Because I am not a bowhunter (can’t see the sights anymore and am waiting for Maine to allow crossbows for October deer hunting), I have been spending my October days in the woods in search of small game – rabbits, grouse, squirrels and waterfowl. Overall, I have to say that the hunting has been less than stellar, perhaps due to the unusually warm weather, perhaps due to being sideswiped so often by passing hurricanes, or maybe the best hunting, like everything else this year, has been delayed a few weeks.
While I have had some luck lately I spend most of my time brewing tea, looking around and wondering where all the critters have gone. In the past week I’ve seen exactly three squirrels, no grouse and no rabbits. I did hear a flock of geese calling in the distance one afternoon just before sunset, and every so often I’d hear a woodpecker or blue jay calling from afar. Otherwise, it’s as quiet in the woods as I’ve ever experienced – and that’s not entirely normal.
What’s most odd to me is that the ground is littered with acorns again this year, which should mean good foraging for all of these and many other birds and animals. Nevertheless, if I see a single squirrel in an afternoon I have to call it lucky. So far I’ve seen no deer, no bears and no turkeys combing the woods for the abundant mast. In years past the wildlife traffic would be almost nonstop in the same areas, but in 2017 there’s very little going on.
I was going to ask Maine’s top deer biologist what his theory might be but was told we don’t have one, and haven’t had one for over a year! That, my friends, is very close to outrageous considering the amount of money and hunter interest that is generated by our legendary deer herd. Oddly enough we have a salamander biologist, a turtle biologist, a moth biologist, a bat biologist and a butterfly biologist but deer – not yet!
The goings-on in Augusta are not within the scope of this column, so I am free to come up with my own theories on what’s going on out there. The easiest (perhaps lamest) explanation is that there is so much food in the woods that the critters are widely dispersed. It stands to reason that if there is plenty of forage the birds and animals won’t have to travel as far to get their fill, which means they won’t bump into hunters as often.
Another possibility is that it’s a “down cycle” year, where once-abundant birds or animals experience a population fluctuation (decrease) that may last a year or two before they are once again as thick as flies on a cow barn. Such may be the case, but would such a phenomenon affect all our birds and animals at once? That seems unlikely to me.
What’s surprising to me is that even my backyard visitors have all but stopped coming in for their free meals. Most recently I’ve seen a few woodpeckers at the suet feeders and a couple of wild turkeys fighting over some cracked corn but the flocks of chickadees, doves, finches, cardinals, blue jays and grosbeaks that used to devour a gallon of seeds every day have disappeared.
My other theory is that somehow all the hurricane activity this fall has sent the birds packing south early, but that doesn’t explain where the small mammals, raccoons, opossums and deer have gone. My trail cameras, set up to reveal what’s going on at the feeders at night, show nothing but images of me coming and going with a fresh supply of seeds, corn or suet. It’s all very odd, indeed!
It will be interesting to see what the Cornell bird count reveals this winter. Maybe the sudden shift in abundance is a temporary or migratory thing; I don’t want to believe it’s a result of universal, sudden die-offs. I wander the woods quite a bit year-round and have not seen evidence of a huge, unexpected mortality event, but stranger things have happened.
I have witnessed a few of these events over the last 50 years but very few. One year there was a huge increase in the number of box turtles roaming the woods, and the next year the forest was littered with empty turtle shells, evidence that something other than predation was killing them off. Another time I happened to be in an area where the avian flu decimated duck and goose populations, killing birds by the hundreds and thousands over a relatively short period of time.
We see fish kills with regularity in summer, but such events rarely affect large numbers of mammals or birds. I must say that I have definitely noticed a huge decline in the number of ground hogs I’ve seen along the highway. Normally a trip from Kittery to Bangor would reveal dozens of fat, feasting woodchucks in grassy fields along the interstate, but this year I remember seeing one or two ‘chucks along the entire route. This is the case all the way from Maine to Ohio, by the way. I did happen to run into one ground hog while deer hunting that was having serious trouble breathing. Its nose was covered with a white powder and the animal was obviously distressed, diseased and unusually thin. He disappeared into his den before I could observe any other symptoms but I didn’t need to see anything more. I have been hunting and observing ground hogs for over half a century and have never run into such an affliction. I enjoyed seeing them sitting up with a face full of succulent greens as I drove past in summer, but such sightings are noticeably rare these days.
It is disturbing for any fan of wildlife to suddenly discover that there are no critters to observe. At the moment Maine doesn’t seem to have ground hog biologist, either, or I’d ask him what is going on!