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.
May 25, 2017
Despite the patchy fog this morning, Larry and I decided to take the canoe out, thinking the fog should burn off quickly in the morning sunshine. It seemed to be our only chance to get out around rain and wind – we’d had seven inches of rain in one day a week or so ago, plus a few other days with rain. The temperature was forty three degrees when we set out. I wanted to get an early start so we put in at McCarthy at 6:20 am. When we were driving to the canoe landing, just before the bridge, we saw two pairs of Canada geese with goslings. Larry said, “They [goose families] like to hangout in mobs, it offers better protection.” The geese waddled off the road all too quickly. (It would have been fun to photograph them before they disappeared.) We saw two other pairs of geese with goslings on McCarthy.
The plants covering the landing were wet with dew. Tree swallows were busy under the bridge, flying out over the water and back again. Of course they weren’t going silently about their business, but were all chattering away. It’s amazing how much greener everything got in only twenty days. Trees had put on all their green summer finery. The new growth of cattails, sedges and rushes had totally overcome last year’s detritus. Although everything was green, there were several shades of green giving some variety. The fog was not very thick, allowing for good visibility, from the landing, I could see trees far beyond the island, further up McCarthy than we’ve ever canoed. The yellow water lilies were beginning to blossom. The water level was quite high thanks to all the rain we’ve had – much higher than last time. The wild plants had grown considerably, but they were still young and not yet sticking up above the water surface. Larry kept saying, “Turtle,” every time he spotted one. I saw a few, just noses above the water that quickly disappeared as we neared. Sometimes I actually saw the entire turtle swimming under the water. The painted turtles were mating like crazy.
We didn’t go very far up McCarthy but turned aside to the small pond-like alcove (where we saw the beaver last year). Larry did all the paddling. The canoe sliced through frothy green algae that coated the water’s surface. He wanted to check out the pond area. He glided the canoe through the water to the far end of the pond and then looped back. Red -wing black birds perched on cattail stalks singing cheerfully, trying to attract mates. We left the pond alcove and headed back toward the bridge. Under the bridge, Larry paused the canoe so we could watch the tree swallows fly out of their nests – first a tiny yellow beak would peek out, then a white and gray flash as they came streaming out and darting away as fast as they could. I was in awe that two birds could fit in each of those tiny nests. We only lingered a moment before Larry glided the canoe forward again, down Schmoker’s channel. A thin mist lingered just above the water surface. The beauty of the channel was refreshing, relaxing, and a healing balm to the soul. The channel was deceptively deep with excellent water clarity. The channel curved ever so slightly to the left, east, and then widened considerably. I only noticed one very large scent mound where there had been several two months ago – the others were probably still there, just obscured by the lush vegetation. The mist hovering just above the water seemed to give way here. With the absence of the mist the water mirrored the trees – such spectacular beauty. This was more uplifting than church. Yellow water lilies dotted the water in this part of the channel. They were not beautiful in the traditional sense, yet still lovely.
We came to the snag which had been drilled by pileated woodpeckers. The channel took a sharp turn to the left. A few lovely snags that lay partly in the water caught my eye. Suddenly it was quite foggy; we had canoed into a cloud. Some dead, branchless trees stood like pillars, although not quite so straight. Each clump of these dead trees had at least one live tree, decked out in deliciously green leaves. I was elated to see the plants in and along the edge of the channel coming back to life, covering the area in green. We passed along colonies of cattails. The fog thickened as we headed down stream; I almost couldn’t recognize familiar landmarks until we were passing them by. We passed the island where the channel seems to split in two to go around. The fog grew so thick that nothing could be seen beyond a picket fence of trees in the channel. My head began to hurt from my eyes straining to see the landscape through the dense fog.
The channel seemed quieter, more subdued, cut off from the outside world. The fog completely isolated us, putting up a sound barrier between us, the channel, and everything beyond the channel. It was so peaceful, and therefore refreshing, despite our low visibility. A wall of trees on our left separated our channel from another section of water, which is more filled with vegetation. We passed a patch of tall sedges and a beaver lodge. The fog was a bit disorienting – still hard to tell exactly where we were. The beaver lodge must have been built recently because I haven’t seen a lodge there before. It’s a modest sized lodge. Shortly after passing the lodge, we came upon the beaver dam. If you didn’t know it was there you’d probably not have noticed it – with the fog and the high water, I barely noticed the dam. Larry said, “The water’s running so high it’s spilling over the beaver dam.” Larry was able to paddle the canoe right over the top of the dam. The only sound besides Hank’s whining was that of various birds. As we neared the end of the channel, Larry said, “There’s a yellow throated marsh wren. Do you hear it? It sounds like an old treadle sewing machine.” After he imitated the sound the wren was making I could distinguish it from the other bird song.
“Yes, I hear it.” We were unable to see the singer. We drew near to the big willow tree growing near the end of the channel.
May 5, 2017
Finally, a beautiful morning without fog and both Larry and I were available for a canoe outing. Beginning of April would have been a better time to go canoeing to see all the migrating waterfowl, however, between the weather and busy schedules, Larry and I didn’t get out in April. There are still things to see in May. It was about 6:40 am when we pulled into the area by the bridge, the canoe landing; we decided to go up McCarthy from there.
We stepped out of the truck quietly, not yet letting Hank out or unloading the canoe. Swimming in the water only a little ways out was a beaver. Only its dark brown head stuck up above the water. Each time I see a beaver I count it as a precious gift. At first it was facing our direction – big nose, half way under the water; rounded bear-like ears just above the water; small, gentle eyes – aside from it being wet, it looked like something you could cuddle, like a teddy bear. It turned, giving us a side view. From the side it looked plainly like a beaver, with the better view, its head clearly looked like a rodent head rather than a bear – more elongated instead of round. I could see part of its back but the rest of it was just below the water surface. The water whorled around its body, clearly indicating where its body and tail were. It turned back toward us again, and then it noticed us. It didn’t consider us too much of a threat, so it didn’t slap the water with its tail but it quickly slipped under the water and didn’t resurface any where we could hear or see it. Once it disappeared, Larry let Hank out of the truck and we proceeded to unload the canoe.
The beauty of the lake was awe-inspiring. The sky was perfectly reflected in the water giving the water a deep, dark blue color at a glance. Trees were also beautifully mirrored in the water. As always, the relaxing power of being out on the water in the canoe could be immediately felt in the release of tension from my body.
“Can you get a picture of the young wild rice plants?” asked Larry. I did my best but I really need a CPL filter to sharpen the image. Larry was a little surprised how much the young plants had grown already. The vegetation along the edges of the water was greening up quickly. Trees were not yet completely decked out in summer leaves; the leaves were still small and developing. New cattails provided a dazzling green to the area. The lake channel was open water, the wild rice had not grown tall and thick enough yet to fill it in leaving just a small passage through it, as it would be later in the season. Larry glided the canoe up the “main” channel with ease. Geese bobbing on the water far to the left began honking, making all sorts of ruckus as we drew closer. I admired their graceful bodies as we passed. Some people think they’re irritating, I find them majestic. There was a pair of Canada geese and further away from them was a lone goose. The sun illuminated the large birds beautifully – still the golden hour. The bulrushes were growing thick and green too. Many trees on the bluffs still had to leaf out so the bluffs weren’t very colorful yet. We continued gliding gently up the channel. Across a strip of rushes, we spotted another pair of Canada geese; they were nesting on an old muskrat house. They talked amongst themselves but weren’t too bothered by us. High up in a tree ahead of us, on the right, perched an immature eagle. Its feathers gave it a mangy, scruffy look; its white feathers only just starting to come in. At first, I thought the pair of geese weren’t disturbed but then they took off northwestward when we drew a little closer. Once they flew off my attention returned to the young eagle. But it too thought we were getting too close. With a magnificent display of strength and agility it took to the air as well. Even in its scruffy juvenile stage it’s an incredible bird. It didn’t go too far away, it perched once again in the trees up ahead where the tree covered land juts into the water a little bit. Again, I was just amazed by the grand size of the marsh. I marveled in the loveliness of the trees springing to life, the new baby leaves shimmering brilliantly in the morning sun. Larry pointed out turtles here and there, hovering near the surface – I spotted a few turtle noses before they disappeared. We’d passed the islands and come into the big open area where the yellow water lilies, years past, have grown abundantly. The lilies were growing well too, but so far only a few leaves stuck up above the water. With the vegetation not so thick, the canoe sliced through the water with ease. I spotted another Canada goose standing on a muskrat lodge behind a wall of rushes and cattails.
As we went along through the lily patch, I looked down into the water. “A fish! I saw a fish! A big one!” I was just so thrilled to have actually seen a fish.
Larry identified the fish, “Northern pike”.
We neared the trees in which an eagle sat; I think it was a different eagle because it had a white head. As always, I delighted in the snags sticking out of the water. We saw a few muskrat houses but not as many as Larry would hope to see. The bluff closer to us was greener than I first thought. Across the marsh a little ways, I spied another bald eagle perched in a tree. Larry took us beyond the lily patch a ways before turning the canoe around to start making our way back.
Back in the lily patch, “Is that two turtles ahead to your left?” asked Larry. I scanned the water ahead, not seeing anything that could be a turtle or two. But then I saw it, with further guidance from Larry. They looked like a rock or stump at first.
“Yes, there are two turtles together, mating. Big turtles!”
“Blanding’s turtles,” Larry responded. He eased the canoe up alongside them. Unlike the other turtles we’d seen, these didn’t immediately disappear under the water as we neared. Larry put his paddle down and reached his hand into the water to grab the turtles.
“Sorry guys for interrupting you.” Larry apologized to the turtles as he pulled them out of the water and apart, holding one in each hand. I turned around to take a look at the turtles. He held them so they were facing me but angled their bodies downward encouraging them to stick their heads out. Their tell-tale yellow necks were clearly visible. Hank looked at them eagerly, hoping they were something for him. Larry scrutinized their shells. (Larry is a scientist, former employee of the DNR and knows how to properly handle turtles; please, do not pick turtles up or separate mating pairs. He only disturbed them to further teach me about the turtles to aid in my ability to write about them.)
“I think so.” I turned my camera and zoomed in on the shell.
“I need to tell him we saw it.” (This was another reason he disturbed the turtles – Pappas has been studying the turtles in this area.)After I took a few photos, Larry gently released the turtles into the water. Hank was disappointed they weren’t for him.
We continued across the lily patch but not heading the way we came. Instead we headed for the other channel on the other side of the cattails and rushes. Larry spotted a lone swan over there that piqued his interest. He eased the canoe closer and closer, pushing through the vegetation, seeing how close we could get to the swan before it had enough. “He’s getting a little agitated, “remarked Larry, continuing to move closer. “I’m going to get close enough to get him to fly so you can get a photo of him taking off.” He moved the canoe closer yet; I had my camera at the ready. The heavenly bird turned around, with wings flapping, running on the water, splashing, it glided into the air – gracefully transitioning from walking on water to gliding in the air. I took three photos of the process but unfortunately they’re all a bit out of focus. The white feathers of a swan are dazzling – like they’re glowing. Its head was stained orange red from pulling up vegetation from under the water. The swan was gone, but I think he landed again not too far up the lake. (Again, our intrusion was minimal; we didn’t completely chase the bird away and it was for educating purposes. Larry and I are very careful to not disturb the animals too much that they’re completely disrupted. We both have the utmost respect and love for these creatures.) A pair of eagles sat side by side in a tree some distance away from us.
Soon my attention was pulled to the vegetation under the water, curled water lily leaves, long stalks shooting up from them with a ball at the top that in a week or two would open into yellow blossoms. The shapes and patterns of the various plants form a wonderful mosaic beneath the water surface. Larry continued to glide the canoe along not having to paddle too much. Trees grew on narrow islands on either side of us. Larry said, “More of them have senesced. [Due to stress].” A little kingbird perched on a branch of one of the trees that may not be alive. It flitted away as we got close. We came to the spot where we’ve seen a muskrat a few times, we didn’t see any this time. I was a bit disappointed. The channel bent sharply to the left. We rounded the bend. The bridge was ahead of us. I’m always sad to return to the bridge. However, instead of landing right away, Larry carefully steered the canoe under the bridge. We didn’t go down Schmoker’s though. He turned the canoe around before we got to the willow leaning over the channel. We completed our canoe outing in an hour. I was thankful for the chance to get out in the canoe again but sad to leave the water.
May 19, 2016
Larry and I went canoeing again; we put in at the bridge on 84 around 6:45 am. Instead of going up McCarthy Lake, this time we went down Schmoker’s channel. Larry parked in the small gravel parking area; he backed the truck in toward the water to unload the canoe. Larry paused before unloading the canoe. Facing the water, He said, “I think there was a beaver over there.” We waited a few moments looking out over the water, watching for the beaver, but it didn’t resurface. We unloaded the canoe, and then Larry pulled the truck forward a little bit and parked it. Then we stood on the bank with the canoe; we started to put it in when we realized it was facing the wrong direction so we pulled it out again and turned it so it was heading downstream. I enjoyed watching Larry maneuver the canoe; he was so good at it, his movements so graceful. Larry held the canoe in place, “Alright, Queen of Sheba, step in,” he teased.
Playing along, I replied, “more like the Queen of the Mississippi,” as I stepped carefully into the bow of the canoe. Once I was situated in the seat, Larry handed the paddle to me. Then he got into the canoe and sat down. And then we were off. I helped paddle the canoe under the bridge. As we came out the other side, Larry said, “I can paddle so your hands are at the ready.” I enjoy paddling, contributing, but I also enjoyed being able to just take pictures and soak it all in.
It was a beautiful day, though a little chilly; there had been some frost over night. The temperature was a little below forty degrees. Mist rose off the water adding to the beauty – it had a mystical feeling to it. There was an abundance of life, so much happening. Red wing black birds filled the air with their singing. A small bird, either a sparrow or king bird sat perched on a small branch in the water. I was amazed at how different it looked compared to March. Trees were just starting to bud in March, now they’re dressed in dazzling green leaves. The aquatic vegetation had all been dried a brownish gold and now it’s had come alive in as dark green fronds poking above the water.
We were paddling along at a nice, slow, easy pace – enjoying being on the water. I could feel my muscles relaxing as we went along. With good water clarity, we’d peer into the water, Larry commented, “A lot of vegetation here.”There was curly pond weed, coon tail, and wild rice. The tangle of vegetation and the curious shapes of the coon tail made it seem like it was a whole other world down there. Sometimes it seemed like we were gliding on top of the vegetation instead of water.
The channel was a busy place: birds, fish, turtles moving beneath the surface, insects floating around, and beaver scent mounds. Some of the scent mounds we could barely see. Geese up ahead were carrying on, upset by our intrusion. Then I caught a glimpse of a large bird flying on our right, I thought at first maybe it was a heron or crane but Larry said, “Egret.” Unfortunately, by the time I spotted the bird, it was behind the trees so I didn’t get a good look at it. Maple, oak, and willows lined the banks, I reveled in their beauty, branches extending out over the water with the mist rising off the water. It had a peaceful, calming effect. I kept a look out for the beaver lodge I knew was around there but didn’t see it. We saw a few more scent mounds. A family of geese walked along on the bank; at first I thought they were turkeys but with a better look through the camera, realized they were definitely geese. It was nice to see a family of geese, since prior to that we hadn’t seen any goslings.
I saw a little mammal swimming, probably a muskrat very near the right side of the canoe. I pointed it out to Larry and quickly took a few photos of it. Larry didn’t actually identify it. Its cute little nose stuck up in the air. It had small dark eyes, a brown furry body. It didn’t seem to be too alarmed by our presence. (Looking at the photos, it was a muskrat.) We slowly curved first to the left and then to the right following the deeper part of the channel.
We passed the spot where we saw all of the otter scat; I wish to see the actual animal. Again I reveled in the trees, so lovely – some overhanging the water and was mesmerized by their reflections in the water. I also enjoyed the beauty of the bluff in the distance and the sound of this place. The channel bent to the right again and then back left. Larry spotted a king fisher; he said it got something. I didn’t see it.
We went around another bend. The muskrat lodges which stuck out in March were harder to spot, hidden among the vegetation. While we were still in the bend, we saw the spot we climbed up on to the log out of the water, back in October (2015). It was fun to recognize the landmarks, especially since they looked so different now with the new growth. I scanned the edges of the vegetation to our left, hoping to see an aquatic mammal. As we went along, there were lots of bubbles in the water where the fish came up and went down again. We could see lots of little minnows in the water too.
Larry called my attention, “on the right, on the tree, way at the top of the tree.” I looked and sure enough, just sitting there at the top, a perfect great blue heron. I was awed by how close we were and he wasn’t the least bit concerned about our presence. I took several photos of it as we approached. Larry turned the canoe so we were facing it and called out, making animal noises at first trying to get it to turn its head a little bit to look at us. The heron still seemed unconcerned, alarmed or bothered. Larry said, “Hey, look at us.” It finally turned its head a little bit but wasn’t alarmed and didn’t fly off. A few moments later, Larry turned the canoe back to head down the channel.
April 7, 2014. It had rained off and on throughout the day, that kind of spotty rain that you can walk out of in a few steps with a rain cloud here and sun shine there. Mom and I decided to go bird watching, equipped with binoculars and camera. We drove on County Road 8 out of Plainview. Descending into the valley, we stopped along a pond. Some ducks took flight, but mainly only the Canada geese were alarmed and left the pond. Several ducks remained. With delight we observed them, mom with the binoculars and I through my telephoto lens. We were excited to see four species of ducks; blue-winged teal, northern shoveler, hooded merganser, and mallard. Other than the mallards, I had never seen these species of ducks before except for photos in a field guide which I examined before our birding venture. We lingered to watch the birds for a few minutes, but this pond wasn’t our destination.
We continued on County Road 8 until it was intersected by Highway 74, and then turned south. This area is part of the Whitewater wildlife management area, most of it being state land. A big wetland area, with a large area of open water was to the right of the road. Just before it is a graveled parking area, with a path running along the water edge. We stopped in there, to walk along the path. The pond was filled with water birds. It was incredible! So many sounds – the splash of birds running on the water and lifting into the air, different sounds of quacking, and snort of geese. The birds, especially the ducks, seemed to be laughing. They were joyous and delighted in talking to each other, every conversation resounding across the pond. Adding to the voices of the water birds were red winged black birds loudly singing in their shrill voices. A chipmunk chattered in the woods behind us. A woodpecker drummed on a tree. We were surprised by a chorus of frogs and toads, their beautiful music making it all the more spectacular. The beautiful music of nature delighted our ears.
The pond was also a pleasure for our eyes. There was a lot of diversity before us and with many patterns and sizes – the familiar gray, black of Canada geese, distinctive shovel shaped beaks of northern shovelers, the mallard’s metallic green head and yellow beak, the white and black of buffleheads, and the distinguishing white pattern on the side of the ringed necked ducks. In the distance, trumpeter swans, a pure white, swam. A common merganser with his red bill and the russet feathers on his mate’s head making her look like she had a bad hair day. The red neck and head of a redhead bobbed above the grasses. Females differed in shades of browns and grays and also patterns from species to species.
In the van again, we continued along Hwy 74, getting a closer view of the far side of the pond. I had only ever seen trumpeter swans in a distance, flying. To be so close was breathtaking. They weren’t pure white when you got closer, however. Majestically they floated atop the water. While I was admiring the swans, a beaver swam in front of me before it disappeared under the water. It was fantastic! Here we were watching birds and we got to see a beaver, too. A big cluster of blue-winged teals bobbed in the water at the end of the pond, a white crescent on their face and a touch of blue on the wing. It was amazing how many ducks there were, not just species but individuals as well.
Continuing on, we came to a stream that flowed under the road. To our left a pair of mallards and Canada geese sat in the water. Then we saw a hooded merganser puff out his hood trying to impress the female with him, he looked very silly to us. Further in, we observed a great egret standing by the water’s edge staring at it. The bright white, almost angelic egret was like a bonus gift to all we had already seen.
There was something special about seeing all these birds together, as mother and daughter that made the even more experience beautiful. It was an experience enriched by sharing it with a loved one who is equally as passionate and awed by the splendor of these birds.