John Harrigan: Of side-hill moose and ticks, borrowed birds of prey, and those monarch flutter-bys
During its 39-year-life (and counting), this column has steered around many vagaries, mostly mine. In its early years it earned deserved complaints from then-editor and now-Publisher, and lifelong friend Joe McQuaid. He still calls to keep me on my toes, as I do his.
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In the early years of this column, I was uncertain of my ground. This lack of confidence dissipates with age, as almost everything does.
Back then, in a much more ill-informed and careless time, I devoted two columns to side-hill moose, which were said, if finding themselves on flat ground, to wear a circular path into the ground until they expired. It was, I thought, a good joke, a throw-away line. McQuaid called me on this, and he was right, so I swerved onto other topics. Moose were then esoteric, almost gone, never thought possible to be regained to the point of a perpetual hunting season. At one point, after around 1900, the state's moose count was estimated at 75.
Now, after successful and sustainable hunting seasons since 1988, we wonder if global warming (climate change, pick your persuasion) will keep perpetuating hosts of ticks that will bleed the life-blood from moose and make us change our hunting seasons, as modern game management has always done, since T. R. and time immemorial in the conservation movement. Warmer winters allow ticks to survive and reproduce longer. We will, of course, unless cold winters return to curb the ticks, adjust the hunting seasons, even unto no hunting at all, as has been the ethic that has spawned the Great Enlightenment of wildlife conservation that enables us, with funds from hunting and fishing licenses and excise taxes on equipment, to do so much to right so many old environmental wrongs.
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As of yesterday, Friday, traffic on Route 3 north from I-93 and Twin Mountain was still packed with snowmobilers headed as far north as the snow would still afford good riding. It's a fact of geography that other places, like the Rangeley Lakes, are a longer drive. In speaking stints and other travels to the Southern Tier, I still find people who don't get this. "There's actual life to the north of Winnipesaukee? The state doesn't end at Franconia Notch?" No. Longtime Skimeister Warren Pearson and Steve Barba of the Balsams Grand Resort and Wilderness Ski Area, northeast of Colebrook, far north of where the world ends at Winnipesaukee and Franconia Notch, had a great way of putting this. "You can't convince them that there's still lots of snow and great skiing up here when they're mowing their lawns in Boston."
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Jack Heath, on our regular WGIR Friday morning call-in show, got a great question from a listener, which was why do we see so many birds of prey - hawks, eagles, falcons and the like - at this time of year. It's because they're hunting the snowline, a seasonal transition migration.
Birds of prey from Labrador and the Maritimes and other northern territories hunt the snowline south in the fall, and spend the winter where prey can easily be spotted and pursued, and then hunt the snowline back to their original haunts. The small creatures the birds need to live on cannot be seen under snow, and so they hunt the snowline down and then back - just as do our Snow Birds of a different (and perhaps higher) order.
Hence, this is a great time of year for birders. These are the friends and neighbors who love to go to notches and other narrow places to see these birds not so in the distant past shot on sight, but now on high, wafting and flapping and soaring their way from one season to another.
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Finally, monarch butterflies.
These beautiful insects, like their hummingbird counterparts in the warm-blooded world, are loved and appreciated not just for their beauty but also for their incredible migrations from North America across the Gulf of Mexico to their wintering habitats in Central America and beyond.
The steady decimation of milkweed, on which they feed and lay their eggs, is being blamed for their drastic reduction in one of their best-known wintering grounds, in central Mexico, where their acreage has dropped from 50 acres to 2.9. Mexico is protecting the habitat - we are endangering the monarchs.
Because of the movement to pesticide resistant seeds, a great deal of soybean and corn cropland in the United States can now be rid of milkweed. This, plus the reclamation of formerly marginal farmland in the broad Midwest, is leaving far less habitat for the monarchs.
I'm guilty of the same sin. Back when I took a wildlife course or two from the vaunted Dave Olson, a UNH wildlife professor who was much more than that, he talked about the penchant for "edge neatness" among New England farmers, not so much as a criticism as a reflection on tradition. A neat, hard edge to a field or pasture, he postulated, was a detriment to the diversity of edge that would not hurt farming needs that much but would enable a host of non-farm creatures to thrive.
During my haying years, I routinely did all I could to discourage and stem the invasion of milkweed, not that bad a plant out of place, as weeds go, and one that most livestock would either eat in their winter confines or nudge aside.
And, so, at even this advanced age, older than dirt, one lives and learns.
John Harrigan's address: Box 39, Colebrook NH 03576 or firstname.lastname@example.org