Sunday, April 13, 2014

I Wondered if I Might See Them

Before I can make my getaway, a car with a solo canoe pulls up.  Our boats are what one might call serious canoes...a bit too specific in design and a bit too expensive for someone that isn't, at least, somewhat serious.  Now, I'll chat with most anyone (that isn't exhibiting outright stupidity), but such boats signal like minds and create an opening for conversation.  T and I exchange information about previous trips.  I tell him about the high tide sneak from Bailey Creek into the East River, and he clues me in a bit about the Adirondacks.  The idea of paddling together isn't broached.  I suppose that people who are out paddling solo either want to paddle alone, or they don't have anyone to paddle with.  I don't go with coin tosses too often.

Cedar Island from Bailey Creek


There are not more osprey than one can count, but there are more osprey than I care to keep track of while trying to count.  It seems that all of the osprey that will nest in this area are already here.  All of the nest boxes have been taken and at least five or six can be seen in the air at any one time.  As I head up the Neck River, I spot two willets on the bank.  They are the early ones, because willets nest here in large numbers during the summer.  It might be my imagination, but they look thinner than I remember them, and that might be, their spring migration ending here.  They trot ahead of the canoe instead of flying off as if they have had enough flight time.  A couple of great egrets hunt out in the plain of spartina grass, the high tide placing me at a good vantage to see across the wide, still golden yellow marsh.

I take the turn off of the Neck and into Bailey Creek and in a few full meanders I cut back left into the sneak, a narrower channel that leads inland and back to the East River.  The sneak is only canoeable in the upper two feet or so of high tide.

There is a eight or ten yellow legs at the bend just above the mid-river rock pile, which is submerged but still shows its location by rippling the surface of the water.

Yellow Legs


I pass T near the old dam as he heads back down river.  But first, we pause and talk again.


The tide is with me today, and not just the direction of current, but the timing of water level as well.  I slip under the tree that fell across the river last summer and pass under the Foote Bridge, and over the berm of rocks just upstream of the bridge, and over the thick fallen tree that blocks passage except at high tide, and I continue into the forest until I get to the limbo gymnastics section of the river.  There is only another two or three hundred yards of paddleable water ahead, so it is a good place to turn back.



I wondered if I might see them.  I wondered when they would arrive in the marsh, and whether they would come in numbers or in ones and twos.  But there, on the low spartina island in the bend above the mid-river rock pile are fifteen glossy ibises.  My first two attempts at a photograph fail to focus on their inky dark brown bodies, but they stay near, flying as a flock when they fly and I am surprised most that they are not larger.  I have only seen them from a much greater distance and here, about 50 yards off, they turn out to be about the size of a snowy egret.
Glossy Ibis


I take the sneak back, the water having dropped but not so far as to stop my passage.  I find a fine raccoon track smartly laid on the side of a discarded wine bottle, and I come across two little blue herons, which are more blue than when I saw them last summer for the first time.  Now, the name makes more sense.
a rare example of a raccoon track

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Place in the Choir

Birdsong dominates in the Great Swamp on a cloudy, warm and calm day.  And, everything that isn't singing seems to be moving.  The water is up and out of its banks such as they are.  At normal levels the river is edged by marsh and swamp.  Today, it is high enough that if I lose the main channel, which is four to six feet deep in most places, I find myself over the downed cattails and marsh on a foot of water.


Wood ducks and mallards, and plenty of them, take off from back in the trees, and I spot some teal as well.  There is a kingfisher there, and the rapping of the smaller species of woodpeckers from farther out.  Only the Canada geese seem to break the mood, their honking so much louder and boisterous than any of the others.  And, as on all my other trips here, great blue herons fly improbably with their six foot wings through the still leafless trees.  More than any, the herons amaze me.


The clouds fade away for awhile and the blue sky brings out the beauty of the ragged swamp trees.


There are no leaves, nor much green at all for that matter in the swamp today.  A determined winter has delayed the spring growth...but not the life.  The marsh is as alive as ever, maybe even more so.  Unlike people, the birds and animals have no time to wait, or waste.

I surprise a mink as I round a bend and it runs along a downed tree to hide in the root ball where it watches me in relative safety.
And then, so typical of mink, it comes back out onto the log, fully exposed and sure that if it came to a fight with me, it would come out on top.


It is on the return that I come to something quite unexpected.  From ahead, maybe a few hundred yards, comes a sound unfamiliar to me.  At once, it sounds like a hundred mallards quacking at the tops of their lungs, then it seems to be farm machinery in a nearby field.  But, when I get to where it comes from, I find the area in the center of the swamp.  It is frogs, unseen and uncountable, croaking, and every so often their calls become trained to each other and a rhythmic beat develops...and then it drifts into a random noise.  As I pass, it quiets down some, and as I paddle away it goes still.  But, in five more minutes, up ahead comes another chorus.  And when I pass that, it goes still, to be replaced by another choir of frogs another five minutes up the river.


A pileated woodpecker flies across my view and perches on the backside of a snag where I can't photograph it.  As I near, it flies up and to the backside of another tree, where I can't photograph it.  I put the camera away and it flies off.

When I take the canoe out, the thing I notice most is how quiet and pleasant the swamp is today.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Quality Time with S

I talk S into a short canoe trip on a very sunny and fine spring day, one that has been long awaited through an unusually cold and snowy winter for this part of  the country.


We put in on the Menunketesuck River a good three hours before high tide.  The water is low and just barely deep enough at the put-in, but not many yards downstream we find a good deep channel that runs without break.  There is a fairly strong wind, one that requires compensation, particularly with S in the bow, her weight something like that of a bird.  At this tide level we hug the windward shore when possible, the three feet of exposed bank sheltering us from the wind.

At the first bend, two osprey have reclaimed the artificial nest box and it looks like they will be there for the season.  After the second bend, where the houses end and the marsh and forest take over, a pair of hawks is soaring.  A second pair of osprey have taken position on the nest box near the railroad.  If there are any egrets around, we don't see them.  At this tide level they might be feeding elsewhere for the time being.

S agrees that the scale of the landscape should make for a spectacular trip when the leaves change in the fall, but she also adds that it will be good to see the marsh and forest change through the seasons.

It is supposed to be a short trip and when continuing presents us with a return trip into the teeth of the wind, we turn back.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Sittin' Marsh

Pilgrim Landing on the Connecticut River...a flood tide carries me into Lord Cove at a good clip while four osprey and one turkey vulture fly overhead.  The vulture is silent while the osprey whistle back and forth at each other without pause.

It is my first time here, across the river and a bit downstream from Essex, where I have paddled from before.

The phragmites of Goose Island give way to cattail marsh, and a quite expansive cattail marsh at that with side channels going off to unknown results....a maze.  For a first trip, I follow the shore, or what can be taken for shore on my right.  The one sure way to find one's way through a maze is to follow a wall...although it may not be the quickest way through a maze. 



It's a beautiful trip with a rising shoreline of bedrock and forest bounding that broad freshwater tidal marsh.  I am surprised to see the cattails doing so well with the ocean not 4 miles downstream.  I would expected more brackish conditions that would favor spartina.

As the cattails close in, I paddle more carefully, slipping the blade into the water with each stroke, emphasizing quiet over speed.  There isn't much to see, yet.  The cattails are mangy and browned out from winter, the new growth not yet started.  I catch the call of red wing blackbirds, but not the calls of marsh wrens, yet.  This looks to be exceptional habitat for the wrens, but it is still too early for them.  My chosen channel closes in, the point at which the cattails will finally hug the canoe into stillness is not far ahead. 
This is a sitting marsh.  Too often in my explorations I forget to sit, and marshes, if one wants to know a marsh, requires one to sit.  The marsh will come to those who sit.  A reddish bird flits in and out of the most peripheral of my vision, and hides away unidentified.  And there is a distant sound that requires me to stop and think about it.  It is muffled and altered by a great many yards of brush and forest.  It must be frogs, hundreds of frogs croaking away.  But, I won't get there by canoe.
mute swan being defensive...aggression is a week or two off



I head back out and continue exploring, not sure of where I am, traveling as normal without a map.  I might be near Coults Hole, a circular opening in the middle of the marsh, but I also might not be.  I follow a channel up to a stand of trees knowing that there must be a bit of slightly higher landstuff for trees to grow.  I recognize this place, a narrow piece of low land, having arrived on the far shore when I paddle out of Essex...landmark.  Two osprey seem to be claiming a nearby nesting box.
When I get back to the put-in, I have a delightful talk with the lady that lives next to the beach.  We trade bird and wildlife stories, but hers are better.  She clues me in on some seasonal marsh events that I need to come back for.



Tuesday, April 1, 2014

West New Milfordporttuck Havenburytown

The lack of the founding fathers' imagination in naming places has become a bit of an amusement.

A great egret flew over as I was leaving town.  Further along, I passed under a turkey vulture.  I was heading towards Lyme, to put in on the big salt marshes at the bottom of the Connecticut River, but I made a side trip to check out a smaller river that I'd noticed on the maps.  It was as far as I got.

I put in on the Menunketesuck River and paddled upstream, through one bridge and under another,
for about a half mile to where progress is stopped by a eight foot high low head dam that holds back a mill pond that once powered the industry that once stood on the foundation remains that still stand on the east side of the river.

This dam is a generation earlier than any of the dams on the west coast where I started this project.  By the time dams where built there, electricity was well in use and those dams were designed to turn generators.  Here, there is a whole generation of dams that provided direct power by supplying water to waterwheels...which means that most everything that could be dammed was dammed.

I return on the current back to the put-in and continue down river.  At the first big bend an osprey soars over on its way to someplace and ignoring the nest box that has been built for its convenience.  One more turn of the river and the scattering of houses becomes much, much more sparse.  The marsh broadens to a couple hundred yards in width while the river meanders through, sometimes it bends just to bend, sometimes it bends to get around one of the bedrock outcrops that are so typical of Connecticut.  All the while there is one species of bird calling back and forth in a series of alto whistles, hidden from view and identification by the forest. The marsh, here, is the short spartina grass, still dormant from winter and flattened by the snows.  It is textbook spartina marsh, the tidal salt marsh where spartina rules and out competes any other plant, and until one gets to the edge of the forest, there is no other plant.  I spot two great egrets and one more osprey.
I pass under a low and narrow railroad bridge.  It is a door much like many bridges that I pass under in the tidal areas.  Downstream not another half mile are the marinas and shrink wrapped motor yachts. 

I have developed good filters for seeing and feeling my way into wildness in the most unlikely places, but I always have a hard time seeing past hundreds of shrink wrapped boats.  I explore a short while to get the lay of the land and then return to the upstream side of the railroad bridge where I belong and where they can't go.
I find a debris field in a seasonal drainage near the tracks and I collect three specimens.  I make one side trip, up a tributary (Gatchen Creek), a distance of a 1/2 mile or so that takes about a mile and half to do because of the creeks wide meanders.

As I take out, I meet a guy who lives next to the put-in just as he is getting ready to take his rowing dory out.  We agree on a lot of things.





Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Selden not a Creek

I almost talked myself out of the day, again.  Temperatures in the 20's and 30's with a sky that was gradually greying over seemed weighty.  Still, I know that the spring migration is starting and it seems to me that someone should be there to see it.

I put in on the Connecticut River near the seasonal river ferry dock and set out after a short talk with one of the ferry workers and a road crew, exchanging wisecracks about our seemingly endless winter.  The tide is low and the wind stronger than I expected it to be, so I head downriver and upwind staying to my side of the river until I get a feel for what the conditions are going to be like.  The river here is about a 1/3 mile across, but the wind is making effort much more than waves, and effort, at least to a point, I can deal with.

Common mergansers are the duck of the day out in the main river, more numerous than anything else, they are grouped in anything from two to about ten.  A long steam whistle brings attention to a column of white cloud that has just come from the Essex locomotive, which might be doing a run in preparation for tourist season.

osprey nests in a tidal fresh water wetland


I pass the Deep River marina and the Chester Marina, and go a bit farther before cutting across the river.  The lower mouth of Selden Creek, which is not really a creek but rather a side channel of the river, having been blown out by a flood in 1854, lies behind a long low wetland that extends downstream off of the main hulk of the resultant island.  But, I guess that names stick better than reality.  From the mouth I spot the beautiful old house that sits on the turn into Hamburg Cove...and I connect two different canoe trips.

male wood duck



Selden Creek

There are mergansers as far up as the osprey nests - three natural ones set in busted snags, but still unoccupied.  But, as I get closer to the hills and cliffs and leave the marsh behind, wood ducks and black ducks begin to dominate, although not nearly as many as the mergansers.  I spot some recent beaver cutting and one somewhat disheveled bank burrow on what is a pleasant and protected paddle upstream towards where I started.


another male wood duck



beaver bank burrow









Sunday, March 23, 2014

Merganser Gathering Time

One can talk one's self out of canoeing on such a day with the grey sky and, once again cold air.  How glad I am that I didn't.

The tide is out, or near out, being hard exactly to know such things when you are 15 miles inland from the ocean.  But, the water is lower than any other time that I've been here.  I put in at the Connecticut River where the Salmon River joins up.  The Salmon has become a favorite, a relatively unspoiled shoreline of forest and tidal freshwater marsh with only a few houses here and there.

I spot two recent beaver felled trees on the low marshy point that separates the Salmon and the Connecticut.  A hundred yards is as close as I can get, the water from here to there just a few inches deep at this tide.  It's a good sign that I've not noticed in the past.

At the big bend where the forest starts to take over from the marsh, there are a hundred swallows darting and weaving over the surface of the water.  The man on the radio said they are among the first of the spring migration to appear.  In the shallows of the outside corner are a dozen buffleheads, and farther up are what I guess to be fifty mute swans.  When I count, by some freak of nature, I count fifty swans.  Another ten are much farther up but still easy to spot.  That is half of what I counted on my last trip last fall.  I had hoped to collect shed feathers, which were all over on that last trip...but, it seems that swans don't lose many feathers in the spring.  There is not one to be seen.

When the river necks down, the swans in the lower section (Salmon Cove) give way to the common mergansers.  Usually seen in ones and twos, they are gathered in tens and fifteens, a spring behavior that I've seen before.  I counted 58 in a single flock one spring in Union Bay back in Seattle


The current picks up as I near the Leesville Dam.  From the bridge (the only bridge) it is a challenging current made more so by shallow water that dictates progress to a narrow bit of the river.

From there I turn back, the day's increasing wind at my back, and blowing strong, the river current adding to the stroke of my paddle.  The return takes half the time.