A pair of Canada geese flew overhead a few days ago, causing the usual stir with their plaintive calls, which I heard long before I saw the birds high in the sky heading straight north, as if to say, “Enough already – it’s spring and we’re on our way!”
I heard my first wild goose calling while walking to my 8th grade classes back in the early 1960s. At that time geese were extremely rare in the Northeast; in fact, deer were none to plentiful, either. I remember stopping to look and listen as a flock of a dozen Canadas flew past me, tree-top high, heading for the cornfields beside the river that flowed through town. I can even tell you that is was 7:08 a.m. because I happened to be standing on Main Street near the old bank that had one of those old Big Ben-style clocks on its marquee.
So rare were geese in those days that I stood and watched them fly out of sight and hearing, which made me late for school and got me into trouble with Mr. Leonard, the vice-principal. I excitedly told him why I’d missed the morning bell and he just shook his head: “You’ll never get anywhere if you spend your time gawking at birds,” he said.
I’m not sure if I’ve amounted to anything but I can say that I still stop and gawk at passing geese no matter where I am, how high they fly or how long their honking echoes in the wind. To me, geese are the bell-ringers that announce the beginning of fall and the end of winter each year, and I have been an interested observer for well over 50 years. I was more than happy to see them make an appearance last week, the first geese of the season for me.
While spring is barging its way into Maine with increasing speed I have still not heard any woodcock, this for the second year in a row. Normally, these peculiar birds show up well before the snow pack is gone and their mating displays can be heard from late afternoon well into the night. I have left my windows open a crack just in case one shows up in the back yard or in the pasture out front, but so far the fields and saplings have remained empty. I’ve been listening to woodcock for as long as I’ve been listening to geese, and their absence is glaringly noticeable, as if the front door were missing or all the furniture were gone. I think of Rachel Carson at times like these and can’t help but wonder if the woodcock is going to be the first missing voice on our way to a silent spring.
Of course, I may be calculating our losses a bit prematurely. Taking my own sage advice I dug up a dozen garden worms and headed for a local trout stream, where, as expected, there was little going on. I fished all the best places I could find, even checked the water temperature in the shallows for some evidence of 55-degree water, but the best I could do was 48 degrees, which is just not acceptable when it comes to spring trout fishing. Another week, or two or three, and conditions will be more favorable. This I knew even though, legally, we can fish for trout beginning April 1, but I just had to try.
I am not the only one testing the waters. At the local diner the fishermen in the morning crowd are all waiting for the trout to start biting. One says he waits till the spawning suckers run up the brooks, and then he goes after the trout that come after them to eat their eggs. Several wags, mostly fly-fishermen, stick to the 55-degree mantra. One anger insisted that trout won’t bite till the black flies come out, and several others recounted the old saying that trout fishing is best when the “leaves on the popple are big as a mouse’s ear.”
I’ve caught hundreds of trout before and after all of these standard events, so my advice is to go when you can and hope for the best. To be fair, most of these old sayings are accurate because they’ve been proven so down through the ages, but like every rule or law there are exceptions. The intrepid fisherman who dares to bend the rules is most likely to be the one who strikes first gold.
As the snow recedes and the pasture grass begins to turn green there is still plenty of activity at the back-yard feeders. In recent days I’ve had up to 10 deer show up before dark for their share of the cracked corn, and lately I’ve had several flocks of mallard ducks swoop in to partake as well. The duck thing could be confusing because there are mixed flocks of hens, sometimes two, sometimes as many as five; and then other flocks that include two, three or four drakes. There may be a dozen birds involved in the trickery but I am happy to see them and glad they chose my yard as a pre-nesting resting place.
Curiously, I have not seen or heard a wild turkey in over a week, roughly since the last of the big nor’easters struck. They have a habit of disappearing for short periods year-round but a month ago my yard was full of them, including several big, lusty toms that were gobbling and strutting for all they were worth. Last week I mentioned a unique push-and-shove fight between two toms that had them wrapped around each other like Sumo wrestlers for close to an hour, but since then, not a sign of a turkey.
With most of the snow gone and the ground wide open for foraging it’s my guess that the local turkey flocks have switched to natural foods, especially the abundant acorns that still litter the forest floor. Spring turkey hunting begins in about two weeks, so I’m sure they’ll return. I think. I hope!