Category Archives: bird watching

Riding the Tide into a Salt Marsh

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We did something I have wanted to do for a long time. We rode the incoming tide from Levy Bay to the big pool at the intersection of Chattahoochee St in Panacea and Highway 98. There is a channel that winds through marsh grass swamps, sinkholes with springs, and some forested areas. The land is privately owned so you can’t leave the water but you do get to see some forest along the trip. We started at the Levy Bay landing which is a public boat dock. The marsh turns into impassable mud flats at low tide so we arrive one and half hours before high tide. By the time we had the canoe down and everything set up, we had one hour until high tide.

The tide rushes into these narrow channels at a brisk pace. You have to pay careful attention to avoid getting stuck on sandbars or hitting oyster bars. There are also lots of obstacles like fallen trees, remnants of old docks, and debris. Additionally the channel itself has many deep pools over springs where you simply can’t see the bottom in the brownish water. So we rode the tide in. In places it was like mini rapids. Always a strong flowing current fast moving to ride. The water is topped with foam, full of all kinds of bits of debris and detritus and it abounds with all kinds of crab holes along along the muddy banks of the marsh grass. We saw mullet, smaller fish, a string ray in black about 18 inches across the wing tips and many birds, especially egrets, cranes and vultures.

We did not bring our camera. We have used the rice trick (putting the camera in a bag of rice to dry out) once already after a canoe trip and while the camera recovered, the calendar never worked again so my pictures always come out marked as having occurred on 2013 date the camera got dunked. It was a good thing we didn’t try to take pictures. Riding the tide in those narrow channels at quite a good clip while avoiding all the potential places to spill was challenging enough. If you look at the picture you can see near the end of the route one very large and very deep pool. It was a real pleasure to come charging in there at top speed and find ourselves in this huge relatively calm place. The volume of water there is so deep even the incoming tide makes only a small impression. Though the water was clear we could not see the bottom making me wonder if maybe there is a smaller version of the Wakulla spring in the deepest place.

We rested a bit and then took the final small channel to the egret pond next to the highway. That was our goal. We see that pool every time we drive to the beach and I really wanted to find out why it always has at least three white egrets in it. We arrived at top speed out of the channel to find ourselves on a flat mud basin. The egrets were intently feeding and barely looked up, as if canoes with humans arrive here all the time. They had certainly had no need to worry since we were firmly grounded on smelly mud.

We unstack ourselves with much heave ho-ing and worked our way back up the channel to the deep pool. The tide was already ebbing. By the time we crossed the deep pool the rush of water had ended so we leisurely wended our way across the pool and then back up the channel. As we arrived in sight of our truck the tide began to turn and run back out. We rode the reversed current the last few hundred yards.

Being a prairie girl and not accustomed to the ocean, the tide fascinates me. The marsh breathes the water in and then breathes it out. The grass and creatures that live on the shore line have adapted to thrive in the rhythmic rise and fall. The marsh’s rich detritus is carried out of the marsh with the tide and feeds the wildlife at the bottom of the food chain. Farther and farther up the food chain larger and larger creatures wait at the mouths of the channel and then at the mouths of the bay ready to eat. The marsh is the food source of many creatures in the bay.

The marsh also serves as a nursery for much of the sea life. Many fish swim into the bays and lay eggs and then swim out. The fry hatch and grow in the shelter of the marsh feeding on insects and the like until they are finally big enough to ride the tide out. The endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles feast on blue crab in the bay for two years or so before continuing their slow migration back around the gulf to their breeding places. The mud flats, like the final place we saw all those egrets, is its own feasting place for these and many other glorious birds..

One of the unfortunate things that has happened in Florida is that many of these nurseries and feeding places have been filled, levelled and now have shopping malls and hotels and houses. Wakulla has been blessed with acres and acres and acres of coastal wetlands that protect and nourish the Gulf. There is a tale of this area that says a very rich woman once asked naturalist and writer Jack Rudloe how to best help sea horses. He told her protect the marshes on the coast because the marshes feed the reefs just off shore where the sea horses live. And so she bought six miles of coastland marsh and she does nothing with it except protect it in order to protect the sea horses.

The world needs more such wise women.

Peaceful Days

We have settled into our Florida home. Life has been gentle and sweet. Long days of lazy beach walking, and collecting natures treasures. We were walking the beach and found endless sea pansy soft coral so we carried handfuls back to the marine lab where they will be put to good use instead of dying. Another day we watched our favourite dolphin pod driving mullet into the shore in high surf and we were overjoyed to see they have a new baby. I shouted my congratulations and was treated to a waving tail display and a happy jump and a rolling wave of one flipper in the air. Dolphins call dogs. Jack’s Lily swims out and then swims with them when they call. The dolphins like Lily, especially the younger ones and they greet her and try to get her to play but she isn’t a very good swimmer. When they get bored with her simply one dimensional stroke they swim off and she returns to shore, exhausted but full of doggy joy.

On the walk pictured below, in a heavy fog, we disturbed a large osprey who had just caught a fish. The bird flew off with the squirming fish tight in its grip. Yet another day we found a pile of slag from the clearing of a canal and it was packed full of fossils. We carried home chunks of ancient sea bed turned to rock with shells and worm tracks that day. We saw my favourite bird of all birds, the impossible, ridiculous, roseate spoonbill which is much more respectable looking in its native habitat doing its natural thing than when seen in any zoo. The winter birds who headed south before us, but whom we left in Georgia, have finally arrived and the trees are full of cardinals, robins, oriels,  blue jays, hundreds of starlings in stunning murmurations, golden and brown finches and yellow warblers and all those nondescript little brown ones I can never distinguish. They are far quieter and far more social in winter than when they are combating for mates and nesting places back in Alonsa so one can see entire folks living in peaceful close proximity.

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The dogs love the beach. Each morning a large group of dog owners meets early and walks the beach with dogs off leash. The dogs run and play and do the dog thing with abandon while we walk and chat about grandchildren, vehicles, our aches and pains, and where good sales are. The dogs roll in the stinky gunk, swim in the water and dig, endlessly dig in the sand. We moan about how they will need a bath again but none of us makes a move to interfere with their dog play. Some dogs try fishing. The fish are too smart. The crabs fight back and win. Yelp and a quick walk back and the dropped crab moves off. Some dogs, like my Trusty, prefer to just lie there and enjoy the sun and the heat in quiet dignity. Trusty watches the others with disdain and she never needs a bath. The only time I have ever seen Trusty get excited and take to the surf was when the dolphins called her, presumably to show off their new baby. She’s not as good at swimming as Lily and she gave up when the waves hit her chest. She ran up and down the beach crying, unable to fully answer their song. I wish I could hear it.

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Most people like the beach when its sunny and hot. I prefer to go to the beach when it’s cloudy and cool and a stiff breeze makes for rolling surf. On such days it’s often just us with our dogs and we can walk for kilometres without meeting another human being. These are also the days one is most likely to see the dolphins.

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There is something healing about the beach. The voice of Ulmo (if you are a Tolkien’s Silmarillion fan you will recognize that) is soothing.

As a child I had favourite song. I learned it in school. Our school day began with the Lord’s Prayer and two hymns from an English child’s hymnal.

I often hum it quietly to myself as I walk the beach listening to the waves.

“This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.”

“This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.”

“This is my Father’s world, dreaming, I see His face.
I open my eyes, and in glad surprise cry, “The Lord is in this place.”
This is my Father’s world, from the shining courts above,
The Beloved One, The Holy One,
Came—a pledge of deathless love.”

“This is my Father’s world, should my heart be ever sad?
The Lord is King—let the heavens ring. God reigns—let the earth be glad.
This is my Father’s world. Now closer to Heaven bound,
For dear to God is the earth we trod.
No place but is holy ground.”

“This is my Father’s world. I walk a desert lone.
In a bush ablaze to my wondering gaze God makes His glory known.
This is my Father’s world, a wanderer I may roam
Whate’er my lot, it matters not,
My heart is still at home.”

There should be something about dolphins in there. Perhaps I will have to add a verse.

50th parallel gardening in the prairies.

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Several thing happened to my garden since my last update. Ten days ago after a week of baking heat, we got nine inches of rain in 48 hours. This was followed by several more days of at least an inch of rain a day. I wish I could complain a lot about this being an unusual year but its not. This is prairie gardening. So in addition to ….long….. summer days, and a short growing season there is insane swings in temperature and water. The long hot days of no rain you can compensate for with a hose and sprinkler. There is nothing you can do about too much rain. Well not quite nothing. I deepened a preexisting trench at the bottom of the slant of the garden to get water to drain a little faster. The trench was put in by the previous owner of this garden patch indicating just how not unusual the situation is.

The result of all the wet meant that the spinach promptly up and died except for the fourth planting that went to seed when it was only five centimeters tall and had maybe four teeny tiny leaves. So the spinach is done for the year. With the staggered planting we had several meals of spinach fresh and cooked but we ate it as soon as we got it so none was put by for later. Note to self, more spinach, less staggering. Radishes, well the last of those are in the picture. And you can see what all the rain did. They split. Same note re radishes. The corn has taken on a rather sickly hue of yellow green and it may or may not recover. And one tomato plant that was standing in water for days gave up and died. It also meant I couldn’t get in to weed for nearly a week. The weeds, being prairie weeds and well adapted to this local environment, took off, well like weeds, with the wet. This is why I didn’t plant any peas. Every year I have tried one of these heavy rainstorms has started the powdery mildew and no peas.

Some thing didn’t care. The beets and carrots did just fine and today I thinned them again. The results are above and represent a meal of baby carrots and beets. The green beans seemed to absolutely love both the heat and drought and the wet. They are in full swing now and we will be enjoying green beans for a while. I don’t seem to have any yellow beans which is strange because I planted both green and yellow bean seeds. I lost quite a few baby bean plants to frost and now I am wondering if maybe it was all the yellow ones. Note to self, next year separate rows, and green beans seem spring hardier than yellow.

The tomatoes are doing very well in spite of one untimely death. They not only have lots of heavy green fruit but they also are still blossoming and we have been enjoying small yellow ones for about a week now. They are beyond delicious and I wish they would hurry up and produce more. The cucumbers took a hit but look better. I have tiny two inch cucumbers. The zucchini responded to the extremes by producing the weird looking ones you see. I think they like wet better than drought though because the weird ones started in the drought and the ones coming up behind these two look normal. The zucchinis are the only thing that has taken over and overshadowed the weeds. We had a huge wind that took out all the sunflowers so they are now lying on their sides and the heads are bent up from the talks at ninety degrees. I think they may still make nice flowers but they look very strange. The lettuce is getting close to bolting but isn’t quite there so we will have lettuce a bit longer. Surprise surprise my experimental spaghetti squash took a great leap up and are now in bloom. They seem to like rain too.

And finally the momma robin has been very busy because the rain caused a huge outbreak of white slugs. Fortunately, the robin is now on her second brood of babies and they are hungry little guys who needs lots of slugs to grow into adult robins. So the rain has been good for her.

New tenants

We have new tenants. When we moved in I noticed a partial damaged nest left by some barn swallow built in a previous years. Even though the barn swallows were very busy on the utility building next door, no one seemed to be bothering with the single empty mud ledge under my eaves. That actually suited me just fine. I don’t like the swoop and dive aggression and the flying poop machines too close.

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Today I noticed a couple has moved in. They are busy renovating. Initially my response was to borrow a long ladder and chase the birds out before they had a chance to lay eggs. Before I did that, I decided to read up on the birds. Imagine my stunned surprise to discover the bird is considered “threatened” in Manitoba. I know that endangered species and related lists have become highly political and some species get added, or left off, as it is convenient to government policy. Even so I thought,

“Oh Mother Earth, what is your world coming to if these delightful acrobats of the air are threatened?”

So they can stay. Disturbing them is illegal anyway. This bird eats flying insects on the larger side, not the smaller ones like mosquitoes. We have an ugly local fly, bigger than a housefly, smaller than a horsefly, that bites like the dickens and is called the “bulldog” by the locals. One of the nieghbours had to make the three hour drive into Winnipeg to treat an infection left by a bull dog last week. While I was out observing my new tenants, one of these bulldogs started harassing me, looking for a meal. As I swatted and waved and shooed one of my delightful new tenants swooped down and picked it out of the air.

I like these birds even more now!

Fledgling

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Summer is close by. When I got up I awoke to this sight on my front porch. Just yesterday I told my husband that I had so been looking forward to seeing the baby robins looking down on me from their nest. Yesterday the nest was empty and I felt so bad thinking the babies had been taken by some predators. And then I was greeted by this sight through my screen door in the morning sun. Predators didn’t get the baby birds. They fledged!

Our little county house is home to so many birds it’s dizzying. Although I am no devoted bird watcher I have been watching long enough that I thought I had seen every variety around but yesterday I saw a new bird again and I had to go on line to identify it. It was a pine siskin, I had noticed a small flock of this tiny bird feeding on long tall black seed feeder. They are very common according to the information but somehow I went my whole life without ever noticing one before. The robin, on the other hand, is very common and a rather sassy bird. To me, robin says suburbs and mowed lawns. I was rather disdainful of this bird until I first spent time out at our bog and saw one living the wild life. Nature is harsh and this poor bird did not have a very successful nesting season. I can’t blame them for taking up residence in our suburbs where life is so much easier. This year I developed a brand new respect for the common robin. You see when my garden was tilled up I saw it was full of assorted grubs.

Worms are fine but I regard grubs with a deep suspicion bordering on hatred. Grubs include cut worms and potato beetles and all kinds of things I simply don’t care to share my garden with. The wonderful robin who built her nest in my hammock tree spent hours each day from dawn to dusk patrolling my garden along with her spouse. I would lie in my hammock and watch while this sharp eyed mom diligently cleaned my garden of all manner of grubs. Every few minutes she was carrying off a fat grub to her waiting brood. They would squeal with delight and the grubs would vanish. Every garden needs a robin with a brood of hungry babies. I even forgave her husband for being the first bird to start singing each morning at 4:30am at the first sign of dawn.

Robins also connect with me because when my children were very young we used to sing together. And one of our favourite songs was Rafi’s Robin in the Rain, I often found myself humming the tune while I worked in the yard and it brought back some pleasant memories of when I was a Mom with young children. I felt so bad when I thought the baby robins were dead that I laughed for pure joy to see that baby robin on my deck rail. Wow do they grow up fast! Then as I watched, Momma robin showed up with something good to eat and baby robin let out a demanding squawk. Momma obligingly fed her baby. Now I know what that strange squawk was that I have been hearing since yesterday. It’s not unlike the sound of the phone ringing followed by

“Mom can you loan me some money?”

My kids are well beyond that stage in their life. They are all self supporting, tax paying, solid citizen types and my littlest baby is not that far from 30. My don’t they grow up fast!

Listen to the locals

One of joys of having our own stick house again is that I can have a proper country garden. I have gardened for many many years including three years of subsistent living where the only vegetables I ate were those I grew myself. The place I did that gardening was near lake Alma Saskatchewan only a few kilometres from the American border. Lake Alma is 49.11N. Our new home is in Alonsa and it 50.79N or ten degrees more northern. It works out to about 220 or so km (120 miles further north). What a difference ten degrees makes. In Lake Alma the rule was no matter how nice the weather, you don’t put in your tomato plants until after the Victoria Day weekend which is the third weekend in May. There will be a late frost that will kill them.

I purchased my tomato plants five days after that weekend and it was a couple of more days before I actually got them in. I did ask the locals. They looked dubious about planting now and two said they wait until June 1st.  One told me she waits until she sees the big northerns leaving the area. Big northerns? You know, the really large fat Canada Geese that don’t nest around here but do hang around for a while in May and then go north.

My tomato plants were already a bit spindly and the weather was a lovely 30C and there was no forecast for cold in the long range and so I didn’t listen and I put planted the tomatoes anyway. If I still had my little portable green house I would have waited until June 1st. But that’s gone and I didn’t feel I could justify replacing it this year with all out other expenses.

The inevitable happened. We had three nights of bitter cold with the temperature going down to 0C, -4C and -2C (32F, 25F, 28F). I did my best for those poor tomato plants. I watered them thoroughly and then I covered them up late in the day before the heat had time to dissipate. They came through just fine on the first night but the deep cold was beyond a light frost and into a killing frost and covered or not they got hurt.

None are dead. The damage ranges from slight to nearly catastrophic.SAM_5584

This Plant should recover and be minimally set back. Damage was limited to the edges of some leaves but the apical meristem (budding area) is undamaged. It even had a blossom on it which was undamaged. Interestingly enough it was the old fashioned yellow boy, a heritage variety of yellow tomato.

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This plant is marginal. It is not dead but it has frozen on the meristem. If I leave it, it will come back from the sides but be severely set back and lose a month or more of production in our short season. That is enough to mean it won’t produce much before the first killing frost we normally see by the end of August. I can only hope to get green tomatoes that will ripen indoors or can be converted to vegan mincemeat.

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This one is most likely hopeless. All the leaves were frozen including the meristem. It was a fancy new high yield hybrid too, and so I tried it but bought only one. I prefer those good old heritage ones which always seem to do better in a northern garden. The only way it will come back is from the bottom and it will take almost as long as starting from seed which is not long enough up here in the north to get tomatoes. I will buy more tomato plants and replace the two hopeless ones and add two more to make up for the marginal ones but leave them in. To try to stay on schedule, I’ll buy some bigger plants in larger pots for the replacements. And I won’t be getting another fancy hybrid. I have been told there is a great greenhouse just a few kilometres away.

And as I was putting away all my blanketing and tarps, flocks and flocks of hundreds of big fat northern Canada geese flew over honking happily. Next year I will get a replacement for that little greenhouse I used to have and the tomatoes don’t go in until June 1st or I see the big northerns moving on.

Canoeing at Otter Lake

Things have been quiet with us not doing much worth reporting. However today we went to Otter lake to go canoeing. Otter Lake is a natural fresh water lake within the Appalachacola National Forest and it is a 6 miles drive from Panacea. Along with Dick and I were our friends Jack Rudloe, Jane Brand and Ed Komarek. Jack and Jane went in one canoe and Ed was in a kayak. It was a pleasant and lovely day with bright sun and a light breeze. It’s still considered winter here and so it was quiet, the trees are still bare and the alligators are sluggish. The locals don’t recommend the lake during warm weather, especially during the alligator mating season but now it’s safe. We did see alligators, with Ed reporting two more than 12 feet long but they didn’t bother us. They immediately fled into deep water and stayed away. They hunt gators for meat and sport here so they are wary of humans.

One of the alligators favorite foods is dog. In fact if you are walking your dog and the dog barks the gators will head over to check it out. Jack has had one dog snatched and eaten by an alligator in this lake and lost another one in another spot not too far away. We left the dogs at home. Fred loves to jump out of the canoe and have a swim so it was not a great place for him.

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Here we have just left the boat launch to start our paddle around the lake.

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The trees are bare though some are beginning to bud like this one showing red pollen flowers.

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The nest of the osprey did not hold any young because it is the wrong time of year but the ospreys were flying around overhead.

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This large tree serves as a turkey vulture and a black vulture roost. The two species hang out together. These are ugly birds up close but a pleasure to watch as they fly.

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Staying near the shore means we can avoid the breeze and see the birds up close.

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We saw a large flock of at least 12 snowy white egrets.

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The egrets included brown juveniles staying close to the adults. Two alligators patrolled nearby as egrets make fine alligator food. The alligators fled when we got close.

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This was an especially large cypress.

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Dick found the bended cypress knees from times when the water is deeper particularly fascinating.

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About an hour of leisurely paddling later, we pulled back into the launch area. A lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon!