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French Creek Interlude

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Last Sunday, I threw the boat in the back of the car, packed a backpack of play clothes, took the kids to church, ate too much at the All Members Potluck, dropped Phoebs and Liam off with cousins and took off by myself for French Creek, on the West Virginia side of the Ohio River. French Creek will live in infamy because it's where Bill and I spotted (and I sketched thoroughly) West Virginia's First of State Little Gull (Larus minimus). NOBODY else we called to come see it managed to see it. This was B.C. (before digital cameras). And so, despite pages of may I say perfectly adequate Zick sketches from life, comparing it to the ring-billed gulls all around it, it remained as "Hypothetical" on the WV Rare Bird list. Please. How could Bill and I mistake a Little Gull with its slaty underwings and minuscule size for anything else? This is a question I've asked of rare records committees before. Substitute this question: How could Zick mistake Ohio's first of state Eurasian Collared-Dove for anything else? Durn thing flew by our birdwatching tower below eye level. I saw its collar, its large size, its pale sandy coloration, its square-tipped tail and its red eye, for Pete's sake. Sign me, "Hypothetical."

Digressing again. That was winter. This is the end of summer. That was about rare birds records committees. This is about boating. The tulips are turning yellow, a few maples are ablaze, it was hot hot hot--I believe we will be catapulted from summer straight into winter this year-- and rather still and I was swaddled in the only shirt I'd thought to bring, a heavy denim long-sleeved affair, with a thick PFD atop that. But I was alone and peaceful and having fun. There were a bunch of great blue herons striking poses wherever I looked,
Love the spray of wild iris behind this bird, and the two posts. Herons are so decorative.and I got some decent shots. I really like this one, with the spray coming off foot and wing, and the accidentally good composition (I was just leading the bird so it wouldn't fly out of the frame, and gave it room to fly in the picture). While I know these are not the only decent photos of great blue herons (possibly the most photographed bird on the planet), they're mine and I like them.

Wood ducks exploded out of every cove. Here's a pair, hen in the lead. I couldn't get the binocs on them fast enough to tell, but when I blew up my photos I could see that some of them had been drakes in full nuptial finery. Gorgeous! We're so lucky to have this ornate little duck as our most common breeder--yes, more common than mallards in this sycamore-laden biome. Yeah!I love doing that--taking a photo, just sort of randomly firing away at something you can barely see with your darn new bifocals through the viewfinder, and then finding that the camera saw all the detail you couldn't see, and did its best to identify the bird for you. It's a bit tricky getting the focus dot on the bird when it's doing about sixty and you're twisting your torso around trying to follow its trajectory without tipping your canoe. I'd love to say I can approach birds more closely in the canoe than I could otherwise, but all the birds at French Creek were super-spooky on Sunday.

A great egret circled overhead. I could see the bones in its wing as the light came through it. I never expect to see great egrets. They're always such a creamy white delight, and they always fill me with surprise and awe.Belted kingfishers scolded and rattled ahead of me. If there's a spookier bird, I haven't seen it. Those birds are just impossible to get close to. Bye, Sucka! You'd think they tasted wonderful, as leery as they are of humans. I got a couple of identifiable shots with the 300 mm. This one, where she's framed in sugar maple, is pretty nice, if you're not worried about seeing the bird.
And then I finally got a little closer. Obviously, she's wound tight as a spring, but she's still sitting...That's the wonderful thing about a little canoe. Mine is absolutely silent and smooth as silk on the water. When I see a bird ahead, I give it a few power strokes and then drift on my momentum as close as I can, firing away as I go. I wish my shutter were as quiet as my vehicle.

Though I was only paddling for about three hours, the things I saw and experienced will have to last me all week. I can't tell you what a difference it's made in my life to get out on the water. It seems the perfect anodyne for all that troubles me.

The only problem I've found is that I spend much of my mental energy now daydreaming about the serene waters I'd rather be paddling. I have friends who say this pleasant affliction/addiction will only get worse.


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