Tag Archive | Mississippi Backwaters

Canoeing with Damselflies

August 2, 2018

After our evening walk in July, Larry and I decided on another evening outing. This time we were going canoeing. We put in at Pritchard’s Landing (Goose Lake) around 6:30 pm. It was mostly sunny with only a few light, cumulus clouds. As always, we brought Hank, the black lab, with us. Larry was doubtful we’d see much – I guess it was just an excuse to spend some time together out on the water at pre-dusk rather than ‘researching’ for my book. It was great to get back in a canoe again after a three month absence, due to the very busy summer. Instantly, I felt my body relax even before we left the dock. Larry had a tiny cooler with some beer in it. “Want a beer?” he always asks even though I’ve never accepted – I prefer wine and cider over beer. My camera was around my neck and at the ready. Since there really wasn’t much to see, too early in the season yet for migrating waterfowl, too far out in open water for aquatic mammals, it was more relaxing than usual – I didn’t have to photograph something quickly before it disappeared. This was a good way to finish out a day. Larry paddled, with no breeze, and nothing to maneuver around, he didn’t need my help. My task was to photograph.

Every outing has something new to offer me – something that seems to be the draw of the trip. This evening it was damselflies. These miniature dragonflies, a relative of those fascinating hoverers, were everywhere and thick! I’ve never experienced anything like it before! It was incredible. They clung to our backs, hats, arms, legs. The vast lake stretched far out beyond us, its sheer size is quite humbling – reminding us humans just how small we are. Greenish yellow scum floated on the surface here and there, most likely a type of algae. If I looked just right, the water mirrored the sky. Far out across the water was a line of green vegetation, some of it lotus plants, the rest were most likely sedges – some quite tall. Far away, on either side of the ‘lake’ were bluffs cradling the valley. With the easy canoeing, the large field of aquatic plants drew near and near at a rapid pace.

Less than ten minutes out we were in the midst of a lotus patch with the wall of grass-like plants before us, they still filled me with awe. Their leaves are large and have a waxy coating. The lateness in the sun’s trek across the horizon added to the beauty and wonder of the plants, bathing them in a gentle glow. Only a handful were still in bloom – I had missed their big production this year. I enjoyed the very few blooms that were still intact. We passed by a swath of cattails, talking about our summer. Each time I spoke, I had to turn my head so Larry could hear me. Neither one of us felt the need to talk continuously so we enjoyed a lot of quiet – both lost in our thoughts, savoring being in a canoe. I continued to marvel at the damselflies, intrigued by their quantity and seemingly lack of fear. They tickled my arm while crawling up it. I accidentally squished one walking on my back, just reflex. I felt terrible when I brought my hand back, holding a severely injured damselfly. Their compound eyes are comically large. Their abdomen is incredibly long, perhaps five times longer than the rest of their body. Their translucent, silky wings extend out over their abdomen while they’re resting but fall short of the end of it. They perch on six legs, three on each side. They were all over the canoe. We went through another lotus patch. Then another area covered in algae growth. Past some lily pads to open, unobstructed water. Another large patch of lotuses at first seemed far away but we approached quite quickly. A lot of these were about done for the season beginning to brown and decay. Coontail grow thick beneath the water’s surface – some stretching just above it. Lots more green film on top of the water. Another isolated patch of cattails. We’d been heading southward, maybe a little to the southwest, Larry had turned the canoe eastward, toward the Wisconsin bluffs. I pulled off my hat to look at the half dozen damselflies hitching a ride on it. One spread out its wings, ready to take off, but then changed its mind. We continued east, past cattails and lotus plants, joined by who knows how many damselflies. Reveling in every moment of it, totally relaxed – well, I guess that’s not true, we’d been in the canoe for almost forty minutes now so my legs were starting to get cramped and uncomfortable. I stretched them out the best I could in the bow and pushed the discomfort from my mind, just thankful to be canoeing again. The sun had subtly begun to set, the golden hour was past by 7:20 pm, although it was still far from dark. It added to the peacefulness of the outing, renewing my spirit. The land east and north of us was completely filled with trees. Somewhere beyond those trees snaked the main channel of the Mississippi river. We went along a narrow path cut between the vegetation. I couldn’t identify all the plants,  probably sedges and rushes, and cattails and arrowhead plants. Arrows pointed to the sky. I had missed their blooms too. We continued along the narrow passageway, greeted by blackbird song. There were lotus plants mingling with the others. Here, there were a few more flowers blooming. A section of pickerelweed displayed their purple flowers.

Just over an hour of canoeing and we were drawing near to the landing. I marveled at the green carpet, stretched across the water – did Larry say it was pollen? I watched the landing, drawing closer and closer. Sadly, our time on the water was drawing to an end. How quickly Larry spurred the canoe to cover the distance. We pulled up alongside the dock at about 7:45 pm. I put my camera away. Larry stepped up on to the dock and went to start the pickup and back it down to the landing. Hank hopped out, trotted across the dock and explored the shoreline. I lifted myself up and sat on the dock, feet in the canoe holding it in place and carefully brushing damselflies off of me and my camera bag. Once the truck was in place, we loaded the canoe, checked each other for tag-along damselflies, not wanting to take them with us, removing them too far away from water. Despite our best efforts, we did have a couple stow away in the truck. We tried to get them to leave out the window as we drove, but at least one stayed with us. Again, I was sad to leave – not knowing when I’d be able to get away from the farm again for another visit. 

A Prairie Ramble

July 26, 2018  

It was mostly sunny with a few white, downy cumulus clouds skidding across the azure sky. Temperatures  in the eighties instead of the nineties, some relief from the extreme heat, and the humidity had gone down considerably. We had agreed on our last outing, way back in May, that we should get out in the evening instead of the morning. From Highway 84, Larry turned onto Pritchard’s road. We didn’t travel far down that gravel road before he pulled off to the side and parked the truck beside a line of trees, and a rolling prairie on the opposite side of the road. We were parked across from a moderate hill; twenty, thirty feet tall perhaps, I’m not the best at estimating distances. Larry let Hank out of the pickup. Camera ready, hung around my neck, I stepped out, went around the front to the other side. We began our walk at 6:38 pm, crossing the road, heading for the hill. This was prairie I had not traversed before. I was thrilled to be exploring it.  

Though prairie, this area was becoming woody, lots of little oak trees are starting to colonize it. We rustled through the grass, beginning our climb. Lead plants immediately caught my attention: thick, silvery green stem, compound leaves, the head fuzzy, tight cluster of  flowers. Larry continued to walk while I paused to photograph the lead plant. I only walked a few feet more, when I again stopped, this time for dotted mint. A fascinating looking plant – the flowers it flaunts are in fact leaf bracts that surround the true flower. The leaf bracts are white, shaped almost like daisy petals. A couple of them are stuck on a sturdy stem. Dotted mint is a feast for the eyes. They have character, a look of spunk and individuality, and smell deliciously, of course, like mint but the scent is far more wild than peppermint or spearmint. Pollinators also love this plant. A cluster of individual plants grew together in a patch among grasses and sedges. Larry and Hank were far ahead of me now. Not wanting to lose sight of them, I continued onward. Up, up the steep hill, through plants up to my thighs, past lead plants beginning to bloom; little tiny, purple flowers in tight clusters. It was challenging to focus the camera on the bobbing flower heads so I took a couple of shots. I had reached the top of the knoll and paused to look out. Dotted mint plants were sprinkled liberally in the valley between the dunes, up the slope and on top of a few others. These dunes were quite woody – cedar, oak, chokecherry, and some other short, shrubby plants. Many other prairie plants grew alongside the dotted mint I didn’t know and certainly couldn’t name other than milkweed. I moseyed down the dune to Larry.  

“No, we’re not supposed to pick on the SNA [Scientific Natural Area], but we’re trying to kill these things,” he explained while picking fruit off a small tree. I laughed. Larry encouraged, “wander around, take pictures.” Standing near him plucking berries, I began photographing. “Dotted mint is pretty, isn’t it?” He asked.  

“Oh yeah, I’ve never seen it in bloom like this. I’ve always only been here in September when it’s done.” 

“Mmhmm, it’s great.” 

“Oh, so amazing! I love it!” I took several photos of the dotted mint and evening primrose,a tall plant with yellow flowers coming out of tubes. Larry continued to harvest the black ball shaped fruit, placing them into a plastic jug slung over his shoulder with a string.  

“What are they?” 

“Chokecherries. They’re gorgeous.”  

“Yeah.” I snapped a couple photos. “What’s that red berry over there?” 

“Oh yeah, that’s honeysuckle. Nonnative honeysuckle.” 

“Oh.” Hank whimpered. I walked over to the honeysuckle. “I’m not throwing your stick.” We continued onward. A big bluestem plant was about up to my waist. It was thrilling to see such tall grass, a remnant of the days of massive bison herds roaming free across the prairies. I scrambled to catch up to Larry. Grass rustled against my feet and clothes. I halted, again, at a dotted mint; an ant crawled around on a leaf bract. Engrossed, I observed it for a moment. The dotted mint enthralled me. Another evening primrose caught my attention, its yellow blossom a drop of sunlight. Next, a beautiful thimbleweed plant not yet flowering snagged my gaze and admiration. Sedges and grasses mingled. Then I beheld a plant that had fruit bodies looking like apples – looking it up later, I learned it was a rose hip. I weaved my way through thick vegetation, some taller than my waist. Other areas are so dense it’d be a tangled mass to walk through. I paused to photograph bee balm, also known as bergamot. I love their eccentric blossoms, erupting from the head of the plant. Wild grapes spread their vines up and across other plants. I shuffled along for a few more steps before stopping to photograph a yellow flower, partridge pea plant – dancing in the breeze so much, I had to try holding it in place. Hank passed by me. I continued walking, trailing Larry. We ambled up and down dunes – different from over by the windmill, not as tall but thicker vegetation. I came up behind Larry, we paused while he explained what we were seeing, “aspect…more moist, accumulates, it’s steep, in view of the sun. Starts to develop woody vegetation. Just tend to see more wood in those kinds of settings. Once we get the wood it’s tough to get rid of. Get some fire in here a bit more often.”

We brushed past milkweed plants,  threading our way through the vegetation. I stayed closer to Larry, until I once again became distracted by goldenrod and a dragonfly down on a blade of grass. It was not a darner, too small, most likely a common skimmer; iridescent blue abdomen, black/dark blue head and thorax, gorgeous wings – black and blue paint splotches, lined. A train rumbled in the distance. We trudged up and down, pushing past plants. A few steps further, I halted to photograph a bush-like plant, no flowers. The path onward was narrow. I tried to photograph the landscape interspersed with milkweed, dotted mint, grass, sedge, and a few trees. Cloud cover increased. Larry identified the plant but I couldn’t hear him.  

I walked closer to him, “What kind of cherries?” 

“Sand cherries.”  

“Oh, sand cherries.” It was a low lying bush, woody stem, leaves oblong. I continued walking for a few feet then stopped to photograph more partridge pea plants, they weren’t moving in the wind as much. Their golden blossoms are quite lovely. I looked into the blossom. Yellow heads brightening the prairie. We pressed onward, talking about an author Larry had been reading, and paused to take in the scenery – prairie, plants, green, encroaching trees, and oodles of dotted mint. A train whistle echoed across the prairie. I scrutinized the dotted mint up close, observed an aster of some sort, not yet blooming. Hank panted by our side. We continued walking a few feet, before I paused to photograph a flowering spurge, its white flower has several blossoms to a stem.  

Strolling a few feet more, I exlaimed,“Oh, that’s pretty,” wild bergamot, purple flowers – so much character, crazy hairstyle; and dotted mint, grasses, and milkweed. Further onward, waning sun striking dotted mint perfectly, nearby, grew horsetail. And a little beyond that, a larger cluster of bee balm, bergamot and an incredibly dense patch of dotted mint. They marched up the slopes. Some stiff sunflowers not yet blooming. I sauntered onward for a couple of minutes between photos. We came upon a more woody area with bigger trees. Birds sang far above us. I took in the dotted mint up close, glowing in the pre-dusk sun. The golden hour had arrived. We continued strolling, chatting all the while. Larry pointed out a blazing star, a woody plant with little rose-like flowers. I stopped to photograph it. We hiked on for several more minutes.  

Larry halted to pick more chokecherries. Cottonweed stood with dotted mint and lead plant, around a patch of bare sand. Cloud cover was increasing. We pressed onward, enjoying the prairie trek. After five minutes of walking, I paused to photograph the landscape again, grasses and sedges, some bushes, but blooming flowers were absent in this section. A windmill perched on top of the hill; I could hear it turning in the wind, creaking. Was it the same windmill we parked near on our other walk? – I should have asked. We’d stopped for Larry to pick more chokecherries. While he picked, “Woa, lots of ants. Very defensive.” He laughed, picking for a couple of minutes more.  

“I see them. What kind of ants are those?”  

“I don’t know but they don’t like me picking.” 

“I’m not sure I’ve seen ants that color.” They were black with very dark red heads and large for ants.  

“Ouaza.”  

“They’re good sized too.” 

“Ouch. I’m going to quit messing with them.” He gave up and we continued walking, chatting about nothing important, wading through the prairie plants. I was getting a little sweaty, and itchy from mosquito bites. I paused at another engaging flower – a tower of white flowers that looked somewhat like white orchids, most likely teucrium canadense. Small, though still taller than me, bushy trees dotted the prairie in this area, rising up out of interesting looking grasses or were they sedges? A tall goldenrod plant. The prairie was getting quite thick, crowded by forbes rather than grass, the path narrowed again. We passed by another evening primrose. “So is this what you want to see?” I asked. 

“No. Prefer to see more of the grasses. But on these rich sites, you’re just going to tend to see that [referring to the thick forbes]. Come off the sand on the silts. But it’s fine. We would like to relieve some of the tree pressure…” 

“Yeah. Is this goldenrod desirable?” 

“Some of it. The native plants.” 

It was very thick here. Hardly any grasses. I found little bluestem, and blue bell shaped flowers. 

“This is hazelnut?” I walked a few steps, “And this is cherry?” 

Larry walked back to me, “Aha, no, that’s a green ash. I’m sorry, that is a black cherry. You’re right.” 

“OK.” All of a sudden the forbes eased up a little allowing more grasses through. Milkweed, bee balm, some kind of mint, and something else were abundant. I kept walking. Felt like we were swimming through the prairie plants.  I paused to photograph some sedges; walked a little further and stopped to photograph beautiful orange flowers, butterfly weed. Large cluster of partridge pea plants with a few dotted mint plants. Sunflowers without petals, milkweed, and grasses and or sedges joined the mix. Several stiff sunflowers, what an unimaginative name. Larry stopped to pick more chokecherries, “Really pretty cluster. Can you get a good photo?” 

“I’ll try but it’s going to be backlit.” I couldn’t get close enough to the cluster from another angle. The walk was drawing to an end. We’d gone up and down, up and down many times and weaved our way around wooded areas, making some sort of loop through the prairie. Back down hill one more time. A fantastic, lone tree caught my attention. “That is a really awesome looking tree!” Then I asked, “So they just quit farming this?” 

“Yeah.” Black eyed Susan grew alongside the road. We had to walk down the road a bit to get back to the truck. The last stretch along the road seemed incredibly long, though it was about five minutes or a little less.  

Spring Awakening (Part IV)

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.”

“Really?”

“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.”

 

Spring Awakening (Part III)

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.

“Nope.”

“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.”

“Big dome?”

“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.

Spring Awakening (Part II)

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.

“Yeah!”

“Big one?”

“Yeah!”

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.”

“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.”

“Nice!”

“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.

“Oh, ok.”

“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…

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

A Symphony of Birds (Part III)

“Stand up and step out of the canoe. Have a look around,” instructed Larry. With a little bit of hesitancy, and with care, I stood up and stepped out of the canoe. And I’m sure glad I did! The sight that was blocked by the plants while I was sitting, was wondrous to behold. Across the morass of tangled aquatic vegetation sat twenty or so swans. It was hard to count them given the distance and the way they were grouped, for there were some behind others and it was a little hard to tell where one bird began and another one ended. Viewing swans is magical. They are too graceful, elegant, and white to truly be a part of this world, something out of a fairy tale. I wish we could have gotten much closer, but at least at this distance they were totally unaware of us. Some rested with their heads folded and tucked back on to their bodies. Others sat with their heads held high on long slender necks. One preened its chest feathers; another head in the water. Two were standing; one’s wings were at the ready, the other had its chest puffed out, wings flapping. The swans weren’t alone. A large number of ducks were also enjoying the water in that area – so many!   I was wonderstruck, although many, many years ago there were far greater numbers of waterfowl stopping in here on their way further north. It was different at this distance to identify the ducks but I thought a fair amount of them were mallards and ring necked ducks; at least those were the ones I was able to distinguish. Even Larry was impressed and awestruck by the number of birds. He exclaimed many times, “god, there are a lot of birds!” Throughout the ten minutes or less that we sat there, he exclaimed many times, each time his voice was filled with awe. A great many ducks were in the air, not because of us; we were too far away to be a disturbance. Larry soon observed the reason. “There’s an eagle swooping down on the ducks. Do you see the eagle?” It took me a few minutes to spot the eagle among the myriads of ducks flying.

Of course the sound of the swans and ducks intensified as we’d turned into the side channel and stood up. Earlier, I described the sound as a symphony. However, the musicians weren’t performing before an audience; they were warming up their instruments, each making a beautiful sound but not yet getting the right notes and not in harmony with the other musicians. The swans were on horns and trumpets, the force behind the orchestra. The ducks were on strings and woods. Sandhill cranes joined in occasionally on woods too. It was a privilege to have back stage admittance – just so long as we didn’t cause too many interruptions. The acoustics were fantastic. I could have stood there a lot longer than seven minutes – close my eyes and let the music carry me, lift me up until I too was flying. “Wow,” I breathed a quiet reflection on the scene before me. Larry was ready to be on the move again. I wish I was a composer to write down the movement I heard to play for other people who can’t hear it firsthand for themselves.

We sat back in the canoe. With some help from me, Larry got the canoe turned around and out of the narrow waterway, back onto the main channel. It was time to take the canoe back up the way we’d come. Back through the beaver dam we went, putting another pair of mallards in the sky. Going up stream meant Larry had to do a little more paddling but the current wasn’t strong enough to make it a struggle for him. His easy paddle strokes kept propelling us smoothly along. If he’d asked me, I would have been more than happy to help paddle but he wasn’t in need of my help and wanted me to be ready with my camera.

An oak tree on the bank, now on our right, still had its russet leaves that hadn’t dropped last autumn. There were a couple of other oak trees still clothed in last year’s leaves, but all other trees stood nude. Some maples had buds beginning to open, getting ready for a warm day to spring them into action. The swans were spectacular to be hold and listen to but since we were so far away from them, hooded mergansers became more of the highlight of the outing. A pair was swimming nearby and weren’t immediately startled by us lingering long enough for me to have a good look at them and take a reasonably good photo of them though not very close up. They’re so awesome looking, a bit goofy too. Despite her coloration being less vibrant, the female was perhaps more cool looking than the male; her “hood” was funkier – in fact her muted colors made it all the more so. They only tolerated one photo before they had enough. Water sprayed behind them as they ran and took flight. Another bird I hadn’t seen joined them in the air.

Scent mounds of considerable size captured my attention next. These mounds were definitely maintained. Large piles of black dirt along the banks and piled on dead, matted vegetation. The scent comes from castor oil secreted by the beaver. It’s a message to beavers that aren’t a part of the family to get lost, this territory is occupied. Like all other signs of beavers, I find them quite captivating. A fallen tree trunk snapped a feet from the base. Although there were evident teeth marks from beavers, I’m not actually sure it was felled by a beaver – there were no normal, conical teeth marks around where it broke. Another dead tree, still standing, was drilled four times by a pileated woodpecker. The four, nearly perfect oval holes were in a neat line like buttons on a snowman. This tree was another landmark on the way. We’d followed the curving channel almost back to where we started. Duck cabins on the bank to our right, ahead. The bridge had come in view; I’m always sad to see it come back into view. A large morass of rushes was between us and the bridge. Another bend in the channel to the left; we were drawing nearer. Past the yellow wildlife sign almost covered in water. We put the leaning willow, yet another landmark, behind us. The bridge drew closer and closer. Before going under it, Larry joked about a woodpecker drilled tree being a condominium.  Larry steered the canoe between the pilings, moments later we were on the other side next to the landing.

Just as we pulled out from under the bridge, I spotted a brilliant patch of white up ahead on the left. I studied it intently before I figured out what it was, “There’s an egret over there! At least I think it’s an egret!”

Larry had yet to see it and was doubtful, “An egret? It can’t be an egret. It’s too early for egrets.”

“It sure looks like an egret.”

Curious, Larry turned the canoe toward the dazzling white object. He eased it along slowly, trying to go unnoticed as long as possible.

“There are two of them!” I announced. The way they were standing the first one hid the second. Then the other moved a little bit, the bodies creating a white heart. So many ducks took to the sky clamoring as they flew. Larry continued to glide the canoe forward, pausing at times.

“They are egrets!” Larry was astounded.

I noticed a pair of hooded mergansers off to our right not yet concerned by our presence. But it was another bird that totally stole the show. A male merganser was flying straight toward us, so bizarre – all other birds were flying away from us but not this one. I quickly photographed his approach. White breast and belly glowing, coming directly toward me. We were stupefied. He plopped down on the water merely a few yards away from me, creating waves.

Incredible!

Wondrous!

Awe-inspiring!

Far from ordinary!

I was able to take one perfect photograph and two slightly blurry ones before he’d realized what he’d done. He retreated hastily with quite the spray of water.

Amazing!

Unimaginable!

The best photo of the day. It had to have been a gift from God for me.

After the merganser took his leave our attention returned to the egrets. How their feathers glowed in the otherwise drab marsh. Larry pushed closer to them. They became nervous and effortlessly took flight. Larry pursued them, disturbing a pair of Canada geese, who grumbled loudly. The egrets landed not too far up the marsh from where they had been. Larry didn’t get as close to them this time.

“This weekend, they’re going to be regretting returning so soon,” remarked Larry. Colder weather and snow was in the forecast. With that we returned to the landing. Loaded the canoe and headed out.

Along the curving road, part of the marsh in view on the right, “I think I saw a northern shoveler.”

“I don’t think it was. It’s too early for them,” replied Larry. (Later, he told me he saw some a couple days later so I was probably right.)

A Symphony of Birds (Part II)

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.

“Phragmites.”

“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.

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.

Canoeing in December (Part II)

Larry didn’t keep going down the channel like we did last year but turned right; about the same spot we had seen the mink swimming last year. A forest stood ahead across the water. I spotted an eagle’s nest in one of the trees. Larry steered the canoe slightly to our left, not turning but going at an angle instead of a straight line. We were headed for the tree studded hill. The hill had a red orange carpet. Far off to the left, a muskrat lodge was covered thickly with frost. This area of water was much wider, more like a lake and less of a channel. It was bound by a thin layer of ice. Larry pushed the canoe into the ice. It cracked with a loud noise as we pushed through, not a shatter like glass, no, this was more of a thud, a deeper, lower noise but loud – a low roll of thunder. There was a lot more ice to push through this time. The volume of the sound of the breaking ice was incredible. Any animals nearby were warned of our presence and certainly hid long before we would have been able to see them. Another few strokes and we were back in open water; still heading toward the hill.

Larry said, “Bunch of gizzard shads.”

I peered into the water but I was unable to see a single one of those small fishes. How could Larry see them?

Instead of turning right and following the small stream along the hill, further back, upstream, like we did last year, Larry turned the canoe left following the ridge and water down the channel. The stranded boat was ahead of us again. This time I could see a little more of it over the tall vegetation. I reveled in the beauty of the bare trees reflecting in the water as we continued on. The ice was to the left of us now but Larry skirted around it. On the bank ahead of us was an open spot of mud, from that distance I couldn’t tell if it was a beaver mound or a beaver slide or just a bare spot on the bank. Larry turned the canoe to the left again; we were back in the channel with the beaver lodge. Further along the bank, on our right, I observed a beaver slid. Far to the left, I could see the eagle’s nest. It was fun to see the back side of the sign marking the canoe trail and having a different look on the snag in the water near it. The beaver lodge and its large cache came into view. We had made a complete circle or rather more like a “D”. My eyes were briefly drawn to the perfect reflection of the cloudy sky and trees mirrored by the water. Again, with the hope of seeing a beaver, I studied the lodge as we drew nearer to it. And once again I marveled at the size of the cache as Larry guided the canoe around it.

We drew near to the willow tree and the tree with the eagle’s nest again. Larry commented, “There are a lot of gulls.”

“Where’d they come from?”

“Probably Lake Pepin. Attracted by the gizzard shads.”

Before we came to the willow tree or the eagle’s nest tree, Larry turned the canoe into a very narrow side channel, opposite from the willow. I was a little surprised, for the channel was just barely wider than the width of the canoe. Then again, it’s Larry, so not too surprising really. I marveled at the tiny spikes of hoar frost coating the frozen mud and grasses along the channel. There was some ice on the channel but it broke up easily and made far less noise. As Larry eased the canoe into the narrow channel, we heard a plop in the water ahead of us; an animal had dived into the water at our approach. “Most likely a muskrat,” Larry explained.

We were unable to go far into the small channel; it divided into two directions, too small of a space to turn the canoe one way or another. The channel was hardly longer than the length of the canoe. Resigning to not being able to go further Larry instructed, “Grab a hold of the left bank and step out.” It was a little hard to do all bundled up, but I managed to clumsily step out of the canoe. Larry told Hank he could get out, and then Larry stepped out and secured the canoe.

We walked along the even smaller channel on the left, heading southeast ward. Rushes, sedges, and grasses rustled as we waded through them. Soon we were among the trees. After a few paces, Larry would stop, bend over, brush away leaves, looking intently at I’m not sure what, I didn’t ask but he repeated it over and over again the entire time we were walking. I probably should have asked. I think he was looking for saplings. Other then curiously watching Larry, I took in the trees. A beautiful oak. One, perhaps a river birch, two trunks, one on the ground, carpeted heavily with moss. The other still attached to their base by threads, a few feet of it suspended in the air, the remainder of it resting on the ground. I turned around to look back the way we’d come, we were many yards south of the tree cradling the eagle’s nest. I find it a little comical that there is a bend in the tree trunk creating the illusion that the tree is straining to hold the large nest, bending with its weight. I turned back around and continued walking. Another dead tree caught my attention. This tree was split at the base; trunks spread out, like a creeping vine. A few trees had been gnawed on by a beaver, one appeared quite fresh, the other may have been years old. We looped about, making almost a circle. We came to a pool, channel of water; it was murky in color. Hank came up alongside me, down to the water’s edge. He drank heartily, thirsty from his running about. Larry said, “Apparently he’s not choosy about what he drinks.” We had walked along this spot last December. A few moments later we headed back toward the canoe. Back in the canoe, Larry backed us up and we continued on our way. Past the willow and the eagle nest tree, around the bend, past the little beaver lodge, soon we were back at the canoe landing.