Inside the Outdoors: Not all mourn the passing of summer

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I'm hearing "Where has the summer gone!" a lot these days. It's being spoken more as a statement than a question. On paper, it would merit an exclamation mark, rather than a question-mark.

If you polled everyone on the season they most look forward to, odds are high the winner would be summer. It's filled with so much that Minnesotans love: fishing, water sports, baseball, golf, tennis, picnics, local fairs and celebrations, the list goes on. Perhaps because there are so many good things to be packed into a limited number of summer days and weeks, the passage of time seems to accelerate.

The school vacation that appeared endless in June is inexplicably drawing to a close. Teachers — based on some within-the-family examples — are no more eager to swap freedom for the classroom than students. Anxiety is a more frequent visitor as August slips by and Labor Day looms. I've had my own bouts with late summer melancholia, which seemed to arrive as August waned and my children left our household for college.

But for quite a number of us, the exit of summer is also a time to rejoice, perhaps even worth a "hallelujah!" Many who hunt, not surprisingly, are in this group. With very few exceptions — notably wild turkeys and certain geese — hunting is strictly a fall thing. Certainly we appreciate summer and all those things that make it so popular. But if we had to trade them for the honking of Canada geese in migration overhead in the darkness, or the cackle of a riotously colorful rooster pheasant erupting out of cattails with our hunting dog hot on its long-spurred heels, we just might.

Summer in the northern hemisphere doesn't officially end until the autumnal equinox in the third week of September. But the climatic differences south to north over the country mean that here in Minnesota the symptoms of fall will come well in advance of what our calendars and TV meteorologists tell us. The arrival of our hunting seasons confirms it.

Canada geese are less common in other parts of the country. Here in Minnesota they're abundant to the point of being a nuisance in some places. Golf courses, parks, athletic fields, even the lawns of some resort properties where I've stayed, can become favorite feeding grounds, where the geese inevitably leave their conspicuous "calling card;" sometimes in quantity that makes avoidance like a game of dodging cracks on the sidewalk.

This abundance drives the early Canada goose hunt, which begins September 1st. Nuisance or not, Canada geese are highly intelligent, learn quickly what's dangerous and how to avoid it, and are therefore justifiably considered a trophy bird.

Despite relative abundance, Canada geese — like any species of wildlife — are subject to peaks and valleys, due almost entirely to their success in nesting and raising their "gaggle," as a group of geese is officially called. Young Canada geese have an advantage over ducks and most of our familiar game birds. Their parents mate for life, and both goose and gander take part in the job of helping the goslings make it to adulthood. Geese are no pushover for a would-be predator, as anyone who has been charged, hissed at or even pecked, will tell you.

Despite such a high degree of parental care, there are factors that good parenting alone can't overcome. Weather is chief among them. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' top waterfowl guru recently warned that goose hunters could be mildly disappointed by the numbers they encounter in 2018. Steve Cordts, based in Bemidji, cites a late spring that he believes has cut into the number of young birds that will be recruited into the ranks of fall migrants. A cold, late spring — including blizzard conditions in April in some parts of the state — could have contributed to in-the-shell deaths, as well as some adult geese that may have "taken a pass" on 2018 nesting altogether, Cordts suggests.

Cordts commented in early August that young "flighted" geese were not being seen in cut crop fields feeding, an indicator that — at best — 2018 Canada goose reproduction is behind schedule. Just a bit later, after the third week of August here in North Central Minnesota, I began to see small flocks feeding in cut wheat fields that had recently been combined. Perhaps when the 2018 Canada goose season is in the books it will turn out to be a "better late than never" year.

Besides the attentiveness of Canada goose parents, there is also a communal behavior that predisposes them to avoiding predators. If you watch a group feeding in a harvested agricultural field, you can bet a paycheck that — while most search for waste grain — one or several of the geese will be on high alert, neck stretched straight up, watching for any threat that might be approaching.

How this sense of duty is communicated and coordinated among a group of geese is not clear to me. I'm no expert in their vocal or body language — and how each by itself, or together — may get the message across. But it's so universal that the term "watch gander" is as familiar to biologists and hunters as "sentry" is to the military.

As I've driven past these harvested fields on the way to and from my office, I've attempted to get long-distance photos of the geese feeding. Without fail, there have been two or more with their long necks extended, turning their heads intermittently to better see in all directions. A fox, coyote or human hunter doing a belly-crawl, would have little chance of catching them unawares.

The opening of the early Canada goose hunting season is but the first in a cascade of seasons about to begin. Youth Waterfowl Day — when only those age 15 and under can hunt, accompanied by a non-hunting adult — is Sept. 8. The ruffed grouse season and archery deer hunting open Sept. 15. The general duck and goose season begins Sept. 22. Then pheasants, firearms deer and so on.

Who can blame us for not being long in mourning for the end of summer?