As I have said here before, hunting and fishing involve far more than killing. The outdoors offers us so many distractions beyond limp critters.

When observations about animal behavior strike me as unusual, I often research the subject to understand it. But sometimes I have little luck finding a definitive answer, leaving me puzzled and certain that few researchers have studied the topic.

This summer has offered me many perplexing observations, and the intriguing ones involve wood ticks (Dermacentor spp.) and common garter snakes (Thmnophis sirtalis).

First, in July I was walking under oaks on West Road in Belgrade Lakes when a wood tick fell on me. I immediately felt the tick land on bare skin, and the lowest limbs hung 30 feet above the pavement.

I was almost positive the bloodsucking parasite had come from the oaks — but not 100 percent sure. In short, I hadn’t actually seen the tick plummet to earth, just felt it, so the tick might have jumped off my shoulder onto my skin.

Recently, though, while eating lunch on the shore of Biscay Pond in Damariscotta, a wood tick dropped through the air and landed on my arm. I was sitting under tall pines and did see the tick falling.

I felt certain the parasite had come from a limb 30 or 40 feet above, but did it accidentally fall or deliberately jump, targeting me from such a distance?

Jolie, my intrepid companion, was sitting on my left and her sister, Sandra, on my right. Without thinking, I instantly thumped the tick off me and onto Sandra, probably endearing me for life.

As the eight legs on this critter indicate, it’s in the arachnid family, probably part of why they creep people out. Besides resembling spiders, ticks may also carry dreaded diseases, some worse than Lyme disease, although the latter receives most of the press.

I found no information about ticks dropping that far from tree canopies to land on hosts — other than that tick species do crawl into treetops.

Ticks may move around on a host for two hours before biting, a little comfort I suppose, but think of all the places they can get in 120 minutes.

 

The observations about garter snakes wildly fascinated me. While bicycling in August, I spotted three, 12-inch garter snakes on the edge of pavement.

In the interest of writing and science, I wanted to look into their mouths because I couldn’t remember if it is light pink, dark pink or white.

So, after spotting the snakes ahead of me, I parked the bicycle several yards away and sneaked up, but stealth proved unnecessary. They pretended they were dead and lay stretched out like slender sticks, completely still.

The first one did fool me into thinking it was dead, until I walked back to my bike and ate a bag of peanuts. When I pedaled back to the snakes, it had disappeared, so with the last two, I knew their game.

I taunted the second and third ones with a blade of grass to make them aggressive enough to strike. When that didn’t work, I picked them up with the index finger and thumb behind their heads and gently flicked their chins with a finger on the other hand, but they held their mouths closed.

To discourage predators, this species may emit an unpleasant-smelling musk from a gland, but they didn’t stink me up.

Now I know they can rely on another survival tactic. I still haven’t refreshed my memory on the color of the inside of their mouths, though.

Garter snakes in Maine give birth from July through early September, often 14 to 40 little ones per female. Newborn garter snakes measure 5 to 9 inches, so these three were this year’s age class after a little growing.

One fact about this snake species intrigues me. Eighty percent of its diet comes from earthworms, and it also eats amphibians, rodents, insects or just about any critter that fits into its mouth. Little ones rely on insects.

Many years ago under a lowery sky, my first really baffling wildlife sighting occurred while I was poling my 20-foot canoe upstream on the Sheepscot River in Alna, looking for Atlantic salmon. That day, it dawned on me that I was outgrowing my desire to kill. Seeing was enough.

A lone apple tree on a steep bank caught my eye when dense leaves on a limb 2 or 3 feet off the ground rustled with a soft, swishing sound — loud in the still air.

“Grouse,” I said softly without hesitation, but a second later, the animal moved into sight — a woodchuck (Marmota monax).

This struck me as definitely weird, but my later research indicated it is common enough. After all, before Old World settlers arrived in the 1600s, woodchucks lived in the woods, where they might climb low-limbed trees to forage or escape mammalian predators.

Even today, we see woodchuck dens in forests, and besides, their colloquial name includes “wood,” indicating the original habitat preference.

When colonists cultivated fields, gardens and orchards, this woodland dweller moved to agricultural lands for the more abundant food sources, and the great American woodchuck wars began.

If you ever spot a woodchuck in a tree, don’t think you’ve gone nutty.

It’s just one of those things people encounter when they ramble outdoors.

Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]