Monday, July 31, 2023

The Doubling of Night Herons Season

I set out with S to paddle the big marsh and do some bird watching. Night Herons from a nearby rookery have fledged and they are numerous in the big marsh, which is a prime feeding spot for them. S has a cracked bone in her hand, which limits her paddling. So, we avoid the more vigorous tidal paddling by putting in directly in the marsh at the Wildlife Refuge launch.Then, we head out into the maze of small channels in the center of the marsh.

We flush ten Night Herons at the central phragmites patch - 5 Black Crowns and the rest either Yellow Crowns or juveniles (juvenile Black Crowns and Yellow Crowns require a close look to differentiate).

The weather is great, 80-ish with sun and a bit of breeze. Out towards Nell's channel, we spot 3 or 4 Common Terns and a couple Least Terns, an we continue to flush Night Herons.

Up at the top of the marsh, we headed back into Beaver Creek. We sight about a dozen Night herons as we head in. They are perching in the trees, waiting for the better feeding when the tide drops, I suppose. 

From there, we head back to the start passing nine Great Egrets, all in the trees, and flushing more night Herons.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Damage Control 2

It is an exceptional summer day with the temperature back down to about 80F, low humidity, and partly cloudy skies.

I put in at the bottom of Salmon Cove where it meets the Connecticut River. There are a few beaver lodges in this area and I wanted to see how the recent floods effected them. Six days ago, I was in the Mattabesset, which is several miles up the Connecticut River. The Mattabesset had backed up during the high water, so much so in fact, that it topped all of the beaver lodges in that section. The Mattabesset beaver colonies had all abandoned their lodges.

Today, I find the pickerel weed above the water surface, so although the water is still high, it is down to a somewhat "normal" high level. I paddle up about a 1/3 of a mile and pull in to the weeds where I know the lowest lodge to be. The silty residue on the vegetation suggests that the flood waters were about four feet higher than today's water level. 

The lodge is the brushy mound just right of the canoe's bow. It is about 30 feet away.

This first lodge has been significantly enlarged since I last saw it, to the point of being one of the more massive lodges that I have ever seen. Beaver sometimes enlarge their lodges. I once observed a familiar lodge that more than doubled in height and diameter in little more than ten days. On that occasion, I believe this was due to the adult pair starting a family. Lodges are built by piling sticks and mud and then hollowing out the living spaces from below. Lodges have two submerged entrances leading to a wet level, which connects to a dry level. There is a hidden vent hole in the top. Looking at the enlarged size of this first lodge, I assume that the living levels may have partially flooded, and instead of abandoning the lodge, the beaver added material to the outside and then hollowed out new living areas. Anyway, the Salmon Cove beaver were not flooded completely out of their lodges, but were able to adapt to the flood levels.

With the "science" done, I paddle off. There is a mature Bald Eagle hanging around the lower cove, plus a couple of Osprey. I head up the cove, then up the Salmon River as far as the Leesville Dam, which has a good amount of water coming over the top.

Where the Pine Brook wild rice should be

On the way back, I turn up Pine Brook. The bottom of the brook, where it meets the river, is about a hundred yards wide and normally has a large and dense stand of wild rice. I don't know much about the growth of wild rice, but apparently the flood waters came at the wrong time and this years crop of wild rice is nowhere to be seen. In fact, the water depth is about a foot and the bottom is bare sand and gravel.

The Moodus

The final side trip is the Moodus River. For the first time in about three years, I can ascend all the way up to Johnsonville. The high water made it possible to pass the blocking deadfalls. 

Fledling Common Mergansers in the Moodus

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Duckin' the Heat

I set out just a bit after high tide and ride a light current down to the big marsh. It will be warm and humid today, so it is best to get this paddling stuff done and over with in the morning. There is a pleasant breeze out of the southwest, the sky is partly cloudy with a good chance of rain at some time during the day.

There is a lot of plastic trash in the water today. This is probably a result of high tide and a good dumping thunderstorm in the middle of the night. Everything that I pick out of the water has obviously been laying around in the weeds for quite some time.  

I spot a couple of Yellow Crowned Night Herons at the top of the marsh. As I head up the channel towards the central phragmites patch, I spot a five gallon plastic bucket. When I pull up against the shore to grab it, I flush eight or ten Night Herons and an equal number of Mallards. With the high tide, they'd been sitting out of sight a few yards back in the spartina. Most of the Night Herons are juveniles - basic gray in color. So, while I wasn't paying attention, the Night Herons have fledged and come over from the Charles Island rookery. It's the "doubling of Herons" time. 

Paddling up through the center of the marsh, I continue to flush Mallards. juvenile Night Herons, one Black Crowned Night Heron, and a couple of mature Yellow Crowns. At the phragamite patch, I flush five Black Crowned Night Herons. 

Considering how nice it is right now, I am surprised to be the only person in the marsh. I weave my way through some smaller passages, then head over to the east shore to see if any Herons are perching in the trees - at times, a favorite spot for them...but, just three Great Egrets. From there I head out, passing four Snowy Egrets and a few more Night Herons. Spot a mature Bald Eagle just before the take-out.
I pick plastic trash at the boat ramp until I fill the bucket.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

The Ascent of Charles Island

The Eagle dropped down from the trees - the trees between Dead Man's Curve and Welch's Point. It headed out, straight across the bay just four or five feet above the water - well within its wingspan. Eagles don't fly like this when they are going somewhere - it's not efficient. They fly like this when they are hunting - it's stealthy. It has spotted something by Charles Island, now a mile behind me. With binoculars, I wouldn't be able to see what it sees, even with the water barely rippled in the calm air. That's a tip on how excellent an Eagle's eyes are. Finally, maybe three quarters of a mile out, the Eagle pulls up to circle about thirty feet above the water - another trait of hunting. The prey has dived. It might be the lone Merganser I passed out there. It swoops, circles again, and swoops, tagging the water. I think it was a miss. The Eagle flies off out past the island.

I made the annual ascent of Charles Island. That's a black humor inside joke that references my time in the Northwest, in sight of Mt. Rainier. It seemed that every year, some visitor from parts east would come to climb Mt. Rainier. Now, PNW weather isn't all that bad, if one is patient. The impatient ones, with only a week of vacation, often set off only to find themselves in sopping wet, cold, and windy conditions where they can't see more than ten feet. Sometimes, they disappear. Charles Island, just a tantalizing mile from shore, has that same effect, drawing the "no PFD - borrowed boat - drink a beer or six" folk out to big water. Sometimes, they disappear.

The island is an important rookery for Egrets and Herons. It's closed to the public during nesting season. 

Where a Laughing Gull once stood

I headed out of the harbor, rounded the island, where I found a Tern, a pair of noisy Oyster Catchers, several Great Blue Herons, some Canada Geese, lots of Cormorants, one Laughing Gull, and a few Osprey, and then did the mile over to Welch's Point before returning.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Damage Control

I put in on the Mattabesset. The heavy rains up in Vermont, about 2 weeks ago, had sent a huge amount of water down the Connecticut River. The river rose from about 7 ft (Hartford gauge) to 21 ft in just 48 hours. When such events happen, the Mattabesset, which is only 16 miles long, simply fills up, flooding the river bottoms. I've paddled at 15 ft before, a level that allows one to canoe through the bottom land forest as fast as one can slalom through the trees. I missed the twenty foot days, but that would have been paddling through the tree canopy. Today, the river is at 13 ft. The lowest of the forest floors are awash, and while it is enough to float a canoe, it is not deep enough to paddle.

It is about 80 degrees with a thin smeary overcast and a very light breeze out of the south.

The real purpose of coming here today, other than that it is a fine day trip, is to check on the status of the beaver lodges. This river and the Coginchaug, which joins it a short mile above the Connecticut River, have a good number of active beaver colonies. I expect to find all of the lodges abandoned and collapsing. 

The site of the Tepee lodges
 A beaver lodge can tolerate only so much change in water level, say maybe, plus or minus 2 ft. Too little water and the underwater entrances are exposed to predators. Too much water and the living platforms in the lodge are flooded. In fact, this area is tidal and often sees a variation of about 2 ft, twice a day. 

The largest of the lodges, which is just a bit up the Coginchaug, had a peak that was about 6 ft above a normal water level. It was about 20ft in diameter at the base, so it was a fairly large lodge. Of course, the flood waters at 20ft would have been 5 or 6 ft over the peak. When something like that happens, the colony leaves and has to find shelter elsewhere. If the flood lasts more than a few days, they will build a new lodge. Here, I've seen them build new bank burrows, which they have to abandon when the water level drops, because the submerged entrances to those new burrows become exposed. And, if the flood lasts long enough, the lodge starts to fall apart. It has been about 2 weeks and the water level is almost down to a normal level. 

The remains of the big Coginchaug Lodge

On my way down, the first lodge, which was fairly small, is now just a circular pile of sticks, but I spot one beaver in the river nearby. The Tepee Lodge is reduced to a few branches sticking up out of the water. It's actually the second Tepee lodge as the first one, which was just ten feet to the side of it, was flooded out two years ago The big Coginchaug lodge is still conical, but the mud reinforcing has been washed away so it is just a loose heap of branches.

Once the water level is back to normal, the colonies will build new lodges, sometimes right near the old one. The old lodges will continue to collapse. Abandoned lodges often disappear within 2 years.


I head up the Coginchaug to the usual log jam area, about a 1/4 mile above the power lines. I've seen a half dozen Osprey, about the same number of Kingfishers, and a few more than that of Great Blue Herons, and one beaver, of course.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Another Data Point


Snowy Egret (black bill, yellow rain boots)
I put in under the highway bridge for a quick tour through the marsh. The tide is about 2 hours from low, so exploring the interior of the marsh will be minimized, but that falling tide should bring more birds to the water's edge as the silty shoreline becomes exposed.

The paddle down is quick, with about 2mph current behind me. I head in at the first turn for a clockwise trip. There are quite a few Yellow-Crowned Night Herons and Snowy Egrets. The Snowy Egret likes to pick critters out of the sand and silt, so this is ideal feeding for them. Right now, they outnumber the Great Egrets for sure. 

Willet protesting

I find an old bottle as I cross the lower center of the marsh. Unfortunately, it is not embedded in a calved bank, so it is no good for figuring deposition rate of soil in the marsh. 

I head almost all the way to Milford Point. A good chunk of the horizon is the old army engine factory on the Stratford side of the river. It is long abandoned - one of those brown field properties that the owners hang on to, paying taxes and insurance etc. hoping that someone will come along and not only buy the property but pay for cleaning up toxic soils. Back when that factory was in full operation, the M.O. would have been to dump old solvents out back on the ground. It seems that a good government project might be to buy the land, clean up the worst, and then cap and plant it with shrubs and trees. You couldn't build houses on it, but it would make pretty good open wild land.

Hires bottle at lower right. Broken milk bottle stem center left.

 I head back through Nell's channel. I find a glass "Hires" root beer bottle halfway through. It is about 16 inches below the surface in a calved bank. I remember those bottles, but it was from kid time, so that 16 inches of silt on top of it is a reasonable match to other artifacts.

Friday, July 7, 2023

Pickerel Weed Time

Yesterday was a catch-up-on-canoe-maintenance day, and I spent much of the day scrubbing and sanding the woodwork of my solo canoe. I've been using linseed oil on the wood for many years, and although it protects the wood, it also mildews and blackens the surface. A bit of sanding and scrubbing with a tough cleanser and it all began to look like wood once more. I changed my oil this time, so I won't have the mildew problem in the future.

And so, today was a perfect excuse for a test run to see if the canoe is faster. I put in at Pettipaug about an hour and a half after low tide, exited the North Cove through the usual gap in the bar, and headed upriver. I favored the west shore today. Although I prefer the other side, the main boat channel is also over there and this being a nice summer Friday, I really like having as much space as I can get between me and the motorboat drivers.

As I near the bottom of Brockway Island, I spot a pair of immature Bald Eagles along with a pair of Osprey over on the lightly wooded point on the west shore. From the top of the island, I returned back to the west shore and followed up until I was below Eustasia Island. With no motor traffic in sight, I crossed over to Selden Island. 

Sometimes, you see something out of context and don't see it for what it is. A piece of drift wood, no more than a canoe length ahead of me turns into an animal. By chance, I approached it from behind, heading in the same direction. It doesn't startle, or dive, or make any attempt to evade, until I pull into the passing lane. A tail slap puts the exclamation point on, beaver. I've never sneaked up so close on a beaver without being noticed, and that really threw me for a second. I have no doubt that it reversed course under water and is currently watching me paddle away.
I head and around the top of the island. A mature Bald Eagle flies over the top end pond, chased off by an Osprey. Then, it is a particularly pleasant paddle down the Selden Creek channel. The pickerel weed is blooming. It's a beautiful purple flower cluster. The flowers bloom from bottom to top over several days, each individual flower lasting about a day. Bees love the stuff.
Pickerel weed, and a bee

The paddle back in the main river is as I came. The only difference is a cooling head wind that is unfortunately complicated by choppy water conditions. There aren't a lot of motorboats out today, but it is enough. The river surface is all dead boat wakes. It is a nonrhythmic jumble of peaks that just bogs the paddling down to something laborious. It never ceases to amaze me how long it takes for that wave energy to dissipate.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

High TIde Wandering

 I set out with about an hour to go until high tide and there is the usual stiff upriver current - something like 3-4mph under the bridges, which can be easily dealt with by hugging the east bank, taking advantage of the eddies and still water that forms in the various convolutions of that shoreline. Yesterday, besides being a holiday, brought a series of thunderstorms, one of which was a real boomer with nearby lightning strikes that flickered the house's electrics. We do get some great thunderstorms here. Today will be on the warm side, but there is a nice south wind and mostly blue sky.

A couple Great Egrets, one Snowy Egret, a Yellow Crowned Night Heron, and one immature Night Heron of unknown exactitude greet me at the top of the marsh. I head into the interior by my favored inside channel. 

Flush a half dozen Mallards.
Spot another YC Night Heron near another immature Night Heron.
Near the NWR launch, I disturb a large immature Bald Eagle. It has some white near the head, but is otherwise dark. I flies out into the center of the marsh and settles in.

From there, I head across the central marsh, winding through the dozens of little mud islands that only number in the dozens at high tide.
I flush one mature and one immature Bald Eagle from about the same spot. They had to be within fifteen feet of each other.

High tide has just arrived, although there is some lag in the marsh as it fills from the outside. But, I have a good hour to go anywhere I want, because I have more than enough time to back my way out of the longest of dead end channels. So, I spend a short hour going everywhere and nowhere. The marsh is surprisingly featureless to the occasional visitor, and damned near featureless to the frequent paddler. I find some new channels, although I may have seen them before. When I find them again on a later trip, I probably won't recognize them.

I spot three Least Terns while I am poking around.

As I head my way out towards Nell's channel, I get scolded by a Willet. This brings in another four Willets to complain. So, now I know where the nesting area is for some of the Willets in this marsh...this I can find again.

Enough, I head back upriver on the last of the lagging high tide.

Saturday, July 1, 2023

Tuning up the Willet Eyes

It's the big national holiday weekend, which means the motorboat amateur hour will be in full swing on any water deep enough for a propeller. I head, early enough, to my local marsh.

The sky is hazy with forest fire smoke, but it isn't too bad. The weather is all around good, and the tide will peak in an hour or so. I set out from the NWR launch, so as to not have to deal with motorboat launch mayhem at my usual spot upstream.


There are several people getting started as well. But, with the tide nearing high, there are dozens of places where I can disappear and paddle alone. I spend the next two hours crisscrossing the interior. I spot three Black Crowned Night Herons and one Harrier - everything else counts higher. Yellow Crowned Night Herons are common enough that there seems to be at least two in sight at any time. Willets seem more numerous than I remember, but only out in the center of the marsh where there are better nesting areas. It may be that they are just particularly aggressive right now with either eggs or new hatchlings on their nests. Willets are sentinel birds, so they come out and harass intruders and make a lot of noise. During the trip, I see them chase off and Osprey, and a Great Blue Heron, and myself. I note to myself that my "Willet eyes" are not in tune, yet, as I keep flushing them before seeing them. If they hold still with their wings folded, they can be tough to pick out against the swamp mud and spartina.