My Happy Place

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3199acsEveryone needs a place of retreat, a place to restore one’s soul. Through the long winter I pictured it only in my dreams. Serene. Meditative. Calming. My happy place.

Y’all close your eyes now. Let’s go there in our minds…

Ah, that’s better. Wave goodbye to the dark, dreary, landlocked days of winter. Shed the layers of thermals and fleece. Wade through the shallows, and settle into the kayak. Turn your face to the warming rays of the sun.

Now, dip the paddle blade into the water, and smoothly, gently, pull. Feel the boat glide effortlessly forward.

Ahhh. That’s better.

After six long months on land, I am once again a creature of the water. Blessed with a warm sunny day in the middle of April, I pack up my kayak and head for the Pine Barrens. Lake Oswego awaits, glittering indigo under a clear blue sky. No longer a dream, my happy place is now reality.

The water of the lake flows dripping off my paddle, and runs chuckling down the length of the kayak’s hull.

Ssssshlooooop -drip-drip-drip – drip – d r i p – d r i p – gurglegurgle

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3190acsThe first strokes are awkward, and I find myself paddling not across open water, but through a mass of lily pads and dark green pondweeds. Oops! Better watch where I am going.

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3429acsHmmm. That looks interesting on the other side of the bridge. I wonder if I can fit under there?

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3415acsEasily spooked, turtles dive at the mere hint of my presence. I stow my paddle and drift, and soon a turtle forgets me and begins to nibble at a nice wet salad.

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3193acsMy happy place. Around the upper curve of the lake and down the far shore, past the dam and the portage beach. Blue sky, green trees, dark blue water. Ahhh.

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3373acsAt the southeastern end of the lake, I find this fantastical sculpture, the twisted remains of a long-deceased tree.

Lakes don’t occur naturally in the Pine Barrens. Something had to die for the pond to be born.

Gone, but not forgotten.

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3295acsMy happy place is… a cemetery. The ghosts of drowned cedar trees haunt the shallow places, a reminder of the forest that once was.

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3357acsYet life abounds among the tree spirits. A fallen phantom attracts a turtle, very much alive. Several of his shelled buddies are also soaking up the sun nearby.

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3285acsBleached cedar tree trunks are the totem poles of the Pine Barrens lake, the resting places of arboreal souls. I drift among them like the clouds wisp across the sky, soaking up the twitter of tree swallows.

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3264acsA spectral white trunk leans on another for support. Like the wrinkles of an old woman’s face, its weathered skin whispers of all that it has seen. Wait – what is perched on the right end of the log? Photobombed by a dragonfly!

There’s that sound again. QUONK! Like a metallic thunk. I heard a few of them near the launch, but at this end of the lake the sounds are much more numerous. No bird I know makes that sound. It has to be a frog. But what one? No matter how close I get to each QUONK, it’s not close enough. I see no frogs.

One of my missions is to find where the Oswego River comes into Oswego Lake. I follow a pair of honking geese into a cove. At the far end is a narrow passage into another cove. Beyond that a thin little stream squeezes between trees and disappears.

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3322acsCould this be the Oswego River?

But there’s another cove, with another stream beyond it disappearing into the trees. This one looks wider, more like a real stream. Hmmm. Mission postponed. Best to leave some mystery for another day.

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3393acsLeft also for another day is this inviting little pathway.

Journey’s end.

Ahhh, that’s better. My spirit has been soothed. Winter is past; its cold and confinement have faded. A season of warm days and blue water unfolds before me like a map. A map that leads to…

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3448acsMy happy place.

Early Green

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3075aI’m not fond of the color brown. In fact, I don’t even think it’s a color. It’s more like a background, and one I’m tired of. For most of my life I lived in a beige house, which is brown in a wishy-washy mood. With apologies to my U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service friends in their brown and tan uniforms, the only good brown thing is chocolate.

As mild as this past winter was, I really have no cause to complain. But since the trees and shrubs lost their leaves in November, life outdoors has been a sea of brown bare trees and beige dried foliage. Now, I admire the structural bones of a single bare tree as much as the next person, but this is too much of a good thing. Momentary escapes to the Pine Barrens and Jersey Shore offered only momentary relief from the monotony. After five months, I am ready for change.

Nothing says “change” like green. Pale yellow-green. Bright kelly green. Deep forest green. The green of Nature. The green of Spring.  The green of New Life.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3126acsWhat a relief to see green in all its variations on a recent evening walk at John Heinz NWR, and soak in the sights and sounds of the new arrivals early Spring brought with it. Like the willows dancing in the breeze while a jet contrail slices the clear blue sky.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_2573acsSpring greens are subtle. Pussy willow along the water’s edge.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_2492acsSometimes the green is the canvas on which other colors are painted. Just the carpet of green leaves would be welcome sight. The golden flowers add that touch of flair.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_2779acsSometimes spring greens are red! At this time of year, many of the trees are bright crimson, as the red maples burst into bud…

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_2699acs…And flower.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_2716acsSometimes the green is not so welcome, like new shoots of Phragmites, an invasive plant found throughout the Refuge that a friend and I are trying to eradicate from a small plot. We knew it would come back. The fight is renewed for another growing season.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3198acsThe greening of the land brings with it new arrivals freshly returned from their wintering grounds. Red-winged Blackbirds have been back for a few weeks. Their CONK-ER-REE calls are anything but musical, but nonetheless music to my winter-weary ears.

The air is filled with the songs of birds. Song Sparrows, Carolina Wrens and Cardinals join the blackbird chorus. There’s an amphibian choir singing as well, as frogs have come out of the mud where they spent the winter to look for mates. The aptly named Spring Peepers make a surprisingly loud, high-pitched PEEP continuously. These are tiny frogs, no bigger than a fingernail. In all my searching, I have never seen one, though I have been nearly deafened by their noise. Singing tenor to the peepers’ soprano are the Wood Frogs, who sound more like ducks, with their ragged QUACK call.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3106acsSnapping turtles have also come out of the mud, and cruise along at the water’s surface.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3230acsTree Swallows came back recently. Now the sky over the impoundment is filled with the little blue jewels hawking insects. Which means, of course, that the insects are back too. The marshy environment of Heinz Refuge would be miserable with mosquitos were it not for our swallow friends. Which is why we have nest boxes for them.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3263acsFrequent squabbles break out over those nest boxes. This is prime real estate.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_2560acsGreat Egrets arrived last week. This one was enjoying an hors d’oeuvre, hoping for a more filling main course.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3031acsHere’s the greenest photo of all. Yes, I know – there’s no green, just the dreaded brown. This is one of our Bald Eagle pair sitting on its nest. Inside that nest are one or more eggs. Any day now (it might already have happened) a tiny, fluffy eaglet will break its way out of the shell and start its new life.

New life. It just doesn’t get any greener than that.

Texas Travelogue

Critter Radio Logo v3Up North, the wind is howling and the snow falls by the foot. But here in the heart of Texas, the maelstrom is far away. The late afternoon sun shines warmly on the gently rippled lake as a flotilla of stately Pelicans sets sail for Sunset Bay. Refined dining awaits.

151223_TX White Rock Lake_4114acsHello. I’m Arthur Pelican, travel editor for KRTR, Critter Radio. I’ve come here to White Rock Lake to sample the amenities and meet the guests at one of the finest avian winter resorts in Dallas.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4521acsNestled amid grasslands, wetlands and woodlands, this 1,015-acre jewel is the perfect escape from the cold and snow for the discriminating critter.

151229_TX White Rock Lake_4951Amenities include endless opportunities for water recreation, numerous docks and piers for sunbathing, and a variety of fine cuisine.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4448acsIn addition, the Lake’s location northeast of Big D offers an abundance of urban culture and nightlife within easy proximity.

151223_TX White Rock Lake_4146acsWhite Rock Lake is fed by White Rock Creek, a 30-mile creek that joins the Trinity River south of the Lake. The Creek and the Lake get their name from the white Austin chalk that makes up the streambed and banks. Large rocks of weathered chalk pepper the shores of the Lake.

151229_TX White Rock Lake_4828acsA popular highlight of the Lake is a large water park called the Spillway.

151229_TX White Rock Lake_4968acsDrought can put a damper on recreation, but not this year. There is no shortage of water in which to play, thanks to recent drenching rains. The Spillway fairly gushes with the precious liquid.

151229_TX White Rock Lake_4948acsDown the wide shallows of the Upper Spillway and around an island, water then streams over the elaborate Stair Steps of the Lower Spillway. And on to the Trinity River, 8 miles downstream.151229_TX White Rock Lake_4820acs

151229_TX White Rock Lake_5243acs Some birds prefer their solitude; for them the quaint coves of White Rock Lake offer the serenity they seek.151229_TX White Rock Lake_5127acs

151229_TX White Rock Lake_5016acsBut for the many who enjoy the social whirlwind, there is no shortage of prominent points and expansive bays where the feathered flock can see and be seen.

151223_TX White Rock Lake_4203acsPosh clubs abound, where singles can mingle, and perhaps become pairs…

151229_TX White Rock Lake_5083acsOr trios…

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4757acsOr… Perhaps a gentleman simply wishes a hideaway to escape over-ardent suitors!

151229_TX White Rock Lake_5235acsWhatever their tastes in dining and entertainment, be it lively fellowship or peaceful seclusion, rest assured the cultured critter will find it here at White Rock Lake.

151223_TX White Rock Lake_4007acsJust tell them Arthur Pelican from KRTR Critter Radio sent you. Bon voyage!

The Clown Prince of White Rock

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4486acsConsider the Coot.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4406acsIn the pantheon of White Rock Lake, he is the court jester.

Black of body, red of eye, white of bill, the American Coot is a plain-looking water bird that can’t figure out where he belongs.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4503acsOn water he swims and dives like a duck; but he isn’t a duck.

Consider the Coot. On land he doesn’t waddle, but walks like a chicken. He’s sometimes called “Mud Hen” and his shape resembles a chicken; but he isn’t a chicken.

In the air he’s awkward – but first he has to get there, a challenge for the coot. He takes off by running for a long way across the water while flapping his wings, like a loon; but he isn’t a loon.

Other birds don’t think much of the Coot.

151223_TX White Rock Lake_4127acsDouble-crested Cormorants, undeniably snooty, look down their bills from lofty heights at the Coot.

151223_TX White Rock Lake_4158acsGreat-tailed Grackle struts, smug in the knowledge that he outshines the Coot.

151229_TX White Rock Lake_4853acsGreat Egret is studiously cool, ignoring the Coots.

151229_TX White Rock Lake_5177acsYes, the bird royalty treats the Coot with disdain. Not so the squirrels. They think the Coot’s a little nuts.

Perhaps this is why. What sensible bird would hurl himself at a wall of rushing water 5 times his height – for fun?!? Yet that is what the Coot does, over and over again. He walks up the face of the dam spillway until the water knocks him tail over teacups and washes him down the stream bed. Then he walks up and does it again. It’s whitewater kayaking, coot-style.

Coot Collage 2

Click for full-size image

FUN FACT: The American Coot is most comfortable on the water, but his feet aren’t webbed like a duck’s. Instead they have long toes with lobes of skin that propel him through the water. The same lobes keep him from sinking into mud when he’s on shore leave.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4696acsLook out, here come the Coots!

White Rock Lake is a large park in a highly urban area. Lots of folks come down to the shore with bags of bread for the “ducks.” What they get is Coots.

Consider the Coot. The Coot is a rail; rails are usually known for their secretiveness. But he’s a noisy gregarious bird that hangs out in large flocks in the open.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4727aWhich squabble over every bit of junk food tossed their way.

Other birds think this behavior unseemly. Little do they know how magical, how wondrous, it is!

An audience of young urban children is enthralled with his comedy routine. They giggle at his antics, and shriek with delight. For many of them, the park is a rare escape from the noise, the congestion and the concrete of their neighborhoods. The Coot is their first connection with wildlife.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4722acsIf even a few of these children grow to love and defend wild animals and wild lands, it will have started here. In this urban park, in the heart of Dallas, on the wild edge between man and nature.

The promise of the future rests on the wings of the clown prince of White Rock, the American Coot.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4492acsAll hail the Coot!

A Bird In Hand

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6463acsWildlife photography should always be this easy!

While in Cape May, I stumbled upon a demonstration by the Cape May Raptor Banding Project. This is a research project that captures, measures and bands hawks at several sites in the fall to study migration. The researchers also meet the public to discuss their work, bringing banded hawks for up close observation.

And I do mean UP CLOSE. Usually I’m photographing hawks on the wing in the distance. Occasionally I’ll be lucky enough to see one perched nearby. But here was a chance to see and photograph these magnificent birds 10 feet away – and they weren’t going anywhere!

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6285acsThe birds arrived in these tubes. They’d already been measured and banded. The tubes keep them calm.

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6344acsThe first birds out were Sharp-shinned Hawks, male and female.

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6335acs“What’s up there? I want to be up there!”

After we’d had a good long look at the Sharpies, they were released. Sharpies live in forests; since they pursue their prey through dense stands of trees, they are speedy and acrobatic fliers. It didn’t take long for them to fly out of sight.

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6360acsGetting a Cooper’s Hawk out of a travel tube. One of the two presenters was a young college intern. She handled these birds like a pro.

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6375acsEven when they objected. Her free hand is making a motion meant to calm the hawk. Note the talon marks on her left hand!

Cooper’s Hawks live in woodlands, but have become quite comfortable in suburban yards. They take an interest in the songbirds on my feeders from time to time.

Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks look very much alike and are difficult to tell apart. Experienced birders talk about differences in tail shape, head size, eye position and other field marks.

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6433acsCooper’s Hawks are bigger than Sharpies, but this isn’t apparent unless you have two next to each other to compare. And since female Sharpies are nearly as big as male Cooper’s hawks, it still may not be obvious. This is a Cooper’s, and a big bird, so I think this is the female.

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6501acsAfter the two Cooper’s Hawks were released, the last raptor came out to play, a Merlin. Look at those eyes! Quite a contrast to the yellow eyes of the other hawks. Merlins, in fact, aren’t hawks at all, but falcons.

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6497acsThe presenters gave us a good opportunity to see the detail in the back feathers…

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6515acs…and the wings…

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6524acs… and the talons, sporting a brand-new band. Understanding the migration patterns of hawks is important in protecting the birds and the habitats they need for survival.

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6567acsAnd off goes our Merlin! No longer a bird in hand, disappearing over the horizon like magic.

It was magical to spend this time with these beautiful raptors.

Lost on the Lakes

150821_MI LSP Lost Lake Kayak_1665acsNow, as the cold days draw near, close your eyes and dream…dream of a Michigan summer…

The sun shines brightly in an azure sky laced with fluffy white clouds. All is quiet but for the fading voices ashore and the rhythm of the paddle. Dip, swish, drip, drip; dip, swish, drip, drip.

150821_MI LSP Hamlin Kayak_1527acsThe kayak glides effortlessly across the deep blue of Hamlin Lake toward an island of rich greenery and white sands. A cool breeze brushes warm skin and paints ripples on the canvas of the water.

150821_MI LSP Hamlin Kayak_1546acsAt the small island’s tip, driftwood and old pilings bleach in the sun while a single tree keeps watch. A kayak rests on the shore, awaiting the return of its paddlers from an exploration of the island’s wild interior.

Across Hamlin Lake lies the inviting inlet of the much smaller Lost Lake. A spit of land barely ten feet wide separates the two lakes.

150821_MI LSP Hamlin Kayak_1598acsThe Lost Lake Trail spans the inlet on an elevated walkway. Underneath, an uprooted stump has wedged itself under the bridge. This is the land of drowned forests, cut down and buried under water in the name of progress. Progress complete, the lakes are now a place for play.

150821_MI LSP Hamlin Kayak_1550acsLost Lake is serene, and the water amazingly clear. Every tree stump and aquatic plant can be seen with clarity.

150821_MI LSP Lost Lake Kayak_1620The coves offer a sheltered place for water lilies and sedges to grow. On the isthmus, a tree leans at a precarious angle. The peacefulness of a summer’s day is deceptive; the Lake Michigan coast is a harsh environment, and whipping winter winds take their toll on trees clinging to the water’s edge.

150821_MI LSP Lost Lake Kayak_1661acsA towering sand dune offers a place to stop, rest and explore.

150821_MI LSP Lost Lake Kayak_1681acsIf snails would seek sanctuary from predators, they will not find it here. The shallows of Lost Lake offer no hiding place. Yet again, the crystal clear water astounds.

150821_MI LSP Lost Lake Kayak_1712acsA pair of damselflies patrols over a field of water lilies.

150820_MI LSP Lost Lake Trail_5156acsWee mushrooms loom large over moss and pine needles, a landscape in miniature on the forest floor.

150820_MI LSP Lost Lake Trail_5163acsTiny treasures such as this captivate the imagination and tempt the soul to linger.

150821_MI LSP Lost Lake Kayak_1728acsBut nearby the narrow entrance to a small cove beckons, dark and mysterious.

150821_MI LSP Lost Lake Kayak_1754acsAt its mouth, a fallen log has been eaten away by time like Swiss cheese. In one nook, new life has taken root.

150821_MI LSP Hamlin Lake Kayak_1814acsNothing is so tenacious as a plant. It takes but a tiny bit of soil, tucked in a crevice of an old tree stump, for a new tree to sprout and grow. Water, soil, light. What more could a tree wish?

150821_MI LSP Hamlin Kayak_1900acsMallards splash and bathe by the roots of an overturned tree…

150820_MI LSP Lost Lake Trail_5134acs…while a green frog idles in the shade.

150821_MI LSP Hamlin Lake Kayak_1846acsAn intricate entwining of twisted white limbs adorned with greenery graces the shore. Tree sculpture is but one form of Nature’s artwork.

All too soon, fierce winter will intrude upon peaceful meditations of summer. When it comes, find sanctuary in dreams of sheltered coves and sand beaches. The dip, swish, drip, drip of the paddle. The plants swaying sinuously beneath the clear water, the sparkle of the sun on the surface, the sand and the trees reflected there.

150821_MI LSP Hamlin Kayak_1890acsSavor the moments spent lost in reverie… on the lost lakes.

The Guest Request Fest

Critter Radio Logo v3Well, hel-loooo to all you birds, bugs and beasties out there in Critter Land. You’re tuned to KRTR 99.9 FM, Critter Radio. I’m Opal White, that’s right, white hot and bright. So glad you could join me tonight for the Guest Request Fest.

Yes, boys and gulls, it’s time for you loyal listeners to let us know what you want to hear. Don’t wait, don’t hesitate! Call, text or tweet now with your requests. Miss Opal will make all your dreams take flight, that’s right.

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3540acsWe’ll start right in on the ground floor, shall we? Master Grasshopper brings our first entreaty of the hour: “Kung Fu Fighting”.

150711_PA Nockamixon Cliffs_1293acsThe butterfly brigade chimes in with this weighty wish from slim Ms. Tiger Swallowtail. She’s an edgy sort of dame, that’s right. Her fave tune? “Edge of Seventeen”.

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3502acsFor a Red-spotted Purple, what could be more appropriate than “Blue On Black”? How apt.

150722_DE Bombay Hook_1761aWell, what have we here – a twin tweet! A pair of lookalikes indeed, the Monarch…

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3764acs… and the Viceroy.

Monarchs taste bad, Viceroys don’t, but most butterfly gourmets will shun both. Viceroys are big copycats, and more than once that has saved their silly little – oh, excuse me, family show, that’s right.

Let’s get back to their song, “Me and My Shadow”, shall we?

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3705acsIs that the phone ringing? Yes, I think it is. And who have we here? Why it’s the Rev. Green Frog, he of the roly-poly peepers. What dark secrets have been confessed to the good preacher?

He wants to hear “Your Lying Eyes”.

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3628acsOn the other side of town, someone is lonely tonight. Jeremiah Bullfrog feels he’s lost his only friend. Here’s a little ditty for his melancholy blues as he contemplates the vastness of the pond – “It’s Not Easy Being Green”.

Miss Opal could cheer up this sprite, that’s right.

150804_PA HNWR Dragonfly_3428acsMr. Pondhawk has a request…

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3557acs…and wait, we’ve got Mrs. Pondhawk on the other line. What a lovely couple – they’ve both asked for that romantic oldie, “I Got You Babe”.

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3675acsWe have time for one more rhythmic requisition, and it comes tonight from a croaker immersed in self reflection. “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”, how true!

Oh, my, my, Miss Opal hears her theme song; it’s always too soon to leave you. Another splendiferous edition of the musical petition, the Guest Request Fest, has come to a close.

Until next time, I’m Opal White, that’s right, white hot and bright, and this is KRTR 99.9 FM, Critter Radio. I bid you farewell with Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, like me, doing it “My Way”.

150804_PA HNWR Great Egret_3208 acs“Egrets, I’ve had a few…”