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Canoeing and Herons

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve

Taking to open water in a kayak or canoe can be a quiet pleasurable wildlife encounter. There are liveries in Rockford and Newaygo for easy floats on the Rogue or Muskegon rivers. For those with their own vessels the opportunities are greater for one can put in and taken out at various locations. A bit farther away one can kayak the Glass River from the Michigan Audubon Otis Sanctuary in Barry County near Hastings. Going north to canoe the Pine River for a challenge or Little Manistee with more moderate water in the Cadillac region. Canoeing the Les Cheneaux Islands in northern Lake Huron can provide a protected paddle on big water where the islands help calm waves. I am not after the thrill of white caps or white water but seek wildlife instead.  

Karen and I enjoy quiet calm wildlife viewing on our trips. When I was a teenager, our church youth group goal was splashing, dumping, and cooling on a hot summer’s day but our family paddles were quiet and wildlife oriented. Boy scout trips were longer and included overnight camping. 

An American bittern, a wading bird that’s part of the heron family. 

A most mysterious experience in my life was while camping along the Rifle River on a scout trip. That night we heard large bubbles emanating from deep within the earth. For several years I heard the unnerving sound with no clue to its origin, but it seemed extraterrestrial. The sound has become considerably less frequent but can be heard in scattered locations when one is near a sizable marsh. The maker is the American Bittern, a bird in the heron family. I have heard it described as a thunder bird because of its sound but more frequently it is described as sounding like a water pump. I prefer the bubble description.

Other herons are croakers and the last time Julianne, Charlie, Karen, and I canoed together we heard and saw both Green and Great Blue Herons. Many ducks paddled along near the shore at a distance. Belted Kingfishers made their rattle call as they flew ahead or back over us in route to favorite fishing locations on their family’s river claim. Choice locations for kingfishers include sandy bluffs where they dig six-foot-deep nesting tunnels in the bank. 

A bit harder to see without binoculars are warblers, flycatchers, and sparrows that sing vibrant songs along shrubby or forested shores. They are present because mayflies, caddisflies, dragonflies, and many other insects have found healthy nature niches. It is always a joy to watch the aerial excellence of common whitetails, darners, and baskettail dragonflies capturing insects. We avoid disturbing fly anglers as we float past with our paddles held stationary. They cast special handmade flies in hopes of a good sparring with a fish before releasing it back so the fish can capture the real insect being imitated at the end of an angler’s line. It the stream is not catch and release, the fish might become a great human meal.

I like to paddle near shore to see many butterfly species nectaring on a host of beautiful flowers. Joe Pye Weed, Swamp Milkweed, and other flowers abound in August. Bird watching in May and June is best when bird song peaks and they are easier to see. We like August because it is warm, usually sunnier, and biting insects have subsided. A monthly, weekly, or even daily canoe venture would be nice. If only I could live a thousand lives at once to explore a thousand outdoor adventures in a thousand different nature niches simultaneously.  

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.

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