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The Month in Maine – December

This Month

1. This Month. Black-powder deer

Black-powder hunter scores on a buck.

Dark December Creates Festive Mood
For this writer during the dark, festive month, a perfect December day goes like this:
After arise at the break of dawn or earlier, I work until late morning or early afternoon, head outdoors for sport and exercise that may include muzzle-loading for deer or hunting late-season grouse, rabbits or gray squirrels, and if it’s an unseasonably warm day, I go road bicycling. In the later afternoon or evening, a Christmas shopping trip or party involving close friends and relatives rounds out the day.

The 12th month keeps us busy all right. The Maine outdoors offers periods of hunting for white-tailed deer (using muzzleloaders, as well as bows and arrows in expanded zones), ruffed grouse, varying hare, gray squirrel, coyote, fox, bobcat, raccoon and more; plenty of exercising options such as walking, hiking, running, bicycling and last minute wood-chopping and piling; seemingly endless but fun shopping for the holiday. As we grow older, giving presents seems more fun than receiving.

In the bottom two-thirds of Maine, the black-powder hunt for whitetails lasts two weeks, but further up north, it provides just a 6-day season, so it’s a hectic rush to the woods. Grouse and squirrels attract a small, dedicated group of followers and the season feels less pressing because we have a whole month, but hare hunting doesn’t really pick up until snow flies.

Ice-fishing for panfish and pickerel draws participants as soon as ice freezes, and a handful of rivers and streams stay open for the open-water angling crowd. On warm December mornings, a few rivers draw a small crowd. Surprisingly, most of the anglers are using flies, a few choose hardware, but most do not fish with live bait – an oddity. Bait works the best in waters with low temperatures, when presentation means slow and deep.

Days are short now. When a sport is going right with a little action and our concentration remains high, even a full day in the outdoors strikes us too little time. Even at noon, the sun hangs low in the southern sky and makes long shadows, adding urgency to the day. It’ll be dark before we know it.

Bird watching from the warmth of a home excites birders, because plenty of species are visiting feeders just beyond the window. Professional wildlife photographers shoot superb photos now – good enough to sell to top markets. The trick is to use techniques like wiring balsam fir, white pine or hemlock boughs or bare deciduous limbs to standing poles and cropping the photos with a 500mm lens.

Photography actually picks up now for serious photographers who shoot wildlife or landscapes. Before snow flies, December provides us with plenty of mood shots and the morning after early snows creates a lovely landscape.

December is a busy month, so we cannot do it all before New Year’s Eve signals the next season beginning.

Tips of the Month

Two Important Poplars

A budding ruffed grouse.

A budding ruffed grouse.

Ruffed grouse have a symbiotic relationship with trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) and bigtooth aspen (Populus grandidentata) – called “poplars” in Maine, not “aspen.” These two poplars and grouse coexist so well that this bird doesn’t exist where these trees don’t grow.
Knowing the above fact offers a hint for grouse hunting in December, when “partridge” key on buds, an important diet in the cold season. Road hunters poke along roads that pass poplar runs, watching for budding grouse.

When Maine’s DIF&W extended grouse season from Nov. 30 through Dec. 31, cracker-barrel orators claimed the shooting of budding grouse in this cold month would destroy Maine’s grouse population. That didn’t happen. This bird’s biggest problem in the southern third of the state stems back to our secondary forests long since turning into primary forests over much of the land. Northern Maine has lots of wood-cutting that continuously creates new forage and habitat for this game bird.

Wet, Black-Powder Problem
In this month’s muzzle-loading deer season, wet black powder creates a big problem for hunters, who spot a deer, line up the sights behind the forward shoulder and squeeze the trigger – only to hear one of hunting’s loudest clicks.

Black-powder hunters need not completely unload a rifle after the hunt as long as they remove the cap from the nipple on percussion-cap rifles or powder from the pan, and then it’s legal to carry the firearm with black powder in the barrel.

Inexperienced hunters may put the rifle into a vehicle and drive home with the heater at full blast or walk into a warm house with the rifle, which causes condensation inside the chamber and wets the powder. Black-powder hunters can safely bet on this outcome.
… The solution?
When driving home, carry the rifle in a truck body or trunk, and at home, store it for the night in an unheated shed or building. Avoid taking a black-powder rifle with powder in the barrel into a warm room or vehicle. Those steps keep condensation in the barrel from wetting the powder, so when the hunter squeezes the trigger, he or she hears a loud boom and sees a billowing cloud of smoke.

Long Shadows Create Mood Shots

December's long shadows create wonderful mood-shot photos.

December’s long shadows create wonderful mood-shot photos.

In December, long shadows create mood shots, and the shadows make textured subjects like a carpet of pine needles, lichen or dead grass even more textured-looking.

However, large, bright patches of light next to dark shadows cause a problem that doesn’t slow down an astute photographer. Solving the dilemma of having bright light next to dark shadows requires skilled photographers to rely on a spot meter, which they use to get correct exposure on the light that is illuminating the main focus of the photo.

This turns the dark shadow into solid black, and highlights the lighted area with the perfect exposure – say a stone wall, shingles with lichen and so forth – very artistic.

Where the Action Is

Muzzle-Loading Hot Spot

Bucks like this one can be taken in Waldo County. Photo courtesy of Cabela's

Bucks like this one can be taken in Waldo County. Photo courtesy of Cabela’s

For an excellent Maine location to shoot a deer with a muzzle-loader, please check DeLorme’s The Maine Atlas and Gazetteer (MAG), Map 2 (from Berwick north to Limerick, centered on Sanford/Springvale) and Map 4 (the entire area west of Sebago Lake). These regions of Maine have more fertile soil than most other spots in the state, except for a big region southwest of Bangor and the limestone belt in eastern Aroostook County.

On Maps 2 and 4, look for Routes 11, 109 4, 9, 202, 5, 117, 160, 113, 302, 107 and all the side roads of these major routes. These highways slice through farm country, abandoned farm country, abandoned orchards, hardwood ridges, dense, conifer thickets in lowlands – perfect deer cover with forage. Water is plentiful everywhere in the Pine Tree State. Hunters can also find great fields to watch for deer in early morning and late afternoon. This may be southern Maine, but it is a deer-hunter’s dream-scape.

The climate is warming, so this far south in the state, December  hunters need not expect a winter landscape. It looks pretty much like November did 40 years ago.

It’s no secret. By Maine standards, Wildlife Management Districts (WMDs) 20 and 15 in this area have impressive deer densities – as does WMD 23, southwest of Bangor.

St. George Below Sennebec Pond

The St. George River in the Mid-coast attracts winter anglers.

The St. George River in the Mid-coast attracts winter anglers.

The St. George River below Sennebec Pond in Union holds brown trout and the stray brook trout, and DIF&W allows fishing year-round there. Please check MAG, Map 14, D-1 for details.

An old-fashioned dam below the pond mouth looks more like rapids than a dam, and from that point downstream, the river slides and tumbles toward the ocean – a great place to drift weighted nymphs now, patterns such as a Prince, Hare’s Ear, Pheasant Tail and Copper Killer. Black Wooly Buggers and huge, weighted black, dark-brown and peacock-herl Stoneflies on six 4 6x long and even 8x long hooks also have a place there.

On rare occasions on unseasonably warm days on this stretch of the St. George, a dark, size 12 or 14 stonefly hatches, but no one should hold their breaths. Go deep and slow with nymphs for more consistent action.

News and Tidbits

Famous New England Deer Hunter Dies
Larry Benoit recently died at age 89, a Vermont big-buck tracker and nationally known deer hunter over the last 40 years. The publication of How to Bag the Biggest Buck of Your Life by Larry Benoit with Peter Miller (Whitetail Press, copyright 1974) and articles in Sports Afield helped spur this man’s fame. His family claimed that he had shot 200 bucks, many of them over 200 pounds. This record speaks for his trophy-buck-shooting prowess.

Muzzle-loader Season Before November?
A quote from the 2001 Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s Research and Management Report recently caught our eye. “Undoubtedly, participation in [Maine’s] muzzle-loader deer-hunting season would be substantially greater if the season preceded the regular firearms season, and if that season allowed deer of either-sex to be taken.”

The author went on to say that in New Hampshire, where the black-powder season occurs before the regular firearms season, one third of the regular-firearms hunters also participate in the muzzle-loader hunt for deer. In 2001, Maine had 11,000 muzzle-loaders for deer. If the season were in October, DIF&W surmised it would attract 60,000 participants.

Wild Geese and Ducks Differ in Flavor

Roasted wild duck.

Roasted wild duck.

Why do wild geese differ in flavor from wild ducks?
Waterfowl experts surmise that geese rely heavily on a diet of grass, while ducks prefer grains. Most dabbling ducks feed on grains but occasionally eat fish. One late April day 20 years ago, I watched mallards eating spawning smelts at the mouth of a brook running into the Belgrade Lakes chain.

Wood ducks search out acorns, which impart a distinct flavor to their flesh, making this quacker a prized species to the waterfowling clan.

On the topic of forage, Jim Schlitz of Schlitz Goose Farm claimed that of all domestic animals, geese have among the worst feed-to-body-weight ratios, partially explaining why goose costs so much more than turkey. They’re expensive to raise, so in supermarkets, geese prices run off the charts.

Pekin Ducks – the Typical Domesticate
Thousands of years ago, the Chinese domesticated Pekin ducks, a tame duck that began as mallards before domestication had turned them into a white-feathered, docile animal. The breed made its debut into the U.S. in 1873, where it became known as the “Long Island duck,” because the east end of this island became the center of domestic duck farming in the U.S.

The World’s Most Common Duck
In this writer’s lifetime, mallards have increased greatly in Maine, while black ducks have declined. In fact, mallards are the world’s most common duck and very catholic in tastes. They’ll eat grains, grasses, rice, clams, crayfish, baitfish (like smelts), etc. The species is a survivor!

Accurate Deer Kill Figures
The annual deer-kill forecast by DF&W misses the mark on average by a mere 4 percent – an impressive record. The actual harvest is usually lower than predicted, too.

Deer-Hunting Reputation Has Plummeted. In the last five seasons, ending in 2012, Maine’s registered deer harvest has averaged about 20,000 – or 19,893 to be exact. These statistics look dismal compared to the 1950s, when the kill routinely hit 39,000 to 41,000 a year. Back then, one out of four licensed hunters in this state successfully shot a deer.

Before woodcutters destroyed wintering habitat in the North Country and Down East, these regions were the place to hunt deer in the 1950s. That reputation ended in the 1970-71, after a bad winter killed one-third of Maine’s whitetail herd, and up north, the winter hit the herd particularly hard, thanks to woodcutters destroying winter habitat. Adequate wintering areas (mature conifers) would give deer the opportunity to survive coyote predation more successfully.

Duck Fat for Pie Crusts
When settlers arrived in the New World and settled in waterfowl-rich areas along the Atlantic Ocean, places such as Chesapeake Bay, they shot lots of ducks and geese and rendered fat from them, often used in pastries such as pie. Duck fat makes an excellent, flaky pie crust – as does bear fat – a fact not lost on northern Maine residents.

Deer-Hunting Numbers
Maine has approximately 175,000 deer hunters, an interesting figure, because DIF&W occasionally jacks the number up to over 200,000 – an inflated figure, and here’s why: the 200,000-plus figure counts all the licenses sold, so if one hunter buys licenses for archery, expanded archery, regular firearms and muzzle-loading seasons, DIF&W may count that one hunter as four hunters!

Bicyclists Riding Abreast
This past summer, various people have asked this writer a bicycling question: When traffic is approaching from behind bicyclists on a public highway, is it legal for two or more of them to ride abreast?

Surprisingly, the answer to this law is somewhat difficult to find. Legal interpretations found on many biking websites state that bicyclists must ride as far right as practical, and we must infer that means that we must avoid riding on the left of another pedaler – except when passing.
So, is it legal to ride two abreast in Maine?

According to information on the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) website at http://www.maine.gov/mdot/bikeped/faqs/ – we quote, “Maine law requires a bicyclist to ride as far right as practicable (operating at a speed less than the speed of traffic), except when it is unsafe to do so as determined by the bicyclist [Our italics, not MDOT]. ‘As far right as practical’ is never to the left of another bicyclist, except when passing.”
So, riding abreast is illegal, according to that wording.

Turkey Stocking in Maine – Doomed to Failure

Wild turkey hunting.

Wild turkey hunting.

The fall 1963 issue of Maine Fish and Game magazine – the public voice of the state’s former Department of Fish and Game – contained a shocking prophesy about the future of wild turkeys in Maine. Kenneth H. Anderson wrote a natural-history article about wild turkeys in this state, and said, “Considering all the facts, it seems extremely doubtful that a shootable [sic] population can perpetuate itself [in Maine] by natural reproduction.”

Domestic Turkeys Came from Where?
Here’s a wildly fascinating tidbit about wild and domestic turkeys in America. Wild turkeys are indigenous to the New World and the New World only, yet early settlers from Europe and Great Britain brought domesticated wild turkeys from Europe to America!

The Aztecs domesticated wild turkeys centuries ago, and historians claim that in the early 1500s, Cortez brought these domesticated birds from Mexico to Europe. Turkeys intrigued Old World denizens, who started raising this fowl, and then these folks took it back to the New World when settling the continent.
Hunting/Fishing Licenses 1973 vs. 2013

Forty years ago in 1973, a Maine resident paid $6.50 for a hunting license, $6.50 for a fishing license and $10.50 for a combination hunting-and-fishing license. Nonresidents dished out $42.50 for a hunting license and $15.50 for a fishing license. Apparently, Maine did not sell a combination license to nonresidents in those days.

In 2013, a resident fishing license cost $25, a hunting license $25 and a combination hunting-and-fishing $42. For nonresidents, a fishing license runs $64, a hunting license $114 and a combination hunting and fishing $149.

Federal Duck Stamp Winners 2013
Adam Grimm, an Ohio native who now lives in Burbank, South Dakota, is the winner of the 2013 Federal Duck Stamp Art Contest. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Deputy Director Rowan Gould made the announcement at the Maumee Bay State Park and Conference Center in Ohio during the annual art contest – the only juried art competition sponsored by the federal government.

This is Grimm’s second Federal Duck Stamp Contest win. His art also appeared on the 2000-2001 Federal Duck Stamp.

Grimm’s oil painting of a canvasback will be made into the 2014-2015 Federal Duck Stamp, which will go on sale in late June 2014. The USF&W Service produces the Federal Duck Stamp, which sells for $15 and raises about $25 million each year to provide funds to protect wetland habitats in the National Wildlife Refuge System for the benefit of wildlife and the enjoyment of people.

Hoyt Smith, of Tulsa, Oklahoma placed second with an acrylic painting of a single cinnamon teal.
Ron Louque, of Charlottesville, Virginia, took third place with his acrylic painting of a trio of canvasbacks.
Louque previously won the Federal Duck Stamp Contest. His art appeared on the 2003-2004 Federal Duck Stamp.

Of 202 entries in this year’s two-day competition, 16 entries made it through to the final round of judging. Eligible species for this year’s Federal Duck Stamp Contest were the blue-winged teal, canvasback, cinnamon teal, gadwall and mallard.

Bird of the Month

Northern Cardinal, the “Christmas Bird”

The Christmas bird -- northern cardinal.

The Christmas bird — northern cardinal.

Within my recent memory, northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) began showing up on Christmas cards big time, and this trend happened quickly, too. In my mind, the cardinal’s popularity elevated this lovely, crested species to “the Christmas bird.”

… Which Bill Silliker, Jr., the late, great wildlife photographer, also noticed. He began selling cardinal photos so frequently that he rigged up different conifer limbs on his back deck to create a realistic background with balsam fir, white spruce and eastern hemlock. He amassed a big, cardinal-photo collection – hot sellers.

Wild-bird photographers often do this: They wire various limbs to poles for different close-up settings, sit inside by a window, drink coffee, tea or scotch, depending on the time of day, and shoot photos with a 500mm lens that crops out neighboring houses and other signs of humans.

This cardinal species measures 8 3/4-inches long, sports a 12-inch wingspan and weighs 1.6 ounces, a smaller species than a robin, but the crest and somewhat stocky build make robins and cardinals look equal in size. The robin wins, though, with a 10-inch length,17-inch wingspan and 2.7-ounce weight.

This cardinal makes a who-it call, often in spring, that is somewhat easy to imitate by sucking air into the mouth and saying “who it” during the intake. Usually, bird-call imitations require expelling air.

Peterson said that northern cardinals make a what-cheer-cheer-cheer sound as well as a birdy-birdy. Those translations seem right to me. The Audubon guidebook goes along with the what-cheer-cheer-cheer call but changed birdy-birdy to purty-purty.

After writing this bird column and looking at so many birding guidebooks through the years, I swear the authors come up with different translation just to be – well – different.
The male cardinal looks so red that folks often miss particulars like the dark face and throat next to the heavy, triangular bill, the latter an ideal tool for foraging for seeds – the main part of the their diet.

More than once at my feeders, I’ve lost a pair of cardinal visitors by inadvertently running out of seeds. An apple brings them back – cut in half and nailed to a post above a short, dowel perch. A halved orange set up like this bring orioles, but sometimes, gray squirrel give us a run for our money with oranges.

The buff-brown female with hints of red has the same dark patch, particularly on the wings and tail. Juveniles have a black bill, but the crest and subtle hint of red make it easy to identify a young cardinal, even for casual observers.

Cardinals build a cup-like nest from twigs, plant fibers and foliage and conceal it in a thicket. There, the female lays three or four eggs with pale-green shells spotted with reddish-brown. Such few eggs suggest a good survival rate.

Another bright-red bird, the summer tanager, has no crest, so no one should confuse the two. (Ken Allen)

Do You Know?

Maine’s Highest Deer Harvest
Do you know which year Maine hunters registered the highest number of white-tailed deer in this state?

Innocent Bystander

Sales Tax Bad News for Publications
Recently, Maine Legislature imposed a sales tax on magazines, reminding this writer of an excerpt from a United States Postal Service Web site, which also includes words from our Founding Fathers.

From the beginning of the American republic, the Founding Fathers recognized that the widespread dissemination of information was central to national unity. They realized that to succeed, a democratic government required an informed electorate, which in turn depended upon a healthy exchange of news, ideas and opinions.

Make no mistake. Publications have and will go out of business from rising postage costs and sales taxes. Back in 1960, a significant rise in second-class postage pushed major magazines to the limit and also caused many to go defunct. I’m old enough to remember this controversy seething across the country. We could all see the decline of major magazines like Look and Saturday Evening Post, weeklies that my family looked forward to every seven days. They’ve become minor magazines compared to the old days.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson disagreed on several issues but never on the importance of a robust, free press.

In 1788, Washington wrote:
“I entertain an high idea of the utility of periodical Publications: insomuch that I could heartily desire, copies of . . . Magazines, as well as common Gazettes, might spread through every city, town and village in America.
I consider such easy vehicles of knowledge, more happily calculated than any other, to preserve the liberty, stimulate the industry and meliorate the morals of an enlightened and free People.”

Jefferson wrote in a similar vein in 1804:
“No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying . . . that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found is the freedom of the press.”

Freedom of the press requires this important estate survives financially. (Ken Allen)

Next Month

Winter Sports Kick Off in Ernest

Full-blown winter arrives in January. (Ken Allen oil)

Full-blown winter arrives in January. (Ken Allen oil)

January reigns as Maine’s coldest month, according to decades of statistics, so in January, winter establishes itself in our state. Sports such as snowmobiling, ice-fishing, rabbit hunting with hounds, coyote hunting, cross-country skiing, and yes, fly-tying may kick-off in the 12th month, but these sports hit high gear after the new year begins.

Every winter, snowmobilers head north to northern hamlets that rely on tourist money to survive, and the less snow that falls in the South Country, the more sledders head north to a region in Maine that always has huge amounts of snow by comparison.

Ice-fishing is legal in December to some extent, but the real season begins in January, when ice becomes more of a certainty. Where this writer lives in central Maine, the Belgrade Lakes, ice up usually occurs in late December. By Christmas, we may see white caps on Long Pond on some days.

Rabbit season in Maine starts on Oct. 1, but many people ignore these long-eared critters until December, when the first snow falls in the bottom half of the state. It’s as if rabbits, hounds and snow go hand in hand. By January, those lowland conifer swamps look like winter wonderlands, as snow-laden limbs make tunnels across the landscape.

Coyotes attract hunters after snow falls, too, and a popular method involves setting up on the edge of a woodland by a huge field. Often armed with a flat-shooting caliber, these predator hunters use a dying-rabbit call, hoping a coyote shows up and stands long enough for a shot.

Some coyote hunters use shotguns, but folks like a .222 Remington, .223 Remington, .22-250 Remington and similar cartridge choice, because long shots are common. If coyotes get too close to shooters with the wind blowing toward the prey, they’ll bolt. Bait, decoys and dogs also help hunters find success.

Cross-country skiing excites many folks and offers great winter exercise, but this sport doesn’t begin to rival snowmobiling for the money that snow-sledders generate into the state – not a criticism; just an observation.

Fly-tying, particularly on cold, stormy days, attracts a large group of folks who live for fly-fishing come spring, and in fact, even go fly-fish on unseasonably warm days. As they tie and occasionally hit rivers and streams, gamblers can bet that they’re dreaming of blue water sliding by a viridescent landscape, and those consummate betters will win the wager.

Many other sports happen in winter, including bicycling, running, walking and even hiking, particularly on snowshoes for the latter. Bobcat and fox also have followers, but surely, fox hunters have coyotes in mind. People hunt with birds of prey, a small but impressive group whose sport harkens back to days of aristocracy.

Long winter nights are perfect for preparing leisurely meals from the spoils of Maine’s woods and water, particularly after a day of heavy-duty exercising in cold air and deep snow.

And if Maine’s intense snow and cold gets to folks, they can always head south to places like the Florida Keys, Belize, Bahamas, Costa Rica, etc. to fish for salty targets such as tarpon and bonefish.

Answer to “Do You Know?”

Maine’s Record Deer Kill
In 1959, hunters in Maine shot and registered 41,375 white-tailed deer, part of a decade that produced a 39,000 to 41,000 registered-deer figure each season. In 1968, hunters came close to that 1959 figure with 41,080 deer. In many years since, the deer harvest has annually fallen to half that figure.

Deer hunters in the 1950s had high success ratios.

Deer hunters in the 1950s had high success ratios.

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The Month in Maine – February

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