Advertisements
Tag Archive | Nature Photography

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.”

 

Advertisements

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 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

Snowshoeing After A Blizzard of a Lifetime (Part II)

(Note: Read https://bethanybenike.com/2019/03/14/a-blizzard-of-a-lifetime-part-i/ before reading this blog, they go together.) 

March 1, 2018

I was a bit lazy on Tuesday and Wednesday too, back at home I certainly could have snowshoed. However, it wasn’t until yesterday morning, Thursday that I finally went out to snowshoe. I’m glad I did! The snow was perfect! I went out again in the evening. This morning too. This time with my camera. Might as well enjoy the snow while it is here.

I stepped down off the wooden deck, stooped over to strap my feet into the snowshoes, pulled on my mittens and grabbed the poles. I was off. Across the driveway, up a steep and tall snow pile – glad of the aid the poles lent. How exciting, standing on top of the perhaps eight foot snow bank! I felt like I was on top of the world, queen of the hill – with a new perspective, providing an elevation in mood as well. Now, how do I get down and on to the other side? I looked for a less steep way down the backside of the snow bank. Ah, there, a little further to my right. A rapid decent down the snow pile, nearly a tumble but for the poles giving me balance. Despite the snowshoes, I sank in a bit. Another step though and I was walking on top of the snow. Along the path through the trees, I trotted. My pace was faster than it had been a week ago, hardly sinking in at all. Around last year’s pig fence. Around the west end of the greenhouses. Past the big garden, hard to tell where the edge of it was. I had prayed for snow, so I thanked God for his abundance as I trekked along the field. I marveled at the frost brushed plants that still stood above the snow, particularly the milkweed pods. I was amazed and delighted to be walking on top of the snow, only just sinking in – last week I was sinking down nearly a foot in some places and perhaps deeper in others. Snowshoeing is so refreshing and energizing. I was feeling better already; my spirits beginning to lift. The morning trek was a balm to my weary soul.

There’s so much to enjoy on a trek across the snow – tracks from critters, the curve of the sculptured snow drifts, the sparkle. At the first set of tracks, I dropped my poles and sank to one knee, took the lens cap off and switched on my camera. Getting it to focus on snow is tricky. The sun was behind some clouds so it wasn’t the best photo. These tracks were tiny, created by a small rodent – mouse or vole. Standing back up, a pole in each hand, I continued onward. Only a few paces away, I dramatically dropped back down on the snow, this time to photograph coyote tracks. It was a treat yesterday to see all the coyote tracks; my reasoning for taking my camera out with me this morning. A few feet further on and another set of small rodent tracks caught my attention, a bit different than the first set.  I prayed the cloud would move so I’d have better light for photography.

I’d been heading south. Coming upon the property line, I turned east, still keeping up a quick pace. There were several coyote tracks back here too, but I didn’t pause for them, hoping for better light. The property line in some places is just a row of vegetation, in others remnants of a fence can barely be seen above the snow, and then a few small trees, sparkling with their frost jewelry. Many yards eastward, I came to our woods, the property line turned south again, for a ways before turning east again, wrapping around the woods – I thought about meandering in them but didn’t want to take the time today. I continued onward, the woods on my right, a fence in much need of repair along its edge. Another turn, this time to the left, taking me in a northern direction, woods and fence still on my right.

Northward bound, the sun finally broke through the clouds, just in time for me to photograph coyote tracks crossing my tracks from yesterday. The coyote tracks were encouraging; I was glad to see them – these predators are much needed. The frost coating the trees glimmered and twinkled in the sunlight; it was rather quite dazzling. Nature was showing off her beauty, flaunting it. It was easy to be besotted with her. Yesterday’s trail led me up a slight incline and then another turn east. More coyote tracks. Splendid! I stepped over the nearly buried fence, leaving the cultivated part of our farm for the wild part. I paused to stand in awe of the snow on the slope of the big hill I stood upon. Myriads of tracks filled the slope. I felt like I stood on a mini glacier. Here, I indulged my love for photography and nature, trying to capture the stunning drifts and the colossal amount of snow. Such beauty. Snow adorns the winter landscape, creating loveliness from dreariness. I turned and went back up the slope; I’d only gone down a few feet, stepped back over the fence wire and continued onward. Soon I had to turn again to my left, heading north yet again. I admired the trees and the tracks in the snow, and the sparkle. I noticed a coyote scent post, comically right next to the top of a rusted fence post – this made me smile.

Around another bend, a right turn, and back to heading east. So many rabbit tracks among the trees in this spot. A few feet further along and there were more coyote tracks; but no sign of them catching the rabbits. Again the fence line turned. I stepped gingerly over the fence in front of me. The tracks and drift the center of my attention. Along the edge of the drift, on the hill slope, the tracks seemed to have packed down a spot in the snow. Onward, the drift plunged over the side of the hill, a glacier engulfing the sumac forest. I plunged down the steep, firm drift, stepping over sumac reaching above the snow as if they desired to be rescued. A few twigs snapped off. The tracks were so interesting. Wait those tracks, further down the slope, weren’t coyote or rabbit tracks but bird tracks. Too small to be turkey, I postulated they were pheasant tracks. I turned to follow them up the slope on my right, with my eyes. Wow! There were wing prints in the snow, a bird snow angel. I dropped my poles and lunged up the slope clumsily to get a closer look. Incredible! I walked back to the poles, picked them up and continued down the slope a few steps more, then turned to my right, west, around some larger, less buried sumac. I paused to enjoy the birds. Chickadees and sparrows fluttered about, happily singing as if spring is around the corner. Somewhere a cardinal whistled. A woodpecker tapped a tree. It was a lovely morning.

I turned right once more, toward the daunting slope; I had to go back up to the top of the hill. (I was nowhere near the bottom, still above the middle.) But there was adventure and excitement in the prospect, the mini glacier was more vertical than horizontal. The teeth on the bottom of the snowshoe proved their worth as they bit into the side of the gigantic drift, giving me much needed traction. Indeed I felt like I was traversing a glacier, scaling a wall of snow. I stepped over the fence, climbed just a little further and then I was back at the top. I wasn’t quite ready to turn around just yet so I walked along the fence line north for several more yards. My legs were beginning to ache. I was hot and sweaty. Time to turn around. I zigzagged back the way I came, following in my tracks. Not lingering to take photos, I kept up a pretty good pace, although a few times I slowed as the ache and exhaustion of my legs continued to mount. My physical energy had sapped away by drudging across so much snow, almost a two mile trek by the time I returned to the house. My mental energy, however, had been boosted.

I’m content. The snow can be done falling now until December. But it is snowing as I write this, and it is so beautiful, so peaceful, and so quiet.

‘If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.’ – Vincent Van Gogh

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.)

Canoeing in December (Part I)

December 1, 2017

The morning was a little colder than we had anticipated the other day when we made our plans to get the canoe out this morning. However, it was forecasted to be a nice day. I was excited we were going to canoe on December first. I can’t remember what the temperature was when we set out but I think it was twenty eight degrees with the promise it would warm to almost forty degrees today. I waited until I arrived at Larry’s to add my layers. As I pulled my coveralls on, Larry laughingly asked, “Will you be able to move?”

“Yeah, I can still move but it will take more effort.” We headed out. Larry drove slowly along Highway 84, observing the marsh areas and the rolling prairie. I took in the landscape as we drove to Halfmoon Landing. Larry backed the truck up close to the narrow foot path leading to the water. I helped him unload the canoe and then patiently waited while he moved the truck. Hank explored with his nose to the ground traveling at a fast pace, zigzagging here and there. We carried the canoe to the water and set it in. A thin layer of ice topped the water.

“I thought this would be more open,” commented Larry. “We’ll just have to push through.”

I didn’t mind the ice at all. I found it thrilling that we’d be canoeing through ice; a whole new experience for me. I was excited for the adventure. I stepped into the canoe first. Then Hank leaped in, rocking it in the process. Last, Larry stepped in. He didn’t even bother handing me the other paddle. Expertly he pushed the canoe forward. A loud screeching noise echoed around the channel as the canoe collided with the ice and then pressed into it, not quite as cringingly as nails on a chalkboard but close to that pitch. The ice cracked with a loud but dull sound. With that kind of noise I’m not sure we had any hope of seeing an aquatic mammal. The ice broke into rectangular tile pieces. Sitting in the bow, I could feel the canoe breaking the ice. I don’t know which adjective to use to describe the way I felt – thrilled, elated, child-like glee. There’s just something about taking a canoe through ice that makes it adventurous and therefore awe-inspiring. Of course there is an element of danger in taking a canoe through ice – but not here, today. This ice was thin, broke easily and the current was slow – and Larry knew what he was doing. There was no danger for us.

Being December, the landscape was subdued; various shades of gray and brown, with a brush of white from the morning frost and a bit of blue sky reflecting in the water, but not brilliant blue because of mostly cloudy skies. The ice gave way to open water near the large beaver lodge situated on a side channel flowing to the Mississippi River. Now that we were in open, ice free water the canoe glided easily and quietly along. On the edges of the open channel reflections of trees were broken by spider web cracks in the ice. There was some gold left in the long grasses on the bank. The now naked trees, the fading grass, and lack of bird song lent to the appearance of barrenness. And yet there was beauty in the starkness. The dusting of frost highlighted the beauty. I said a silent hello to the willow tree that touches my heart like a dear friend. It glowed in the little bit of sunshine glimmering through the clouds. The snags mostly immersed in the water were another source of beauty and delight. I took in the many beaver scent mounds on the opposite bank, I could see at least ten. Seeing all those scent mounds thrilled me for it indicated the presence of resident beavers. Perhaps if I sat long enough under the willow I would see one of these industrious locals. Four gulls flew overhead, high up in the sky. We passed near the tree with the eagle’s nest as we went around the bend.

The even larger beaver lodge loomed up ahead of us. Oak trees on the hill beyond, still held on to their russet leaves. In this part of the channel there wasn’t any ice on the water at all. The beauty of Halfmoon, the seclusion, and floating on the water was so relaxing and refreshing. I cherished this outing, knowing that it would be a few months before we’d take the canoe out again. I took in the loveliness of the snags in the water, each having a different character, though their branches all seemed to remind me of bones. Three branches on one snag were thin and curved just a little, reaching upwards like the bones of fingers, from a hand reaching out of the water perhaps trying to grasp something, anything on the shore. Another was a fallen antler. The golden cattails curving at the top, tipped with dark brown, in thickets, added contrast and texture to the painting, touched with frost – yes, there’s beauty here.

We drew nearer and nearer to the grand beaver lodge. I scanned it as we approached, as silently as a canoe can, searching ever hopeful for a sight of a beaver. But alas, there wasn’t an animal to be seen on or near the lodge. I marveled at the size of the wood cache, which was the best way to tell this lodge is occupied. Larry was also awed by the size of the wood cache.

“That’s a big wood cache,” I marveled.

“Yeah. I’ve never seen one so big. Makes you wonder if the beaver know something about the severity of the coming winter that we don’t,” replied Larry. (Note: as it turned out the winter of 2017 – 2018 was especially long.)

“Yeah.”

We could clearly see fresh cuts on the ends of the branches in the pile. The cache extended into the channel many yards, almost blocking it. It looked almost like a dam but it wasn’t tightly woven together and packed with mud. It was quite impressive. Larry steered the canoe around the end of it. Just beyond the cache, Larry said, “Kingfisher over there on the right.” It only took me a moment to spot the bird perched atop a snag in the water. White breast toward us, cape tied across his neck, blue grey head turned away. A kingfisher is not a large bird by any means but nor is it small; bigger than a pigeon but smaller than a duck. I watched the kingfisher as we drew closer and closer until suddenly it decided we had come too close, and with great speed it took off, disappearing.

Halfmoon Lake is an odd shape with turns and many outlets; it’s hard to keep track of when we turned. Looking at a map doesn’t help because the map doesn’t show all of the wet areas. We went around the point with the willow, turning right, then the channel curved ever so slightly that when we came upon the beaver lodge we had turned to the left, but with the shape of the channel it was as if we hadn’t turned at all. I could see the top of the stranded boat ahead and a little to the left. We passed a canoe trail sign.

Canoeing Through A Lotus Meadow (Part II)

Larry continued taking us further east toward an island. The closer we drew to the island the higher my excitement climbed. The reflection of the island was a water color painting; dark forest green, blurred with sky blue. This was as much of a paradise island as any in the Caribbean or south Pacific (though I’ve never been to either). I don’t think it necessary for people to leave Minnesota to find their little slice of paradise. The north part of the island was covered densely with trees and had a rocky shore with no beach. The southern side was also tree covered but had a sandy beach. The middle was open, void of trees though there were other plants growing there, and had a nice sand beach.

“There’s a pair of cranes walking on the beach,” Larry pointed out. I saw them instantly and was elated. I hoped we could get fairly close to them but they were getting edgy and nervous by our approach. We’d only come a tiny bit closer and they flew away. I was bummed to see them go but thrilled we’d seen them even for a brief moment.

Larry indicated a spot to the north of us, “You see that white cluster way up there by those trees?”
“Yeah.”

“Those are pelicans.”

“Really? That’s so cool!” Unfortunately they were too far away to actually see, to distinguish them as individuals, and even too far away for my 300mm lens to photograph well. But it was still awesome they were there.

Larry beached the canoe. I stepped out on the sand and pulled the canoe further on to the beach. Larry said, “That’s good.” After Hank and Larry were out, he pulled the canoe a little further up on to the sand. He then took his shirt off and jumped into the water. Hank plunged in too. I lingered on the beach looking at the bird feet prints in the sand. Hank was having a blast in the water. After taking in what I could see of the island from my position on the beach, I put my camera back in its case and secured it. Then I took of my shirt, shorts and sandals – I wore my swimsuit underneath. I also removed my sunglasses; putting these items into the canoe.

I walked into the water, delighted to find it wasn’t ice cold nor was it nearly as warm as a bath, but wonderfully refreshingly cool. I dropped into the water once it was about waist high, no longer walking but swimming. Water slipped over my back – it felt so good, far more than the refreshment of plunging into cool water to escape from the heat of a scorching summer day, this feeling was deeper. I’m not sure why I love being in water so much, but the reason is soul deep. I was excited to go swimming again after a few years of not getting a chance to but I was even more thrilled to be swimming in the Weaver Bottoms. Swimming here allowed me to experience the area and connect with it in a whole new way then I had before. Walking the sand dunes and prairie, canoeing the wetlands and hiking them in winter are wonderful in allowing me to connect to and experience the area but plunging myself into its water allowed me to really feel it. I swam out to where Larry was standing. He picked up some mussels from the bottom to show to me. He handed one to me. They were much heavier than I was expecting them to be but I haven’t held one that still housed a live animal.

“The water’s colder out here.” I said.

“It’s from the Whitewater River.” It was noticeably colder and the water became too deep very suddenly. Larry swam back to the shore. He walked a little, threw sticks in the water for Hank to fetch. Then turned the canoe and sat in it, sipping a beer. “Take your time. Swim as long as you’d like.”

I still held the mussel. I was unsure of what to do with it – Do I just drop it? I felt like I needed to be careful. Looking back it seems silly since it was in water – it’d float gently to the bottom. I put my hand under the water and simply let go of the mussel. I swam around for awhile; I’m not sure how long. Although I really enjoyed being in the water and swimming, it felt a bit weird to swim on my own. After I had my fill of swimming alone, I returned to the beach. I asked, “Is this a natural island or is it manmade?”

He explained, “The island is manmade. The islands were created in a misguided attempt to reduce over-sedimentation of the Weaver Bottoms so plant life would proliferate which would habitat for fish and other wildlife. Like so many things, it did not work as planned.”

We decided it was time we headed back. Hank wasn’t too eager to quit swimming but he obeyed Larry’s commands to get into the canoe. We hadn’t brought any towels so we just sun dried in the canoe on the way back to the landing. Larry steered us back across the open water. Through the lotus blossom meadows, the white water lilies, cattails, rushes and sedges, through thick patches of coonstail. And just like that, all too soon we were back at the boat landing. A train was going by. – It was cool to be so close but it was loud too. We pulled the canoe out of the water then Larry went to get the truck so we wouldn’t have to carry the canoe as far. My swimsuit was still a bit wet, especially the bottom, but I slipped my jean shorts and sleeveless button up shirt back on. We loaded the canoe and were on our way.

“Well that was fun,” Larry said as he pulled the truck on to the highway.

“Yeah, sure was!” I replied.

Canoeing into the Fog (Part II)

Larry noticed another bird singing that interested him. “There’s a yellow headed black bird. Do you see it?” He steered the canoe closer to the sedges, trying to get close enough for me to photograph the bird. “They sound like an old pump handle that needs lubricating, creaky.” He then imitated the singing bird. I have never seen a yellow headed black bird before so it was fun to make a new acquaintance. He clung to the long stem of a sedge plant, hoping to a different stem when we got too close.

The fog over Goose Lake was the thickest yet. We came to the end of the channel and could see nothing – it was just gray nothingness. It felt like the edge of the world. I felt like I was Lucy on the Dawn Treader, voyaging to the world’s end with Caspian. Visibility in the direction of Goose Lake couldn’t have been more than five feet. Larry didn’t venture out into Goose Lake but rather turned the canoe to our left and guided it along the edge of the lake staying close to the vegetation. We continued along the sedges – the fog was quite as thick here as it was further out on the open water. The sedges were beautiful; I admired them as we past. Our route took us very close to a clump of sedges with shorter stalks and the stalks had little green balls on them. Stretched between the leaves/ blades of the sedges was a wisp of spider’s web. A red-wing black bird was perched on a mass of dead vegetation; puffed up to make himself look bigger, red spots appeared large, and he sang, trying to attract a mate. We headed toward the tree filled bank. The fog wasn’t nearly as dense along the bank. Leaves on the trees were so thick, you couldn’t see through the trees. Larry turned the canoe to our left heading into the slough between Schmoker’s channel and the “main” land. He pushed the canoe into the slough a little ways, but then paused.

“I was hoping there was more water in here. I’m not sure we want to chance it; don’t want to get too far up and run out of water. We’ve done that before.”

“Yeah, best not do that again.” Larry stood up in the canoe for a better look. “There’s just not enough water.” Larry turned the canoe around heading back toward the channel and up it. We glided through a yellow lily patch. I saw a kingbird perched on a tree no bigger than a stick. I could see a water mark on a tree trunk, easily six inches higher than the current water level. It still looked wet though, suggesting the water level had just gone down recently. Another tree next to it had been girdled all around it, above the water level by a beaver. We crossed over the beaver dam again. I noticed a small clump of trees had beaver marks too, some of them their tops missing entirely. We paused by the side channel to admire a sedge plant. I wondered what they were; Larry isn’t confident in identifying sedges. I admired flowering dogwood currently in bloom.

We continued up the foggy channel, observing the silver maple trees along the way, one had fallen into the channel but was still alive. We passed the larger beaver lodge that was partially concealed by young silver maples. We were drawing near to the bridge, though with the fog we couldn’t see it yet. We’d come to the small duck hunting cabins on the east bank. Larry stopped the canoe so I could take a picture of them. He thought they were cute and looked cool in the fog. We continued onward, past the willow leaning over the water, nearing the end of our canoe outing. The canoe slid under the bridge. Our canoeing for the day was done. Once we had the canoe loaded and were back in the truck, Larry said, “It’s only 7:45, I like canoeing this early.” Before turning on to the road, he asked, “Do you have time to go check out Halfmoon Landing?”

“Sure, I have time.”

We saw two cranes on the state land across from Schmoker’s as we drove along. We also observed many rabbits along the roadside, both along 84 and the West Newton road. We wound around on the West Newton road, passing the row of cabins/houses, prairie and then through the trees, down a slight hill. Before we’d come to the creek that usually runs under the road, Larry slowed the truck considerably because the road ahead was covered in several inches of water. He drove onward, into the water. This was a whole new experience for me and therefore a bit exciting. The water rolled away from the truck in waves. Where the stream normally ran under the road, the water was rushing over the road, its ferociousness creating foam. The stream was spilling over its banks filling the forest with water.

Larry said, “The water was much higher. Last night, I saw a beaver lining up willow branches along the side of the road, taking advantage of the high water.” I leaned out of the window taking pictures of the flood waters. I could see lines on the trees where the water had been, again at least six inches above current water level. It was incredible seeing the flood. The road must have been a little higher just before the driveway into Halfmoon Landing, there was a spot that wasn’t covered in water. Larry pulled into Halfmoon Landing, dropping me off to take pictures while he continued to the parking lot. I was thankful to be wearing boots when I stepped into the water. He came back to pick me up a few moments later. As we drove back up the road, Larry pointed out the willow branches on the side of the road. He paused so I could take a look at them. It was amazing how the beaver had lined them up in a row, laying them straight. I wish I had been there to see the beaver collecting the branches. With that we headed for home.