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After last week’s frenzy over the “Wassookeag Monster” (a hellbender, or giant salamander, caught while ice-fishing by Dexter’s Steve Wintle), I got to thinking about all the other unusual, bizarre or unbelievable creatures I’ve encountered in the Maine woods over the years.
Because I have long studied Maine wildlife and am at least aware of pretty much every critter with fur, feathers or leathery hide that exists in the state, the fact that they are here doesn’t surprise me as much as it does some folks. I have a tendency to think everyone knows as much as I do about what goes on beyond the edge of the lawn, and it always surprises me to find that some pretty common creatures in our woods and waters have yet to be discovered by the majority of residents.
I recall a mailbox conversation I had with a neighbor about the pileated woodpecker, that big, gawky, black-and-white bird that flies like a drunkard and sounds like a lunatic watching a really funny TV show. Now, I have seen these surprisingly big birds in every state I’ve visited and either hear or see one on just about every trip I make into the woods at every time of year. They are common, widespread and are doing quite well in the woodlands of the East from Maine to Florida.
Well, my neighbor was listening to me describe the bird and said, “I’ve lived here for over 50 years and I haven’t seen one. I think you’re making that up!”
A long-time woodsman, I could not believe that he had never seen a pileated woodpecker, and could not get him to even consider finding the species description in a bird book to verify my claim.
“Nope. As far as I’m concerned,” he declared, “they don’t exist.”
Well, just then what should come loop-de-looping out of the neighbor’s own woodlot but a pileated woodpecker! It landed in a big, dead locust tree on my side of the road not 50 feet from where we were standing, and the neighbor just shook his head in disbelief.
“If I hadn’t seen it myself I would never have believed it,” he muttered, and went back into his house.
The same thing happened to me one fall while trying to explain the existence of the American woodcock, that drab, brown, long-beaked denizen of the alders and birch hillsides. At the time, I was big on Labrador retrievers and upland bird hunting, and had been chasing woodcock all over New England for close to 20 years. When I described the bird to a couple of wood cutters I’d been working with, they just scratched their heads and suggested that I was either seeing things or just had some other kind of bird in mind. Long beak, chicken feet, big eyes and brown feathers? They couldn’t imagine such a thing being in the Maine woods.
Some time later I happened to bump into one of the men while bird hunting in Dover-Foxcroft, and I even had a woodcock in hand to show him.
“That ain’t a woodcock,” the old tree feller said. “That’s a mud hen!”
I guess he had seen a woodcock before, he just didn’t know it by that name. Another mystery solved!
Another time I had to wade through waist-deep, crusty snow at night in March to prove to another neighbor that there was such as thing as a saw-whet owl. These cute little birds are about the size of a baked potato and are remarkably tame . . . at least in the dark. Every spring, you’ll hear them uttering that soft, everywhere-at-once whistle that is their trademark call. It was said that the call sounds like an old-time woodcutter filing his bucksaw, but I don’t hear it. To me, it’s just a low-volume whistle that’s repetitive and monotonous in its purest sense: Sounded in an unvarying tone. The little owl just sits out there whistling all night long, apparently in an effort to attract a mate. You can walk out there with a flashlight in hand and literally pick the owl right off its limb. In fact, if you walk slowly and shine the directly into the bird’s face, he’ll often fly right down to greet you! Who knows what the bird might be thinking he’s going to do, but it makes it easier to snatch him up for a closer look.
Saw-whets seem fearless, curious and none too concerned about safety issues. Every so often you’ll see one mounted (illegally, of course) under glass, but it wasn’t till this neighbor happened to see one in an old museum that he believed what I’d been telling him.
Back in my trapping days (when prices were high enough that one raccoon was worth more than a day’s pay at the shoe shop), I decided to make a concerted effort to catch fishers because, in the mid-1970s, a silky female fisher would bring over $200! Considering that the minimum wage in those days was a little over $2.50 per hour, a prime fisher would be worth two weeks’ pay!
A neighbor whose land I wanted to trap allowed me to set a line but assured me that there were no fishers there. He had never seen one and didn’t even know what a fisher looked like, which is not entirely surprising because fishers are primarily nocturnal and are rarely seen in daylight.
Anyway, the neighbor was convinced that I was not going to have any luck catching fishers on his land, and even went so far as to tell me that he’d skin every one I caught...for free! At the end of the first week he had already skinned six female and two male fishers, and that Sunday morning I brought in two more prime males, each worth about $150!
“OK, fine, there is such a thing as a fisher!” my exasperated (and surprised) neighbor exclaimed. “You can skin your own fishers from now on!”
I guess I should have told him that, in those days, the local fur dealers were paying the same prices whether the animals were skinned or not, but that would have taken all the fun out of it!
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