Saturday, May 30, 2015

Bird Band Identification

I let a hundred thoughts go through my head and now that I'm  nearing the end of a half day trip, I cannot remember what they were.

The Sneak

Of more importance is the wrens have begun to set up housekeeping, the cattails finally tall enough for them to build their double fist size nests, weavings of long dry strands of marsh stuff. 

wren nest - center of photo
I spotted my first nest just as I entered the first widening of the river and just as a mature bald eagle took off and headed away down river.  But, it is especially on the return, with some heat to the day, that I notice the numbers of wrens.  It seems that I am being passed on from wren to wren as I paddle, as the robotic chirp of one fades behind me a new one begins calling ahead.

Bird Identification - I had some trouble figuring this one out, until I noticed something on the right leg.

Bird band!

 Last summer, I talked with a University team that was catching and counting birds on the marsh.  This is possibly one of the seaside sparrows they were particularly interested in.  This bird requires salt marsh habitat for its survival.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Selden Channel

I cut straight across the river from the ferry landing to Whalebone Creek, but finding that I had the big river all to myself I delayed that side trip and followed the east shore down river into a mild and humid headwind that carried more weight than science would say exists.

About half of the way down the Selden Island it occurred to me that I had never paddled this shoreline on my more leisurely outward bound leg.  I'd only been here late in trips when I was tired and the horses were pointed towards the barn.  The forested shore, rocky at times, cliffed at others and turning to sand and marsh border berm as I go, is far more beautiful than I remember.

I turned the bottom of the island, going well wide out into the river to avoid the extensive sandbar that forms on the downstream of such landforms.  Entering the channel, I enter osprey land.  There are four nests that I know of - there were three when I first came here and I watched the fourth being built.  They are doing well.  They are all accounted for.
Selden Attack Swan
The channel is peaceful, sheltered from any wind and blanketed in the humid and moist swamp air, as it should be.  There is nothing remarkable except for the stillness and the sneaking around one of the Selden attack swans, and the pileated woodpecker that lets me observe for a full five minutes from thirty feet away.
pileated woodpecker

I do finally make the sidetrip into Whalebone Creek and it too is quiet and soft.  There are a few geese with goslings, a few songbirds, and a pair of ospreys.  It is a far cry from March when the creek was well packed with ducks stopping off on their way north.

The cattail spears are almost to the bottom of last season's "cattails", which are finally breaking up and spreading seed with the wind.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Ruddy Turnstones

Those that strive to maintain control often find themselves to be the least in control.  The rigid grip on power leads only to rigidity and the inability to adapt.  This is perhaps the primary lesson that wildness can teach us, that what we know is far less than what we don't know, that there are things happening that we not only cannot control, but that we just don't understand.  Do the best that you can and roll with the punches.

I start from the Foote Bridge on a falling tide.  There is little current as today is a day of mild tides, the highs not very high and the lows not particularly low.  The water is dusted with pollen and seed from spring blooms.  Wading ankle deep to launch the canoe, I find the water cool, but not a seasonal cool, more the cool of early morning water.

As I near the big bend I spot a bird low in the water and too far off to identify.  As I near, it swims toward shore - a mother bird action, and I lose it in the undulations of the bank.  It reappears up in the spartina, a red brown duck with at least two ducklings in tow.  Every few seconds her head pops up tall and proud, just long enough to locate me, and then it drops from sight.  She is concerned about me, until a crow comes into play.  She chases it once, and then two red wing blackbirds come in and harass the crow until it goes away.
oyster catcher
 There are, today, about half as many birds as I would've seen last week.  This is probably due to about half of the birds in the marsh tending a nest.  I see quite a few willets, although about half of what I would expect, a pair of oyster catchers, which I did not expect at all, and no osprey until I get close to the sea and their nests.
ruddy turnstone
At the last bit of land before the mouth of the river I find a nice flock of ruddy turnstones feeding on the sand at the water's edge.  It has a very busy color pattern.
When I turn back up the river, I find that the weather has changed.  The warmth of the day has come on and the morning cool is replaced by the humid soft steam of day climbing into the 80's.

I wade much of the last half mile, the not particularly low tide having not particularly enough water to float a canoe. It feels good.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The End of Sane Season

It's the end of the sane season - October and into May when most people think that it is too inclement to be on the water.  Memorial Day weekend is the traditional first day of the Insanity Season, a day when everyone goes to the water, whether they should or not.  For me, it is a day to lie low.

I take S for her first trip to Messerschmidt Pond.  The pond is surrounded by trees and well enough back from the coastline, which is windy today.  It is also limited to paddles and small electric motors.  I expect a fair number of boats, but we find just a few.  We steer clear of the others, passing behind islands and rounding points... everyone has the pond to themselves.

The trees are well leafed out now and the birds are difficult to spot.  But, the pond is mostly quiet and the singing of songbirds reaches out to us the entire time. It is one of the most restful days that we have had on the water.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Getting Stuff Done

Garbage eroded.  Always worth a look.
The 4 inch pvc pipe sticking out of the mud is actually the body of a ornate ceramic creamer.  A heavy clay piece is a bicycle pedal once the mud is rinsed off.  I gather several more objects.
eroded garbage
I set out from the Gifford Pinchot Sycamore, a sycamore mind you, that has a DBH..diameter at breast height of about 8 feet.  A worthy dedication to the first leader of the National Forest Service, which for all of its limitations, deserves enormous credit for preventing the wholesale land rape that would have occurred without it in the western United States.  He came from Yale, in a state that has no National Forests.  Today, 60% of Connecticut is forest.  Enough.

The Farmington River is fairly wide, a middling sort of width, and it has long gradual bends so that one can see a quarter or a half mile ahead.  There's no sharp turns and there's no debris to dodge. That middling width keeps the interesting things that happen at the edges close enough to the canoe for fine observation.  The river is always a bit short on wildlife, a result of too many towns, farms and golf courses  hidden behind the trees that line the bank.  But, the floodplain keeps houses and other buildings out of sight for the most part.  I spot a couple deer, a pair of Canada geese tending 5 goslings, a mother mallard guarding 9 or 10 ducklings...mostly it is song birds and a hawk or two. 
Today, it is the perfect river for me.  It requires no concentration to navigate and there are few of the natural distractions that cause me to pause from my paddling.  Today, I just paddle and let my mind run.  There is no point that I must reach before turning back, there is nothing that I need to investigate.  I work out the text, as much as I ever work out the text, for a presentation.  I think about far off places and far off ideas.  I paddle a lot without pause.  I accomplish much.

I go upriver 3 hours and downriver 1-1/2, starting and ending at the big sycamore.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Good Egg

"We should start early if you can.  If we're the first into the swamp, we'll see more wildlife and we won't probably see anyone until we head back out."

We're on the water, setting out into the Great Swamp by half past eight.  Not an especially early start, but maybe early enough.  It's clear, still in the morning cool, and it's quiet.  I met H through an art auction.  His bid won him one of my paddles and a canoe trip.  The paddle has a map of the Great Swamp on it, so a trip to the Great Swamp made perfect sense.  I clean up his paddling technique as we start, but he pretty much knows enough already. 

We meet a guy coming out when we get almost a mile in.  He has turned around at the first beaver dam, which is good for us because it is just a few hundred yards ahead and there won't be anyone above that.

We talk about this and that, the same kind of stuff that pours from peoples mouths when they meet over a canoe.  It's all good. It is fortunate for me that a good guy won the bid.

The water is down a bit from my early spring trips.  It takes a small amount of effort to get over beaver dams, nothing too tough until we get to a big forked tree that has come down at the end of the forest section.  I ask H if he wants to go on and he does.  Good egg.  We clamber out, slide the canoe between the two trunks and into the water on the opposite side, and then the two of us follow.  It was a grunt, but it was a brief grunt.

We paddle the full section up to Patterson where we meet, by chance, R, who is a key dude with the volunteer group that helps to protect the swamp...and we have a good chat. 

Then we head back out, the day warming but the wind picking up enough to keep it cool.  The frogs sing a bit more.  We add an osprey sighting to the mink, muskrat and dozen or so great blue herons and dozens of red wing blackbirds and the turtles and the pair of flickers and the two white tailed deer and the mallards and Canada geese that didn't get counted and some others that I forgot.

It was a fine day...  13 miles.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Things You're Not Supposed to See

Some people say that I am eagle eyed, but there is not much truth in that.  My eyes are no better than most and worse than some.  But, I am tuned in to my environment, and "tune" is probably as good a word as any because it's the constant tuning and adjustments that lets me pick out birds and animals before others.  When I've been shore bound for awhile or when the seasons change, I miss more things.

I spotted a cormorant out on the big water, well off, a low in the water black bird who holds its head too proud, always nose up.  Near Casa Rosa, also a long ways off, is a common loon.  A low in the water dark bird that holds its head level, nature having spanked it for strutting its beauty by moving its feet so far back that it cannot walk on dry land.  A tough lesson.
the Oyster River
 I woke up today thinking about the things I see from the canoe...especially the shape changers.  These are the herons, otters, seals and shorebirds that you spot from 200 or 300 yards out.  And you close in ten more yards, and ten more yards and ten more yards and somewhere along the approach they turn into a bent upturned tree root or stump or drift log.  It might be natures sense of humor, or they might be someone else's spirit animals waiting for that person to become accessible.  Maybe they are spirit animals for people that are lost.
1st year red-throated loon?
I get into the Oyster River and all is normal until I get past the deadfall tree and I spot what seems to be a very small loon.  It is also an unusually calm bird and lets me approach fairly close.  It dives and swims right beside the boat where I get a superb view of its frog kick swimming.  It seems to be a juvinile red throated loon.  I just wouldn't expect to see one here.
1st year red-throated loon? 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Tipping Point

I head upriver into a stiff wind sometime around the peak of the tide.  Mentioning ospreys seems almost redundant as there are nearly thirty osprey nests in plain view.  They are flying, they are perched on logs, they are tending their nests.  I find six or eight glossy ibises along the way and a good congregation of snowy egrets, great egrets and ibises in the wind shadow of a forested rock island near the mouth of the Duck River.  Of course, I see quite a few willets, sandpipers and dunlin and a few small terns.

I head up the Duck, not remembering too mush about it not having been up there in a year or so.  After less than a mile, I get to the culvert under the road that blocks further passage.  Now, I remember why I haven't been here recently.
great egret

I head back down on the beginnings of the ebb, pass the put-in and head up the Black Hall River.  Even now, the edges of the extensive mud flats and shallows is becoming apparent and I hurry into the river's main channel.  I was here last when the ice was breaking up.  But, it's a good river, an hour or more up to where it becomes dense cattail marsh, and there's always a change to the scene at each bend.
glossy ibis

I'm canoeing enough at this point that I have to encourage myself to go out.  But, I know well enough that this is the point where I get a deeper payback.  This is the tipping point where I begin to not be a visitor, where any remaining novelty is gone.  It is the point where I stop finding things in nature and nature starts finding things in me.
Black Hall River
I paddle 3 more hours.  I don't write.  I see birds but count none.  They do the counting.

Where: Mouth of the Connecticut River, Duck River and Black Hall River

Monday, May 11, 2015


It's an old place today, a low tide salt marsh, exposed decay in the air and all is blurred by the remains of a night fog.  It is still.  It is paddling a photograph.

I find a bottle with a message in it at the 4th bend, stranded at the edge of the spartina, left near the high tide mark.  I suppose it was about time that something like this happened.  I collect it and will open it when I get home.

At first it is bird still, at least visually.  I can hear them back in the trees, but the singers remain unseen.  I finally scare up a cormorant and four snowy egrets as I round the last bend before the marsh opens up broad and big sky.  Then, a pair of Canada geese beginning honking, annoyed by my presence.  The sun burns through the haze and I return to the present.  A willet trots away from me following the water's edge.

I let the canoe nose into the mud while watching a nearby willet.  Then, it begins a courting dance with a second willet that I had not noticed.  It approaches the female slowly from behind, calling and flapping its wings before finally hopping on top of her back and continuing with the flapping wing display.  It takes one and a half minutes.

This morning, I almost convinced myself that I had something more important to do other than canoeing.

I continue down river and out of the Menunketesuck, through the huge Westbrook boat parking lot and up the Indian River.  I haven't been here before but it is good enough to return to.  There is a possible portage between the Menunketesuck and the Indian that would eliminate the boat parking lot section.  The two rivers almost join at their last bends.
Little blue heron, Indian River
On the return up the Mununketesuck I come across five glossy ibises feeding in the exposed mud flats at the edge of the river.

Sunday, May 10, 2015


S wanted to do some bird watching today so I took her back to Bailey Creek, where I had been yesterday.  I let her sleep long in the morning, so our day started hours later than normal for me.  It was already in the 70's with a water haze in the air and a wind from the southwest that was moderately strong.
We set out up the Neck with the wind at our back and several osprey in the air all around us.  S practiced her bow steering strokes as we paddled through the meandering Neck and Bailey Creek, the wind and tide current creating a multidimensional problem of leading or lagging the steering so that the wind, tide and bend all add up to putting the canoe somewhere in the middle of the channel. 

Least sandpipers are commoon the whole way, dunlin hog the confluence of the East and Neck, turtles outnumber birds once we get into Bailey Creek, and the fiddler crabs up there outnumber everything. 

When the creek runs shallow we stop for a break and watch two willets hunting for fiddler crabs.  The wind dies down some while we sit, and then we head out.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

A Seashore Day

It is a seashore day - cloudy overcast with a heavy damp air and a chilling breeze.  It is also low tide, or an hour past it I suppose.  So, although my distances will be shortened by low water in the upper sections of the river, the muddy spartina banks will be exposed drawing the shorebirds in to feed where I can see them. 
The top of the marsh above me, I will be paddling in a strata that was laid down a hundred years or more before.  I wonder if people think about how far back in time the bottom of their dock pilings are...
My osprey theory proves correct today, swiveling my head around I verify that there is at least one osprey in the air at anytime.  A heavily laden one lumbers across the river with a large porgy in its talons.  They all seem to be eating well today.
Least Sandpiper
Instead of the East, I have headed up the Neck River.  Where I take the fork up into Bailey Creek, there is a long section of what is probably corduroy track.  It looks like someone, about 2-1/2 feet of spartina accumulation ago laid down a section of saplings and small logs to make a crude roadway.  Spartina was known as salt hay and was mowed for livestock food.  The entrance to the creek is through a break in an old dike...access to the corduroy road from dry land.
corduroy road
I'd only been up the creek at high tide but there is plenty of water until the last 200 yards.  It is good bird watching - egrets, cormorants, dunlin, willets, yellow legs, sandpipers, geese, and one glossy ibis that is carrying nesting material in its long curved bill...solving my question.  I spot the ibises in April and early May, then they disappear.  But they don't disappear too far away, rather they have built nests nearby and don't venture too far until their young can fly.
might be a migrating short billed dowitcher

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Truth Serum

Dammit.  I hit a rock paddling the fast section just before the Leesville Dam and put an eight inch split in the paddle.  Such it is with real wood paddles.

It took forever to get here.  I planned to explore a section of the Quinnipiac River that I'd not been on, but never found a good spot to put in.  The best was all too close to the top of a low head dam, a little too dangerous to be messing with.  So, I took a long twisting route across country to familiar haunts, frustrated by the long drive just about as much as by a community that has cut itself off from its own river... the legacy of using rivers as sewers I suppose.

I end up at the Salmon River, putting in at its confluence with the Connecticut.  It is summer warm already and nearly dead calm.  Even the birds have gone quiet today as if they did their feeding earlier in the day to avoid the heat.

Low tide keeps me in the fairly narrow deeper channels...which sometimes put no more than 8 inches of water under the canoe.  I enter the mouth of the Moodus, but can't go to far, although it gives me a chance to scan the bottom for interesting objects.  Sometimes I find some older broken pottery in here.  This was a mill river with several yarn mills and the expected habitations of mill workers.

Stopped by the low water, I return and head up the Salmon River proper.  I just burn some paddling off with little wildlife to watch and only a couple of people at the summer cabins on the side of the river.

And, I turn back from just below the Leesville Dam after cracking my paddle.  The wind comes up and I will be paddling into it.

yellow legs and bird butt
"If you bought this house you'd be home already," comes from riverside.  I stop and greet a guy who, it turns out, is prepping his parents cabin for sale.  The canoe truth serum kicks in.  It is a funny thing about canoes.  People will open up and have the nicest conversations with you, if you have a canoe.  It is almost like they are next door neighbors.  We talk about work, about our wives, about their work, about birds, art, his son, the house, Johnsonville, the closed down and removed nuclear power plant, and the resort the once sat on the opposite bank.  We talk for over a half hour, although I didn't check, it might have been longer.  And then I continue and he goes back to work.  It occurs to me that canoeing could quite possibly be one of the most positive diplomatic activities that the world leaders could take part in...  as long as those assholes aren't in my canoe.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

New Waters and a New Bird

I started out to explore a tidal river that I haven't seen before, but the tide thought otherwise and I found less water than will float a canoe.  I'll need mid-tide and will have to come back later.  But, not far off was a pond that I had passed on numerous occasions that deserved a visit.
Messerschmidt Pond
I set out, greeting a fisherman that was leaving without luck, at least as far as catching fish went, because I imagine that the morning was beneficial even without fish.  It is not a large pond, surely less than a mile from end to end, but it has an undulating shoreline with several coves and a few islands.  Follow the edges and it makes for a long enough paddle.
Right away I notice a tang in the air.  It is an earthy sharp aroma, a desirable oak scent that would be good on the edge of a cheese or meat.  It might be something in bloom, but it smells more like leaf dust being kicked up by raindrops from a light sprinkle as the drops strike the forest floor. 
goose nest...and defensive posture

I follow the edges, a forested shoreline with the right amount of shrub and brush, good habitat for all.  Once around the points at out of line of sight from the road it goes quiet and birdsong and rain patter make the soundtrack. 

There is some beaver sign - scent mounds as well as cuts... not a lot, but some.  I don't spot any lodges, so they're probably bank beaver.  I find a goose nest on one of the islands in the center of the pond.  And a yellow bird half hearted plays hide and seek on another island.
Phrothonotary Warbler...apparently a rare visitor to NE

but pretty obvious and easy to ID in the bird book

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Don't Step in That

I almost fell into the trap, I had to remind myself to return to the track.  I went out to the marsh, two marshes to be exact, although I passed at putting in at the first one.  Today, and probably for another week or so, the marsh is what most people would call unsightly.  And, that is the trap that I stepped into, because the marsh is, of course, exactly as it should be at this time of the year.  The grasses have all collapsed and are covered in a thin layer of tidal silt... it's grubby... worn out.  If it wasn't a marsh, one might think that it was a post-harvest farm field with little left to show for the bounty other than stubble and shreds of plants.  I had to tell myself that this is what it is supposed to be.  Until I turned the corner, the one where a ridge of land sticks into the marsh, where archaeologists found the remains of a Native American fishing site.  I turned the corner and found some fifty glossy ibises stabbing their long curved bills into the spartina marsh searching for food.  I needed no more of a reminder.
glossy ibis
I head up towards the top of Nell's Island noticing far more shorebirds than anyone would expect, far more than anyone on land can see.  Their camouflage is ideal for conditions.  I suppose that once the grasses grow and brush leafs out they will have plenty of cover no matter what color their feathers are. but right now the greys, tans and patterns of their feathers make them blend in with the sparse remains of last year's growth.  I miss a good many photographs because I don't spot them until I flush them.
mute swan nest
Of course, the egrets stand out and spotting a well constructed swan's nest is no challenge.
I spot an orange man in an orange kayak behind me and coming towards me.  I turn into one of the circuitous and often dead end channels in hopes of discouraging a meeting, should that be his intention.  I know from all too many encounters with "people in boats" that if we talk, the talk will likely be about boats, performance and gear...seriously boring and distracting stuff to bother with when surrounded by willets, yellow legs, ibises, brandts, Canada geese, osprey and egrets.  I hope his tour is as good as mine. 
As I get closer to the sea the bird life changes.  Farther back, the ibises were the most numerous of the larger visible birds, but near the sea brandts take over in force.  At one time I flush about a 150 at once, and they are scattered throughout the lower half of the marsh.
oyster catcher
I finish the trip with a spotting of four yellow crowned night herons a couple hundred yards before the put-in.  They fly up into nearby trees and wait for me to leave.
yellow-crowned night heron
Where:  Wheeler Marsh at the mouth of the Housatonic River