Now that Maine’s 2017 deer hunting season has ended I have time to reflect on all that occurred during the hectic weeks since opening day. I had been in the woods at least part of every day since September chasing all legal game great and small, and managed to fill my freezers (both of them) with all sorts of wild meats. Over the winter my hankerings will run from venison to grouse, duck, goose, squirrel, turkey, rabbit, bear and moose, and when the mood strikes I’ll have more than plenty to fry, broil, roast or stew. This must be what the Puritans felt like during that first Thanksgiving. Plus, I have enough garden-raised produce to keep me going till the peas ripen next spring – even my crop of rutabagas was greater than expected, and there’s nothing like a bowl of hot, buttered rutabaga to perk up a cold, dark winter’s day.
I was lucky enough to be able to hunt right through the end of the blackpowder deer season. The Maine woods can be a sober, somber place in mid-December but I was happy to see so many other critters, which made waiting for a whitetail that much easier.
Topping the list was an event I’d mentioned last year, when, on one cold, dark evening, I heard the tell-tale croaking of a roost-bound raven. I know from experience that the call of one raven only means there are plenty more coming in silently, and this was the case this night as well. I happened to be set up on a high knoll at the base of some 100-year-old pines, which is where the ravens in my area typically roost come sunset. With no deer around and only minutes of shooting time remaining, I focused on the sky overhead and watched as a total of 37 ravens came in. Not one of them made a sound other than the first arrival, which may be the dominant raven, the flock leader or some other high-level bird. Other than the whooshing sound of wings the incomers made no noise. This same event occurred last year when I counted 50 ravens in the flock, and I’m sure there were others that I did not see.
Those who were raised on Edgar Allen Poe and buy into the “ravens are evil” philosophy may be surprised to find that these are among the most intelligent, entertaining and non-threatening birds extant in Maine. I have been observing and listening to ravens for over 50 years and have always felt that they add a unique element of wildness and mystery to the great North Woods, much as the passing of a flock of Canada geese will cause everyone to stop what they are looking and gaze skyward.
Ravens are chatty, talkative and far more creative than your basic migrating goose – the sounds a raven can make range from clocks ticking to water dripping and loud chirps and squawks, with a few blood-curdling screams mixed in for added color. I never get tired of listening to them but have never felt threatened by them or their antics. On a windy day a soaring raven gives every impression of truly enjoying his ability to fly, performing tricks that would make the Blue Angels envious.
This year for some reason the woods seemed to be full of minks. I usually hunt a dozen different places during the course of deer season and this year I saw a mink at every stop, some of them far away from any lake, pond, creek or runoff. Just this week I sat on an acorn-laden hillside hoping a nice buck would wander by but, instead, all I saw was a mink that ran all around me, poking his nose into every hole he could find and running across every log that lay on the ground. He didn’t seem to be on a mission to find anything, he was just looking, and his investigations brought him so close I could see the small patch of white fur on his neck.
Some days on the hunt can seem unbearably long but I discovered that I’d always know when it was 3 p.m. because the local squad of barred owls would start hooting at that moment, as if the day shift were being turned over to the afternoon shift. The raucous calling would go on for about five minutes followed by a deafening silence that would last till sunset, when the bright-eyed predators would begin hooting in earnest once again.
The owls put on the same show every day throughout the season, always on time and always for only a short period, but it was good to know that sunset was only 90 minutes away.
The area I was hunting seemed to have more than its share of red foxes this year, which may explain why I never heard the first coyote all season. Had there been coyotes around the foxes would have moved out because the two canines don’t get along very well. I suspect the lack of coyotes was due to the dearth of deer and non-existent rabbits, both prized prey for these ubiquitous carnivores. I saw several red foxes each week and the majority were quite busy poking around stone walls where, for some reason, a lot of mice and chipmunks could be found. More than once I saw a fox dive into a pile of leaves beside a stone wall and come up with a wriggling rodent, and one day I saw two foxes working opposite sides of a wall and doing pretty well for themselves. I don’t know that coyotes would want to waste their time and energy on such small prey if there were better options nearby, and may well explain why, for the first time in years, I did not hear a single coyote’s howl at the end of the day.
Obviously, there is more to deer hunting than deer – if not for the myriad other critters in the woods it would be dull time, indeed!