Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Day to Keep Close at Hand

Willets and willet song near and far surrounded us before we even had the canoe in the water.  They have arrived sometime during the last week.


We set out under the high tide, which would meet us halfway through the trip.  But, the water already was high enough to permit the back way to pass.  So, up the Neck, up Bailey Creek, through the Sneak and into the East River. 
All of the osprey are in residence and it is possible that a couple of nests have eggs as one of some pairs stayed firmly rooted in the nest.   Willets are flushed routinely from the water's edge.  Sometimes they fly off, sometimes they run off.  But, in either case we get views of the barred wings, the most obvious mark of that bird.  They often hold them vertical over their backs for just a second or two...seemingly a decoy tactic that they have learned to steer predators away from the nests.
When we enter Bailey Creek, I point east at a distant flock of flying birds and tell S, "glossy ibises."
"How do you know they are ibises?"
"Because they fly like ibises."  This is no help.
Then I explain that it is more a process of elimination.  They're dark, but clearly not hawks.  They fly in flocks - also not hawks or herons, but not in any formation...not geese or cormorants.  Most of the ducks around here are paired off at this time and not in flocks.  Glossy ibises are also very maneuverable in flight.  She watches with the binoculars, but instead of landing, they fly out of sight.  I tell her that there is a more likely place to see them up ahead.


Glossy ibises

Once under the highway bridge we see fewer willets and more yellow-legs.  I don't know why that is, but it is and I have noticed it before.

Mallardus Plasticus
Then, I point out a big flock of ibises, fifty or more swirling in the air over the spartina.  They settle above the next bend.  We approach slowly, only disturbing them once...about a dozen of them bounce up six feet in the air all at one time.  But they drop right back down and go back to work thrusting their curved bills into the mud after the small critters that they eat.  Then, they lift off again, and begin circling looking for another place to land and feed.  Overhead, they swoop down and then veer off...the air rushing over a hundred wings as they pull out of the dive a long stead wooooosh. 
"Did you hear that?"

There are fewer birds up above the arch bridge, a few hawks, redwing blackbirds, and blue jays.  We turn back just above Foote Bridge.  The wind has shifted and our expected ride home on a trailing breeze is a minor struggle into a headwind with a bit of ebb current to help us.  We retrace our route.
It has been a most fine day.  I think to myself how this is a day that one should always remember without photographs and notes.  A day to keep close at hand.


Monday, April 18, 2016

A Collision of Worlds

Once, I was surveying one of my favorite marshes and a dad and his two sons came out of the brush.  They were geocaching*.  We had a very brief conversation where I pointed to the beaver cut stumps that they almost tripped over and the large lodge that was just off shore a dozen yards.  At this point, "dad" looked at me like I was a space alien.  He asked me if I knew where the box was hidden. 
"That direction", I said pointing south.  I know this only because I pay attention to where I am and find the boxes fairly often.  It would do him no good anyway.  The box was on a small island 50 yards from shore.  The satellite derived maps in the GPS were in error showing lily pads as dry land.  He had absolutely no idea where he was standing. 
barrel (removed)

People are increasingly wandering into wild places with the mistaken belief that technology will be their guide.  They watch a tiny TV screen as they wander from waypoint to waypoint, cell phone in pocket in case they get hurt... or the batteries run out.  The more adventurous carry their SPOT emergency beacons.  Few know how to "see" and remember landmarks.  The matching of a map to the land you are standing in is a dying skill. The spirit of wild places doesn't step forward when it has to compete with the distraction of electronic marvels.  Take the tame world to wild places and all you have is a tame and unspirited world.

There is a new osprey nest in a tree on tiny Watch Island.  The flush as I come near, not yet used to people, who will be paddling under them all summer.  I spot what seems to be a loon except that for too much white on it's body.  It lets me very near, maybe 10 yards.  It seems to be grooming, twisting its body around with one leg dangling high.  I watch for a few minutes.  A second new osprey nest is on an overhead structure on someone's dock.  The rest of the 30 some nests on and around Great Island are occupied.
new nest on Watch Island

I head up the Black Hall River to the hidden pond.  Then I return via the Back River (not really a river).  I find that loon just before I get back to the Lieutenant River.  It is sitting on shore and this time I get within a couple yards, a sign of trouble.  I finally can see a short bit of mono filament fishing line.  It looks like it has snagged a fishermen's hook on its body.  It swims off...nothing I can do except hope that it will shake it free.  At least it isn't one of the huge treble hook lures that I collect all too often.  It is an unfortunate collision of the tame and wild worlds.


*The process of geocaching
1. buy a GPS receiver.
2. obtain coordinates from a geocaching website and load into GPS receiver
3. go where the GPS device tells you to.
4. find box (the geocache)
5. imagine that you know something about wilderness travel...cuz you don't.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Add a Bird to the List That I Don't Have

A few days of strong winds and cold air have left, leaving just the cold air.  The morning is sunny, near calm and crisp, the temperature having dropped below freezing during the night.  The tide is rising to a higher than usual level by midday and plans of where to go are adjusted accordingly.

I put in after a short chat with a guy who is out walking his dog.  It is the usual good chat of eagle sightings and boats.  I paddle off up river.
Before
There are a good many more great egrets than there were just a week ago.  With the marsh grasses beaten down from winter, sight lines are long and unobstructed.  Egrets and swans can be spotted from hundreds of yards without trying.  There are two swans in mid marsh building nests.  They sit in place and grab grasses from around them and tuck them under and around their bodies.

I take a turn into the channel on the south side of Fish Camp Ridge (formerly referred to by me as Archaeology Ridge, a name that just doesn't roll of the tongue) and scare up a few more great egrets, some black ducks, and a few teal.  I spot a tricolored heron out in the spartina, the first one that I've ever seen.  It is similar to the little blue heron but the white belly gives it away. (I figured this out later or I would've worked a bit harder to get a better photo).
Tricolored heron


I follow the channel along Nell's Island.  It dissolves into a bay that is at least a third of a mile across, the tide so high that the usual channels between spartina isles have disappeared.  I can paddle pretty much anywhere at this tide level.

Warning signs and ropes are up on Milford Point, a safeguard to protect nearly invisible piping plover nests from being stepped on.  A flock of more than a hundred brandts fly past and upriver while I am there.  The birds have, mostly, not been camera friendly today.

Instead of continuing my route around the marsh, I turn back upstream and take a diagonal across, taking in the rarity of being able to paddle anywhere, passing through places that are seldom visited.  The birds however, have receded into the distance along with the shoreline, which gives me time to fill the bow of the canoe with things that don't belong here.
After

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Nice Day for It

The screen door slams shut just as I get about five feet out from shore.  It is the man that lives in the house near the put-in.  We've talked before, he's a nice guy.
"Nice day for it," he says.
"Perfect!" I respond with a thumbs up for emphasis.
I turn upriver, split the tip of my paddle on the first rocks, that I know all too well, and paddle off into the steady spring rain.  I suppose that the man is the only person I will see on this trip, and if I should run into another, it will be someone of such a like mind that we will be able to finish each others sentences. 

The tide is on its way out, which is of little consequence here except that I have to avoid some large shallows, the wind is light, the rain is moderate and steady.  I will be sponging the bottom every twenty minutes or so with this rain.  The camera will not be ready, stuffed in my life vest like normal, but instead sealed in its waterproof box....not a day for a lot of photographs.
An osprey glides from the trees on my right to join its mate at the osprey box on Goose Island.  It is a 600 ft trip with a twenty foot drop.  It is effortless except for a couple of shimmies in mid flight to shake the rain off.  Another osprey overtakes me on the left with a fish in its talons.  Two more hover high in the shallow bay above the island.  It keeps raining.

As I edge along the bedrock hillside that borders the cove, a large immature bald eagle flushes from a tree.  It was on a ten foot long snaky branch, some 2 inches or more thick, and the branch bounces like a diving board for several seconds.  It gives the illusion of a much heavier eagle than is possible.  Just a short ways on, a second immature eagle takes wing from the trees.

I go to the usual farthest reaches of the cove and start my way out by circling Coultes Hole, a large round area that looks far more interesting on satellite photographs than it does up close.  It is, for one thing, not a hole, but rather a shallow area where no cattails of grown for no reason that I can derive.

I spot a few more osprey as I continue.  It seems that all of the nests are occupied. 

The rain slackens to a spit.

I cut out across the shallow bay upstream of Goose Island and descend in the main river, rounding the sandy island near the put-in just to add a mile to the trip...two more osprey and a mature bald eagle on that island, and it rains steady once more.

Where: Lords Cove from Pilgrim Landing

Friday, April 1, 2016

Intricacies

I put in today more out of urgency than want.  Sometimes, I fear the passing of the day or seasons without being able to see the changes.  The spring migration is on, and what is in the marsh changes with each day.  I also know that all of this may change all too soon, that I may be one of the last to experience the spartina marsh.  New research suggests faster rising ocean levels than were previously predicted.  This is not a surprise to me.  I am an engineer and I know just enough about mathematical systems modeling to know that unexpected intricacies can make major differences.  Modeling nature is a supremely difficult task.

Spartina marshes hover right at the top of high tide.  The annual growth of grasses die and compost themselves into the marsh, building height at about the same rate that the marsh compacts and loses that gain.  When I look at old maps, I find that the spartina is remarkably stable, islands in the rivers have changed little in shape over the last 125 years.  I expect that a rapid rise in ocean level will upset the delicate balance.
The tide is falling when I set out.  The wind is out of the South, but lighter than predicted.  The clouds reach all of the way to the surface and I paddle in a thin fog that obscures a lot of distant stuff that I don't want to look at anyway.  Great egrets have returned and are easily spotted, scattered around the marsh as I go.  I saw my first two just six days ago.  Near the river mouth is a large flock of brandts honking hoarsely as if they were sick Canada geese.  I pass a number of swans, all paired up but not yet nesting and aggressive.  At the upriver end of the marsh, a loud splash to my right catches my attention.  I look for a fallen clump of spartina but find, instead a beaver eyeballing me.  I'm a bit too far from the creek and forest to expect a beaver sighting, but there it is.  A bald eagle flies by and vanishes in the fog.  The nearby osprey nest, which held two bald eagles on my last trip here, now has an osprey in it, as does the downriver nest.  Near taking out, the recently exposed mudflats have drawn in a large number of yellow-legs.  Some of them feed by picking at the mud while a few others run through the water with their bills skimming the surface.

The take out is mud now.  I slide the canoe over the greasy surface, my boots going in about 8 inches, but not sticking as long as I keep moving.  I have washing to do.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Exploring

It's a busy river, one of the small Connecticut rivers with cut banks with remains of hardwood trees forming piles and tangles in the water.  The bottom varies in depth every few seconds, a sandbar here, deep water there, and shallow hard packed gravel in other places.  Even the put-in was cantankerous, a small steep spot on the bank about ten yards upriver from a low head dam.  I hate low head dams - the back flow on the downstream sides kill people, trapping them until long after they have died.  Those things give me the willies.

I head upstream into river that I've not seen.  There is a good current, but it is only too fast to paddle against when it is also too shallow to paddle in.  I don't need to wade until I get to my first log crossing.  After that, it is a bit of wading every few hundred yards.  Like I said, a busy river.  No time for contemplation, eyes watching the bottom, watching the bank, peering up around the next bend, watching for animals.  I flush a couple of great blue herons and a few pairs of mergansers.  The next log crossing is an over-under...the canoe goes under the log, I go over the top.

This river was a mill river...cutlery mills mostly.  It doesn't show the beating that it took from metal and plating operations, but I can sense it.  It still runs through the towns that built up around those mills, so it doesn't get a full break.  I decide to age my photos when I get done...the river has something old about it that doesn't come through in the camera.  I suppose an old photo makes the river appear the way I would rather see it.
great blue heron in the reeds
The route splits.  A long straight channel to the west - it appears to be a man-made channel - it is too straight.  The east channel twists and it twists away from my view in a hundred yards.  I end up wading a fair amount of the west channel, until I decide to go back and see what the east side has to offer.  It is trickier, fast water winding through bends with a good amount of downed wood.  Enough. 
In this current, one would normally expect 2:1...twice as long up as it takes to return.  But, with so much wood in the river, the return is not much faster.  But, it is a chance to play with ferrying the canoe...aiming it and back paddling so that the river current does most of the work.  Done right, it can be so graceful that there is no more effort than an occasional dip of the paddle.

It is a round trip of less than 5 miles.  It takes 2-1/2 hours.

Quinnipiac River upstream from Quinnipiac Street.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Osprey

S told me that she had seen two osprey yesterday.  I took that with my usual grain of salt, preferring to confirm such things on my own.  After all, I had been out in the canoe and hadn't seen any.  Before I get to Cedar Island, a distance something under a half mile, I have spotted five osprey.  I put my notebook down and look the other way and it is now six.
It is a tremendously peaceful day.  The predicted south wind has not materialized and the sky has a high thin overcast that seems to add calm to the situation.  The tide is coming in and will reach high while I am out.  Paddling is all rhythm in such still waters with no corrections for drift to be made and no hunting for protected banks to ease the work.  Songs begin to work their way through my head filling the silence with inaudible melodies.  Beasts and plants pass by without the effort of giving them names.  They do what they do, I do what I do, and none seem to notice as long as nothing is out of the ordinary.
Osprey starting some nest refurbishing

A hawk, flushed from close in breaks the spell.  It is the easiest hawk ID I have ever made, it's rust red fan of a tail flashing bright on a landscape that is still tan and grey.  I watch it for a short time as it works its way through the bare forest, and then I return to where I was when I was so rudely interrupted.
The Gravel Bank at high tide
I pass under the usual bridge and continue to the bottom of the jungle.  I turn back when I get to the purple beach ball, removing the landmark leaving the route unsigned.

Notes:  I spotted between 7 and 11 osprey all in the lower marsh of the East River.  A later chat confirms that osprey appeared on Great Island (Connecticut River) 3 days ago.