After the next bend it wasn’t the waterfowl but a hawk that caught my interest. A large bird perched on a branch reaching out over and far above the water. Head turned to the side, keeping a watchful eye out. I couldn’t see its back, it stood facing me. It looked like the feathers of its wings were brown. The bird’s breast feathers were white, speckled with red brown, hooked beak, the beak of a raptor. It appeared to have a white streak above its eye. Toes gripping the branch were in shadow. With the sun behind it, the bird was backlit and hard to get a good look at, even harder to take a good photograph. (Looking at the photo later, Mom thought it could have been a Cooper’s hawk or sharp shinned hawk.) Unfortunately, Larry didn’t have time to get a good look at it to identify the raptor before it flew away.
Larry kept moving us forward, no halts but going at a slow easy pace. We came upon the beaver lodge built on the bank, on the right. To the untrained eye it would just look like a pile of long, narrow branches not a home. I don’t know if the beavers were currently living in this lodge but given the number of scent mounds on either side of the channel from just past the bridge and beyond this lodge, it is quite likely they are living in this one. I longed to see a beaver; I hoped that one would happen to be out on business and I would notice it. No such luck today; if there was a beaver outside of the lodge it was blending into the golden vegetation extremely well. Beyond the lodge was a narrow strip of lingering snow. Between us and the snow swam a pair of ring necks, alone, enjoying each other’s company and a patch of water to themselves – the channel, marshes and lakes in this area of the Weaver Dunes and Bottoms can get crowded. This pair of ducks seemed less concerned with our presence and didn’t immediately fly away. Despite their name, the ring around the neck is barely visible. To me, the most striking feature of this duck, which allows for identification, is the white vertical mark in front of its light gray sides – that is of the male. I have an easier time identifying the males than females and usually have a better time picking out their individual features. The back, tail, breast and head of the male are black which makes its light colored side so striking. The crown of the ring necked duck comes to a point but sometimes that is hard to determine too. The sun was so bright and low that other than she appeared light brown, I couldn’t distinguish any of the female’s features.
We passed a tree felled by a beaver and not yet hauled away. I think it has been there awhile, at least I think it is the same fallen tree I see every time we canoe down this channel. Why haven’t the beavers used it yet? What’s the purpose in dropping a tree if they aren’t going to use it right away? It was a good sized tree – it would be quite the project for a beaver to move. The channel curved abruptly flowing in a more easterly direction. The water in this spot disperses over a larger area, widening the channel. Snags and communities of rushes and cattails divide up the water, which is walled in by trees. Again we encountered more than a dozen ducks; with a flourish and fussing they took to the air before I could take a decent photograph. Larry advised, as he has many times, that I should set up a blind and get in position before dawn to be able to get great waterfowl photographs – perhaps a spring soon I’ll be able to do just that.
Larry kept the canoe gliding smoothly down the channel. There was a continuous flush of birds taking flight, startled by our presence; each flock a different size. Even when there wasn’t much to see, there was plenty to hear: the whirr of wings and complaints to the intrusion were fairly constant and even when these fell silent the medley of bird calls unaware or undisturbed by our presence continued. The distant wild call of the sandhills; one grew loud as a crane flew past and far above us, perhaps completely unaware of us. The trumpeting of the swans continued to grow louder. I marveled in the bird symphony – it was awe-inspiring, soul lifting and soothing! When my eyes weren’t busy trying to catch retreating ducks, they feasted on the still dormant trees towering far above us, soon they’d be sporting beautiful green summer wear. Several trees had tipped over, roots on full display – seemed like more than last year. An island of trees and rushes divides the channel, this is a landmark for me, and once we reach this point I know how far we have come. It always seems to be a brief pausing point for Larry to make a decision, though I’m not sure if that is true. Judging the depth and amount of uncluttered water, the number of half submerged snags, Larry steers the canoe to the left and around the island, on our right. Before skirting the island we startled another pair of mallards, each flying in opposite directions. Far ahead of us dozens of birds were flying but I’m not so sure it was because of us; I think we were too far away for us to be cause for alarm to those birds. We weren’t quite clear of the island when a number of mallards were disturbed by us and took flight. Aside from startling the birds, it was great to have front row tickets to the symphony – although perhaps symphony is a bit tame for the drama before us.
Suddenly the wall of trees becomes more like a fence, allowing for more of a view. The bluff cradling the Weaver Bottoms on the southwest came into sight. Fluffy clouds hung low to the horizon, none yet striving to block out the sun. Just a little further along and the tree numbers dwindled considerably with only a few individuals on our right. We had also finally come to the first beaver dam along the channel. Someone had damaged this one a couple years ago and the beavers had yet to repair it; perhaps they won’t since they built another one further down. There was plenty of space for Larry to guide the canoe through the gap. The trees on our left were still dense and far away, though the channel, where the current flowed and the area navigable by boat/canoe wasn’t particularly wide the water spread out here too, the bank of solid land had far retreated to our left. The water was mostly filled in with rushes, sedges, and cattails – however there was no walking over there. I’m not sure how much solid ground there is on our right the whole way down, probably enough for a tree to grow but not enough to walk on. We neared the spot on our right where a narrow channel diverts away to Goose Lake to the southwest. Larry turned the canoe into the narrow channel. Unfortunately, to get through we’d have to step out of the canoe and stand on mounds of vegetation and pull the canoe along. Although we’ve done it before and I was eager to do it this time, Larry decided we wouldn’t continue through. Here, Larry ceased paddling and paused giving us time to just soak it in (he seems to do this in every outing). The swans had become so much louder. On a pile of matted vegetation and mud was a bunch of feathers, someone had enjoyed a meal here. The aquatic plants around us were very tall.
“What are these tall plants?” I asked, desiring to know all I could about this place.
“Is it desirable?”
“There’s some non-native species that have hybridized with native ones.”
“What are some of these other plants?”
“River bulrush, with a triangular stem system. And possibly bluejoint.” I reached out and touched the aquatic plants, getting a feel for them.