Maine February More of Winter
Early February offers more of winter in Maine, but unlike January, this slightly warmer month arrives with more certainty of thicker ice and deeper snow for lovers of the cold season.
From Kittery to Fort Kent, snowmobilers, ice fishers and hunters (rabbit, fox, coyote and bobcat) can be relatively certain of snow and safe ice. And, better yet, longer days of daylight add comfort to outings, and in fact, the higher sun in the sky actually sunburns folks who forget sunscreen on faces, necks and ears.
An odd sport draws folks to frozen tidal waters on coastal river, “odd” in the fact that many of these participants do not fish any other time of year. However, they love to fish for anadromous rainbow smelts that run rivers and large streams now to spawn.
A big draw involves the social aspects of sitting in a rented ice-shack in shanty towns and catching these small, silvery delights for an ancient meal that Mainers have enjoyed for centuries.
One-hundred years ago, late winter coastal rivers also drew a crowd of tomcod anglers to fish, but that species has lost in popularity. This writer knows exactly one angler who bothers with tomcod, and he doesn’t beat a path to a tomcod fishery.
Inland, particularly in northern counties, folks hand-line for freshwater rainbow smelts all winter, a tinier version of sea-run smelts, and many of these anglers freeze this baitfish for ice-out trolling in spring. Inland smelts also strike this writer as being tastier than the larger sea-run version.
Smelting may be big in a Maine winter, but for sheer earning power, it’s difficult to miss the importance of snowmobiling. This crowd dumps big bucks into the economy for sure, filling northern-hamlet motels, hotels, bed and breakfasts and sporting camps as well as restaurants, convenience stores, gas stations and gift shops.
Hare hunters living in the bottom third of Maine head north for sport these days, because primary forests in the South Country provide poor habitat for this speedster to flourish. Big cuttings in large, private woodland create great hare habitat – fast shooting that “rabbit” hunters knew in southern and central Maine in the 1950s, when old farmlands were reverting into secondary woodlands – the perfect habitat for varying hare.
Coyotes, foxes and bobcats draw winter attention as hunters sit and call, put out bait, decoy critters, use hounds or lure them closely enough to waiting guns to score a kill.
Fly tiers feel spring closing in, until they have finished filling their fly boxes, and then, they’re ready for snow and ice to disappear, so they can get out and fish in earnest. In many Maine households, this is a serious unofficial sport.
Photographers love shooting landscapes now, particularly after storms create photogenic countrysides, and wildlife photographers key on songbirds, sea birds, eagles and deer, wherever these critters gather.
Nights are still long for leisurely meals with fruits from woods and water, and for sure, folks eat more heartily in winter and gain weight, according to nutritionists.
Tips of the Month
In late winter and early spring, romantic skunks wander far and wide and after dark may bump into the family dog in the dooryard. Our current yellow Lab ran into this problem at the tender age of nine months, and the skunk sprayed her in the eye, a lesson Bailee never forgot. The encounter made her fear this striped critter.
However, not long ago, at the suggestion of our veterinarian, we gave our Lab a doggy valium before she went for her annual checkup, and like with humans, drugs or alcohol increased her courage while reducing her caution. Later in the evening, still under the influence of this drug, she tackled a skunk and then slipped into the house, before we realized that she had encountered. What a smell in our home for over a week!
More than one of my hunting dogs have tangled with skunks, and I have cleaned them with everything from vinegar to dish soap to tomato juice to cleaner from the vet, and the best thing yet was the cleaning fluid from the dog doctor. Homemade tomato juice took second place, but what a mess it was on a white English setter, particularly since it still had seeds and peel (roughage) in the juice.
The skunk cleaner from the vet takes care of the smell, mostly anyway, but beware of old Rover running around the house and shaking before the dog owner has washed the animal thoroughly.
…The tip of the month? Don’t use homemade remedies, but rather, a commercial product especially for the skunk-dog dance that often occurs in late winter or early spring and again in fall.
Become a Birdwatcher Now!
February and March are great months to begin birdwatching, reportedly among the fastest growing spectator sports in the U.S. According to Wikipedia, one in five of us in the U.S. claims to be a birdwatcher, and together, this group spent $36 billion in 2006, up from $32 billion in 2001. A gambler would bet that the numbers have increased even more than that in the seven years since.
A birdfeeder by a home window, pair of 10x binoculars, birding guidebook and hot cup of tea or coffee should start folks off right now in this hobby, when winter visitors quickly find a free supply of birdseed. Folks will see a steady stream of black-capped chickadees, white- and brown-breasted nuthatches, tufted titmice, American goldfinches, juncos, northern cardinals and redpolls at feeders.
In the beginning, birdwatchers amuse themselves by watching our feathered friends around the yard, but eventually, the more serious ones head to the woods, freshwater shorelines, riverine habitat and ocean to see all those birds that do not visit feeders.
It is a great sport, and on my birding expeditions, I never met a surly birder.
Where the Action Is
Strict Regs Produce Fast Ice Action
Strict regulations produce excellent ice-fishing in places such as Lobster Lake (DeLorme Atlas, Map 49, D-3) and Allagash Lake (Map 55, D-3).
Lobster Lake has an ice-fishing season that opens in just February, ice fishing restricted to two lines and a 20-inch minimum on landlocks and a 23-inch minimum on lake trout.
Allagash Lake really gets Spartan – no motors allowed. No powered augers, snowmobiles or 4-wheel vehicles, and it’s artificial lures only (ALO).
These regulations lower the kill pressure and insure a satisfying experience in the run of a fishing season – be it winter or summer.
The Maine Sportsman Target Contest
The winner of the 2013 Maine Sportsman Target Contest and recipient of a 1-year subscription to this publication is Jeffrey L. Hubley of Drifting, Pennsylvania.
Page 22 of The Maine Sportsman’s October issue contained the official target for shooters, and Hubley’s target had two shots in the black and three in the yellow ring, impressive offhand marksmanship at 75 yards.
Jeff shot this target with a Remington Model 760 pump rifle in .30-06 Springfield caliber with a 3-9X power Leupold scope. He said he’s had the trigger “worked on.”
Jeff, who is 51, is an experienced marksman. His grandfather introduced him into .22 target shooting years ago. He also led Jeff’s dad into the sport, and then Jeff, too, took up target shooting.
Huber doesn’t just shoot paper. This past fall, he hunted deer in Maine near the Canadian border and shot a 4-point buck with 17-inch beams.
A tip of The Maine Sportsman hat to Jeffrey L. Huber. J.L.
News and Tidbits
NRCM Blows Whistle
The Natural Resource Council of Maine released two reports arguing that the current administration has harmed Maine’s environment through the state agency asked to protect it – the Department of Environmental Protection.
• Troubled Water, a booklet, reports that Maine’s lake protection program has been impacted by reductions in staff, funding and programs to a level not seen in decades.
• A second booklet, Bald Mountain Mining Risks: Hidden from the Public, offers evidence that an open-pit mine on Aroostook County’s Bald Mountain will likely pollute waters with sulfuric acid runoff and arsenic, just as this mining method has done elsewhere. Northern Maine currently has lakes, ponds, rivers, streams and brooks galore that look like calendar photo scenes.
Folks can obtain these two investigative reports from NRCM’s website or by calling (207) 622-3101.
Folks should think “local veggies” when buying food for the table. Local Maine farmers raise potatoes, apples, cranberries, cabbages, pumpkin, carrots, broccoli and more, which saves transportation costs and decreases pollution caused from bringing vegetables here from out of state.
‘White’ Varying Hares
Twice a year, the shortening or lengthening periods of daylight spur molting on varying hares. Hair on varying hares doesn’t turn white in late fall or early winter, but rather, the summer hair – mostly all brown – falls off, and winter white hair replaces it. The new white coat also offers 27 percent more insulation.
In spring and fall, red-bellied snakes make mass migrations to and from hibernation sites, but in summer, this species remains in solitude. Anthills, animal burrows and rotting stumps often become hibernation sites for this snake as well as for common gartersnakes and smooth greensnakes. On summer mornings, folks with house cats often see dead red-belly snakes, left in their yards, products of successful hunts.
Black-capped Chickadee Floaters
In February, a black-cap chickadee flock travels in the tightly knit social group, but some chickadees move from flock to flock – strangers in the midst. Ornithologists call these birds “floaters,” because they go from flock to another.
How fast can a black-capped chickadee fly? This species can fly 20 miles per hour, which looks quite fast to woodland hikers when one zips past their head at that speed.
Red fox have a white tip on their tail, easily visible when the animal passes the observer and provides a broadside view. This is the only canid on the continent with a white tip. In the old days, most Mainers seldom saw any other species, but gray fox have become more prevalent in southern and mid-coast Maine.
Snow Fleas – the Leapers!
In a Maine winter, black specks that resemble fleas sometimes form where our boots push into the snow. These snow fleas also go by the name springtails. Folks call them “fleas” or “snow fleas” because their dark color, tiny size and impressive jumping abilities. This invertebrate can jump 20 times its body length – or the equivalent of a human jumping one-third the length of a football field.
A typical tree in Maine has six well-defined structures, beginning from the outside of the trunk and moving inward. 1) The outer bark comprises the first layer, 2) then the cork cambium, 3) phloem (inner bark), 4) cambium, 5) xylem and 6) heartwood. The xylem makes up the sapwood and makes the rings of the tree. Counting the rings on the stump of a harvested tree gives observers the tree’s correct age in years – say 104 rings translate into 104 years – the age of a typical balsam fir in Maine.
Smooth Beech Bark
Beech trees have smooth, silvery bark, unless the dreaded beech-blight disease now ravishing Maine has attacked single trees or entire beech groves. This smooth bark on healthy trees comes from the fact beech produce little “cork,” which promotes the smoothness.
Paper Birch vs. Red Birch
Back in the day, old timers taught this writer that trees with white bark with thin black lines were paper birch or – more commonly in central Maine – white birch. Young birch with smooth, reddish, almost shiny bark went by the name red birch – actually the immature form of a white birch – not a different species at all. How well this writer remembers his maternal grandmother putting a stick of “red birch” into the wood stove and saying, “I wish we had more oak and suga’ maple.”
Breeding Wood Turtles
A fact about wood turtles shocks newcomers to nature, when they first learn this species doesn’t breed until living well into their second decade. This reptile can breed from March through October, depending on latitude, but it commonly does so in May and June, when water temperatures in shallow streams reaches degrees warm up slightly for several consecutive days. Wood turtles live to 40 years in the wild and 50 years in captivity. In one day, this creature can walk about the length of a football field, including the end zones – 120 yards, or 360 feet.
Tufted Titmice a Welcome Addition
In the 1950s, tufted titmice began moving into Maine, and ornithologists credit this shift to global warming, abandoned fields turning into woods and the growing popularity of birdfeeding by our state’s residents.
Foraging Deer vs. Hare
When observant woodland wanderers meander through a forest now and view the trimmed ends of twigs, they can immediately determine if a white-tailed of varying hare bit off the end. A deer makes a perpendicular cut across the twig, but a hare snips it at a 45-degree angle.
If the end of the twig looks white, the forager did it recently. If it is dark brown to black, it’s a sign of foraging that occurred months before.
Here’s another quick point: The height of the snipped end of a twig means nothing in identifying whether it’s a deer or hare, because winter snow may elevate old long-ears three or four feet off the ground.
Bird of the Month
American Tree Sparrow
American tree sparrows (Spizella arborea) winter in abandoned fields, clear-cuts and powerlines with bushes, shrubs and weeds providing cover next to nearby trees, so a proper understory and slight overstory offer this sparrow ideal habitat. In summer, this sparrow lives in tundra bushes.
Tree sparrows measure 5 3/4 inches long, sport a 9 1/2-inch wingspan and weigh almost 3/4 of an ounce, and in a Maine winter, members of this species hang together in loose flocks.
A dark spot on the breast shows up from a goodly distance and helps casual observers identify this bird, but another feature helps birders, too – a bicolor bill – black on top and yellow on bottom.
Tree sparrows also have two distinct white wing bars on each wing and a mostly rufous crown similar to a chipping sparrow – just less bright brownish-red. A chipping sparrow also has a black line through the eyes.
A tree sparrow’s warble rings clear and certainly sweet, and Peterson translates the song as a tseet note. The feeding note makes a “musical teelwith,” according to Peterson.
The lawns and hedges on my property attract myriad chipping sparrows with their chip, chip, chip sounds, but the lovely sounding tree sparrows are few and far between there. One place these tree sparrows catch my eye is in brushy areas around large parking lots in shopping plazas and offices – such as one of my optometrist’s business.
On the tundra, this sparrow lays four to five eggs with pale-blue shells and brown speckles. This species builds its nest from bark strips and weed stems, which insulates the chicks from the northern cold, even in summer. (Ken Allen)
Do You Know?
Dogs for Night Hunting Coyotes?
Do you know if it is legal to hunt coyotes after dark with a dog in the Dec. 16, 2013 to Aug. 31, 2014 night-hunting season?
The Best America and Nature Writing 2013
The Best America and Nature Writing 2013 by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt Publishing Company) contains 27 articles that lean toward genetics, and like all the previous books in this series, writers give readers plenty to think about on a cold, wintery evening, when reading beats watching television – like on most nights.
(Some years, the series leans toward evolution, computer sciences or other singular topics, but variations enliven the collection should one topic prove boring to the reader.)
The magazines with winning entries into this 2013 annual include a who’s who of prestigious publications, such as The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, Scientific American, Orion, Harper’s, Outside and even Playboy. That title surprised this book reviewer, who hadn’t noticed this publication in past issues.
Folks who spend lots of time in the outdoors and notice nature become knowledgeable observers, and through the years, this series forces us to see even more as we wander forests, waterways and fields. Truly observant people can become so much more astute by having books like this to point out topics to view and then to fine-tune what they see.
For instance, lots of right-wing zealots disapprove of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), even though it’s the world’s most successful environmental legislation – probably ever. However, even left-wing environmental zealots are beginning to note that one solid, legislative improvement could make the ESA even more helpful for saving myriad species.
Please check out “Which Species Will Live?” by Michelle Nijhuis (pages 79-86). Please excuse the hyperbole, but page 83 in the essay blew my mind. It was difficult to think of anything else for days.
Part of the Nijhuis message makes sense to me, because it has been one of my complaints for 40 years. Political geographic boundaries shouldn’t be a criterion in the ESA, but rather, we should look at saving ecosystems.
For example, in reference to this geographical-boundary-line concept, a rodent may flourish in a prairie environment in a – well – a prairie state, and in the next state, that perfect landscape for the little critter immediately rises to an alpine zone. One state contains 99 percent of its range in the entire world, and the neighboring state has but 1 percent.
Does it make sense for government officials in the alpine state with such limited habitat for the rodent to spend money that they do not have to help the species flourish in 1 percent of its habitat because of an arbitrary line created by man?
There’s no right or wrong answer to the question – just compromise. (Ken Allen)
Those Pesky British
Fly rodders lean toward our British ancestry more than most Americans do, illustrated by the misspelled words and strange adjectives in the sport, because fly fishers use spellings and adjectives common with Brits.
For example, we read a fly-tying magazine called Fly Tyer with “tier” misspelled. The British spell the word with a “y” but we use an “i” on this side of the Atlantic.
In short, we choose the same word to describe someone who ties flies as we do to describe a series of rows placed one above the other, which conjures an image of a sweat shop – tiers in tiers
In the 18th and 19th centuries in the Northeast, folks often referred to smoky-gray horses as “dun” colored, a common British adjective to describe smoky-gray. These days, American fly rodders routinely use the word “dun” to describe hackle color, but Americans seldom rely on the word anywhere else except in fly fishing. It’s even uncommon in the U.S. clothing business.
“Red” in “red-game cock” describes a mahogany color that makes Americans ask, “Where’s the red?” Most Americans think of scarlet to describe red, not a reddish brown that looks – well – more brown than red to 21st century eyeballs.
A wood-duck flank feather looks light-tan with fine, black lines, but in fly-fishing lingo, it’s “lemon-yellow.” Yeah, right! Don’t lay a wood-duck flank feather on a fresh, uncut lemon and expect the feather to blend into the bright yellow skin.
American fly rodders in the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th century worshiped English fly fishers. Even Theodore Gordon, the American god of fly fishing at the time, looked to the British for answers and inspiration.
Just in my lifetime, Americans have started pulling away from the British influence in fly fishing, because we have a rich tradition of our own. However, we still follow those picky English fly-fishing influences – like casting dry flies upstream. Yes, this writer casts ’em upstream himself.
Before we get too carried away with this worship of the British, we must remember that we have beaten the British in two wars – The Revolutionary War and War of 1812 – and helped save them in two World Wars. (Ken Allen)
Ah, March, and Spring Nears
In central Maine, March may begin like more of February with lengthening days – but plenty of snow and ice still covers the countryside. By month’s end, though, spring is stealing into the state. At dawn, our senses pick up everything from new bird songs from arriving migrants to nightly skunk smells to spring air smells to owls hooting in the dark.
In northern Maine, March is simply more of winter, just with longer days. Snowmobiling still booms in rural hamlets, and reservations for weekend stays in the North Country insure a roof for the night. Come to think of it, even in mid-week, a reservation makes sense.
Snowmobiling gives a boost to the economy in northern Maine for sure. Ice fishing and rabbit hunting help add dollars to the registers, as do snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. But snow sleds are the big economic drivers of the rural economy in the North Country.
In the South Country, walkers increase along roads, and bicyclers and runners start showing up more and more on sunny, unseasonably warm days. Exercise dominates many minds as winter dies. It’s time to get into shape for long days afield.
Ice fishers still get out now from Kittery to Fort Kent and stay at it until ice no long holds them safely. March ice fishing can rock, because fish are thinking more about feeding as days rush toward spring.
Fly tiers, many of them anyway, tie in a frenzy now. They were a little lazy through winter, so their fly boxes need filling. The cost of flies in sports shops spurs folks to tie, too, because it’s common to pay $8 for a saltwater fly or $4 for a freshwater concoction.
Many of us head south in the winter to fish places like the Florida Keys, Costa Rica, Belize or Bahamas, and a day in the sun with warm air licking our cheeks enlivens us. Some folks have a theory that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) touches all of us to some degree, while putting the more acute suffers in bed for convalescing.
Sportsman’s shows and hearings in the Maine Legislature give some of us something to do that’s at least social – meeting old friends and grabbing a few minutes in a quiet corner for a stimulating conversation – or what old timers referred to as a “cornflab.”
Answer to “Do You Know?”
No to Coyote Dogs after Dark
It’s illegal to use dogs to hunt coyotes during the night hunting season.