keith bardwell

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

It’s early summer and wildlife sightings are coming at me like bugs at a streetlamp.

One, emanating from an old South Deerfield friend of my late sons, Gary and Rynie, reported five nice whitetail bucks in velvet feeding and enjoying each other’s company in a lush, clover-laced hayfield. “Is that unusual?” he wrote. “We’re not used to seeing five bucks together like that.”

No, not unusual. Early summer is a time when bucks, even dominant rivals, maybe twin brothers, will hang out together while does are focused on raising fawns. The bucks will remain friendly through summer and into early fall, at which time the dynamic changes dramatically during the breeding season or “rut,” when competing bucks spar to establish territory and breed does. Then, after the rut in winter, they become buddies again.

The first and only buck in velvet I’ve seen thus far was feeding on the side of Greenfield Road in Montague. I caught him eating fresh green grass above the retaining wall on the new section of road one Friday afternoon three weeks ago on my way to the Bookmill, Sunderland and South Deerfield.

Standing tall, straight, alert and still, head raised high, that buck’s antlers already stood twice as long as his ears and may have been forked. I can’t say for sure. Couldn’t concentrate on him with a car coming down the hill toward me. My guess is that his antlers were relatively new and may sprout a few points on both sides before they’ve matured.

Curiously, I have not yet seen a velvet buck in my own neighborhood, where they seem to have avoided me on foot and wheeled travels, day and night. That doesn’t mean they aren’t around. I pick up fresh deer tracks daily — some large but not any fawn tracks, the size of a quarter, yet. The prints I’m finding seem fresh indeed on my morning walks through an infant cover crop of rye, and my dogs’ reaction often confirms my suspicion. Sunday morning about 11, Chub-Chub suddenly stopped, stood alert, nose high along the thick edge of an escarpment dropping down into a swamp, and gave out a little playful yip of a bark before I heard a large animal flee. He broke through and went after it before I called him back. He responded, returned quickly, all jacked up, but I never went to the escarpment lip to investigate the wetland below. I assumed from his reaction that it was a deer. It must have been bedded in the shade. Could have been a coyote, I suppose, but I doubt it.

Keith Bardwell of West Whately sent the photo (displayed below) of a fawn he discovered during wood-cutting chores a couple of weeks ago. “I came close to stepping on it,” he wrote in a short email that arrived Monday. “I had cut the tree the previous day. When I came back the next day, hidden in the brush was this fawn. I took the picture about 5 to 6 feet away and went about cutting and splitting 30 or 40 feet away for an hour. It never moved.”

Which makes me wonder how many invisible fawns I’ve passed on my daily rambles, be it plowing through chest-high hayfields, before they were scalped, teddered and baled, or walking along the many dense wetland borders I skirt.

In recent years, I’ve encountered big, antlered, midmorning bucks standing still and hidden along the edges. These smart, clever animals play a game of chicken with me, hoping I’ll pass without seeing them, only to get spooked when my dogs scurry too close. A fawn hidden like the one photographed below won’t move. It’s almost certain that I’ve passed a few, undetected, in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, I’m not seeing broods of wild-turkey poults, just a barren hen that my dogs have flushed several times over the past two weeks. I can always tell when Chub-Chub catches wind of her. He carries his head high and bounces as though springing off of four pogo sticks, before busting through the dense border, popping out down the way, and aggressively circling, darting and searching. I never know quite when, where or if the flush will finally occur, but sometimes I eventually I hear that telltale “putt-putt-putt” and whooshing wings before catching streaks of pursuing white — Chubby and Lily — in dogged chase. It’s just a game, maybe even for the turkey, too. Hide and seek. Catch me if you can. Kid’s stuff.

Old pal Bill Gokey of Conway’s Shirkshire section near the Ashfield line often chimes in to report wildlife sightings or nature observations around his hilltown spread. His latest email arrived Tuesday afternoon. He’s worried about the crop of immature wild turkeys: “Lots of deer, bobcats and bear. Adult turkeys are everywhere, but I haven’t seen a poult, not one, so far this year. Cold rain early, maybe?”

Yes, entirely possible, especially given what I’ve been seeing in my own neighborhood. Obviously, not an ideal spring for hatchlings, nestlings or fledglings. But why worry? Mother Nature has a way of managing things far better than human beings can. Last year was a great year for nest survival. This year, not so good. Cool and wet, which can wipe out nests with pneumonia. It all evens out in the end.

Too bad we refuse to similarly allow forest ecosystems to manage themselves. They’re capable of it, you know. Cutting-edge forestry experts and deep ecologists claim our woods would be much better off left alone than they are under entrenched management initiatives that view forests as tree farms — economic commodities to be harvested for timber in 80-year cycles. The status quo committed to tired, old forest-management policy doesn’t want to hear new, progressive voices. I witnessed that reality up close and personal at a private presentation in Charlemont about a month ago, aimed at countering overwhelming “official support” for the much-publicized Mohawk Trail Woodland Partnership (MTWP) initiative. The meeting was crashed by uninvited local MTWP promoters who basically shouted down speaker Michael Kellett, calling him unfair and biased and eliminating any hopes of open and honest post-presentation discussion.

Sad. Would it hurt to listen to opposing views?

Oh yeah, back to turkey poults, a few hours after Gokey chimed in with his dire report about the status of this year’s crop, he sent an email update: “Ironic that I said no poults. An hour after I emailed you, I saw a hen a two newly hatched little ones,” he wrote. “Maybe a second go round?”

Yes indeed. That’s what it sounds like. Not unusual after turkeys lose their first broods. The problem is that these late arrivals enter winter a little smaller, younger and weaker and can be susceptible to mortality. Of course, Mother Nature can overcome that, too, if you let her.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England.