Saturday, September 19, 2015

Soul Food

I turned away from a drawing in my studio that has gone untouched for some three weeks.  Dirty indoor work has kept me away from art and the canoe.  And while art is an outpouring of the soul, my canoe trips are food for the first.

I have spotted 5 osprey before the canoe is laid on the water - 2 on sailboat masts, 1 in a tree, 1 in a nest box, and 1 in flight.  Paddling a hundred yards brings me to five ducks... the first bend shows 2 great egrets and a yellow legs that I don't notice until the white birds leave.  The tide is low, the wind light and onshore, the man-sounds of cars and trucks is blown away from me and it is as it should be.  That is why I came here.
remains of a wooden boat
I come to this river more than most any other; the minor distance well worth the rewards.  It has become my marker river, the one I am familiar enough with to track seasonal changes by the little things that an occasional visitor doesn't notice.  From a distance, the spartina grass was tan with streaks of green and tones of red.  Once in the canoe and down in beneath the tops of the spartina I can see that the tan is the stalk of next year's seeds and the leaves are still green.

A mature bald eagle flies off from the corner tree at the big bend...a frequent happening.  At the stone arch bridge, I spot a green heron, and then several more once I've gone under.  I spook two great blue herons, and get scolded by a couple of kingfishers.  With the tide out, I make it only as far as the gravel shallows where I decide to turn rather than wade farther.
Of note, I see no willets, I spot an immature bald eagle off on a tree in the lower marsh, and I see a whimbrel on the bank that spooks before I can ready my camera.

Saturday, September 12, 2015


I've been spending my days working in a giant cavern of a building with long dark hallways and a huge great hall, mostly lit by the filtered light that comes through open doors and reflects off the dingy floors and walls, the electrics not quite working.  As I said, a cavern.

I put myself into the big river that lies some miles east of our house not wanting to be constrained by the narrow passages of the marshes that I so often frequent.  And, it seems a good choice as the cove where I start from is occupied by more white birds than normal.  At least 50 swans in a couple of flocks are out there and I find twelve great egrets crowded onto the point where I make my entry into the river.  Eight of them share two wet foot stunted trees with the others at the shoreline.  Rounding out the tally are a couple dozen cormorants and a couple of osprey.  A fine start.
2 great egrets, 2 great blue herons, 6 cormorants
It is calm and humid with high thick clouds that may part as the day goes on, but they will not burn off.  The tide is near high, but I still find myself being propelled by a still energetic flood tide and the shoreline speeds by with relative ease.

I arrive at the bottom of the Selden Channel in rather quick order.  It is guarded by an immature bald eagle that moves off confusing me for something that I am not.  A great blue heron crosses the channel ahead, a couple osprey make themselves known, and a nearby green heron runs up and down a deadfall tree that leans over the water.  It has not flown off as I paddle away.

The channel is peaceful...tranquil, with slowing current, with wild rice that has already dropped most of the crop into the water, with cattails going tan.  A slow moving motorboat comes my way and as I pick a plastic bottle from the water I nod greeting to them.  But, it is not so much a "how are you?" but rather a "you can leave now."

At the far end of the channel, a party of ten sea kayaks come around the bend ahead.  I quickly spin and head back before they can get close enough for a greeting.  Motorboats come and go in a matter of seconds, but chattering sea kayakers linger for ages.  I leave them behind.  One cannot hear the land speak if one doesn't listen.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

After the Doldrums

I return to the river with S after several days of traveling, traveling that has carried us over the period that I call the summer doldrums.  It is time of unusual calm in the rivers when birds have fledged and nests are abandoned and their habits shift to something that makes them harder to find and definitely less obvious. 

We put in a few miles from the sea at the Foote Bridge.  The tide is low, very low, in fact, the lowest that I have seen it at this point of the river.  But, it is an intentional plan that will bring us back on a flood tide with a tail wind, and I figure it to be a good summer day to wade the shallows ahead of us.
green heron

The odor of marsh decomposition is in the air, but this also means that mud banks and shallows are exposed to their fullest extent, and shore birds will be out in view picking at a bounty of small critters.  In and around Pocket Knife Bend we spot a half dozen green herons.  A few great blue herons show up and we observe a good number of yellow legs feeding in a manner that I've not seen before.  They are holding their bills at the surface of the water and walking...S says they are "Hoovering", which is as good a description as any.  Kingfishers become a regular sighting with a good deal more out than is normal, but then again, there is a good deal more tiny silver minnow sized fish than is normal.  The kingfishers are eating well.

As we wade the gravel shallows the one bird that is noticeably missing is the osprey.  We've only seen one and probably because a bird that dives after fish from some 50 ft in the air prefers to have more than 2 inches of water to dive into.  Then, a bald eagle takes off from somewhere in the forest.

We scare up some Canada geese near the Big Bend, which is where we also spot our first willet.  It is a normal upper limit for the willets, who prefer the more expansive salt marsh that is closer to the sea.

Once below the railroad bridge we start to see osprey again.  At first they are just perched in the trees, but with the tide coming back at a fast rate, they start to fly and disperse up river.  Ourselves, we turn back at Cedar Island and return on a river that is different except for its path on the map.  A foot of water has been added in that time, the shallows have gone below the surface, the water touches the spartina and covers the mud banks.  The yellow legs have moved off to somewhere else, the kingfishers remain and scold everything in sight, the green herons still own Pocket Knife Bend, and osprey are starting to arrive.

Foote Bridge

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Lewis Gut

We headed west in the car toward favorite places only to find both of the possible roads jammed for miles.  I turned east and headed to a place that S had not seen, a new experience to make up for a delay.

We set out on a warming day that will reach nearly 90 degrees, but with a steady fresh breeze off of the sea from one direction or another.  The tide is high when we set the canoe on the rotting asphalt boat ramp lined with trash, a hint at the past and present of this gritty city.

"Row, row, row our boat" is sung from under the dilapidated swing bridge as we approach.  A pleasant if not completely present fellow is parked under the bridge in a tiny dinghy fishing for porgy.  Gritty as this city may be, I have always been greeted with a smile whenever I pass someone in my canoe.

We stop on the sandy shore of Pleasure Island, a former amusement park being redeveloped by nature into something....more natural.  There are a fair number of people coming to the island on the park department ferry and some of them are then being delivered to the swimming beach in a very long golf cart taxi.
rotting keel of a wooden boat

Osprey rule the area today and I imagine that at least ten can be seen at any one time.  A few willets are around as are some great blue herons and great egrets. 

It is called the Lewis Gut and S finds it visually interesting, as do I. There is something surreal about it and something that reminds one of a desert island. A long spit of sand divides us from the sea, a long spit with a lot of somewhat shredded trees on it, a place that is exposed as any to the storms that come.  The last hurricane washed right over the spit and if I remember right, cut a channel through which has since been filled.
the dilapidated swing bridge

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Three of Us

The three of us set out from the mouth of the East and headed up on the Neck and into Bailey Creek and into the Sneak and back into the East on a beautiful summer day with a rising tide and and a fresh wind under a sunny sky.

It had been some time since I'd been out with L, and I had never canoed with A.  But, my canoe is large enough for three, if one of them sits on the bottom in the middle, and is content to be a passenger.  In fact, with the extra weight the canoe moves faster through the water and carries through with the inertia when one coasts.

The birds have quieted down quite a bit in the East marsh.  This years osprey chicks are all flying well enough that they aren't discerned from the adults.  The willets have hatched their young and are no longer as defensive as they were a month ago, so quiet prevails and the warning calls come much less often.  Also, it is high tide, so there is less open bank to expose the shore birds.  We did pass a little blue heron almost as soon as we set out.

After we pass the first bridges (the RR, the Post Road and I95) L and A ask about eagles and I reply that I have seen bald eagles here now and then.  And, a bald eagle takes wing from a nearby tree.  Eagles, although not in numbers, will be the bird of the day with at least a dozen sightings, although likely it is just two or three individual birds.  But, they don't seem inclined to move far from the river due to our presence.
sawmill dam

We stop at the sawmill dam for a rest in the shade before continuing upstream flushing an occasional eagle, and occasional kingfisher and a few great blue herons.  At pocket-knife bend, I spot a pair of green herons who move away in short flights, staying in sight for some time before heading on to the more forested upper river.  We turn around at the sharp bend just past the Foote Bridge, flushing an eagle one more time.
green heron
 It's a good half day trip and we paddle everything that can be paddled except for the top 1/3 mile, the tangled section of low branches favored by the best of canoe contortionists.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

In the Mattebasset Again

With a north wind, we put in on the big river so that we will have a tailwind on the return trip.  The warm temperatures of the last two weeks have dipped down to a comfortable level and the light breeze makes the day even more so, especially with partly cloudy skies that bring an occasional bit of shade from the sun.  We stop for a moment on the downstream tip of an island that shields the mouth of the Mattebasset River before heading up into it.

While high tide has already passed at the sea, it is near the crest here, far enough upriver to get a lag of an hour and a half or two.  Most noticeable from my last visit is the lack of herons and egrets, not that they are not here, just that they are not visible.  With the high tide, the shallows where they hunt are back behind the wall of cattails and wild rice.  On the way in, I spot only one egret and it is a 1/4 mile off perched in a tree.
There are large numbers of turtles out today and most of them are smaller...palm sized or so.

At the eagle nest, an immature bald eagle rests on a nearby branch.

What is more obvious is the large number of swallows.  They are at distance out over the vegetation but the glimmer of sun off of them as they dart and speed after bugs makes them easy to see.

And, we find large numbers of cedar waxwings whenever we find a big patch of frog moss in the water.  I've never seen so many in one place as here.  It is a new bird to S. so we park the nose of the canoe in the frog moss and watch them feed.  It's quite a pretty bird with tones of red and yellow and a bright yellow band at the base of the tail.  They speed after distant bugs and then pull up to a flutter in their final maneuver.  They take insects that are large enough to be seen by us from 20 yards or more (you never really see what the swallows eat).

cedar waxwing
On the way out the two great blue herons grace our presence by coming to the shore, some ospreys fly overhead, and we find more cedar waxwings.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Accounting

My observations begin at once and for some reason I notice it more than on my other trips.  The water is low, very low, and the mud banks are exposed and the waterlogged woody debris closer to the surface than usual.  It is not related to summer or short rainfall, which we haven't had, but instead it is the tide.  This oddity of nature that I am in is a freshwater tidal marsh miles from the sea.  In fact, even the strongest of storms will not push salt water into this area, no matter what, not even close.  Anyway, the day is already warm and it will be officially hot, but a good breeze from the southwest moderates it all while the summer sun is stark and harsh and constantly reminds me of the temperature.

Pickerel weed is in bloom.  It takes a front row to the cattails, and wild rice is putting out its edible seed, although it won't be ripe for a couple months.  Great blue herons are the rule of the day.  Spotting or flushing one occurs one after another and during the hour it takes to get to the big river, I have spotted about twenty.  A smaller dark bird pops up out of the shallows and lands on a branch.  I inch closer to find that it is a green heron.  A yearling bald eagle passes over quickly and disappears into the trees.  With all this going on, the most interesting to me is the half dozen cedar waxwings that are all feeding in one small area.  They are an interesting contrast to the swallows and the two feed in different flight regimes.  The swallows are fast and fly clean, maneuvering by keeping steady air moving over their wings.  The waxwings are all MCA (minimum controllable airspeed)'s flaps down, high power, and low speed.  If little men were flying these two birds, the swallow's pilot would be blacking out from G forces while the waxwing's pilot would be sweating a storm, punching rudder pedals and yanking the control column and throttles just trying to keep the bird on target (an insect).

The accounting is all well and good, but it is not the premium of such a trip.  The best occurs after the accounting (which must be done to just get to the best).  It's when the trip stops becoming an identification job, when creatures and plants pass by not as objects, but as a pieces of the place...inseparable from where they are or where I am.  This is when the land might talk to you...if you are ready to listen.