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Outdoors North

Time change has impact on writer

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

“Valentine is done, here but now they’re gone.” — Donald Roeser

Amid these days of aquamarine and bloodstone, the clocks here have all wound forward shifting many in the human world into a weary and dreary daze, a sleep-shaken, depression-tinged state of disfunction.

For a few more days anyway, until we acclimate, many of us will seem to be held back by the hands of time. Stumbling around in the broad daylight, moving slower and less certain, bumping into furniture, like we’re walking blindfolded.

For me, though it’s the matter of a mere hour that induced this malaise, there doesn’t seem to be enough caffeine or sleep to cure it.

I wonder if the deer and other animals starting to move more noticeably around the neighborhood have perceived a difference in the time most cars are on the roads, lights are coming on and folks are getting ready for work or going to bed.

It’s a strange thing to think about, but I wonder.

Animals have their own habits, and many are plenty observant of human activities.

I can chalk that up to another notion that seems like an obvious “no” on its face but settles into clear uncertainty given more time, like so many other things.

Does a blue jay know it’s a blue jay? And if it does, does a northern harrier know it’s called a harrier, but it used to be called a marsh hawk?

Over the past week, the number of deer I’ve been seeing has increased, from three or four typically to 10 or more.

There is a well-established deer trail that cuts across the back of our property under a mix of mostly hardwood and pine tree types. The trail rolls over a short rise and then dips down into a stand of cedar trees to the west.

I think this is where the deer spend most of their time during spells of rough weather. They may also retire there during hot summer days or to birth young in the springtime.

On a recent sunny afternoon, I watched a group of six deer head from east to west along the trail, moving down into that shady stand of cedar trees, which sits back behind the neighbor’s house.

There was one deer, a yearling with a gimpy hitched step in its back, right leg, that was the last in line. This youngster kept stopping to look back down the snow-packed forest trail, like it was waiting for a friend.

The deer finally followed the rest of the group into the cedar stand, but in just a couple of minutes came trotting back up to the rise. There it stopped and again kept looking back down the trail.

If the deer was waiting for another to catch up, perhaps its mother, none ever did.

I’ve noticed the deer have been increasingly up and down the steep, rocky hillsides overlooking the county road by our house, along with a gravelly side road that skirts along the river.

I’ve seen a group of deer lying down among the rocks on that hillside as I’ve been driving past headed into town or home. All winter, I’ve been watching for deer, moose or wolves out on the frozen surface of the lake.

When I’ve driven past, I’ve noticed plenty of tracks — mostly from deer — that have seemingly approached small patches of open water in a timid fashion. I say timid because the tracks never actually reached the water.

I figured these animals must be traveling out over the lake ice at night. That’s the one time of day I haven’t been out looking for them. Yet.

Yesterday, I was almost home in the early evening, with the sky dusky and shadows oozing down long across the roadway. I slowed to stop for three deer I saw enter the roadway from that hillside above the blacktopped road.

When they saw me, they stopped, turned around and charged back up the hill.

It was then I noticed there were more deer standing in the road and off to the sides. Three ran up another hillside on my left, while seven others followed the tracks of the original three deer now standing on the higher reaches of their trail.

I crossed the bridge over the river and the road bent and turned in front of me like a dirty gray snake. This was a welcome sight. Over the past few months, the snake had remained snow-covered and slick.

Rounding another curve on a downhill, I looked to my right out over the lake ice. There were two more deer, just standing there, a good distance from shore. About 50 feet away, there were two more.

The sunlight, distance and shadows cast these animals as conspicuous silhouettes popped up out of the “icescape” out there.

At home, in the driveway, I noticed the longer daylength had motivated the birds to be louder and more melodious in their singing and calling.

Cleared skies on some of these warmer nights have brought me outdoors more often to catch glimpses of the remaining late winter stars and constellations.

It seems so common, and yet still so amazing, to routinely spot the big dipper — the “Wintermaker” — bending in the blackness above.

Like most children, this was probably the first constellation I ever learned. Yet, fascination with it has never left me.

The next morning, the last faint hours of darkness were hanging over the trees at the edge of the backyard. I was watching the morning news, getting ready for the day, when I began to hear a sound I couldn’t make out.

I turned the sound off on the television and heard what I thought was my neighbor’s dog barking. I went downstairs, opened the back door and flipped on a light.

The sound was coming from just off the deer trail in the hardwood stand. It was a coyote incessantly barking and occasionally yipping and whining.

After I had turned the light on, the sound moved farther to the east along the trail, in an area where another rocky hillside rose up from under the trees.

I went back inside to the upstairs window hoping to see something more. Unfortunately, it was still too dark. I slid the glass window open and listened to the coyote’s barks through the screen.

I have often heard coyotes making their weird yipping sounds, but I haven’t been acquainted before with this urgent barking and huffing. Coyote experts say the animals do this when they are agitated or upset about other animals entering their territory.

I wished I’d had more time to put my snowshoes on and investigate the area once the sun came up, but I had to leave for work. I do plan to take a walk back there to see what I can find.

It would not be surprising to me if the coyotes have been following the deer trail into the darkness, perhaps finding the animals sleeping under the cedar trees or tucked underneath the low boughs of one of the spruces.

This also makes it easier to understand why the deer often like to sleep up under the apple trees in the yard, with a good deal of relatively wide-open space around them.

There, they can rest in the snow while being afforded a good distance ahead and behind them to view approaching coyotes or other danger.

As the time turns toward spring, I wonder whether Widow Winter has a few more storms up her pretty, white-lace sleeves. Regardless, the key for me will be to try to stay in time with the changes.

For now, that will mean finding some way to shake off these time change side effects and get outside before spring showers wash all the snow away.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.

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