A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Comeback of Too Much Success?

The elusive buck.
Despite our tangled relationship with the species, let’s be thankful for the amazing white-tailed deer.

After years of enjoyable effort every fall, I got a deer a few weeks ago.
This late-comer to hunting squeezed the trigger on my fussy old muzzleloader and brought down a healthy young buck at 50-plus yards.

I took a moment to pay respects and admire this beautiful animal. Its thick gray-brown coat. Its big, brown and now lifeless eyes. And I felt sad, excited and thankful all at once, feelings that quickly vanished as I moved to the tasks of gutting and hauling the deer out of the woods in the waning daylight.

But while I focused on the tasks at hand, my thoughts also darted to the complexities of the species I was dragging: Odocoileus virginianus, possibly the most widely distributed big-game animal in North America.

It has fed generations of North American hunters, from paleo-Indians 10,000 years ago to my grandfather and father, to my own family. We owe it to the deer and to ourselves to step back once in a while and appreciate our tangled relationship with this beautiful and much-hated, much-admired creature.

“Deerly” Held Beliefs

Everyone has an opinion about white-tailed deer, and for some folks, those thoughts are strong. Please forgive the brash generalizations, but a few perspectives go something like this:

The deer-hunter: New Hampshire could use a few more deer, especially big bucks.

The anti-hunter: Let deer be deer. Don’t hunt them.

The tree-grower: There are so many deer, it’s hard, if not impossible, to regenerate the forest.

The deer managers: The N.H. Fish and Game Department tries to strike a balance in managing deer numbers for an array of interest, including: allowing hunting for recreation; growing timber; avoiding deer-vehicle collisions, among others.

Of course, the many shades of gray among the above aren’t the loudest voices.

The Last Deer in Town

It’s a challenge to hunt deer in New Hampshire. Just ask hunters. The statewide success rate is 10.8 percent. So, for every 10 hunters who try to bag a deer every year, roughly one succeeds.

Comparing success rates state-by-state is problematic. But if you look at another metric, New Hampshire is at the low end of 1.43 deer killed per square mile, while Maryland and Delaware are at 10.3 and 10.1, respectively. But there’s a lot to unpack in those stats.

If it’s challenging to get a deer in New Hampshire today, it was a lot harder in the 1800s and early 1900s, when whitetails were virtually wiped out from generations of unregulated harvest and market hunting.

When William W. Hayward published the History of Hancock in 1889, he wrote that, “The last (deer) shot in town was killed by Isaac Fitch in 1818, near Antrim line.”

North American Model

Gradually, and more so since the 1940s, deer recovered, thanks to the resilience of New England’s forests and significantly improved management. Deer, black bear, wild turkey, moose, several waterfowl species and others have recovered in part from acts of congress and the vision of what would become known as the North American model of wildlife conservation. Among its tenets is that wildlife is a public resource – not a private commodity to be bought and sold – and that it must be managed by science.

Funded by hunters’ license fees and a federal excise tax on hunting firearms and ammo, hunters were and remain the key to this model. Based on the emerging science of wildlife management, agencies like N.H. Fish and Game eliminated market hunting and established seasons, bag limits and hunter education.

Now there are 44,000 resident hunters in New Hampshire – mostly deer-hunters – and another 14,000 non-residents who hunt here. And their activity pumps $60.5 million into New Hampshire’s economy every year.

The model has worked pretty well for years. But it’s not perfect.

Magnificent Mammals or “Mountain Maggots”

For one thing, the numbers of hunters is on the decline. So that restricts the ability to fund management of deer and other wildlife.

Second, the recovery of white-tailed deer has been way too successful in many parts of the country, where deer ruin crops and shrubbery, devastate forests and native vegetation, pose hazards on the roads, and help the spread of Lyme disease.

In his book Nature Wars, author Jim Sterba notes the deer’s sliding reputation. “When they were scarce, whitetails were seen almost universally as elegant creatures, a thrill to watch leaping a fence, tail high. As their numbers grew, perceptions changed. They became nuisances, even menaces. Some people called them defoliation machines, long-legged rats, or, as some Pennsylvanians dubbed them, mountain maggots.”

The spread of suburbia and development across the Eastern seaboard has created the perfect environment for whitetails: edge galore. And along with suburbia and a declining connection with nature has come less understanding and tolerance of hunting. The result: more edge, more deer, fewer hunters, fewer hunting opportunities and more people complaining about more deer.

In states where deer have become so numerous, communities (or corporate properties) have had to hire sharpshooters to reduce deer numbers. And the cost can be upwards of $300 per deer, with the meat usually going to a local food pantry.

In such places, deer managers are increasingly talking about allowing limited, very controlled programs that would allow the sales of venison. Some models suggest having state-approved clubs be certified to remove deer in overpopulated sites and sell the meat to local farmers’ markets.

The notion of allowing even limited sales of venison remains controversial and would be less likely here in New Hampshire than in parts of Connecticut, New York or New Jersey where deer densities can approach 100 or more deer per square mile.

By comparison, New Hampshire’s deer densities are 5 to 15 per square mile.

Thankful for Deer

But when you set aside the numbers and debates about management and you talk to hunters, you have stories. You hear stories of challenging hunts, stories of passing the tradition and stories about amazing deer.

I’ve enjoyed many days hunting deer. I’ve seen gorgeous sunrises. I’ve watched does so close I could’ve poked them with my muzzleloader. With my son this year, I watched three black bears just a few steps away. I’ve learned many square miles of wonderful countryside right here in our backyard.

I’ve learned to appreciate how elegant, mysterious and perceptive deer can be.
And this year, I have a few more reasons to be thankful for the amazing white-tailed deer.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Seventy-Five Years Ago: The Great Hurricane of 1938

When the next one comes, will we be ready?
Peterborough, after the '38 Hurricane.
Photo courtesy Peterborough Historical Society.
If you were around in 1938, the stormy events that took place across a wide swath of New England were likely etched into your mind forever.

The Great Hurricane of 1938 was among my father’s earliest memories as a child. He was in Nashua when the storm started pounding New England. He remembers his mother holding him as the windows rattled and huge, old elms came smashing down on Nashua’s streets.

You’ll likely hear more about the storm in coming days as September 21 marks the 75th anniversary of the ’38 Hurricane.

It was New England’s deadliest hurricane, killing more than 600 people. Most of the tragic deaths were in Rhode Island; 13 were in New Hampshire.

It was also called the Long Island Express, because of where the storm came ashore to the great surprise of many unprepared souls. It crossed Long Island Sound, clobbered Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, then moved up the Connecticut River valley, tearing up New Hampshire before finally winding down in Vermont.

The storm’s power was awesome. It damaged or destroyed more than 57,000 homes and caused an estimated $308 million in property damage (in 1938 dollars.). Along the coast, boats were washed hundreds of yards inland. Houses were completely washed away, some of them containing whole families that had no clue such a storm was coming.

In New Hampshire, the storm’s impact was felt around the state, but much of its brunt was in the Monadnock Region. Concord, for instance, had only an inch of rain, while places like Peterborough and Keene got clobbered with wind and rain. Compounding the hurricane’s wrath were the several inches of rain that had fallen before the hurricane struck; the ground throughout much of the state was already waterlogged.

Water and Fire

Peterborough was a wreck. A fire that started in a grain mill attached to the Peterborough Transcript building devastated the Transcript and several other downtown buildings. With all the high water, firefighters had little access to the buildings and could do little to dowse the flames. In addition to the fire and flooding, some 10 bridges in town were destroyed.

Winds from the storm toppled an estimated 2 billion trees in New York and New England, affecting about one-third of New England’s forest area. In what’s now Pisgah State Park in Chesterfield, the hurricane felled a large chunk of a rare old-growth forest, a stand that had withstood centuries of previous storms, not to mention logging, disease, insects and other threats.

Salvage crews were quickly mobilized throughout New England, including some from the Civilian Conservation Corps. They salvaged an estimated 1.6 million board feet of downed trees, often by setting up portable saw mills and moving operations from one site to the next.

Despite salvage efforts, limbs and trees downed by the storm are said to have fueled forest fires throughout New England years afterward. One such conflagration was the great Marlow fire of April 1941, which scorched more than 20,000 acres in Marlow and surrounding towns.

You can still see evidence of the 1938 Hurricane in today’s forests. Even in the clear waters of Nubanusit Lake in Hancock and Nelson you can see trees intended for salvage that had sunk to the bottom.

Lessons from Nature

The storm taught several tough lessons; among them that New England is not impervious to the impact of hurricanes. It taught us a long list of ways to be better prepared for hurricanes and to warn the public of impending storms’ threats.

And as our climate continues to change and warming seas rise along the coastal Atlantic, the 1938 Hurricane continues to remind us of vulnerabilities and resilience. In Boston, for instance, the sea in relation to the land has risen about 10 inches in the past century. And of course, there are now many millions of more people along southern New England’s coast than there were in 1938.

Scientists have predicted that if a Long Island Express were to hit New England today – that is, the same path and intensity – it would cause an estimated $23.5 billion in damage. Another prediction pegs the damage at $39.2 billion. Keep in mind that 2012’s Hurricane Sandy – which caused $68 billion in damage – was classified as a Category 2 hurricane, while the ’38 Hurricane was estimated as a Category 3.

We’ve learned that nature itself can help us be resilient from such storms. Marshes, salt-marshes, sea grass, shellfish reefs and other natural features can absorb high surf and flood waters and blunt the impact of storms. We’ve learned that, while flood control dams can serve their purpose, New England’s plethora of old, obsolete dams can actually worsen flooding and can fail. Small and poorly designed culverts can not only restrict movement by fish, they can aggravate flooding, as seen in the 2005 Alstead flood. Rivers that run free and that include marshes and healthy floodplain forests can serve as natural and low-cost flood-control features.

Now scientists predict that warming air and sea temperatures may intensify and increase the frequency of big storms.

Whether the next big one comes this year, next year or in many years to come, there’s little doubt that a mega-storm like the ’38 Hurricane will happen here someday.

When it comes, will we be ready?
  • On Thursday, Sept. 19, 7 p.m., see "The Hurricane of 1938" at Putnam Theater, Keene State College. Sponsored by the Harris Center for Conservation Education, the Monadnock Conservancy, Keene State College, and the Monadnock Institute for Nature, Place and Culture.
Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Perseids Meteor Shower – A Top 10 List

Not a meteor shower, but 50 minutes as the Earth spins. Look for
the Perseids meteor shower Aug. 10-13. Photo by Benjamin Aldrich.
The Earth is slowly heading for a field of space debris … and that’s a good thing. Especially if you enjoy watching meteors.

Come August 10 through 13, the Earth will pass through that debris and we’ll be treated to the annual Perseids meteor shower. If you hit it on a good night (or morning), you could see as many as 50 meteors an hour, almost one per minute.

So, as you mark your calendar for this celestial show, keep in mind these top 10 cool things about the Perseids meteor shower.

No. 10: Constant Comet  – Every August, the Earth passes through the debris field left by comet Swift-Tuttle. The comet orbits the sun every 133 years or so and will make its next pass in July 2126. Mark your calendar now! It’s called Perseids because the meteors seem to come from the constellation Perseus.

No. 9: Lawnchair Amusement – Watching the Perseids meteor shower is one of the few big nature events that you can – and should – do from the comfort of a lawnchair. Even better if you have a reclining lawnchair so you can watch the skies.

No. 8: Make a Party of It – Since the Perseids happens in August, when the living is easy, you can make an event out of it. As Stoddard sky-watcher Fred Ward suggests, “Have fun with it! Invite some friends over and enjoy the show.”

No. 7: No Special Equipment – This is one celestial event when you don’t need a big, fancy telescope or even a pair of binoculars. The unaided eye is best, just scanning the heavens and patiently waiting for meteors to shoot across the sky. 

No. 6: Big Show / Small Stuff – The celestial debris that creates the Perseids meteor shower is pretty small stuff, mostly like the size of a grain of sand; sometimes as big as a marble.

No. 5: Speed Demons – When we see one of those meteors, it’s about 60 miles up, screaming into the Earth’s atmosphere at more than 133,000 mph. That’s pretty fast!

No. 4: Hot Stuff – As that little particle enters the atmosphere, it compresses the air in front of it, heating up both the air and the meteor itself, more than 3,000 degrees F. That intense heat vaporizes most meteors, which is the “shooting star” that you see.

No. 3: Moon-Free – This year’s show will benefit from the moon being small and disappearing early, making the night dark to enhance the meteor viewing. The moon will be a few days before its first quarter and will set below the horizon between 9:30 and 10:30 p.m. The darker the skies, the better the meteor viewing.

No. 2: The Early Show – If you’ve wanted a good reason to get up nice and early, this is it.  (How’s that for a positive spin?) Best viewing of Perseids is an hour or more before dawn. So around here, that would be roughly between 4 and 5 a.m. I know, those hours present all sorts of questions about coffee, going back to bed, work and the day ahead. Make the best of it and enjoy the show!

No. 1: Long-Running Tradition – We know that the Chinese observed the Perseids from as early as 36 AD, and other Eastern cultures observed the August meteor shower in the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries. Closer to home, my own family has often enjoyed the Perseids from the little dock of our camp in Maine, sometimes after a lobster dinner. What’s your tradition?

Finally, if you want a great front-row seat, check this out! The New Hampshire chapter of The Nature Conservancy and the NH Astronomical Society are hosting a skywatch hike up green hills on August 10 to see the Perseids meteor shower. Learn more!

Eric Aldrich writes and watches the sky from his home in Hancock.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Mothing … for Our Inner Scientist

A well-placed rosy maple moth.
The cusp of summer has a way of channeling my inner scientist, the one I’ve unsuccessfully suppressed since 5th grade. It’s the scientist who collects bones, rocks, feathers, scat, owl pellets or anything smelly, weird and from the woods and streams.

As June segues into July, my inner scientist keeps the porch light on all night to perform a highly unsophisticated biological survey: Count the Moths!

Whether you call it research or curiosity, it’s a great activity for the scientist inside a kid of any age. 

We call it “mothing,” and this is a great time to do it.

Mothing is a weird mix of science, bugs and outdoor fun. Take it as serious as you want, following protocol carefully or just wingin’ it and having fun. No matter; you and your kids will learn a thing or two and connect with nature. 

I got hooked on mothing a few years ago when I helped Nature Conservancy ecologist Jeff Lougee in New Hampshire. For an ecological study, Jeff and I gathered moths late at night in the OssipeePine Barrens. Now I do mothing at home with the kids.

Why Moths? 

Because moths are cool! And there are fun ways to attract moths and learn about this vast, diverse and secretive realm of insects. 

While there are about 1,000 species of butterflies in North America, the continent has more than 11,000 moth species. Worldwide, science has described more than 150,000 moth species so far, and the list is growing, compared to 28,000 butterfly species. 

On a good night of mothing, you could attract dozens of different moth species. Count ‘em. And check ‘em out. You might get the virgin tiger moth, with its checker-like top wing and pumpkin-orange underwing. You might get a giant leopard moth, pale white with curious black circles. You might get a wood nymph, with its amazing defense mechanism of imitating bird poop. What predator wants to eat bird poop?! 

You might get those big, beautiful celebrities of the moth world, like promethea, with its striking tawny color and bold “eye” patch on each wing, a defense mechanism. You might get the iconic luna moth, with its light green color and delicate teardrop wing. Beautiful. 

Don’t Just Sit There, Do Mothing 

Here are a few ways to attract moths, and all of them are pretty simple.

Porch Light Method: This is the easiest. Just leave the porch light on for a while and see what comes along. Among the theories about why moths are attracted to light is the notion that moths are actually trapped by light, like sensory overload. 

Black Light Method: You can switch the regular bulb in your porch light with a black light bulb. Instead of illuminating posters in the basement, you’re attracting cool moths to your porch. Another option is to rig up a small incandescent black light unit on your porch, or, with an extension cord, out in the yard a bit. It helps a lot to aim the black light at a white sheet, even if it’s on a clothesline. The sheet gives the moths a place to rest and be observed. 

Bait and Wait: A fun way to attract moths is with bait. With your kids, mix up a paste-like bait. You can use bananas, stale beer, and brown sugar. Ideally, you want to let this mix ferment for a few days. If you don’t have time for this, don’t sweat it, and don’t sweat the recipe. You can add maple syrup, honey, liqueur, watermelon, vanilla, etc. Experiment! 

Using a paint brush, paint a patch of bait on a line of trees, chest high, along a path or an edge of a field or lawn. Then wait. Go out a few hours after nightfall and check your bait stations, preferably with a flashlight softened with red cellophane, so as not to scare the moths. Be stealthy, because moths can hear. Gathered at these bait stations, you’ll see all sorts of moths, some of which won’t be drawn to lights, but love the bait. 

Identify Those Nighttime Jewels 

The fun part is identifying those moths that you’ve attracted. A great resource is the book, “Discovering Moths: Nighttime Jewels in Your Own Backyard,” by John Himmelman. He also has a great website:

If you’re a serious “mother,” check out Peterson’s Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America.

Finally, a great resource comes from National Moth Week (July 20-28): The week is a great way to build the interest in mothing, with events all over the world (including here in New Hampshire).

So, gather up the kids and see what’s out there. There’s mothing to do!

Eric Aldrich writes and goes mothing from his home in Hancock.