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Tag Archive | Weaver Bottoms

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.)

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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.

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 Through A Lotus Meadow (Part I)

July 29, 2017

Over two months had gone by since Larry and I had a chance to go canoeing – June is always so incredibly busy for both of us. So when a beautiful day with both of us free came around, we seized the opportunity. It was late afternoon, not quite 5:00 pm. Larry decided we’d canoe the Weaver Bottoms this time around. We put the canoe in, from the Weaver Landing, just before 5:00 pm. The sky was blue, dotted with white fluffy clouds.

If you haven’t figured this out yet, I have a love affair with water, lakes, rivers and streams in particular. So at the end of May, when Jesse and I were helping Larry build a fence, Larry asked me what I wanted to do this summer. I replied, “I want to go canoeing and swimming. I got a brand new swim suit two years ago and still haven’t worn it. We haven’t gone swimming for at least two years, maybe three. So I want to make sure I go swimming this year.” Now, I’ve never had swimming lessons, all just self taught. I’m slow but I absolutely love swimming. People have jokingly checked me for gills. Larry had asked how my summer was going – I told him it’s been so busy and I haven’t gone swimming yet. So when we made plans to go out in the canoe, I asked him if I should wear my swimsuit. He said sure – we’ll get you in the water, give you a chance to swim.

I was elated to be heading out in the canoe once more. The day wasn’t so hot that sitting in the sun was extremely uncomfortable but it was still warm – in fact it was the perfect temperature, with only the slightest breeze. The water near the boat landing was thick with vegetation on all sides, brilliantly green; cattails, rushes, sedges, sagittaria and yellow lotus. It feels magical floating through these aquatic plants. Larry guided us along the boat path going through the lush, aquatic meadow. There weren’t many lotus plants and only a few in bloom. The color and smooth texture of the lotus blossom brought to mind a bridal dress. We were canoeing in roughly the same place and general direction we had last July. The plants above the surface began to thin dramatically while I think those beneath the water had thickened; mostly a tangled morass of coonstail, barring any glimpse of the watery world beneath them. A little further on, the canoe slid through a field of water lily pads. The pads were storybook; I almost expected to see a frog sitting on one, pleading with me to take it in and feed it and offer a warm bed to it. No frogs in sight, even though there are leopard frogs living in the Weaver Bottoms. Frogs are awesome, so I would have loved to see even one. In a moment, we were out of the lilies.

We came upon the vast yellow lotus meadow. Although this was my second time seeing it, I still marveled at its breadth and beauty. Just breathtaking. I was expecting it to be fragrant too but I was disappointed. It wasn’t as strong smelling as I hoped – but that may have been due to my slightly stuffy sinuses. The white  blossoms with a dash of gold dazzled in the afternoon sun, almost sparkling at a distance. Some of the large leaves floated on top of the water, others stood above the water by several inches. Plants grew so thickly only patches of water could be seen between the pads. As we glided along, Larry asked, “Is there a better way to spend a beautiful Saturday afternoon?”

“I don’t think so. This is so relaxing.” Other than napping, which I usually fail miserably at, I’m not sure there is a better way to relax after a stressful morning of working at a Farmers Market. Indeed, it was relaxing – out here on the water my soul could find rest.

The lotus forest began to peter out with individuals growing increasingly further away from each other. The stunningly blue sky with its fluffy clouds reflected off the more open areas of the water, giving it the appearance of being blue as well. Larry had ever so gently turned the canoe southward, taking us south and east. We didn’t chatter on but when we talked it was about the Bottoms and my book, about his family and my friends and family, and photography. We went through another lotus patch. This one didn’t grow so densely and had far less blossoms. Some of the leaves were beginning to curl and senesce. Then we were out in open water again – floating on the reflected sky.

We’d come rather close to a tree covered bluff that stuck out into the water to the south. Some houses sat among the trees at the base of the bluff, Highway 61 probably threads near them and the railroad too. Then a floodplain forest and a marsh filled with aquatic plants. I was too far away to see if there was an actual strip of sand or just sand suspended in the water. A lot of bleached snags stuck up like old bones. I could just make out seven Canada geese; there could have been more that I couldn’t see. Larry had pointed it out, explaining that all that slit and sediment is being discharged by the Whitewater River as it flows into the Weaver Bottoms. Scary how much sediment is carried by a relatively small river, although the Whitewater does flow quite quickly, though nowhere near the swift speed of the Zumbro. I’ve never been this far out and south on the Weaver Bottoms, and therefore have never seen where the Whitewater pours into it, I was enraptured by it.