Talk about an early spring! According to “the authorities” the ice is not safe on most lakes and ponds in Maine, although it’s common for ice to remain, safe or not, into May. There are some towns where folks bet on the exact moment the local lake clears, and it’s usually in late April or early May. It will be interesting to see how early the ice goes out in the region this year.
Thanks to the sudden warming trend in recent days I’m seeing more migrants showing up earlier than usual. One morning I heard a tremendous racket in the yard and, opening the window, heard the ratchet calls of hundreds of black birds. They filled the trees and swarmed the feeders for an hour or more, and then flew off to parts unknown. Right behind them came a gang of starlings, which cleaned up anything the black birds may have left behind plus put a huge dent in the suet feeders on the front porch. The sound of 500 starlings would be enough to drive anyone insane if they stuck around night and day but, fortunately, it takes a lot to feed a flock of that size and so they were in and out almost as quickly as the black birds.
This spring the turkeys are doing some peculiar things. The local flock survived the relatively mild winter in good shape but apparently their social order has been disrupted by the early warming trend. Rather than a mix of hens, jakes and gobblers I now have three separate flocks descend on the back yard every morning. First come the jakes, about 20 of them, all gobbling and strutting but, from a hunter’s viewpoint, offering nothing more than a good show. First-timers may be moved to shoot a turkey with a 2-inch beard, but most hunters hold out for the “longbeards.” The big boys are out there, just not in such great numbers.
Behind the boisterous jakes come the more subdued hens. “My” flock contains about 40 females of various ages, all traveling together in a very curious, suspicious flock that trickles in to the feeders in a very cautious, slow-moving stampede. They’ll stay as long as there’s food to scratch up but it doesn’t take long for them to devour two or three gallons of grain and sunflower seeds.
Later in the afternoon a small group of serious tom turkeys sneak in, usually quietly and without fanfare. Two of the six gobblers have beards that drag on the ground, which means they are at least 10 inches long if not longer. I can tell them apart because one bird’s beard corkscrews out of his chest while the other’s is long and straight. The other gobblers are have decent beards that are about 8 or 9 inches long but, upon seeing the big boys, most hunters would opt to wait and hope for a shot at the most mature toms.
Maine’s spring turkey season won’t open till May 2 which, of course, means the birds will be long gone and silent by then, but it is fun to see them strutting about the back yard just 10 yards away.
If things keep going as they have been it may actually be possible to catch a few trout on the (official) opening day of April 1. Over the last few decades there have been a few instances when anglers in central Maine were able to not only get to their favorite river or brook on opening day but it was even possible to catch a few trout as well. I remember catching a limit of landlocked salmon in the Sebec River one balmy April 1 morning, and some of my best trout streams were active from the get-go. I noticed that the trout were quite sluggish on April 1 but 90 percent of fishing is patience, anyway, so I just sat and watched as one slow-moving trout after another inched its way across the bottom toward my offering – a fat garden worm.
Speaking of which, I was poking around the garden the other day just testing the soil (there was still frost in the ground at that time) and was amazed to find dozens of wriggling earthworms just a few inches down in the compost and leaves. It was way too early to start gathering bait for the up-coming fishing season but at least I know they are there. Oddly enough, a few hours later, during the warmer middle part of the day, a troop of robins started scratching around in the garden soil, no doubt searching for their share of protein.
Conditions seem just about right for woodcock to begin their spring mating performances but as of March 12 I had not heard one. The unmistakable buzzing call of the male woodcock, heard most often just before and after sunset, followed by the high-pitched twittering of wings overhead, is proof positive that spring is nigh. Last year I heard one persistent male every night well into June, which is well past the birds’ usual mating season. As is the case with most species, there is always hope!
Other signs of spring that we often ignore include the sudden reappearance of raccoons (mostly dead on the side of the road) and skunks. I often flip on the outside flood lights just to see what’s going on around the house and was not really surprised to see a skunk digging in the swiftly softening lawn. No doubt he was after grubs or worms to eat after a rather abbreviated winter’s nap. The next morning the lawn was full of holes, with more evidence in the flower beds and garden. I used to dread the coming of skunks and opossums in spring because of the damage they can do to the lawn but I’ve found that, by early summer, the holes grow back over and the lawn looks as good as it did before they started digging.
It’s all part of the ritual of spring in the wilds of Maine!