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Tag Archive | Sandhill Cranes

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.

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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.