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A Symphony of Birds (Part I)

March 29, 2018

The winter passed away without me taking a walk on the sand dunes or on the frozen marsh. So Larry and I decided it was about time to go exploring again. It was just warm enough that we could canoe!

As we approached the bridge, Larry commented on the number of birds on McCarthy, lamenting, “There’s a lot of birds we’ll put in the air.” Larry had originally planned to go up McCarthy but decided we’d go down Schmoker’s channel instead. I think there were a couple of reasons Larry decided not to go up McCarthy; first it was filled with birds and he was loathe to put them in the air, second because McCarthy is more open and the breeze would have caught the canoe too much. There may have also been a concern with ice on McCarthy since at 28 degrees Fahrenheit the morning was a few degrees colder that what we had been expecting. We put the canoe in around 7:50 am.

The marsh was filled with the melody of migrating waterfowl, a dissonant symphony of many different songs. I was thrilled to just be a part of the phenomenon of the stopover of the migrating birds. It seems there is always something new for me each time Larry and I venture out. We have ventured out many times while the migrating waterfowl are stopping over, resting in the area before moving on; so I’ve heard the sound before but this time the melody of the migrating birds was my focus, held my attention and awe. The water was dirty from the ducks – I loved the smell.

The first birds to engage my attention was a pair of Canada geese swimming elegantly in the water on the left. We were just close enough to them to make them aware of our presence, making them edgy, watchful and vocal but not enough to frighten them away. Another pair was far less visible and almost unnoticed on a mound of vegetation and snags. They were both sitting. Could they be nesting already? Canada geese are some of the loudest birds I have encountered in the marshes. Sandhill cranes may rival them in loudness and yet seem not as noisy.

We were perhaps starting out a little too early, although it was the golden hour, everything bathed in the morning sun and beautiful but to photograph anything in the southeast the sun was perhaps too low yet – my photos were almost all washed out. Photography wasn’t the best anyway with the birds startling and taking to the air as we drew near.

Larry expertly and effortlessly guided the canoe down the tree lined channel. I tried to take it all in but there was so much to process. Sandhill cranes spoke somewhere off in the distance, out of sight, not nonstop like some of the other birds but frequent. Mallards quacked as they flew away. Honking and squawking of Canada geese was frequent. Larry identified pintails, ring necks, hooded mergansers, black ducks, and wood ducks – he’s skilled, able to distinguish between each bird’s song or call from the medley and able to tell each species apart as it flew off. He was also quick enough to have a glimpse of them before they took to flight. I struggled to keep up with it all, not seeing some birds until they were already flying and vanishing beyond view before I could really have a look at them. I heard the different bird calls, but my brain wasn’t able to isolate each one and pin it to species – I still have a long way to go learning bird calls and being able to distinguish between calls in a medley. And I may be even further away from being able to identify a bird in flight. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed the dozens of birds in each bend of the channel. There were always a couple of birds lingering on the water after the others took flight, waiting a little longer before deciding they should fly. From far off, I could hear the swans trumpeting, so very faint at first but louder the further we went. Birds weren’t the only subject to engage my eyes – the landscape around us caught my attention too. None of the trees on either side of us had really started to wake up from winter yet – only a few even had buds beginning to open. Another attention grabber was the size and number of beaver scent mounds. Since learning about beavers marking their territory with scent mounds and learning what they look like, I am eager and quick to spot them. Seeing so many large fresh scent mounds intrigued me. Alert, I scanned the water’s edge for any beaver that might happen to be out. We followed the bends and curves of the channel, to the great waterfowl medley. Larry had to do very little steering, none of the fallen and partially submerged snags lay in our course. The elegance and form of the snags never cease to dazzle and interest me.

We came upon another group of ducks, a dozen or so mallards. Green heads of the males glowing iridescent in the morning sun, emerald dots bobbing on the water. Males and females mixed, enjoying a morning swim until we drew too near and startled them. They protested the interruption as they flew. Again, not all the birds took flight at once. It’s a shame that even in the quiet, slow canoe we were putting birds in flight. We were sad that our presence disturbed them and yet at the same time it is in their interest to not be indifferent to people. I enjoy the bend and curve of the channel; at each new bend I wondered what I’ll see this time.

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