We were really close to the road now; this was new territory for me. Birds continued to twitter. Red-winged blackbirds kept singing their conk-la-ree song.
“Looks like a beaver’s damming the culvert.”
“Yep, the beaver has decided it doesn’t like that water going through here.”
I laughed a little at that, beavers are so determined. A moment later, “Looks like a scent mound.” A pile of dirt mingled with dead rushes, a mini mountain. It looked fresh. It was exciting to see several signs of beavers.
“Mmhmm,” responded Larry.
I loved the trees in this area; they had so much character, beings standing in the marsh. Beings of untold wisdom. I wanted to reach out and touch them, perhaps they would impart some of that wisdom and tell me the story of the marsh; perhaps they could recall the history better than any person.
We went around a bend, turning right. There was green! A couple of cattails had begun to grow. A train rumbled by, taking a few minutes to pass. Somehow the train was less disruptive than the airplane. It didn’t mask the bird sounds – twittering of sparrows, red-winged blackbirds’ conk-la-ree, squawking of geese. We were quite close to the train track now, well, we were still many yards away, but close. We could see the train passing by. Larry turned the canoe again, a slight bend to the right, and we were facing north. Vegetation crept into the water. Another big area of open water was ahead of us. I spotted a duck; I was unable to identify it for I only saw its back and at a distance – black down its back, up its neck and head, and brown sides. It flew away at our approach.
“This is interesting; the water is coming real fast up from the river and flowing back in here.”
“Oh!” I took in the trickling water, enjoying the sound. It was curious watching it essentially flow backwards. “Yeah, that is pretty cool.” I heard a duck quack. We stopped at what looked to be and probably was a beaver dam – sticks, rushes, piles of mud. It certainly seemed placed there to regulate the water flow. However, it wasn’t working properly with the water level so high since it was flowing backwards, upstream. I wished we’d had time to pull the canoe over the dam and continue following the meandering channel upwards. I yearned to keep going. But alas, there just wasn’t enough time to. Larry turned the canoe around, retracing our path. Though we were backtracking there was still plenty of things to observe, it provided a different perspective and I noticed things I didn’t while coming from the other direction.
“There’s another scent mound.” This one was a bit larger and further away. “Beavers are busy in here.”
“Mmhmm,” agreed Larry.
The lone goose continued to squawk. Where was it? And what was bothering it? Red-winged blackbird called out again, hoping for a female to notice. Another bird twittered. The naked trees provided an unobstructed view of the road. A couple of trees had buds beginning to open. Their lovely forms were reflected in the water. Another airplane flew over. We went along slight bends and curves in the water. Vegetation encroached on both sides of the channel. Hank whimpered. Dogs barked in the distance. Snag branches stuck up out of the water in some places. The canoe bumped up against some snags and plants, emanating a scratching sound. A noisy goose flew over head. Red-winged black birds continued to call. Relaxing and refreshing; my spirit soared.
“There’s another painted turtle,” I pointed out. We began to hear the purring of the leopard frogs again. I continued to marvel at their song. The barking dogs grew increasingly louder.
“Little too breezy!” stated Larry.
“Yeah.” The sun was warm but the air cool with the breeze. Hank groaned. I laughed at the strange sounds he was making.
“Sit. Sit down. Sit,” Larry gently but firmly commanded Hank. I was enjoying the rock of the canoe and let the sound of leopard frogs wash over me – trying to ignore the barking dogs, taking the opportunity the lull in conversation provided to lose myself in the song of the leopard frogs, that incredible gravelly purr. The bridge came into view – signaling that our time on the water would all too soon draw to an end. Another lone goose flew overhead squawking. A train whistle blew. Hank continued to whine and whimper but at least the dogs had ceased barking. “Conk-la-ree,” another red-winged blackbird called.
“Another painted turtle,” pointed out Larry.
“Where? Oh, I see it.” The turtle had crawled out on to a snag; lying in the water. Like all the other turtles it quickly slipped back into the murky depths. The bridge continued to loom closer. Birds twittered and chirped. There was another lull in the conversation for a minute or two – listening, just listening.
“There’s a big bass right there.”
“Do you see it?”
“No.” A little sad I was unable to see it. I heard the train whistle again, further in the distance this time. I saw another duck, perhaps a lesser scaup – it had a black head, gray back and beak. I didn’t really get a good look at it. However, it didn’t look like the ones I’m comfortable identifying. I’m not sure Larry saw it. The barking of the neighbor’s dogs resumed. Hank whined. A mourning dove cooed. A car drove by on the road. We were now fast approaching the bridge. I observed another small flash of green – a couple more cattails beginning to grow. We were in the shadow of the bridge. Larry pushed the bow of the canoe as close to the bank, at the landing, as possible so I could step out. I had already put my camera away, slung the bag over my shoulder, grabbed my water bottle and stepped out. I pulled the bow up on to the bank.
Larry said, “OK, that’s good.” I quit pulling. He walked to the front of the canoe and jumped out. Hank jumped into the water for a quick dip then ran up the bank and shook off, flinging water everywhere. Larry and I lifted the canoe, carried it to the truck and loaded it. Larry said, “Next time we should go out in the evening.”
Larry expertly maneuvered the canoe around the swaths of vegetation. The deep, gravelly purr continued. There again was a lull in the conversation, both of us content to listen to the marsh, so alive with spring activity – purring leopard frogs, a red-winged blackbird; a group of swans sounding like trumpet players rehearsing somewhere out of sight. And again the drone of another airplane interrupts, which I tried very hard not to pay attention to, trying to focus on the marsh. Hank whimpered and whined. But still the frogs kept going. Some individuals’ noise sounded more like contented grunts, less like purring. Others sounded almost like animated movie frogs ‘croaking’, although more like ‘creaking’ than ‘croaking’ – like the sound of trees creaking in the wind. Each singer a male eager to mate; in the height of breeding season, males will attempt amplexus with other males or anything else floating nearby including aluminum cans. The droning airplane continued on and Hank whined, but even so I reveled in the incredible choir of the frogs; the purring was so prevalent I could feel it, not just hear it, as if it was a part of my being. I enjoyed the feeling, oneness with the amphibian singers.
We had been heading west, across a wide stretch of water until we hit a wall of vegetation, a low lying wall, but not penetrable by canoe. Larry smoothly turned the canoe south, the wall on our right.
“That a muskrat, you suppose?” There was movement in the rushes.
“You see something moving around in there?”
“Uhhuh.” Hank whined again. Water gurgled as the paddle sliced through it.
“We haven’t seen any Blanding’s!” Larry remarked disappointed.
“We should be seeing them,” he lamented. Larry had begun turning the canoe westward again, around a bend, taking us into another channel, narrower than the last.
“Are there map turtles?”
“Ah, there probably wouldn’t be any maps in here. They’re out on the Miss.”
“OK. That’s what I thought.”
“It’d be rare.”
I heard the wild piping of sandhill cranes but couldn’t see any.
“There’s a painted turtle. Ooo, nice sized one too.”
Hank whimpered again.
“I think there’s a turtle right there. Maybe. Or it could just be a clump of dirt. Right by those…hmm, hard to see…yep, definitely a turtle! Hmm, that one might have been a Blanding’s, maybe.” I could only make out the very top, rounded part of the turtle’s shell among the rushes, not enough to identify it.
“Might have been a Blanding’s?”
“Might have been. It looked bigger than a painted…” gesturing with my hands, “it was about this big.”
“Could be, I think it had a dome. It seemed too big for a painted turtle. And it definitely had a smooth shell.” After a moment of quiet, “Oh, there are some turtles!” Pause. “Those are painted turtles.” Geese honked, flying overhead. “One of my nieces, when she was about three – we’d found a painted turtle wandering on the farm and told her it was a painted turtle – she asked who painted it?” We both laughed.
“Sit, Hank. Hank, sit. Sit. Sit, Hank. Good boy,” Larry instructed the dog.
An airplane flew over again. A red-winged blackbird sang. Suddenly, I wasn’t hearing leopard frogs as we went further along the channel. “Conk-la-ree,” another redwing blackbird or perhaps the same one called out. A kingbird chattered. Again the redwing blackbird called. Hank groaned or sighed or maybe it was a “hmph”. The airplane faded. Water bumped against the side of the canoe, a relaxing sound. The landscape was so dreary – cattails dried and brown, the grass and rushes a faded gold, trees bare skeletons. I saw a blackbird perched in the upper branches of a small tree; the red on his wing the only bright color around.
Larry turned the canoe right, into a tiny opening in the tangled cattails, barely wider than the canoe. “A bufflehead ahead of you,” he pointed out.
“Where? Oh, now I see it.” A black duck with a couple patches of white swam in a ‘pond’ area, walled off by vegetation. “Conk-la-ree,” rang out the red-winged blackbird. The vegetation against the canoe made a horrible screeching noise as we went through the small waterway. There was another bufflehead, close by to the first; a pair. I hadn’t seen the male right away. He had more white; a side profile looked like a black streak running from his face, down his throat, neck to along his back. Side and belly white and a large patch on the back of his head. They swam around each other, unconcerned by our presence. I was surprised our noisy entrance into the pond area didn’t raise more alarm with them. I heard a lone goose squawking somewhere off in the distance, out of sight, its squawking continued nonstop for a couple of minutes. A beautiful female gadwall floated on the water, across the pond, near the far side, corner. She was a lovely gray. A chorus of leopard frogs performed in the pond area; once again their purring could be felt within me not just a sound in my ears. I relished the reverberations throughout my body, in the deepest part of my being. A red-winged blackbird wanted to be heard too. As we drifted on the water enjoying the sights and sounds – a landscape waiting to green, ducks swimming, frogs purring, goose squawking, red-winged blackbirds singing – Larry got Hank to re-situate, “Hank, come here. Sit. Sit. Stay. Good boy.” An airplane again intruded upon the sound track of the marsh, droning on for a few minutes. Trees lined the other side of the pond area. Cattails and rushes a tangled mass at the trees’ feet, separating them and the water. I spotted two sandhill cranes flying to the west of us. Though it was just a glimpse, I was excited to see them. I took one more look at the gadwall, wishing she was closer for me to observe better. I suppose Larry didn’t want to get too close to the ducks, this way we wouldn’t disturb them. The water licked against the canoe. Amid all the other sounds I heard the twittering of song birds, most likely chipping sparrows. Larry dipped his paddle back into the water, effortlessly turning us around. Hank whimpered, a long drawn out whimper. The canoe scraped against the vegetation once again, although this time it didn’t create the horrible high pitched screeching, just a lower -pitch scrape. We were through the narrow waterway, back on the ‘channel’. The sound of leopard frogs disappeared entirely back in the channel. Red-winged blackbirds’ song continued, as did the twittering.
Ahead a painted turtle perched on a small part of a snag protruding out of the water. One back leg stretched out behind. Neck stretched out and up, face to the sky, enjoying the warmth of the sun, conducting a prayer of thanks for the sun. As we drew near, the shy turtle slipped back into the water. The airplane finally receded. Now we were quite close to Highway 84, so it was replaced by a car driving by, momentarily drowning out the vocal birds but mercifully was gone quickly.
“Aww, there’s a little paint. Cute.” It slid into the water and vanished. I observed a chopped down tree, the lumberjack a beaver. The severed part came to an end, like the tip of a crayon. A fence post stood next to it. Another tree had a bald spot, it grew horizontally along or in the water, it may actually have been dead. The rounded bald spot, exposed bone, was a knob.
“Ring- necks to your right.” Larry pointed out. I had been so captured by the landscape around us, we’d entered into a more wooded area, that I almost didn’t see the birds right in front of us.
“Right? Oh yeah!” A male and female were enjoying a morning swim. She was nearly a solid color and appeared smaller. He led the way, head held high, proud. His head, neck, breast and back black; side gray, belly white. Despite their names, I couldn’t make out the ring around their necks. (There had been a few bends in the channel to get to this point.) He had a white crescent on his face, just ahead of his mostly black beak with a spot of white towards the tip. They were lovely. Looking further ahead, I saw two more; another male for sure but the other one could have been either. (Looking at the photos later, I wonder if that other one was a ring-necked duck, its markings almost look more like a teal.) At first they swam away, almost leisurely, until we drew too close, then they ran on the water, webbed feet sent up sprays of water, and they lifted off, flying out of sight. I only had a minute to observe them and photograph them.
My attention was momentarily pulled away, “Oh, there’s two turtles.” The water slapped gently against the canoe. Oddly, I no longer heard the purr of leopard frogs while we explored this side pond. Hank, of course, was whimpering, desperately wanting to leap in the water. I returned my attention to the egret, which flew again, this time resting at the other corner of the north end. Larry pointed out another turtle.
“I just saw a turtle sticking its nose up above the water. There’s one over there and one over here.” I laughed, delighted with so many turtles. “And there’s another one.”
The canoe rubbed against a log, squeaking. Dogs barked, another interruption to the tranquility of the marsh. My attention shifted back to the lingering egret. (We’d only been on the water for not quite ten minutes.) Finally, the egret lost patience with us and flew away. I watched it go. Eyes still skyward, I saw two other large birds.
“What are those two big birds up there flying around?”
“Pelicans!” responded Larry.
“Ok, I thought they were pelicans or swans.”
Larry then told me of a large flock of pelicans he saw the previous day. He had turned the canoe around and we were heading back to the pond entrance. Taking the canoe back through the entrance created a loud noise as the rushes and snags scratched against the side of the canoe.
“Oh wow! I don’t know why but I just like pelicans. They’re just so cool looking!” The sound of barking dogs diminished a little while we went through the rushes but resumed as soon as we were on the other side. The sound of leopard frogs recommenced and I tried to block out the barking dogs and enjoy the calling frogs instead.
“It sounds like they’re purring,” I remarked. “Aah, snapper!” I exclaimed, almost shouting with excitement, as I spotted a large turtle in the water below.
“Snapper?” asked Larry, his interest piqued.
Larry pulled the canoe forward and then halted so he was in line with the turtle. He put down the paddle (or maybe he used it to lift the turtle up) and leaned over the side of the canoe reaching into the water. With a bit of effort, struggling and grunting, he lifted the turtle up out of the water.
“Oh, wow!” My voice dripped with awe as I admired the beast Larry had pulled up.
Hank was also interested in the turtle, hoping it was something for him. “Hank, no. No, Hank.” Larry admonished the dog. Larry held the big turtle over the canoe, holding it in front of him, with his arms outstretched.
“Oh, wow!” I exclaimed again, seeing just how big the turtle really was. Although snapping turtles can get bigger, this one was about the size of Larry’s torso. He held the fearsome Chelydra facing outward, hands on either side of it, avoiding the mouth and large claws. Its mouth was gaping wide, almost like a smile except that it wasn’t at all happy about being hauled out of the water. Front legs hung down, webbed toes spread. The back legs up, possibly trying to kick Larry, looked like a jumper’s legs splayed out while in mid air. Tail was curled, almost pointing to its plastron, underside, which Larry had also turned toward me so that it was on display. Its skin, which appeared quite thick, was covered in tubercles, bumps. On its front legs the tubercles were bigger and in rows. This was an intimidating looking creature, a force to be reckoned with.
“Definitely looks like a dinosaur!”
“Want to go back, buddy?” Larry asked the turtle.
“He stinks.” The smell comes from living on the bottom, covered in mud and decaying vegetation.
“Did you get a good picture of him?” Larry asked. He gently placed the turtle back into the water.
“I think so. I took a couple so…” I trailed off not needing to finish, going back to photographing. There were trees on our right and small ones, probably alders ahead of us. Larry picked the paddle back up, and we continued our little voyage. The purring of the leopard frogs was all-encompassing; it reverberated in my chest, a thrilling experience. A red-winged blackbird called out, “conk-la-ree”. A kingbird chittered somewhere close by; its song was made up of high, sputtering notes, followed by a buzzy-zeer, recurring numerous times.
“A picture of him [the snapping turtle] on the bottom would have been neat,” remarked Larry.
“Yeah. I would have had to been right over the top of it.”
“Could you have gotten a good picture?”
“Mmm, I don’t know. It would have been kind of fuzzy [from the water]…” I gazed into the water below me, “There are lots of minnows.”
“Yeah.”The breeze seemed to have picked up, or maybe I just noticed it now that we were out in the open again. The bridge was on our left, a ways away; we were parallel to it. “Something just went into the water over there.”
“What took off, a turtle?” asked Larry.
“I don’t know.” I was watching a pair of blue wing teals swimming in the water ahead of us. I enjoyed watching them, but was surprised they weren’t flying away yet with our fast approach.
“Hmm, they’re not too concerned with us.” I was able to get a nice shot of them. “There we go,” the pair of ducks finally flew away. A blackbird called, he sat in the branches of a tree, which was just budding – the perfect picture of spring.
“Up the hill, past there, the pasque flowers are in bloom on the prairie.”
“I should take you on the prairie.”
“Ok, yeah. I have not seen those yet. I keep missing them.”
“The wind is picking up!” remarked Larry.
“Yeah.” Another redwing blackbird called out. There was a lull in the conversation. I tuned into the sounds around me, the ever present murmur of frogs, redwing blackbirds; the relaxing sound of moving water, the canoe slicing through it, the wind manipulating it.
“Goose nesting platform,” Larry pointed out.
“It was probably never used by a goose. It was probably used by a muskrat to build a house. And then the goose came and nested on top of the muskrat house. So I guess it worked indirectly.”
“Yeah,” I chuckled.
(McCarthy Lake is not a lake but a marsh, the Zumbro River used to run through it; there are large swaths of thick aquatic plants and trees throughout the ‘lake’, in the middle, on the edges, randomly spaced, that are like islands. Then there are a couple of ‘channels’ that meander about, sometimes narrow, sometimes wide. In the spring there are far more wide, open areas of water that become filled in with aquatic plants, including wild rice, as the season progresses. The boundaries of the channels are ambiguous.)
To be continued…
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…