Sunday, March 31, 2024

Early Trip into the Great Swamp

I'm where I wanted to be yesterday, when the weather was far less cooperative. 

I put in on the Great Swamp, from the Patterson access. It is sunny and already near 50F with a light wind blowing down river. The water is high enough to flood the marsh, but not so high that one can cut any of the meanders. The river is, more or less, an extra canoe length in width. This is also the earliest that I've been in here by more than a month. I'd expect this to be still thawing during a typical winter.

I've been in here many times by now, and that first time awe of a full-on beaver swamp has been replaced with more measured observations. Every trip involves an amount of noting things that have changed - new beaver lodges and dams, old lodges that have collapsed, landmark trees that have shed distinctive limbs, and familiar blocking logs that have wandered off to who knows where. Just a quarter mile in is a downed tree that will be a problem when the water level drops, but today I can end run it.
New beaver dam

The upper section is tight doubling back meanders in a channel that is one and a half canoe lengths across. Right away I begin flushing small flocks of Teal and Wood Ducks. There are some Mallards, but it is mostly Teal and Woodies. And Red Wing Blackbirds.  Until I am past Pine Island, there is not one second when there isn't a few Red Wing Blackbirds chipping or trilling or flying past.

There is more current than usual. It will slow the return some, but it isn't too bad. I think about this some. Th river seems to be right at the point where all of the extra water fits into the river channel. I've been here when the water is higher and the current is slower. I suppose that has something to do with the current being spread out over a much larger area.

The hill is Pine Island from down river.
I get down below the halfway bridge, to last year's new addition, a huge tree that fell and blocked the river. Instead of doing the short portage, it's a good place to turn back as I have a bit of current and a head wind to work against.

I spot a pair of beaver when I get back up to Pine Island. Besides the Ducks and Blackbirds, three Pileated Woodpeckers, a Downy Woodpecker that was pecking cattail stalks, a couple Widgeons, a couple Great Blue Herons, some early Swallows and a Kingfisher.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Ducking the Wind

I hoped to go somewhere that I haven't been to since fall, but the wind had other ideas. Most anyplace within a reasonable drive has 15 mph wind with gusts up to 30 mph. The best spot around for that kind of weather is the Mattabasset. 

I check the Hartford gauge (for the Connecticut River). and it is at 14 ft this morning. That means a flooded forest in the Mattabasset, which backs up when Connecticut River is high. It is going to be about 50F and the sky is clear.

I put in at the usual spot. Outrigger Guy is nearby taking a breather. We see each other fairly often in here. He paddles a high performance outrigger and it's pretty clear that he has a canoe racing background. He heads up river while I go straight across and into the trees.

Somewhere near the goat farm
We've had quite a few high water events this winter. I imagine that it has to be hard on the beaver population. Not only are the lodges flooded, but the flooding has been happening right when new kits should be being born. While adults might manage, I don't think kits will do well outside the lodge. I'm going to predict that I see less beaver sign this year, in part from kits not surviving and in part due to adult beaver deciding to move elsewhere.

The valley, and the fact that this river is swamp land except the lower end, which is a broad and wide open marsh, keep the wind down to a few miles per hour. I go back and forth through the woods, then down to the Point Beaver Lodge, which can barely be seen. Below that is open marsh, so I cut across through the forest, flushing a pair of muskrats from an excellent bed that they have built in the bottom of a hollow tree. I kind of feel bad about making them go for a swim.  Then, back through the trees to the goat farm, up river, although not in the river. I'm spotting a good number of Wood Ducks and Mallards. Birds seem to be in the trees on this windy day. Flush two Great Blue Herons and three Hawks, none of which I could identify. Back in the river above my put-in, I flush a mature Bald Eagle, and pass Outrigger Guy again as he heads downriver.  

The current is stiff as I get near the highway bridge, but I manage to get up to the log jam bend. From there, I turn around and head back out.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

High Tide

I set out for a short trip through the local marsh after a few days of stomach crud. It is a partly cloudy day with a light cool breeze and the tide is just about peaking when I set out from the wildlife refuge launch.
By the way, I recently learned about the namesake of the Charles Wheeler Wildlife Refuge. Usually, you expect the honoree to be a biologist or environmentally minded politician. Wheeler was a well known duck decoy carver...surprise on that.

 It's a high high tide today, and a quick glance from the bank shows that I can go most anywhere without having to follow any of the standard channels. I head down and around - clockwise, wanting to cruise along Milford Point to look for shorebirds. Not far into it, I spot a single Great Egret, the first of the year. It will be the only Egret of the day. I spot a few Canada Geese and some Ducks, and nothing on the point. Then I head straight up into the center of the marsh.

Next, I cut across to the central phragmites patch, then into the channel downstream of Cat Island. I get around the island with a short wade, flushing two Great Blue Herons and a mated pair of Mute Swans as I go. Then up and into side channel that leads back to the phragmites patch, and then a somewhat circular route around and back to my put-in. I flushed a substantial flock of small Ducks on that last bit. I never got a good Id on them, but I suspect that they were Teal.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Third Flood in Nine Months

The Hartford gauge for the Connecticut River is at 12 feet today, and it has been above that level for the last 10 days, peaking above 19 feet, which it held for 3 days during that time. The Mattabasset enters the Connecticut about 15 miles below the gauge, but as the Mattabesset simply backs up when the big river is high, that gauge is perfect for knowing what the conditions will be.

I put in at my usual spot. I came here today because the weather prediction is for some moderately strong wind, and this river is down in the bottoms well protected from the breeze. The water is high, of course. Normal gauge height would be 5-6 feet. At the put-in, the river is just at the top of the bank, which means that I can go a bit farther upstream than normal.

Today's high point
There is little current, in fact almost none until I near the train trestle. I have to pole a bit to get under the highway bridge, a spot where shallow fast water makes for a turn around, as those levels make everything above even more of a nuisance. Today, I make it to the log jam, which has grown in size with new logs being floated in on the high water. The return is not unusual except at the trestle I have a brief talk with a guy who looks like the ghost of John Muir. 

Below the put-in, I am able to leave the river with a good foot and a half or more of water flooding the forest. I cut through the trees to check on the hummingbird nest that I'd found during the last flood. But, it is gone, or I have misjudged how high up it is. Then, down to the new beaver lodge at the point, which is well flooded with just a pile of cattails and grasses on top. I've seen this before, and I think that the beaver might build a platform to sit on when the lodge is flooded out, and one can see that something has been sitting there. This is the third time in nine months that the lodges in this river have been fully flooded. I am beginning to wonder if they will tolerate too much more of that. Unlike last July's flood, which was a big one, this one and the December flood are something that shouldn't happen. The warm winter meant rainfall throughout the drainage (the Connecticut is more than 400 miles long). That rain should have been snow that would gradually melt its way into the river system. Most people would not tolerate their house being flooded fully three times in one year, except for the ones that are so rich that they no longer have to think. Anyway, I figure beaver to be somewhat smarter about such things than most humans and it will be interesting to see if they start moving to better habitat.

This is the top of a beaver bank burrow. The branches protect the vent hole in the top of the dwelling. The burrow is underground with two below water entrances. The burrow is flooded with about 18 inches of water above the ground where it was dug.

I spend the rest of the time crisscrossing the bottoms, weaving through the trees and going to places that I can't get to in normal conditions. I flush several Wood Ducks from a few different places, haven't seen one in a few months. I end up sighting about a half dozen Great Blue Herons as well. And the goats are out.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Low Tide

 For the last two weeks, timing has been of the un-essence. I've been hanging a couple art exhibitions and every one of those days has been perfect for canoeing. And every day off has been windy, rainy, or both.

I set out from under the high bridge on the far side of town. It is sunny, maybe already 50F, with a light wind coming upriver. The tide is on its way out with about an hour more to go. It is an easy downriver paddle to the marsh.

That 10 inch diameter sawn log has been in place for about a hundred years.


With the tide almost all the way out, there is little point in going into the marsh other than Nell's Channel, which always has enough water to pass a canoe. It is a bird quiet, but I suspect that this has to do with the water level. I am well below the top of the banks, and I figure that a good number of Canada Geese are camped up there. 

At the bottom end of the channel, there is more going on. I hear several Yellow-Legs, although I can't put an eye on them. There are, as well, a number of Ducks and Gulls flying about. I finally pick out the predator, which is probably an Eagle, although I am too far off to get a firm ID. They all clear off before I get close.

The mystery Eagle

I come out into the main river channel and go as far as Milford Point. There is an Eagle chasing flying birds. My experience is that this is a rather odd Eagle behavior. It doesn't seem to take young Eagles too long to figure out that they can't chase down a Duck, and most everything else can outmaneuver it. But, this Eagle is determined and swoops and wheels about for almost ten minutes without a catch. That is another odd behavior, as I've seen that mature Eagles usually give up in a minute or so and retreat to prepare a fresh attack. When the Eagle does give up, it flies past. It is most likely an immature Bald Eagle, even with the un-Eagle like behavior.

I turn back, try to get into the middle channel, which is still too shallow, then head back up Nells with the tide slack and the wind at my back.

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Sepia Day

 For the last week, whenever it has been nice out, I've been hanging an art show. My days off have coincided with the grimmest of rainy and windy weather. I finally got out.

I put in under the highway bridge. A car is parked in the middle of the state boat ramp, but oddballs often come down here to have a smoke or just stare at the river. I give it little mind and set out down river.

It is about 50F, no wind to speak of, and cloudy enough to almost be fog.

Halfway to the marsh, a woman is out walking her 3-year old. I greet them with, "Did you see that Eagle?" my arm pointing to a mature Bald Eagle perched in a tree top about 50 yards away from them. Now they are busy. Watching a Bald Eagle is far more fun than watching some guy paddle a canoe.

When I get to the marsh it is easy to see that the tide is half down. I head into my secret channel, the one that leads to the central phragmites patch. A pair of Black Ducks flush and cross my bow. This is no fault of my own however. Behind them is a Harrier, which gives up and arcs away back into the marsh. Flight is a Duck's safe place. Once they are airborne, there aren't too many birds that can catch them. The narrow exits from the channel are about 20 minutes too shallow, so I backtrack and then proceed clockwise around the marsh.

A pair of Scaups having a hissy fit
There are a lot of Canada Geese and Ducks today.  I have flushed about a 150 Geese by the time I get to Milford Point.  As I am crossing over to the point, I look up to see birds in the air all around. The one in the middle of that is a mature Bald Eagle. It turns tightly, touches down and lifts a duck with in its talons, and then lands again, no doubt at a nicer table with a better view. What I saw was part 2 and 3 of a typical duck hunt. Eagles often come from a distance with their wings set in a fast smooth glide - no extra movement to alert the target. Then they strike and stun the prey hard, fly past and wheel around to finish the kill.

There is another 150 at the point, and they all take wing together with no shortage of honking. I can hear them even after they are out of view, so they probably settled in the shallows on the ocean side of the point.

Wood hairbrush in situ

I head back up Nell's channel paddling close to the east bank. I find an old wood hairbrush handle protruding from the mud. It's down about 12-15 inches, and while it is undatable, it's probably been there for 50 years.  On the river-left bank just below the little island near the top of the channel, I find a milk bottle sticking out of the back side of a calved off block of bank. It is about 12 inches deep. The block of calved bank will melt away by summer, and before it fell off, that bottle was a foot own and two feet back in the mud. 

1 quart milk bottle, as found (next to the canoe)

Lamb Co. Milk bottle probably 1929-1947

I leave the marsh and head up river. That car is still parked in the middle of the ramp. The engine is idling and it has been there for at least 2 hours, Two people are inside, either sleeping or unconscious. I call the police, who ask me to wait. The fire department comes out and talks with the knuckleheads. Then I have a nice talk with the firemen, trade bird stories and stuff like that.