Saturday, August 31, 2013

July 2013: How to Spot a Young Heron

The Great Blue Heron really doesn’t amount to much. I learned that back in August 2007. I was making it a daily project to try to explore the burrows that the beavers, who left a pond in 2005, had made during the 5 years they thrived there. So there I was with my head literally in the ground 

And when I surfaced I kept seeing a heron that, as herons usually do, didn’t fly away.

When I came back 4 days later I found a dead heron along the shore of the small pond.

I paid attention to how the remains disintegrated and by September 12 was struck by how solid the claws seemed compared to the bare hollow leg bone.

It was as if the whole leg of a human was half the size of the foot. I got the impression that a heron was chiefly feathers, beak and two claws. I assumed the heron that died was a young one, born that year and inept at flying. Paddling around South Bay every summer the only criteria I've had for a heron’s age was the amount of croaking it did when it flew away. But why couldn’t males be more prone to do that, or might old herons finally give up croaking at my tedious presence?

On July 22 this year as I kayaked around the point in the middle of South Bay, I noticed a lone heron in a small marsh along the south shore of the point.

As I paddled closer the heron flew away. On the other side of the point, I admired a large goose family relaxing on the low rocks of the shore,

I was struck by the togetherness of geese and the loneliness of herons. Then when I paddled up the north shore of South Bay, I saw that lone heron standing on a log in the shallow water just off the shore.

I slowly paddled toward it and kept expecting it to fly away, but it stood still

Then when it moved, perhaps reacting to me, it gingerly turned around, getting one foot wet in the process.

Then it jumped with a slight flaps of its wing up into a large dead tree branch arching down into the water.

It looked none too steady, and when it turned around, it almost lost its balance and righted itself with a slight wing flap. As it gathered itself looking over the bay, it seemed to have some regard for how high up it was over the water.

Then it finally bent down and flew off and over the bay, a low flight into the glaring sun and I lost sight of it. I had a video of its escape from me which I prize for showing the elegant clumsiness of a young heron.

True I am making a few assumptions and can’t be sure of the heron’s age, but I have never seen a heron so clumsy. Yet it is still so elegant. Herons skip the cute stage and go right to being beautifully poised.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

July 2013: Brown Pink Violet Blue

Brown in the summer generally marks the progress of a drought but this wet summer it marks vigorous plants producing seemingly endless seeds. On July 25 a walk across the plateau atop the ridge north of Thousand Island Park can be a pretty crunchy affair as lichens and moss dry out and grasses quit, but not this year.

Though let me quickly add, my interest in the state of vegetation up on the rocks was less ecological and more esthetic. What beautiful combinations of intrinsically beautiful plants. Dare I called that hair grass, and not a brunette at all but a blonde?

Patterns were more difficult to appreciate in the meadows. The beauty there was in my face. The steeplebushs’ pink effervesance  almost tickled my nose.

Next to that were several Joe Pye weed plants about to out grow me.

Actually Joe Pye weed always gets up to around 8 feet tall. This wet year there is a lot more of it of all sizes making it easier to see how the early bright pink flowers explode into a cloud of pink (evidently that “explosion” attracts the bees.)

The thistle did sky rocket this year which gave me pause since it has nasty stickers. But that is thankfully a very erect plant and I could keep my distance and enjoy the pink violet flower that crowns the thorns.

All that violent imagery aside, the bees certainly make the flower of this thistle seem most comfortable and less a question of sucking nectar. The bee seems buoyed in it.

The meadow where I was enjoying those tall pink blooms also had a bass line, ghost-like purple flowers at my feet, downy wood mint.

On the shore of the small pond nearby, the Second Pond on our land, the pickerel weed just in the water raised blue flowers about as high as they always get.

And the dark green leaves of the pickerel weed are also beautiful.

Since pickerel weed grows in pond water the extra rain of this summer did not send that weed galloping over our land as it did the Joe Pye weed, save for one new patch in the Deep Pond.

However, the water level in the St. Lawrence River was a good foot higher than it usually is in July and as I paddled along the shore of South Bay I was surprised to see pickerel weed.

The leaves on these river plants looked bigger than the ones in the ponds. Since I was in a kayak when I saw this pickerel weed patch, I could take a video of the blooms as I drifted by getting a bit of a bee’s view.

(I had a sense of deja vu as I drifted by the plants. It reminded me of a recent bullfrog's eye view of myself on a blustery day by the Deep Pond.)


This has been a good year for my favorite blue flower, the vervain, especially in the beaver meadows. I first met vervain when all the beaver ponds in the island were brimming and I had to take some care walking on the narrow dams and make sure I didn’t grab a thistle or nettle. In 2009 the Big Pond dam still held back enough water for beavers to live in and vervain maintained a modest presence on the dam. Here is a photo from August 10.

Now that the ponds are meadows the grasses and sedges have driven the vervain off the dams.

But behind the Big Pond dam the vervain has established a tall blue line back in the meadow. During last year’s dry July 21, vervain flourished on the old north shore of the pond.

It was about the only plant that did well. This year along with all  the flourishing plants, vervain made its blue line on the south side of the meadow

Well, it’s not exactly blue and given how feeble its blossoms are, only one tiny flower on a four inch pedestal,

it’s amazing that it can be noticed at all.

All that said, this has to be an interim report on the meadows. The goldenrods are just coming out. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

July 2013: Catbird Cool, just ask a Yellowthroat

I’m not the only one listening to the birds. Catbirds listen much more acutely than I, and riff on what they hear. They seem to do this without even trying to see the singing birds. I’m obsessed with seeing them. I don’t feel like I’ve experienced a bird without seeing it.

On the afternoon of July 2 I was sitting next to the Deep Pond and I heard the repeated witch-ed-y witch-ed-y of a common yellowthroat. These are loud birds and I first thought he was in a far tree. Then I saw the red berry-laden branch of a honeysuckle right behind me bob. With my camcorder I probed every angle of the bush and still couldn’t see the bird.

I replayed what I recorded right then and there in case I simply missed the colorful bird in the view finder. I didn’t mute the sound and when the yellowthroat heard himself sing he began flying back and forth over my head. Then he lit on a top twig of the honeysuckle. I finally saw him.

After a quick look around, with a firm grip on the twig, with tail down and head up, he repeated the song over and over again.

Then after another quick look around

He flew higher up, making himself even easier to see, and sang some more.

Of course I played bird psychologist. He heard his song coming from where I was sitting and now he sang toward my left affording me a view of his profile. Was he showing off for me?  But I assume the yellowthroat fledglings were out of the nest. Was he desperate to communicate with them alarmed that something as ungainly looking as me could sound like a common yellowthroat? Anyway, enjoy the video clip.

Meanwhile a catbird was listening. Indeed it was the only bird that might be interpreted as responding to the yellowthroat. (I won’t get into whether the green frogs were calling back to it.) Well, I have no idea if that was true, but as I had every day down by the pond for the previous few weeks, I heard catbird calls and songs from the bushes.

Prior to this year, I took one photo of a catbird, back on August 13, 2009, as I walked around the Deep Pond.

It’s a slate gray bird with a tail that looks a bit short for the bird's size. One doesn’t take photos of a catbird flitting about a bush the way one does when a yellowthroat is splashing through the green.

So brace yourself for a boring video clip which is the point of this brief blog. When I came back to the pond in the evening to hear the birds sing, I still heard a yellowthroat’s witch-ed-y witch-ed-y and then right after that I heard a catbird’s variation on witch-ed-y witch-ed-y worked into its song, giving it a syncopated sassy sly lilt, which makes the final yellowthroat call in the video clip seem a bit square.

On July 10 I was treated to a lively concert of bird songs dominated by the veeries but a song sparrow and yellowthroat also sang. I heard the fledgling calls of thrushes and veeries, I think, perhaps, wood thrushes too. And then one of the catbirds I heard “eeowing” in the bushes began to sing.

I’ve heard better catbird singing but I do believe in this song I heard a brief catbird commentary on the veery’s song as well as brief melodic echos of the fluted calls from up in the trees. The catbird effortlessly switched from one to the other.

Try to dig it, but I admit that it is probably easy not to hear what I think I am hearing, but I think that’s a credit to the catbird. Ravens are dead-on mimics and have fooled me many times. They fooled me into thinking I was hearing my wife calling me, a cuckoo calling, a coyote calling, a beaver humming, I swear a raven once mimicked the confusion in my brain. Did a Raven Read My Mind?

Catbirds aren’t mocking other birds or me. I think they are carving space in the aural reality of summer and doing so not by being loud or insistent like other birds but by tapping the energy of those other birds and, like any good musician, making something new with the clarity and aptness of the sounds they make.

I finally focused on the catbird with my camcorder and got a photo of it from my video clip.

Such a curious and physically unassuming bird and, in this case, obviously on its own wavelength perhaps trying to connect with one of its own by showing up every other bird. A cool cat indeed.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

July 2013: Road Eaters

Like any naturalist worth his salt, I hate roads that cut through woods and fields. While I could probably sit patiently along the road on our land and get an unobstructed photo of every animal around, as Richard Nixon often said, that would be easy but it would be wrong. But who could blame me for doing the wrong thing when I saw a bobcat walking down our road on sunny July afternoon?

Fortunately it didn't walk there long. The wily predator sauntered over to a pond to scare some beavers.

This July I kept bumping into young animals not only walking on the road but butt down resting on the road. At least that’s what it looked like the small geese in the flock that waddles to and from White Swamp and our neighbor’s pasture were doing.

Worse still I saw a live swallowtail butterfly flat down on the road.

I’ve noticed that swallowtails are attracted to pink flowers, but pink stones?

The animals I most saw on the road this July were hares. Many used the road to get from garden to cover but the smallest hare I saw looked as though, having been just weaned from its mother, it was sucking the road.

I got that close-up because I was closer than I’ve ever gotten to a wild rabbit. And it was in the middle of the road.

The video shows how close I got.

A few days later, I saw an adult rabbit on a patch of dirt at the edge of the woods.

That seems natural enough and surely twas forever thus because much of the ground in the woods is bare of vegetation. I suppose that rabbit was getting the true grit, while that baby hare was cheating. Road crews do salt the road in the winter, and there is no salt in the woods, but by July isn’t all that salt dissolved away?

Animals also scratch up low vegetation, especially moss, and make themselves luxurious dust baths, grouse especially.

Stony roads don't make for a good dust bath. 

The trouble with July, when vegetation and all the distractions that engenders are at their peak, is that trying to get around anywhere except on a road or in the deep woods is exhausting, especially for animals who are only a few months old, and especially this very wet and verdant summer.

However while that might explain why animals come to the road, it doesn't explain why they eat it. 

Maybe they are hypnotized by the simplicity of the road. In the relatively simple pattern of stones, gravel and dirt, animals might get relief from the complex depths of leaves and grass. Well, that thought cross my mind when this insect landed on my pants.

We humans think we are so complex. What must be curious about us to other animals is how we simplify the complexities of their lives with things like roads.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

June 2013: Lurking Beaver Requited

June is the time to begin looking for evidence that beaver kits are being fed in the lodge. Over the years I’ve spent many an evening on the banks of the Lost Swamp Pond doing just that but for the last two years, as far as I could tell, only one beaver was living in the Lost Swamp Pond. Ergo no kit watch there. But this April and May when I noticed sure signs that there was still a beaver lurking in the pond, I also got the impression that compared to last year the lurker was a bit more on the ball. The leaky dam had been repaired and the pond’s water level was rising.

Last year the dam seemed neglected. So I hoped that maybe the lurker now had a companion.

In the past two years, I had seen the lurker in the day, which was convenient. It’s slow business looking for one beaver in a large pond as night is coming on. So on June 2 I visited the Lost Swamp Pond in the late afternoon on my way to the East Trail Pond where I had a good chance of seeing 3 or 4 beavers out before my dinner time.

In every visit to the Lost Swamp Pond over the past 19 years, I always respected it enough to sit for 20 minutes with a full view of the pond and another 20 minutes by the dam. But last year I began cutting my time a bit shorter. On June 2 I saw that the beaver had added more honeysuckle branches to the lodge.

Indeed it looked like a cache was growing on one side of the lodge.

Beavers make caches of winter food in the fall. Maybe this spring cache was a gesture by the lurking beaver to show another beaver that there was still life in the old pond and the old beaver.

I soon saw something swim out of the lodge, but it had a rotating tail, a muskrat.

Exactly where I was hoping to see the beaver.

In other years the pond was crowded with muskrats who had divided the pond into at least three territories and sometimes I witnessed some pretty vigorous defenses of those territories. But this year, as far as I can tell there are only a few muskrats centered behind the dam, all friends or family. I still waited for more muskrats, I like muskrats, but none appeared so I walked around the west end of the dam toward the lodge.

Nothing makes you feel quite so foolish as being within a few yards of a beaver and not seeing it. The vegetation along the north shore of the pond was high enough so that all I heard was a loud splash and all I saw was a pulsing wave in the pond.

Only a fleeing beaver makes a pulsing wave like that. It never surfaced. I continued on and saw the well shaded bare ground where it had been sitting.

There are two ways to regard a beaver finding shelter on shore during the day. It’s lonely and wants a change of scenery or the lodge is crowded with new born kits and its in the way. I also saw some just cut honeysuckle out on in the pond.

It seemed they were destined for the lodge, perhaps a sign of another beaver at  least. I have seen some thin honeysuckle  branches with bark stripped by a hungry beaver

but I think the bushy honeysuckle branches are primarily used to shade the lodge.

Up at the dam I saw that more mud had just been pushed up on the dam and the water level was even higher.

Then I continued on to the East Trail Pond. On May 15 I had seen 4 beavers there and had every reason to believe that there would be new kits this year. My trips to the pond are not as frequent as I would like but I don’t want to habituate these beavers to being watched by humans because they are right off a park trial. So I vary my viewing spot. The best spot up on a ridge north of the pond is a few feet off the trail. On the 2nd I went to the south end of their dam.

By the way there are narrower places in this valley to put a dam, indeed the pond was once 3 times as big thanks to a narrow dam between two ridges. But 4 years ago this family saw its narrow dam in a neighboring valley washed away twice thanks, I think, to strong gusts during thunder storms.

So the beavers made this dam less prone to that type of disaster.

As you can see I came when the pond was still bathed in sunlight, but over the years I’ve often seen beavers of this family out in the day. I’ve followed the family for over a dozen years, obviously not the original bunch I saw in 1999. I was able to follow them because they had their kits in ponds within a half mile of each other. All the ponds they used in the last 10 years (I call them Meander Pond, Thicket Pond, Shangri-la Pond and the new East Trail Pond) could not fill the Lost Swamp Pond. They survived by dredging during drought summers. They were often constrained to having just one lodge and were slow to make another, as they did here last fall after spending two winters here. And perhaps because of that, over the years I have often seen a member of the family out in the pond during the day. I’ve seen the whole family out in the fall at noon when there was work to do.

By June, in the East Trail Pond, the winterberry was leafing out and the ferns growing.  I feared I might have to stare into the green to see a beaver.

But soon enough one swam out of the green vegetation more or less toward me. Once again I saw a beaver vary its spring diet by sucking up the pollen that can coat the surface of a pond.

When the beaver left the pollen zone and cruised through unflavored water, if you will, it veered toward me.

I hoped it would come up to get some bark from a maple tree that the beavers had cut and that had blown over

But no such luck. It headed back to the greening shrubs in the middle of the pond.

On June 8 I made the same tour, this time with my 26 year old son. As we came down to the south shore of the Lost Swamp Pond, I saw large ripples. I expected to see a goose or two, but it was a beaver.

It turned toward us and promptly turned around. I expected a tail slap but none came.

It swam to the middle of the pond and I expected it to go into the lodge. Instead it went to the dam, rather far away, and when I focused on the dam, I saw a beaver up on the dam and another in the water behind the dam.

Soon they were both in the water swimming back toward the lodge in the middle of the pond.

The larger seemed almost to swim up on the back of the smaller and then it dived and surfaced far ahead of the other beaver, which briefly gave my son and I the impression that there were 3 beavers in the pond.

The smaller beaver dived into the lodge and the larger swam back to the dam, not sure why, and then swam passed the lodge and up into the southeast section of the pond. I got a picture of the changes to the lodge and, probably, the beaver who made them.

Of course I was excited to see two beavers in the pond. Pairing up is natural, of course, but the days when this pond was surrounded by other active beaver ponds are long gone. The way up from South Bay is meadow and a series of pools, remnants of the large ponds. The photo below is from June 2010.

Maybe the lurking beaver let the dam leak for two years as a way to attract another beaver, giving evidence that there was water upstream.

Then we headed for the East Trail Pond. My son got ahead of me and when I got up to him I saw him staring down at a beaver staring back at him.

Then the beaver swam even closer to us. It was on a mission. It made a shallow dive and got its mouth around a cut branch floating in the pond, and it dragged it back to the lodge.

Back on the 2nd early evening foraging seemed a bit aimless. Not today. I think this yearling was following its mothers orders: bring some branches in the lodge to feed her and her kits.

I stepped back and took photos of the trees the beavers had cut in the past week,

And some neat segmenting into logs.

Plus the beavers are building up a second lodge that they had started last fall.

Quite a contrast to what I see at the Lost Swamp Pond. There are less mouths to feed there, virtually no easily available trees to cut. You might say the Lost Swamp Pond is no longer a typical beaver pond. Maybe. But it is perhaps a better example showing how beavers have survived in wetlands where most of the palatable trees have been cut.

The Lost Swamp Pond is rather deep behind a 12 foot high dam that is conveniently flanked by two lodges.

Now the beavers can forage for greens throughout the pond. In the winter the greens in that depth, under the ice, may be what they live on

When I took the two photos above in July 2012 the long southeast section of the pond was rather shallow and rather narrow.

One beaver survived that year. There is no drought this year so I am curious to see how well these two beavers will do. If they establish a family next year, then a pond that almost seemed ready to become a beaver meadow will, after almost 30 years, still be a viable beaver pond.