Sunday, December 12, 2010

Echo Island or A Visit to Squire's Table

Echo Island, Lake Kabetogama
Voyageurs National Park

mallard feeding at shore

Echo Island is tucked just several hundred yards off shore in the southwestern corner of Lake Kabetogama. Facing away from the resorts and private camps that line the lake edge, the island sits like a shy child caught in the midst of a party—its tree-lined shoulder turned inward, protecting on the other side a small rocky bay.
Set ablaze by the late September sun, its evergreen shore warms to gold. The small island barely visible beyond misted morning water, by evening, has found itself in the spotlight.

Echo Island, afternoon sun

Taking a direct path from the sand beach just beyond our cabin’s doorstep across this narrow band of water, skirting the gilt edge of Echo Island, we found the rocky bay, entered and pulled the canoe up onto a sequestered 20-ft beach.

Butter and Eggs, Linaria vulgaris

Once privately owned, as was the case with many islands which over the years have become part of Voyageurs National Park, remnants of its previous life remain. From within a tumbled pile of what must have been, years ago, a meticulously built rock wall entry, a mink watches our slow progression onto land, and then disappears into the depths of the woods. There is a park campsite here, complete with one-seater and bear-locker, available to anyone at any time.

American Red Squirrel, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus

On this day we find it empty, inhabited only by a most irritated red squirrel whose duties of the collection and disposal of pine cones evidently our mere presence has interrupted.
In the change of ownership, this small resident has risen in stature.

Red Pine with lichen-covered bark

Dense and damp within, the woods of Echo Island, aside from birdsong, are silent. A heavy blanket of needles from towering red and white pine carpets the ground. Soft and fertile beneath it, a bed of dark organic matter has formed on top of the sandy base.

moss and lichen

Cushions of moss run over every rock and envelope every fallen form.
Into it reach the roots of delicate wildflowers.
Lichens cover bark and branch.

Pink Corydalis, Corydalis sempervirens

Nose to the ground in this well-appointed space, I can see Pixie Cups and Fairy Thimbles, Witches’ Beard above me, and British soldiers below--
named for the shapes they resemble, to be sure.

Pixie cups

And perhaps for the enchantment left by time spent in the places where one might find them.
For I thought I caught a glimpse of something magical there.

Harebell aka Fairy Thimbles, Campanula rotundifolia

Squire's Table

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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Wandering back through my summer

I woke to a leaden sky, and a cold, damp dawn that in every way spoke of winter’s return.
I love this season more than do most--its character of change, its constant contrast from the delicate vulnerability of a single snowflake to the strength and fury of a stinging blizzard. But, given a shorter day, one bound by a hesitant sunrise and hasty sunset, I am left with little time to be in the outdoors.
It’s just as well.
This is the space between the holidays.

To that, introduce deer hunting season with its dangers to off-trail pursuits, and it's likely that a trip to the store or a jaunt along a tamer trail will, in this time, replace my walk in the woods.
I wander through my summer memories.

Lake Kabetogama
Voyageurs National Park

This is Lake Kabetogama (Ka-buh-toh'-guh-muh), an expanse of cool, clear northern Minnesota water that, linked with Rainy Lake, Sand Point Lake, and Lake Namakan, makes up Voyageurs National Park.

Un voyageur

Named for the apparently very large French Canadian voyageurs of the late 18th and early 19th centuries who paddled canoes for fur trading companies along a route between Canada's northwest and Montreal, its 55-mile length is a maze of inland waterways including over 30 lakes and 900 islands. In addition to its being a water-based park, meaning that the access to sites within its boundary is primarily by boat, Voyageurs National Park is the most recent addition to the national park system, having been acquired just 35 years ago, in 1975.

The dock
Moosehorn Resort

With walleye, northern pike, muskellunge, small mouth bass, and crappie abundant in these large lakes, fishing is by far its greatest draw. Try to find just one poster promoting the area that does not boast a boatful of broadly smiling fishermen or a toothless child proudly displaying his record-breaking catch.

common mergansers on the lake

But the attraction for me was its wilderness.
Accessible to any who wishes to hike the miles of backcountry trails or step out of canoe or kayak onto the land once walked by the Chippewa, the morning air rings with the call of the loon.
A wolf print is left in the soft mud along the trail.
And the still water is parted by a beaver swimming at dusk to his lodge at the edge of this small island.

Echo Island
Lake Kabetogama, Minnesota

Translated as Rough Waters, Lake Kabetogama at 25,000-acres in size can in one moment become a small craft’s captain’s nightmare. Wind raging its length piles 5-ft waves on top of its 80-ft depths. Islands become the only refuge in a storm.
But, each morning it lay again invitingly still—shrouded in a heavy fog that obscured both boat and bird.
And begged to be discovered.

Foggy Morning

Morning Sun

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Sunday, October 3, 2010

Making a list

Birders and lists go hand in hand.
We keep yard lists, trip lists, life lists.
If you’re anything like me, this turn of the season, an almost overnight change to the crisper days of autumn, has prompted the generation of yet another list--an attempt to stay on task and responsibly navigate the fleeting fall months to come. There’s a cluster of family birthdays for which to prepare, window screens to wash and tuck away for winter, patio furniture to clean and cover, piles of plants that wait to be set into the ground...and, yes, plans to make for the holidays—
a list of givers and gifts.

A new book for birders will hit the bookstore shelves later this month. It’s The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America by Donald & Lillian Stokes. This substantial paperback resource from the well-respected heavyweights of the birding/nature world covers 854 species in 816 glossy pages. A work of photographic excellence, its 3400+ images have been contributed by nearly 200 photographers, the majority by Lillian Stokes. A bonus downloadable CD is included with the calls and songs of 150 birds common to North America.

While the debate will continue as to which type of field guide illustration serves the greatest use, I find that I refer equally to guides illustrated with paintings (Peterson or Sibley) and those with photographic images (Kaufman or Stokes). Both have a place on my bookshelf. I still prefer the detail Sibley is able to show on the wings of soaring raptors as seen from below, but find the strength of the Stokes Guide to be its comprehensive coverage, often spanning several pages to include images of adult and juvenile birds, summer and winter plumages, morphs and birds in flight. The Red-winged Blackbird is detailed in 9 photos across 2 pages with remarks of the 14 subspecies. And 23 photos covering morphs and immature birds fill the 4-page spread profiling the Red-tailed Hawk. Most helpful to me, however, is a small notation in the lower corner of each photograph encoding the geographic location and date by month represented by the bird in the image. With a little guesswork, I can convert Stokes’ identified birds to those unknown birds beyond my window. Those tricky fall warblers in their non-descript plumage? They’re in here, in such generous numbers to fill the gap often left by other guides. Could that be a Nashville Warbler outside my window? Why, yes! Here’s one that looks just like it in a photograph bearing the caption OH/10! Maybe you’re curious to see the 3rd winter plumage of a Glaucous Gull? It’s in here, too… just a little further off the beaten path, marked RUS/12. I like that!

Birds are presented in the guide in phylogenetic order and are grouped by family with user-friendly, easily-visible bands of color at the base of each page, as in the popular Peterson guide.
Because a bird’s overall shape is often more consistent than variable plumage, the Stokes stress “quantitative shape” in carefully describing the hundreds of species--an expression that compares the relative difference in length of body parts within the same bird. For example, the Little Blue Heron is described by noting, “neck is shorter than body.” In emphasizing these relationships, even subjects which may be backlit or at a distance, can be accurately identified using careful observation and understanding of shape.

Throughout the book, Identification Tips are provided within typically challenging groups of birds. These helpful highlights offer clues for birders of all skill levels—from the basics of discerning differences within groups of seemingly similar birds to hints for especially difficult Species IDs.
Because most species are presented on separate pages, I find that comparison between several species at once unfortunately often involves the flipping of pages back and forth.

Finally, as one who shies away from the term “birder,” preferring to think of myself more as a generalist, I especially appreciate this guide for the glimpse it offers beyond birds alone—we see a small snippet, a suggestion of habitat. Whether perched on a precipice or wading among the reeds, the unaltered photographs allow recognition of birds in context—a valuable impression often lacking in other sources.

The Great Giveaway
(or Let’s turn the World on to Birding!)
Three lucky people will receive a complimentary copy of
The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America
by Donald & Lillian Stokes.
If you would like an opportunity to be chosen as a recipient
of one of these outstanding field guides,
please leave a comment in the comment section of this post.

Winners will be chosen on October 25, 2010 (its release date) by the True Random Number Generator at from the total number of comments generated to this post by 11:59 pm EST on October 24, 2010.
Enter as many times in as many separate comments as you like—the greater the number of comments you leave at this post, the greater your chance of being chosen!
Limit one complimentary copy per participant.

Let’s start with something like this…
“That sounds like a great gift for my neighbor!”
Be creative, be original (if you can).
Remember, this guide is appropriate for both novice and experienced birders.
Do you have someone in mind? (no names, please!)
Let’s turn the world on to birding!

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Friday, October 1, 2010

Advice from an Old Goat


Where are you going, as I stand here behind wise eyes that watch you as you pass?
And what is it you are looking for?
I used to be your favorite, you know, your first.
I remember the hours we spent each day together sitting in this field.
It hardly seems like fourteen years.
And all the time, you never seemed to mind the green-trimmed holes I chewed in your t-shirts, or the way I marked you as my own with rubbings against your knee.
We jumped and climbed... and frolicked beneath a blue sky, you and I.
And you brought me goldenrod.
I know…

Others younger have come and gone.
Bigger and bolder—in every way they made sure I knew my place was always to be the very last.

Once a dozen, now we are just three.
But who would have thought I would be queen?
I know…

Stop a while and sit with me.
Marvel at my soft and gentle lips, the whorl of hair on my forehead, the brushed-bare black of my knees.
Let me untie your shoes and wipe the sweat from your brow.

You will find the sun of an autumn afternoon to be of the most perfect kind.
Crickets are singing from the grasses of the field.
We can rest together beneath the wide blue sky.
And you can bring me goldenrod.

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Saturday, September 11, 2010

What floats my boat

I love nothing better than to push off from the shore of a broad, shallow lake and float out into its center--
the entire body of water around me, quiet and still.
Sitting low to its surface in my kayak, the sky above it all seems even more huge, its open space a giant dome across which birds and dragonflies course—
while I drift as a lone, small speck below.

Bald Eagle above Salt Fork Lake

Onto the quiet water in a small arm of Salt Fork Lake, a reservoir encompassing nearly 3,000 acres of water within Ohio’s largest state park, I floated with 2 friends in 3 small crafts—
Julie's 2 canoes and my kayak.

T.R. and Julie on the Lake

Fanning out from this hidden shore, we spread across the water, the entire space in this small corner ours alone.
Each carving a distinct path,
each finding his own perfect treasures to explore,

we paddled beneath the wide, arcing flight of a young eagle.

And were held in orbit around a tiny spot of color as she rested on the darkened remains of a flooded tree stump, now a pint-sized island sprouting elfin versions of the earthbound greenery along the shore.

Julie & ?

Question Mark butterfly on submerged stump

T.R. & ?

Bit by bit, we’d drift apart, pirouetting across the water to look into the face of a dancing fox hidden in weathered wood,

exchange a smile for a hand-delivered sandwich,

or paddle buoyantly--
because the freedom of water and waves feels like nothing else.

Then fall into line and speed to the opposite shore as one up ahead spotted a distant object standing motionless in the shallow water—

and knew all three would want to see.

Great Egret

As we watched the great white bird, a light rain fell across the glassy surface, and we sat in silence--
alone with the lake, but not.

My paddling companions:

Julie Zickefoose, author of Julie Zickefoose on Blogspot, writer, naturalist, NPR commentator, watercolor painter, gardener, packer of wonderful lunches, Mether to Chet Baker, fellow Ohioan,...friend,

and T.R. Ryan, author of From the Faraway, Nearby, photographer extraordinaire, talented journalist and writer, world traveler, conservationist, Oklahoman,...friend.

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