St. Croix Chronicles: Dawn all day long

Wandering through backwaters full of wildlife on a beautiful spring day.

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6 minute read

Click to watch full video on YouTube.

The trees slip by closely on either side of my kayak, big silver maples with flaking bark, submerged in a couple feet of water. The branches are covered in both early red flowers and green growing buds, painting a picture of soft smudges everywhere I look.

With the river flooded, the normal network of channels and islands is erased. There is just one sheet of water, open in some places, and tree-studded in others.

I choose to paddle through the floodplain forest as much as possible, because it’s not always accessible, because I can get close-up looks at things, because there’s no wind, because it’s fun to slalom between tree trunks, and because I can sneak up on birds and beavers and even otters.

The beginning of May is like dawn all day long. Bright green growing things replace the white of winter and the long grayness of April. Birds fly back from the south, urgently seeking a mate and a nesting territory, singing their songs and searching for sometimes scarce food.

The river rises and the floodwaters wash its banks, then settles in for summer.

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This day, the third day of May, happens to be my birthday. I have crammed about six days worth of work into four days, so I can take Friday off and spend it on the river.

It’s one of the warmest and sunniest days so far, and I have food and water, my camera, and hours to spend on a six-mile stretch. I’m in no hurry, and there’s plenty to distract me and slow my progress. As the working father of two small children, such days are few and far between.

I launch the kayak about 10:30 in the morning, the sun starting to warm the valley, and enter a favorite system of side channels and sloughs. I’m immersed in photosynthesis and birdsong.

The human world and my worries recede behind the bluffs.

The high water gives me access to usually inaccessible areas, so, although it’s not what I had planned, I spend the first hour going upstream. I poke into places I’ve never been before. I paddle slowly, my head on a swivel, all my attention focused on where I am and what is happening.

Yellow-rumped warbler.

Yellow-rumped warblers (I prefer their other name, butterbutts) are almost everywhere. They are early migrants, the first ones having shown up almost a month ago. While they are boldly colored and fun to see, I’m hoping today might turn up some more recent arrivals.

On the floodplain island to my left, where there’s a slight rise that protrudes above the water, a fresh pile of sticks appears to be a beaver lodge in the making. I wonder if the enterprising engineer is trying to build a new home at this elevated water level. I wonder what it will do when the river drops.

I am suddenly given the chance to ask myself, when the animal surfaces 10 feet away. I fumble for my camera and press the shutter a split-second after it sees me, slapping its tail and diving under the water.

I don’t get a chance to ask about its construction project.

The worst wildlife photo I’ll ever publish.

A couple hours down the river, I have another aquatic rodent encounter.

I have been following a pair of trumpeter swans down a side channel, they are watchful but silent, swimming slowly, staying 100 yards ahead of me. It always looks like it takes a lot of effort for the largest waterfowl on the continent to take flight, so I try cutting across a flooded island, thinking perhaps I can get past them without forcing them into the air.

But I’m not trying too hard, mostly drifting with the current. It’s a slow-motion day. I’m a little lost in a reverie when an animal surfaces on the other side of some sticks pushed up against tree trunks. Another beaver, maybe I’ll get a better photo this time, I think.

I stop paddling and wait for it to resurface.

A few seconds later, a head pops up among the flotsam, ducks back under, and when it comes up again, I see it is not a beaver, but an otter, with its sleek whiskered face. It snorts and huffs and dives and surfaces. Suddenly, another one appears near woody debris to my left, then I hear one behind me. I suddenly and briefly feel surrounded, but just as quickly, I am left alone.

Another few moments, and I see two otters climb up on some logs farther back in the island. They lay there and watch me while I watch them. Eventually they start swimming around again, and then after a while diving and surfacing, I realize they are gone.

I have seen otters twice before on the St. Croix, once on the lower river near the Boom Site, and once up on the upper river by St. Croix State Park. Despite the fact I spend a lot of time on the water, they are simply reclusive and elusive.

It’s a good birthday. It’s not over.

Birdwise, besides the butterbutts, so far I’ve seen my first cowbirds of the year, a pied-bill grebe at a distance, frisky and familiar ruby-crowned kinglets, my first female red-winged blackbird, an eastern phoebe and a rough-winged swallow.

It’s nice to see these neighbors, but I’m holding out hope for the first prothonotary warbler of the year. I’ve seen them up and down this stretch before, and it was only a few days later last May when I saw my first one.

A much bigger bird soon gets my attention. A bald eagle soars off a tree branch on the bluff, and I see it was flying from a nest. The massive structure is at the top of a dead white pine, surrounded by other bright green pines.

A single brown-feathered chick sits stoically in the nest. It’s pretty big and already has the fierce beak and steady stare of its kind. In fact, its beak and feet are probably full-size at this point, looking even more intimidating on the juvenile face.

Bald eaglet.

This eaglet will spend roughly 10 or 11 weeks in the nest after hatching. According to the Raptor Resource Project, “For about the first half, it grows and gains weight. For about the second half, it grows flight feathers and starts developing the skills it will need post-fledge.”

This bird was definitely in the second half of its nest life, meaning it mostly likely was born as a helpless little thing in late March. At that time, it wouldn’t have been able to hold up its head, stand, or really see much.

A month later, it is watching me. It always seems like eagles know about everyone and everything that is happening on the river. I bow my head slightly, then paddle on under its surveillance.

My end point for this trip is approaching. I’ve been in the kayak for almost six hours, and it will feel good to stand up, warm up. Still no prothonotary warbler or other extraordinary birds, but that’s okay.

As I’m slipping once more through flooded forest, a small bird with big wings flies away from some flotsam. I follow it through the trees a short ways, and confirm it is a spotted sandpiper, a nice first of the year. It trots along a log, searching for insects to eat.

The sun is approaching the bluffs, the bird song is subsiding, and it’s time for me to go. I weave through one more island, and bump into dry ground.

I’m ready to return to the human realm. The river’s spring rituals can make even a tired middle-aged parent feel like a juvenile eagle or a shoot of green grass again.

Put your right foot in… (Spotted sandpiper)

See my iNaturalist list for the day here, showing observations of birds, flowers, and water weasels.


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3 responses to “St. Croix Chronicles: Dawn all day long”

  1. LisaSlisa schlingerman Avatar

    Thanks Greg for taking me along with you and your kayak through the sloughs.

    1. St. Croix 360 Avatar
      St. Croix 360

      Thank you for coming along!

  2. Kristin Tuenge Avatar
    Kristin Tuenge

    Greg
    I’m glad you had such a satisfying birthday and thanks for sharing the highlights of your trip.

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St. Croix Chronicles: Dawn all day long