The other evening, while starting Trapper, a mischievous, year-old black Labrador, for a walk in the three-acre wood beyond the back fence, a deer popped its head around the corner of a vine-covered blow-down 30 yards away.
Trapper, intent on the comings and goings of cardinals and sparrows flitting through the brush, did not notice, so -- luckier still -- did not give chase.
If he had, he would have startled not one deer, but five feeding along the greening edges of a large patch of bramble, which through most of the day is open to sunlight, but in the early evening falls into shadow and moistening.
On the damp days, tracks of deer, squirrels, fox and raccoon are easily seen on the trails in the wood. On any day, there are other signs of wildlife -- droppings, old antler scrapes, bird nests, occasionally the remnants of a small mammal, victim of disease or predator.
One year, when we were between family dogs, a mallard hen and her brood of chicks waddled out of the wood and through the open back gate.
My kids always have taken note of the signs, and in the year of the mallard brood delivered a chick left behind to a nearby wildlife sanctuary in the hope that it would survive.
But these days, as they grow older, it is harder to get them away from television -- or sometimes even their studies -- for anything but a baseball game or a female's voice on the telephone.
Sorry, Dad, "The Simpsons" are on. If it's a guy, take a message.
But occasionally, such as nights when the comet Hale-Bopp has been clearly visible or the evening of the deer, they can be coaxed from Homer's blather and into the natural world -- if only for a few minutes, and if only onto a plot of undeveloped land surrounded by dozens of residences.
Quietly, my wife and older son were brought to the fence line and out a few yards, to stand behind a veil of vines and watch, while Trapper snorted and sniffed the breeze coming down the shallow rise, along which the deer fed.
"I've never seen them this close, except when my dad brought them home dead," said my wife, who as a child lived for a dozen years on a small farm in Iowa. "They really are beautiful to watch."
The 15-year-old, meanwhile, had climbed barefoot to a tree fort built on the edge of the bramble and, with binoculars clamped to his eyes, was transfixed -- a rare occurrence, unless confronted by a good curveball, a pretty girl or "The Simpsons".
Trapper broke the spell with a sharp bark, and the deer, already openly nervous as they fed, moved off into the deeper wood.
"Thanks, Dad," the 15-year-old said, as he climbed down. "Next time they're here, let me know. That's a show I could catch again."
As the season warms and the vegetation of the wood expands, reruns probably will be few. But it is the season in which backyard wildlife of all types can provide a new release almost every morning or night in virtually any location -- whether the action is at a bird feeder, in a plot of woods such as ours or in a park, forest or wildlife management area.
"This is the time of year, for example, when evening grosbeaks and goldfinches migrate through, and they are something to see," said Peter Jayne, wildlife habitat program manager for the state Department of Natural Resources.
For people intertested in enhancing the wildlife habitat on their property, DNR has a program that can help, Wild Acres, in which some 5,000 people in Maryland already participate.
According to Jayne, Wild Acres is intended to "promote wildlife habitat," and while a lot of it is "backyard bird-feeder stuff," the program also works with corporations and large landowners to make lands "wildlife positive."
The program includes parks and nature centers in the state and provides technical assistance.
At DNR's Gwynnbrook Regional Center in Baltimore County, Wild Acres has created a nature trail as an example of the kinds of changes in the landscape that can produce good habitat.
During the non-hunting seasons (remember, the spring turkey season runs statewide from April 18 to May 16), a trip to state or county parks, state forests or wildlife management areas offer wonderful opportunities for wildlife viewing.
Turn off the television, pack a lunch, take along binoculars and a camera and enjoy Maryland's wildlands.
Information on the Wild Acres program and guides to state lands and wildlife is available by writing DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Division at 580 Taylor Ave., E-1, Annapolis, Md. 21401.
Places to go
The following are nearby state lands that can provide wildlife viewing for a variety of species:
State parks: Gunpowder Falls, Baltimore County; Patapsco Valley, Carroll and Baltimore counties; Patuxent River, Montgomery and Howard counties; Rocks, Harford County, and Sandy Point, Anne Arundel County
State forest: Stoney Demonstration Forest, Harford County
Wildlife management areas: Dover, Baltimore County; Liberty Reservoir watershed, Baltimore County; Prettyboy Reservoir watershed, Baltimore County; Sawmill, Carroll County; Speigel, Carroll County; Maring, Carroll County; Farver, Carroll County; Woodbrook, Carroll County; Harper, Carroll County; Brooks, Carroll County; Hanover Watershed, Carroll County; Hugg-Thomas, Howard County
Pub Date: 4/06/97