Saturday, July 30, 2016

Flight Lessons

A teenager drifts 25 feet from shore in a stalled outboard boat wondering what to do and how to get back to land.  This is the law of noncommercial boats:  Seamanship is inversely proportional to the amount of horsepower.  I keep it to myself, but I have more line in my canoe than he does in that boat.  Fortunately, a slightly more competent boater drives over to fetch him.  I put my canoe in the water and power away as quickly as possible up the Neck River.

The first osprey box is occupied by three chicks and one adult.  Whether the chicks are flying yet or not is hard to say.  If not, they will be soon, very soon.  The second box is empty.  Overhead are several osprey.  The adults fly with purpose...either hunting or surveying the territory, and they fly with an elegance that indicates efficiency.  The young can be picked out without trouble.  Their wing motions are choppy...a flapping that comes too much from the outer wing.  They are also engaged in play, trying out new maneuvers or playing a bit of tag with the others.  I remember my first time at the controls of an airplane and imagine the grin pasted on their beaks.  Box 3 has one chick in the nest that seems to be still working its wings and unsure of leaving the nest.  Two siblings are fifteen yards off perched on dead tree limbs.  Box 4 has an adult, but is otherwise empty.  I don't remember if they had any chicks.

I spot a pair of yellow legs, which I haven't seen since late spring.

One bird that is barely present are the willets.  I have seen only a couple by the time I reach the Sneak, a mile or so.  The lack is enough to cause me to pause and get out on the spartina.  Right away, three willets come my way calling out warning to the others.  So, they are laying low and I imagine that this might be a critical nesting time, a time when they would prefer to remain undetected if possible.

The tide is falling, but only just starting and I have a tailwind and so I move up river at a good clip.
By the stone arch bridge a kingfisher flies past.  Most of the time I flush them and they fly ahead in short hops out beyond the edges of the trees.  This one does something more unusual and weaves through the trees and branches as it passes me heading down river.

I turn around at the Duck Hole Farms right where I spot two green herons.  They are camera shy and leave the river's edge for more seclusion in the trees.  I flush a black crowned night heron which flies over towards the old sawmill dam.
The Duck Hole Farms

On my way down river I spot more willets.  The tide has fallen a foot and a half and they are coming to feed on the mud banks.  Still, it is not nearly as many as one sees earlier in the summer.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Finest of Mornings

I started early enough - three hours before the arrival of the dreaded Maitais.  This was planned not only to avoid the aforementioned, but also to take advantage of the morning cool on a day that will become quite warm.

With little boat traffic at this hour, I stay in the main channel of the big river, paddling the balance point between shallows and the shade from the island's forested hillside.  I have a pleasant tailwind and a bit of current going my way with low tide an hour or more ahead.  A great egret fishes near the shore a hundred yards up.  The water is shaded but every so often the egret steps into a shaft of sunlight and burns white hot.

A few powerboats speed by, and all of the boats that pass are speeding.  What is so much more beautiful than this spot that they must race through to get there?  It seems to be pointless.

At the tip of the island, and tip is not quite accurate as it is a broad shallow sand bar that must be rounded well out from shore, I spot a pair of white tail deer who lead me up into the back channel for the first couple hundred yards before they head off into the invisibility of the cattails.  Scattered stalks of wild rice stick up out of those cattails, the rice still forming with a couple months to go before it is ripe.  The back channel is quiet with a light headwind.  I pass a couple of bass fishermen, but otherwise no one else is back here.
the Selden Channel

My last stop is to tuck into Whalebone Creek for the first couple of bends just to see if anything is going on.  About a hundred yards in there are several kingfisher.  I spot four right away, but that becomes six, and then eight, pretty much all fishing in the same small area.

I cross the river to my often used put in near the ferry terminal.  The ferry guy yells at me for putting in there, "the put in is on the other side of the river."  I keep it to myself but I live on this side of the river and the reason the ferry exists is because it is a long drive to get to the other side of the river.  Anyway, I respond with one word, "huh", which is rather sedate for me (also keeping in mind that no one has complained in the four years I've been using this spot).  This drives him to grumble and mutter as he walks off.  Hot days are hard on people.

It has been the finest of mornings and my timing could not have been much better.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Day Three

I put in up high at Foote Bridge because I forgot to check the height of the coming high tide.  There is already an upstream current, a gentle one, coming under the bridge and I slip over the boulders with plenty of room to spare.  Then I pass the tiny patch of cedar swamp, and a tinier patch of mud flat with a flock of least sandpipers working it over, I round Pocket Knife Bend and paddle over the well submerged Gravel Flats.  Here I flush two great blue herons.

It is the third day in a row.  This is the time that something deeper can kick in and this will be paddle without the interruption of log jams and beaver dams or the difficulty of a tough wind.  I paddle and I pass the cattails and overhanging trees.  I paddle in silence, both aural and intellectual.  I paddle and let what I see go with only the most minor of note taken.  I paddle.
2 osprey and a great egret

The great blue herons keep moving ahead in short hops.  Below the arch bridge I find 2 osprey and a great egret sharing a tree.  The osprey at the top is small and clings to tilted branch.  It reminds me of a 15 year old locked in a death grip with the steering wheel the first time driving a car.  I am fairly sure this is an osprey fledgling.

I enter the Sneak just as two kayakers approach.  I am not eager to give up such hidden details as the Sneak.  It is not to be a jerk, but more that some places in nature should require an entry fee.  Let them explore and find it on their own.  I go on without worry knowing that if they ever try to find their way they will botch the first turn and find a dead end.  It will be worth it if they should figure it out.
Cedar Island from the Sneak

The willets are quiet.  They seem to be laying low and only venture out when necessary.  When I reach Bailey Creek, one comes my way and hounds me for a minute or two.  As I continue, I notice that the willets are only bothering flying birds, and only flying birds that are crossing the spartina.  I watch a heron get chased, and then an osprey, but once the birds land, the willets back off and go quite, although they do continue to pay attention.
Oyster Catcher

Once I reach the confluence of the Neck and East, I turn up the East and paddle back.  At the big bend, two kayakers stop and tell me that they saw a bear up a half mile.  I say, "cool".  Their expressions do not say, "cool".  I know it will be gone by the time I get there.  Based on their faces, I cannot be sure of what they saw.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Beaver Dam Hopping

It seemed a good day for hopping beaver dams.  I paddle more often in tidal waters, places where beaver don't build dams, for somewhat obvious reasons.  But, the canoe is at home in dammed waters and it feels natural to deal with the obstruction.

I put in up at the top of the Great Swamp.  It's not the actual top, but the upper end of the reasonable to paddle section.  I have gone a bit above this point, but it is a gnarly bit of ducking and climbing over deadfalls.  The water is low, but there is also a good chance that I will see no one else during the trip.  It is 6-1/2 miles down to the best turn-around point...a trip that I do four or so times a year.
The first (and last dam) seen from below

The first dam comes just a hundred yards in.  This is a new one to me.  Beaver build dams fairly quickly and they also supersede previous dams by going lower and flooding the earlier dams enlarging their ponds as they go.  There are many more old submerged dams than there are active ones.  The construction is so durable that old dams can stay around for indefinite periods.  You know it when you hit one with your paddle.  Anyway, the first dam is easy.
Great Blue Heron (dead center)

The upper section is tight and meandering, a slow finicky paddle with the surrounding wetland up close.  The water is cool and clear even though there is a good deal of summer water plant growth.  I spot a half a dozen great blue herons in the first 15 minutes...I quit counting.  The other dominant bird is the kingfisher, as there are a lot of fish in the water that are just the right size for a kingfisher meal.
now go back to the above photo

I pass Pine Island and the river widens some.  I come to another dam, the reason for the widening.  The water is shallow on the other side...a two foot drop. This has been deeper water on my previous trips.  In fact, this is the lowest water level that I've seen.  I begin to run into river spanning deadfalls and minor log jams.  These are more difficult to cross since they lack the logical design of the beaver dams.  I balance on logs, maneuver the canoe, duck under branches, step into the canoe from the ends and walk my way back to my is time consuming, dirty and somewhat strenuous.

Two hours in, the log crossings are getting old.  The full 13 miles usually takes about 5 hours.  I am two hours in and I have not gotten halfway to the halfway point.  If I was going somewhere I would continue, but everything I cross has to be re-crossed on the return.  Enough.
Green Heron

I turn back and if it goes any faster it is only because I have the contortions at each log jam already memorized.  Yet, it is an exceptional day of great blue herons, wood ducks, kingfishers, frogs and turtles...a blue sky with minor cumulus clouds, a horizon of flood dead snags backed by an occasional forested hill.  If this is what it takes to have such a fine day, I would not change a thing.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Change in the Weather

I put in on the Lieutenant River with intention of heading down to the sea.  The first osprey nest, just a hundred yards down the river, is occupied by three chicks with an attentive adult on a nearby snag.They have most of their adult coloring, but appear to not yet be ready to try their wings.  When I reach the Watch Rocks, which are about a mile down, it becomes apparent that the tailwind that I have been riding might not be so much fun to paddle back into later in the trip.  I turn.
Osprey chicks

A bad photo of a snowy egret swallowing a fish

I head out into the main channel of the Connecticut River.  There is a small bear of a headwind, but with the extra effort comes a freshness in the air and a comfort to the skin that has been absent during the past week of high heat and humidity.  I hug the shore, paddling under the long cast lines of striper fishermen and outside of the drop lines of crabbers.

Plastic Owl Party
Before the highway bridge I come across one of the oddities of man..the plastic owl.  The plastic owl (center in photo) is designed to scare shitting birds away.  Now, if one actually takes time to observe birds instead of just checking them off a list, one will realize that birds have much better eyesight than humans AND birds can clearly recognize other bird species.  Willets, for instance, can tell the difference between a hawk and an osprey, a feat that most people can't manage.  They respond to hawks, a major threat, but mostly ignore osprey.  Ducks and coots know the difference between eagles and herons, and ospreys and hawks, etc..  The photo shows that gulls and cormorants (there's a total of ten or so) can quite easily recognize a $25 plastic owl.  This is not an isolated occurrence.

At the upstream end of Calves Island, a waving panel of something draws me over to the tidal grasses.  It is thirty inches of one end of a canoe.  I pry the aluminum manufacturer's plate off as a specimen and leave the rest behind.  Wrecked boats fall into a not quite litter category in my mind.
canoe remains

I continue on upriver into the bottom of Lord's Cove.  The inner passage is hosting several osprey.  Five are aloft while two are on nearby pilings and I'm sure there are more in the area.  If one is not within my view, all it takes is a turn of the head.  The wind is straight in the face and the shallow bay north of Goose Island is choppy.  I take brief rests in the bedrock finger ridges that run off the hills and into the river.

One of the several bedrock finger ridges
At the top of that shallow broad bay I turn back knowing that riding a stiff tailwind in a canoe is still work.  Constant steering is required as following waves overtake while the wind tries to slip the boat sideways to the wind.  It goes quicker than the way out, but it is still work.
wren nest

Back in the Lieutenant, I explore one of the narrow side passages taking it back ten minutes or so until it peters out.  There are a good number of wren nests and red wing blackbirds back here, unseen by those that stay in the main.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Near Big Hill Tom

You turn the point and the cove opens up with Mt. Tom at the head of it, which in my own geography would be called Big Hill Tom at best or just Tom Hill because mountains demand rather than deserve respect and they should rise up above the trees with an abode of rock and snow or ice and any hill completely decked in trees, such as Mt. Tom, are undeserving of the title.  Perhaps the original settlers were very very tiny.
Big Hill Tom

I turn up the Moodus at the head of the cove and move slowly scanning the bottom for specimens.  The Moodus once hosted more than a dozen mills and associated mill towns and discarded items, or more accurately, pieces of discarded items, are common.  They have no scientific significance other than to point out that rivers move stuff downstream; most any found thing could've traveled many miles through the years.

The Moodus
The river closes in, the trees come close and I notice a variety of scents.  In this calm air, in this enclosed space, the scents of live and dead stay in place for awhile.  I spot some grapes, still green and unripe.  They will put out a fine scent when they have turned purple.  Now, they are fragrantly silent.  I collect a small piece of ceramic plate or bowl right away.  Farther on, a 40+ year old can tab.  I collect a large mussel shell as well.  Each was collected by reaching shoulder deep from the canoe.  I also have two green heron sightings, four great blue herons sightings and a single kingfisher, a good tally for 2/3 of a mile.  I turn back at the shallows near Johnsonville, the lowest of the milltowns...population zero.  I spot two red tail hawks high up on Big Hill Tom.

Just below the Leesville bridge I spot a half dozen brightly colored kayaks heading my way.  I spot them in time to take the hidden back channel that they probably do not know exists.  It is a good trade, an exchange of six chattering kayakers for a mother merganser tending to ten young.  I advance on them at a slow enough rate that they can swim away without being scattered.  The family is intact when I return to the main river.

young mergansers
I stop below the Leesville Dam, my foot on a barely submerged rock to hold my position while I eat a snack.  I ponder the uselessness of the Leesville Dam, which seems to no longer serve any purpose.
Leesville Dam

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Murder of Crows

We put in at the bottom of low tide near the mouth of the river.  The mud below where the spartina grows was exposed and while our options were limited by low water, that mud would draw a different selection of birds out into plain sight.

The osprey were not particularly busy this morning.  Most were near their nests or soaring much to high to be actively fishing.  The willets, on the other hand, were active keeping an eye on the areas surrounding their nests, as is their mission in life.  The first birds of note were a pair of oyster catchers, not a common occurrence in this part of the marsh except when the water is low.

HK under the stone arch birdge

HK drove a new Orukayak, a very clever and well designed folding kayak.  It took us not much longer than 15 minutes to assemble it...which is quite good for a first time.  It started as a rectangle the size and shape, but not the weight, of a large suitcase.  I must say it did exactly what it was intended to do...a portable and fully functional recreation kayak. 

The predicted heat of the day did not quite materialize as a steady overcast of clouds and a light wind off of the sea kept things warm, but not hellish. 

Overflying glossy ibises were common and as we paddled more and more snowy egrets began to show up.  As the marsh goes from salt to brackish, we found a pair of great blue herons, and then marsh wrens and a couple of kingfishers.  I turned us at the stone arch bridge, the distance enough for HK's first paddle in some time, and also a good turn as we just reach the bottom of the fresh water marsh at that point.

Crows were very active in the lower marsh when we had returned there.  I don't know the reason, but the willets were busy keeping an eye on them.  At one point a number of crows touched down in the same spot of the spartina.  I beached my canoe and walked over to see what was there finding only a thin pile of dried grass.  It had no indication of being a nest...but perhaps the crows saw it that way.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

East River

I set out from near the sea riding a flood tide that won't top out for three more hours.  But, since it is a high high tide the current is a good 1/2 mile per hour or so and the spartina speeds by. 

The birds are quite active this morning with ospreys soaring or protecting their nests, most of which have a downy chick or two in them at this time.  The willets are more animated than usual, a sign that their nests are at some critical time.  They usually ignore osprey and egrets, but today they seem a bit more aggressive, flying out and calling out their warning until the larger birds have moved off.  At the first big bend, all of them are in a tizzy and I suspect that there might be a four legged predator somewhere out in the marsh grass.
willet in the spartina
Cedar Island

I spot a few glossy ibises as I head up the Neck River and into Bailey Creek.  And then it was up through the circuitous Sneak and back into the East River.  The middle marsh is relatively calm compared to the lower marsh.  As I near the Rockpile, which is well submerged already, I close up on two kayakers.  They are talking and dipping paddles.  By coincidence we reach the big bend with the island in it and when they take the outside, I take the inside speeding past them.  I am glad that they are out here enjoying the river, but I am also glad to not have to hear or see them.  In a minute or two I can return to my undisturbed conversation with the birds.

seaside sparrow
Above the stone arch bridge the marsh goes to fresh water.  Cattails replace the spartina, the willets disappear - the terrain not providing the open view safety that they desire.  But, I begin to push several kingfishers up the river.  They perch and then fly short hops when I get two near, the rattling call alerting me if I'm not watching them.  I flush a yellow crowned night heron and then another.  This is, of course, why I sped past the two kayakers.  First one up the river, especially the first quiet one up the river, sees the most wildlife.
The Sneak

I turn back when I get to the jungle - two bends up from Foote Bridge.  A hawk screams from high above.  I see a hawk right at this spot more often than not when I am here.  The wind comes up in my face on the return.  I pass back the way I came.  It has been too long since I was here.

When I take out I run into T and meet his wife J.  I saw them following me out through the Sneak...It's rare to see anyone that knows of the passage.  T reminds me that we met a year ago and that I tipped him off about that secret passage.  A nice chat to finish off the day.