Spring Awakening (Part I)
April 28, 2018
We almost weren’t able to go canoeing today. Larry and I had planned we’d go in the afternoon but he called me in the morning saying it was too windy, we’d have to cancel – the wind was suppose to pick up considerably by afternoon. With crushed spirits, we decided to reschedule for another day. A little while later, Larry called again saying we should go out at eleven. I was thrilled to be going canoeing after all. Arriving at Larry’s before eleven; we were able to get to McCarthy Lake, unload the canoe and set out by 11:12 am. As usual we had Hank, the dog, with us.
The first sound I heard after stepping out of the truck, besides male red-winged blackbirds hoping to attract mates, was a sound I’ve never heard before, or can’t recall hearing before, a deep, low purring. Whatever creature was responsible for making the sound seemed to be all around us. I just about asked Larry what kind of bird was making the sound but decided not to just yet. We put the canoe in by the bridge; as always, I stepped in first, then with coaxing from Larry, it was Hank’s turn and then Larry stepped in. He handed a paddle to me, just in case, which I lay down beside me, and then he pushed us off and we were on our way.
Now underway, and before I could ask, Larry provided an explanation for the purring, “The temperature can be measured by the calling of leopard frogs. They only call at a certain temperature.” Male leopard frogs begin to call when water temperature gets above sixty eight degrees Fahrenheit; the air temperature wasn’t quite sixty degrees, perhaps the water was warmer or since they starting breeding in late April they were eager to get going.
“Really? Huh, that’s cool!” How thrilling that the omnipresent sound was leopard frogs! Though we couldn’t see them, it was reassuring and exciting to hear them; we knew they were there. Like their name sake, leopard frogs are spotted, dark splotches against a green background. Leopard frogs were once the most widespread frog species in North America. In Minnesota, their numbers have been steadily declining since 1960 – red leg disease, pollution, pesticides and loss of habitat have been the main culprits for the decline. Being migratory (moving from breeding ponds in the spring to overwintering ponds in the fall) their habitat is broken up by roads. This is also a contributing factor to their decline; I’ve found a few dead on roads.
I listened to the sounds more intently on this adventure – I heard a couple of swans in the distance, the splash of the paddle blade against the water, propelling us forward. McCarthy still had to dress; trees remained naked though some had buds and the cattails, rushes and sedges were golden straw strewn on the fringes of the water of the wide channel stretched out before us. The water level was high from snow melt; it had snowed heavily for three days two weekends ago (the 14th and 16th) and then again on Wednesday last week (the 19th). The cold weather hanging on so long that it had kept spring at bay a month longer, although waterfowl had returned in March. I noted a couple of kingbirds perched in a tree. They added their voices to the mix too. There was no break in the purring frogs and the song of red-winged blackbirds was nearly constant too. The canoe scraped against some vegetation.
“There’s a pair of green teals,” commented Larry.
“Yeah!” I had just noticed the pair tucked near a swath of vegetation that juts out into the water. They noticed us too and were quite quickly in the air, as we drew near. “Oops, there went a muskrat, I think.” An airplane droned overhead, the roar of it an interruption to the symphony of the marsh. We weren’t headed up McCarthy just yet, Larry was steering the canoe slightly eastward to an alcove, a small pond-like area almost cut off from the rest of McCarthy Lake by aquatic vegetation.
“Turtles,” said Larry. He has incredible eyesight; those turtles sunny themselves were barely a bump above the vegetation when he called my attention to them. A duck, perhaps a wood duck floated on the water, almost as far away as the turtles. Trees lined the sightline ahead of us; skirted by rushes, grasses, cattails and sedges. The biggest of the trees, possibly elm, had buds ready to open into leaves any day now. A dead tree sported a couple of woodpecker made holes.
A few seconds beyond Larry’s announcement of the presence of the turtles, “Oh yeah, I see them!” I was just able to make out their forms on a log, ahead and to the right of us – still far enough away I could just make them out looking through my 300mm lens. There were three of them, all painted turtles. Two rested flat against the log, one at the other’s back end. The third was perpendicular to the others, feet appearing to be on the shells of the other two, lifting itself up, Little Mermaid style. All of their noses were lifted high. Larry had turned the canoe towards them.
“They’re so cute!” I admired the turtles. The top one jumped in the water as soon as we began heading toward them and the front one followed suit quickly. The third one didn’t want to give up its sunny spot, lingering on the log a moment longer. I spoke for it after the other two slipped off, “It feels so nice in the sunshine; don’t make me go back in the water,” then as it slid into the water, “Ok,” with a resigned voice. It slid off just as we approached the log. The airplane roar grew a little less, no longer masking the purring of leopard frogs. The turtles disappeared in only a minute from sighting them. When it comes to seeing sunbathing turtles, you have to look fast to even catch a glimpse or be some distance away.
“Oh, beautiful!” In the turtles’ absence, I looked across the small alcove, an egret remained standing in the entangled, dead vegetation on the water’s edge. I was mesmerized, my eyes not straying as we approached, snapping photos one after another. At first the egret had its left side turned toward us, and then it turned around to face the trees on the bank. It shifted back and forth several times, paying attention to us but not yet threatened enough to move away. Then with a showy spread of its wings, it was suddenly in the air. What grace and beauty! Its white feathers were impossibly bright. It held its long neck in an “s”, and long legs dangled at first then stretched behind as it flew. The large bird should have looked gangly and awkward but instead was grace and poise. I was disappointed the egret was flying away, following it with my camera as it left. The disappointment didn’t last, however. The bird hadn’t gone far, just to the north end of the little pond area. Larry had skillfully turned the canoe to the left, also following the egret’s flight. So we were still close to it. Watching it stand in the rushes, turning its head to look at us, Larry observed, “It’s not acting quite right.”
“What do you suppose is wrong?” it turned and walked a couple of feet to its right.
“Doesn’t seem like a very…,” Larry paused to choose the right word, “thrifty egret.” We both watched the bird.
To be continued…
Canoeing into the Fog (Part II)
Larry noticed another bird singing that interested him. “There’s a yellow headed black bird. Do you see it?” He steered the canoe closer to the sedges, trying to get close enough for me to photograph the bird. “They sound like an old pump handle that needs lubricating, creaky.” He then imitated the singing bird. I have never seen a yellow headed black bird before so it was fun to make a new acquaintance. He clung to the long stem of a sedge plant, hoping to a different stem when we got too close.
The fog over Goose Lake was the thickest yet. We came to the end of the channel and could see nothing – it was just gray nothingness. It felt like the edge of the world. I felt like I was Lucy on the Dawn Treader, voyaging to the world’s end with Caspian. Visibility in the direction of Goose Lake couldn’t have been more than five feet. Larry didn’t venture out into Goose Lake but rather turned the canoe to our left and guided it along the edge of the lake staying close to the vegetation. We continued along the sedges – the fog was quite as thick here as it was further out on the open water. The sedges were beautiful; I admired them as we past. Our route took us very close to a clump of sedges with shorter stalks and the stalks had little green balls on them. Stretched between the leaves/ blades of the sedges was a wisp of spider’s web. A red-wing black bird was perched on a mass of dead vegetation; puffed up to make himself look bigger, red spots appeared large, and he sang, trying to attract a mate. We headed toward the tree filled bank. The fog wasn’t nearly as dense along the bank. Leaves on the trees were so thick, you couldn’t see through the trees. Larry turned the canoe to our left heading into the slough between Schmoker’s channel and the “main” land. He pushed the canoe into the slough a little ways, but then paused.
“I was hoping there was more water in here. I’m not sure we want to chance it; don’t want to get too far up and run out of water. We’ve done that before.”
“Yeah, best not do that again.” Larry stood up in the canoe for a better look. “There’s just not enough water.” Larry turned the canoe around heading back toward the channel and up it. We glided through a yellow lily patch. I saw a kingbird perched on a tree no bigger than a stick. I could see a water mark on a tree trunk, easily six inches higher than the current water level. It still looked wet though, suggesting the water level had just gone down recently. Another tree next to it had been girdled all around it, above the water level by a beaver. We crossed over the beaver dam again. I noticed a small clump of trees had beaver marks too, some of them their tops missing entirely. We paused by the side channel to admire a sedge plant. I wondered what they were; Larry isn’t confident in identifying sedges. I admired flowering dogwood currently in bloom.
We continued up the foggy channel, observing the silver maple trees along the way, one had fallen into the channel but was still alive. We passed the larger beaver lodge that was partially concealed by young silver maples. We were drawing near to the bridge, though with the fog we couldn’t see it yet. We’d come to the small duck hunting cabins on the east bank. Larry stopped the canoe so I could take a picture of them. He thought they were cute and looked cool in the fog. We continued onward, past the willow leaning over the water, nearing the end of our canoe outing. The canoe slid under the bridge. Our canoeing for the day was done. Once we had the canoe loaded and were back in the truck, Larry said, “It’s only 7:45, I like canoeing this early.” Before turning on to the road, he asked, “Do you have time to go check out Halfmoon Landing?”
“Sure, I have time.”
We saw two cranes on the state land across from Schmoker’s as we drove along. We also observed many rabbits along the roadside, both along 84 and the West Newton road. We wound around on the West Newton road, passing the row of cabins/houses, prairie and then through the trees, down a slight hill. Before we’d come to the creek that usually runs under the road, Larry slowed the truck considerably because the road ahead was covered in several inches of water. He drove onward, into the water. This was a whole new experience for me and therefore a bit exciting. The water rolled away from the truck in waves. Where the stream normally ran under the road, the water was rushing over the road, its ferociousness creating foam. The stream was spilling over its banks filling the forest with water.
Larry said, “The water was much higher. Last night, I saw a beaver lining up willow branches along the side of the road, taking advantage of the high water.” I leaned out of the window taking pictures of the flood waters. I could see lines on the trees where the water had been, again at least six inches above current water level. It was incredible seeing the flood. The road must have been a little higher just before the driveway into Halfmoon Landing, there was a spot that wasn’t covered in water. Larry pulled into Halfmoon Landing, dropping me off to take pictures while he continued to the parking lot. I was thankful to be wearing boots when I stepped into the water. He came back to pick me up a few moments later. As we drove back up the road, Larry pointed out the willow branches on the side of the road. He paused so I could take a look at them. It was amazing how the beaver had lined them up in a row, laying them straight. I wish I had been there to see the beaver collecting the branches. With that we headed for home.
Birds, Turtles and Canoeing
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.)
“This one’s been marked. I think its Pappas.” He held it up, shell facing me. “Can you get a picture of the mark?”
“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.