John Harrigan's Woods, Water & Wildlife: From the porch, a deadly drama in the woods

August 02. 2014 7:23PM

Editor's Note: This column originally ran in 2012. It's repeated today while John Harrigan takes a break.

IT WAS ONE of those little dramas in nature that gets played out all the time, but is seldom witnessed. Some people may see it only once or twice in a lifetime, but for most, never. And it was a lesson on how humanity's mere presence can make a difference, willingly or not.

We were sitting on the porch at camp, talking about everything under the sun as the sun itself tried to poke rays through the thick canopy of maples, birches and beech. There was not a sound in the air, save the slight breeze in the leaves.

Suddenly, a dickie bird (I call pretty much everything that's small and has wings a dickie bird, which annoys the hell out of dedicated birders) zoomed in front of the porch at about our eye level. There was a hawk right behind it, almost beak to tailfeathers. In less than a heartbeat (ours, not the birds'), the hawk, having quickly spotted us sitting there, broke off its pursuit, powered up its wings (it had been gliding) and roared upward through the treetops.

Now, this happened in about two seconds, start to finish. The bird vanished into the protective embrace of the nearest tree, and the hawk, deprived of lunch by our unexpected presence there on the porch, flapped off into parts unknown.

"Wow," I said to Gary before he could say it. We both just sat there relishing the moment that was already gone. It was sudden, brief, fierce, dramatic and beautiful, all at once. And we both immediately began talking about similar little life and death dramas we've seen during a lifetime (well, almost) in the woods.

Gary had a great story about a coyote nose-to-tail on a deer, both running pell-mell right past his stand, oblivious to him and everything else in the world as one thought only of living and the other thought only of supper. Off they went into the great beyond, with no one but them knowing the outcome.

My story was similar. It happened while I was on a deer stand during muzzle-loading season, on a beautiful hardwood ridge in Jefferson.

The ground was covered in dry, noisy leaves and suddenly what began as a distant, faintly audible rustle began growing louder as it got nearer, until a veritable roar of crashing leaves came down the mountainside directly at me, loud enough so that I got ready, .50-caliber set to go, every nerve and muscle tensed.

And down into sight came one of nature's life and death contests, as a rabbit - more scientifically a varying hare, or snowshoe hare, but to us always a rabbit - raced for its life, zigzagging at top speed while a red fox, gorgeous in its full fall prime, stuck to it like a heat-seeking missile.

Down through the woods they crashed, unaware of me, my scent and, for all I knew, the sun, the wind and the sky, as they raced downhill toward the eventual, inevitable outcome.

It goes even beyond that, because the end could have come in one of two ways.

The fox, carrying an onboard computer somewhere in its head, the product of millennia of instinct and a certain amount of lifetime experience, could only expend so much energy in the chase. At some point, unless the rabbit made a mistake or was just unlucky, the fox would break off its pursuit, the possibility of a reward growing fainter even as its own reserves dwindled. It is an energy possibly gained versus energy expended equation. The rabbit, of course, had no such choice. It could only keep running with all it had, hoping that it would tire its pursuer and not zig when it should have zagged.

The hawk, most likely a sharp-shinned hawk, had dived through the forest canopy with enough speed to allow it to glide for a ways, silently, while it looked for a target, which was our little tit-willow, as John Wayne would say, flitting hither and yon around camp. And by our very presence there on the porch, we had startled the predator and deprived it of its prey.

I didn't ask Gary, but I felt bad about interrupting the chase and, I suspect, he did, as well. We both hunt and have had our share of little unseen and unheard and unsuspected things popping up to throw a monkey wrench into our best-laid plans, and as much as we like birds and their serenades at dawn and dusk, we were silently rooting for the hawk.

John Harrigan's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. His address is Box 39, Colebrook 03576. Email him at

ColumnOutdoorsJohn HarriganNew Hampshire

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