NORTH FORK OUTDOORS/Martin Garrell: Spring is here, and wildlife knows it

Wherever you look this month, you see signs of spring. On the Adelphi University campus a couple of students headed for an evening class last week were watching a couple of cottontail rabbits “playing” on an open patch of grass between buildings. I told the ladies politely that these bunnies were hardly playing, but were instead serious about doing what rabbits do, i.e., multiplying, every year starting around February. I didn’t elaborate on the way I used to go with Ray Cardinal decades back and take advantage of such activities, hunting in the Calverton area.

When the ground opens up, the dogs look forward to the rodents that pop out of tunnels along rural roads. Even the best of our bird dogs can’t resist the urge to put their noses to the ground on morning and evening walks in the hopes of catching a critter or two and augmenting their kibble diets.

Of course, larger animals are also out and about, too, particularly the striped kitties that spell bad news for dog trainers. Some years back, on an early spring day, one of our Brittanys was running a field edge a good 50 yards off when a skunk staggered out onto the farm road ahead of the dog and stopped. The snows hadn’t been gone a week, and this skunk had just emerged, looking for a meal. We tried turning the dog — in vain — and felt helpless, anticipating a nasty cleanup. Amazingly, Bandit went up to the skunk, touched noses, sniffed it, and continued his cast while the skunk went its own way. Except for a trace odor, you would never have known there was any contact. Thinking about the event afterwards, we were awfully grateful all our guys have grown up with cats in the house ever since they were pups! They read feline signals, and the skunk somehow was cool, too.

Beside the traditional robins and cardinals, there are lots of other birds telling us that days are longer and fields are open. We used to watch for woodcock coming north at February’s end, waddling onto lawns or even road edges, searching for worms, but the numbers of russet “fellers” have dwindled markedly in recent years. There are killdeer, however, with similar habits and somewhat similar “peent” calls and, naturally, there are major movements of those adaptable scourges of parks and golf courses, the flocks of geese. Way up north on the Canadian border on March 12 we still had 18 inches of snow on most fields when I heard an awful racket and gazed up to see a sky filled with hundreds of “yawping” and squawking birds — not Canadas, but snow geese! They flew north and west for a quarter hour; then a couple of bands and family groups came back east, searching for open crop land (or some field recently attended to by a dairy farmer with a spreader).

The geese had the right idea. A rain and rising temperatures opened things up within two days.

The fishing scene today also reflects springtime from north to south. Where northern lakes remain iced-in, but winds drop and the sun comes out, the good old boys no longer haul shanties out on the ice with snowmobiles or four-wheelers, but pull sleds and set up their rigs anyway, setting on compound buckets and jigging for perch and panfish. I would much rather stay south on Paumonock myself and pursue those same panfish and white perch, not yellow, in our brackish tidal creeks and pothole lakes. The wonderful white meat of panfish taken out of cold water makes a great treat for the spring table, too. Sadly, it will never make up for what we’ve lost by virtually exterminating our stocks of winter flounder. Only the memories remain of the great Peconic runs from mid-March through mid-May, when you pursued the fish all the way out through Gardiners Bay, or, when weather permitted, along Long Island Sound from Riverhead to Orient. How easy it was to put fillets on the table, even when you returned any fish less than 14 inches to the water.

Amazingly, an upward bump in cod stocks has made many anglers optimistic this March. Reports are the best they have been for a generation with fish in the four-to-six pound class off the South Shore and on the Block Island grounds accessible from the East End. Naturally, you have to pick your days for this offshore game. Many a small craft has taken a beating when afternoon winds rise out of the southwest before the skipper gets back into the home inlet. Fortunately, NOAA weather reports are better than they were 20 years ago.

Winter always gets in the last licks, what with snow on Long Island on the first official day of spring this year. But the high sun angle doesn’t lie, and wild creatures know this.