March definitely went out like a lamb, and so far April’s beginning is just as subdued. Warm temperatures, brisk winds and sunny days have given the snow pack more than it can handle. In mere days my yard, pasture and woods have gone from white to brown, with specks of green here and there as grasses, weeds and other succulents have turned the switch from winter to spring mode.
Things were dry and clear enough this week that I ordered my firewood for next year, a personal indication that spring is on its way. The pile will sit in front of the wood shed all spring and most of the summer, till it’s well-seasoned and ready to stack indoors. I’ll pick away at it here and there as certain pieces seem to dry before others, but the process begins with four cords a-layin’ in the sun.
But, that is not the harbinger of spring that struck me most vividly this week. Literally minutes after the wood truck left the property I brewed a cup of tea and went out to examine the pile. Sitting at the very peak of the mountain of oak, ash and beech was a chipmunk, the first I’ve seen this year. I expect to find several nests hidden among the bolts of wood as I slowly move the pile indoors over the summer, but the stack had only been on the ground a few minutes and already the rodents were moving in.
Oddly enough, wood delivery day seemed to be a signal for my backyard wildlife population. The noise and bustle made by two delivery trucks had barely ended when a trio of mallards circled the field and landed in the seasonal puddle at its lowest point. I’m sure the ducks have seen firewood before but this pile was brand new and had just arrived – one would think they’d have shown a little more caution – but they waddled in and among the peripheral pieces and headed straight for the pile of cracked corn I put out the night before.
The usual phalanx of squirrels, goldfinches, juncos and nuthatches came and went all day, some using the new wood pile as a short-term resting place. Even the bluebirds, which have been busy with nest-building chores for several days now, seemed to tolerate the sudden arrival of several thousand pieces of stove wood.
What really surprised me, at day’s end, was when eight deer came into the field from the far end and trotted right into the back yard just steps away from the wood pile, not one of them paying the least bit of attention. Normally, changes in habitat are at least worth a second glance, especially from the always-vigilant whitetails, but they showed little or no interest in the new obstacle.
One of the most unusual signs of spring I observed this week was the grand battle between two big tom turkeys. I first spotted them on the far side of the wood shed, maybe 50 yards from the house. They were strutted up with tails fanned and heads a brilliant blue-white shade – two dominant males looking to show off for the hens.
Normally these big birds will chase each other around in circles, occasionally lashing out with wings or spurred feet in an attempt to win the hens’ attention, but these two were serious. They walked slowly up to each other, necks outstretched, close enough that their beards touched and their beaks were just millimeters apart.
Very slowly, like Sumo wrestlers, the two birds wrapped their necks around each other and began a pushing-shoving match that took them around the field, into the woods, back again and then out of sight over the open ridge. The wrestling match lasted well over an hour and neither bird seemed able to gain the upper hand. It was a long, slow process that really impressed me because it is rare for battling birds of any size to maintain physical contact for such a long period of time.
I have seen shorter versions of such encounters many times over the last 50 years or so but never any that lasted so long. These birds were evenly matched, tall and strong, and neither combatant intended to give up. I never saw the end of the fight but I have the feeling the two parted as equals and wandered off to find less challenging competitors.
I keep my windows cracked at this time of year hoping that I will hear the sounds of mating woodcock in the yard, but so far this spring there have been none. Last year, too, was empty of woodcock in my neighborhood, even though, in years past, I’d hear a dozen or more in the early days and weeks of March and April.
Woodcock make a peculiar buzzing sound that more reminiscent of an insect than a bird. This sound is often heard four or five times followed by a twittering of wings and a high-pitched chirping sound that is almost inaudible as the bird flies high into the sky and then returns to earth – all this in an effort to attract a mate.
Hunters, birders and biologists spend most of their spring evenings straining to hear the sounds of mating woodcock, and I have been among them since the early 1960s. Last year was the first time I failed to hear at least one spring woodcock, and already things look rather dismal in 2018. The fun usually begins well before the snow is gone and continues into early May. The woodcock’s display should be at its peak right now but, sadly, I have not heard the first one.
I did see some woodcock last fall while moose and bird hunting in the Shin Pond area, but they may have been northern birds that were migrating south. It was nice to see them and I was glad that there are still a few around, but I miss witnessing their spring mating displays. It’s like hearing a symphony with half the orchestra missing. It’s just not the same!