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It’s mid-July and already there are signs that summer is waning. The strawberries have come and gone, and fields that have not been mowed are brown and dry. Many small streams are dried up or contain stagnant remnants of their enthusiastic flows. The buck that has visited my yard each evening now has velvet-covered antlers with at least four points on a side. The raccoons now number six (two adults and four kits) and the turkeys whose first-round nesting efforts were successful travel in the company of poults the size of barnyard chickens. A few hens re-nested and are tasked with raising their chicks despite endless battles with rain, wind and predators – the crows follow them everywhere hoping to snatch up that inevitable straggler.
My woodland treks reveal plenty of tracks – deer, bear, coyote, mink, raccoon and turkeys – but I see less of them now because the foliage is so thick and the humidity keeps them (and me) from wandering around the forest. The heavy haze of summer is upon us, with all the creatures in our loop laying low and moving about only when foraging or moving to escape danger.
It’s a dangerous time for wildlife right now. Territories are forever in flux and already this summer I’ve seen turkeys, skunks, raccoons, deer, rabbits and porcupines lying beside the road. I recently drove a back road to the grocery store and nearly wiped out a family of porcupines. Two adults and one prickly little pup waddled across the gravel in front of me. I was able to stop in time and let them pass, but they were lucky. Mid-summer is a rough period for road-crossing wildlife, nearly as bad as in fall, when rambunctious deer and other animals meet an unfortunate end at the edge of the tarmac. In some states the annual death toll on deer surpasses 50,000 each year, and the number of smaller birds and animals is probably 10 times that number. Folks have asked that the “deer crossing” signs be moved to safer places – a great idea but, of course, a naïve one. They don’t cross there because a sign tells them to! Those crossings existed long before humans came along to pave and announce them.
I have also noticed that the fishing has been rather slow of late, too. Some blame the heavy June rains, some blame the heat, but it is what it is and it hasn’t been good. My favorite bass pond is choked with weeds now and it seems as though the fish have not been nesting quite as eagerly as they have in the past. Small coves that once produced a dozen fish per trip now contain just one or two. One area of the pond that used to be dotted with bluegill nests now has none. I’m not sure if heat, high water or a cold spring had anything to do with it but the reduction in nests is noticeable. Other anglers have reported seeing “all kinds of them,” so it may be an isolated situation. I hope so!
Not to say that there are no signs of abundance out there. My blueberry bushes are laden with berries, just as they were last year. The low-bush varieties were nearing their peak a week ago, and the high-bush berries should be fully ripe, or nearly so, in the next several days. To my surprise, I have one quart of last year’s berries left in the freezer, which means I planned my supply just right. Too bad I’m not as accurate and successful with every plan I make! It’s always too much or too little and I invariably get caught short. At least the blueberries are willing to cooperate.
Another promising sign of a productive summer is the number of songbirds I’ve seen (and heard) lately. For some reason the “color birds” have been more noticeable this summer than at any other time I can remember. Cardinals, rose-breasted grosbeaks, orioles, scarlet tanagers and goldfinches are not only frequent visitors at the feeder but they seem to enjoy crowding around the house and singing their territorial hearts out all day. Not long ago I had three grosbeaks singing vigorously to (or at) each other from three separate trees. Their song is a bit disjointed and casual compared to that of other, enthusiastic birds, but I enjoy hearing them and, even better, trying to spot them amid the thick green canopy. With patience I can get a good look at them with my 30x spotting scope but it’s a tedious process, especially because the birds tend to move just when I’ve narrowed my search to the final limb or branch.
The usual gang of veerys and thrushes have entertained me all summer with their “down the water spout” songs. They seem to be most vociferous around sunset, but I do hear them occasionally throughout the day. It’s a short performance window but quite pleasant nonetheless.
Around sunset I begin to hear loons calling as they switch ponds, and once in a while I’ll hear a whippoorwill start up for a night of song and insect hunting. I’ve had these big birds land in my dooryard and sing for hours. Believe me, it sounds much better in the distance! Their call is loud and piercing up close, impossible to sleep through. Once they get your attention they don’t let go, much like a dog barking in the distance; once you hear it you can’t ignore it. Fortunately, these members of the nightjar family tend to move around during the night, and once they are satisfied that you are awake and alert they move on to disrupt someone else’s sleep.
Also common on a summer’s night is the call of the owls. I have great horned owls and barred owls in my woods. They start a hooting contest just before dark and keep it up all through the night. They move around quite a bit during the performance so it often sounds like there are dozens of owls out there but, truthfully, there may be only two or three. I have a large, lone cherry tree in my yard and, naturally, the barred owls like to sit up there and serenade me for hours on end.
They stick around all year but aren’t as vocal during the winter months, which is partly why I’m such a big fan of cold and snow . . . not yet, but it’s coming!
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