Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Witnessing the Freeze -- "Making Ice Weather"

For a guy who loves duck hunting and ice fishing, this scene presents inner conflict -- this past week's fast freeze may
bring an abrupt end to our hunting on the marsh (as ducks push further south toward warmer climates),
but as a hardwater fisherman, I always love consistent "making ice weather"

Somehow, almost three weeks have passed since my last post. After nearly nine months of journaling online (staying disciplined and posting 2-3 times/week, on average), I slipped off the wagon. This last month has most certainly been a time of transition, not only in day length and weather, but also in my work habits and routine. Seasonal changes consistently bring a shift in my priorities, and the change from fall into winter unfortunately typically has meant less time on site.

Removing a floating blind meant
breaking an inch of ice late last week
Fittingly, this is my 100th post. Just like the weather these last few days, it represents a turning of the page from fall harvest to winter cold.

These pages have been viewed more than 10,000 times in roughly three-quarters of a year. I've tracked readers from several dozen countries, pushed myself to write on dozens and dozens of topics, and really enjoyed not only the process but the feedback we've received. It's turned out to be a two-way opportunity for education -- one of the five "pillars" of our core mission.

While winter priorities mean things like accounting, budgeting, planning, designing, and grant writing, I'm making a renewed promise to myself not only to get to the marsh at least once per week, but also to keep writing and posting updates. (Trust me, there is still PLENTY going on!) This discipline of writing is good for me, and hopefully it's good for any of you who benefit from even a "moment in the marsh."

Thanks for reading, and thanks for the ongoing encouragement. This has already been one heck of a ride!

Truth is, last Thursday/Friday's cold didn't technically cue our first freeze -- the actual first was untimely in that low 20s
happened to coincide with dead calm for one night . . . the night before the second opener for duck season (November 11th);
while that ice cover was short-lived (<48 hours), this one seems to be here to stay for a while . . .
while a few solitary holes persist, I'd call today our official freeze-up date, and with a forecast of highs below freezing
for much of the next ten days, I think I better get my ice fishing gear dusted off

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Mammals, Mammals Everywhere!

Despite the fact that we see plenty of evidence of coyotes on the property (mainly in the form of scat and tracks),
a motion sensing camera has proven to be the most reliable way to verify their presence 

This evening had to mark some kind of a personal record. In just over 90 minutes in a tree stand (4:15 p.m. till dark), I literally saw seven mammals underfoot: white-tailed deer (three -- none in range), coyote, red fox, Virginia opossum, muskrat, fox squirrel, and cottontail rabbit. I would love to know how many mammalian species frequent the marsh in total, but even with several bats, mice, shrews, etc., I'd be surprised if we could get much past a couple dozen.

Seeing the red fox and the coyote during the same sit is noteworthy -- especially when seen just 10 minutes or so apart. While the ODNR lists Erie County as "Medium" in terms of population for both canines, the statewide (and more regional) trends differ pretty dramatically for both furbearers.

Relative abundance based on bowhunter survey indices, 1990-2015 (ODNR, Division of Wildlife);
I placed them next to each other, for a side-by-side comparison (click to enlarge)

The regression lines above demonstrate the broader trend: coyote numbers have been on the increase across Ohio and the Midwest over the last twenty years, while red fox numbers have declined precipitously. I have heard anecdotally that the two species -- while significantly different in size and behavior -- do not commingle nicely. I'm not confident of the science behind this, but I do know (1) coyotes are highly adaptive to both habitat and food sources, and (2) the red fox was struck by a nasty and persistent bout with mange in the early part of the timeline detailed above.

While I can't readily put my fingers on population guestimates, I know from experienced local trappers that numbers of foxes went way down (like to near non-existent) maybe 15 years ago in northern Ohio. Now, they seem to be rebounding. Especially considering the fact that we have picked up as many as six coyotes at a time on the same trail camera (2016), it was fun to see both species tonight. This is only the second time I've seen a red fox on the property in going on three years.

Sunset from my stand this evening -- in addition to my furry visitors, I witnessed dozens of swans (tundras and trumpeters),
hundreds of geese, and maybe a thousand ducks enter the marsh -- not to mention the eagles
. . . not too shabby
As an aside, I should mention that I saw a groundhog as I pulled into the bunkhouse before hunting (mammal #8), saw a red-tailed hawk glide past with some kind of a miniature rodent (species #9) in its talons, and fittingly, caught a glimpse of a skunk (species #10) as I was pulling out to leave.

The seemingly ever-present raccoon was the only common mammal -- other than maybe a chipmunk or red squirrel -- that I didn't see tonight. My brother did see a mink from his stand last Sunday evening. And with recent signs from beaver (see previous post), our four-legged furry friends seem to be active as of late. I'm still waiting for visual confirmation of this last one. I'm also told an otter isn't completely out of the question.

For a comprehensive list of the most common mammal species found in Ohio, along with some basic information about each, see the ODNR's Species Index Guide.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Busy as a . . .

Certain creatures leave evidence that makes their presence pretty unmistakable; Roy just captured this fresh sign
just inside our main opening to the bay

Life has been particularly busy as of late. I simply haven't found the time to write much this last week. I guess that makes the subject of today's post particularly apropos . . .

Back in the spring, I posted about our most prevalent rodent at the marsh -- the muskrat. Just recently, Roy found fresh evidence of their much larger cousins -- the beaver -- for the first time within our boarders. We've had some old sign on the east marsh and neighbors have had to trap a couple over recent years, but this was our first confirmed visit since we've begun our work on the property.

Photo courtesy of the Ohio Division of Wildlife
Considering these waterside lumberjacks can reach weights surpassing 60-pounds (compared to 1 to 5-lbs for a 'rat), it's not surprising that beavers are the largest rodent in Ohio. And like all rodents, they have to exercise their teeth.

Roy got a kick out of the fact that our recent guest chose to fall two willows that were 6-8" in diameter and that he (or she?) was falling them into an opening 100+ feet wide -- at the mouth of our estuary where the marsh water connects with Sandusky Bay. If creating a dam was the goal, this ambitious critter bit off more than he could could chew. But that's apparently not unusual, especially with adolescents (<3 years old).

Had to slip in photo of our oldest son (10)
just before his first time in the tree stand;
I'll hopefully have time to re-tell some fun
stories from last Friday night's sit soon!
Based on annual estimates from statewide surveys (largely tallied with trapper input), Ohio can boast of 25,000-45,000 beavers in any given year. Or at least that's the range published by the Ohio Division of Wildlife since the late 1990s. The northeast counties are our hot spot.

Prized for the properties of their pelt (warm, soft, and water repelling), beaver were actually critical to early European settlement in our area. Fur traders made their way through the unforgiving Great Black Swamp largely motivated by this specific animal. Beaver pelts were literally a form of currency.

At their peak, there were 400 million American beaver in the United States. By 1830, they were completely eliminated (extirpated) from Ohio and numbers dwindled to isolated pockets throughout the Midwest. It wasn't until one hundred years later (1936 to be exact) that the first (four-legged) pioneers made their way back into NE Ohio.

It is obviously neat to see them back in marsh country. But as I've heard it said, they are best enjoyed "on the neighbor's marsh." These industrious creatures are powerful diggers and competent brush-clearers. We are hopeful that this visitor was a guest, and that he doesn't feel obliged to make our marsh home . . . to block any of our pipes or water conveyance structures or to dig through any of our precious dikes.

Back to one of my common refrains: time will tell.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Nature's Vitamins and New Trees

Gizzard shad -- a welcomed and well-timed morsel in the marsh

Yesterday, I took about twenty images of the individual photographed above before I got the lighting right. (It didn't help that I was using my cell phone and a crude kitchen light in the bunkhouse.) I went to the trouble of getting the shot of this modest (and smelly) "baitfish" because the species always reminds me of this time of year. And their presence in the marsh lead to a few interesting sights as my day progressed yesterday.

One of ten large native trees planted
around the bunkhouse this past weekend
(yellow poplar or tulip tree)
Gizzard shad spawn in huge numbers mainly in larger lakes, reservoirs, and rivers throughout Ohio (and in many states east of the Rockies) in the spring. While adults can exceed 20" in length -- and 3+ pounds -- they are perhaps most important in the food web as they grow to the size pictured above . . . a modest 3-4 inches.

While survival rates are low during early development (largely because they are being eaten along the way), millions -- perhaps billions -- survive their first summer in Lake Erie and its tributaries. As with midges and warblers, nature is setting the table with gizzard shad. Just as temperatures drop in mid- to late autumn, temperature sensitive yearling shad pulse into shallow water in huge numbers. Their fat-rich bodies serve as mobile and essential energy boots not just for other fish (stocking up for a long, tough winter) but for fish-eating birds prepping for or working through a strenuous seasonal migration.

I watched eight hooded mergansers and literally thousands of terns pluck unsuspecting shad from the marsh throughout my morning yesterday. I focused on the ducks carefully for the better part of a half hour, and based on my observation, they were batting a pretty high average. An individual duck would come up with a fish about 50% of the time. Good for the ducks; not so good for the shad.

As a sidebar, I had to smile as I drove the kids to school this morning. Our path follows the banks of the Maumee River, and when we got to the flat, exposed rocks and rapids along Side Cut Metropark, the kids couldn't believe the number of gulls feasting up tight along the shore. There had to be several thousand packed tightly together both low in the air and on the water. We have seined shad together this time of year at that exact location, so everyone knew what was going on. We pulled over briefly to take in the spectacle. Happy gulls, happy kids, happy dad. The seasons march on.

I'll share more of the backstory as to how these awesome trees got planted in a future post, but for now, I just
wanted to point out how much of an improvement they make as you approach from our south entrance
These three oaks are already pushing 15' tall; it will be tons of fun to see them grow to be 75'+!
-- we're excited for the shade they will eventually bring (not to mention the acorns)

Thursday, November 9, 2017

A Picture-Perfect Night in the Tree Stand

A view of the West Marsh -- looking W/NW -- from one of my favorite perches
(as always, click to enlarge to enjoy more of the detail)

It's amazing how perspective changes 16' off the ground. This might be especially true in marsh country, where topography changes are just as often measured in inches rather than feet. But as a deer hunter who has spent countless hours each autumn for decades now in a tree stand, I can attest that it really doesn't matter where you are, if you are up in the air.

Last evening was one of those unanticipated but memorable nights on this remarkable land. A full morning of meetings in Sandusky fostered some pretty exciting discussions about the possibility of future improvements not only to our site, but to neighboring land and water. Roy and I then reconvened back at the bunkhouse to talk through the details of a tree planting effort that is slated to happen around our field office this weekend (more on that in a post hopefully early next week). He then gave me just the nudge I needed to get suited up for my first official deer hunt of the season. I was on the fence about going (so much to do), but boy am I glad I went.

My preferred shooting window; never a bad way to spend an autumn afternoon
(note Phrag patch in the upper-left, as mentioned below)
While last night's hunt took place about two months later in the season than it would have four kids ago, it was worth the wait. [Spoiler alert: I never released an arrow. But it was still just what I needed.]

I have found real rejuvenation in sitting quietly in the elements, especially -- for whatever reason -- when it's cold. Fishing and hunting are often my chosen means to put "some extra fresh air on my face," as I like to say. I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I loved the heart-thumping anticipation associated with the approaching movement in the nearby Phragmites stand that methodically started five minutes after I sat down. There is not much better than intensely watching and listening to nature.

And of course, I loved seeing the six deer that walked unknowingly beneath my statued gaze -- first, two does and two yearlings at ~60 yards, then (<5 minutes later) a seasonally-excited 4-point buck in hot pursuit, and finally (just before sunset), a mature 8-point.

The view over my right shoulder just as the sunset is hitting a golden mulberry and a sea of autumn dogwoods --
truly awesome!
But what I maybe like most of all about deer hunting is the quiet and the solitude. I love observing nature being natural. I also love that my brain can quiet itself, and decide whether it wants to think about a challenge at work, a situation on the home front, or whether or not it's a rabbit, a squirrel, or a 10-point buck creeping up behind me. I get to choose.

I have come to use my time in the stand not only as an avenue to put choice protein in the freezer while culling a population that has unintentionally ballooned way beyond its carrying capacity in much of Ohio. I also use it as a means to really focus on the things most important in my life.

I bring my personal intentions to the tree and try to think hard and long for all those people and things in need of the most prayer. But the thoughts come more easily somehow in a tree stand. Over the last couple seasons, I've tried to really focus on one particular person each time out. Last night, it was an aunt, who passed away earlier this week. She died as gracefully as she lived for more than 86 years. And like every other way she touched my life, my interaction last night was yet another beautiful gift. I know it is my second informal memorial in as many weeks, but thank you, Aunt Mary Jo. You will truly be missed.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Mostly Cloudy (or Partly Sunny?)

While a "large" kinglet weighs about the same as a stack of three pennies (~8 g), these active, little buggers are
one of my absolute favorites; cloudy skies made their yellow-gold-orange crested caps more muted,
but they still put on a show in the tangle of dogwoods, grapes, and willows

After a full week in my office, I have to say I was pretty excited to be driving eastbound on Friday morning for a day in the field. Sunshine was in the forecast for the first time in days, so I had a full itinerary planned for photo-monitoring. Lingering low clouds and a northeast breeze made their presence known during a brief gas station stop en route. By the time I made my final approach to the property, it was clear that "mostly sunny" in Toledo was going to translate to something different on the marsh -- at least for the start of the day.

This is a phenomenon I've gotten pretty accustom to over the last few years, but I have to admit, I was pretty disappointed as "partly sunny" (at best) pretty quickly transitioned to "mostly cloudy." The lighting would be decent for wildlife photography, but I've found that sunshine is a nice addition when taking landscape shots for reference. So, as is so often the case, I audibled to a laundry list of other odds and ends.

Virginia creeper is nearing its seasonal end, but the vibrant crimson
seemed worthy of the visual memory
Peaks of sunlight kept tempting me to circle back to my original plan, but the power struggle between the temperature in the air (40s to mid-50s by late afternoon) and the temperature of the bay (probably on the lower end of that same range) -- with sustained northeast winds -- were a recipe for nearly constant clouds.

I took the opportunity to sit in one of our newly placed tree stands over my lunch hour (sans lunch), but the wind direction wasn't right for deer movement and it really ended up being more of an impromptu window into current bird activity. The list of observed species grew to more than 20 quickly, but the highlight for me was the nearly constant stream of passing golden-crowned kinglets. These miniature-sized insect-eaters came in twos and threes. And, as is so often the case, they were nearly constantly on the move. Of course, the only one that cooperated and sat still for more than 3 seconds did so about three feet from my right arm, when the camera was back in the truck.

Showy dogwood leaves in sunshine
[ASIDE: Make sure you check out the Cornell Lab's profile of the kinglet (see link above). Like all of their entries, they share so many "cool facts." Example: The tiny Golden-crowned Kinglet is hardier than it looks, routinely wintering in areas where nighttime temperatures can fall below –40° Fahrenheit. I can vouch for this. I first took note of the kinglet during my first winter in college -- in central Minnesota. The temperature that evening was definitely below zero!]

Ironically, it wasn't until about 30 minutes before I promised myself I'd get back on the road home Friday evening that the blue sky really made its full appearance. Better late than never.

As I scrambled around to capture what might be the last stands of certain peak autumn colors for this year (big winds in the forecast for Sunday), I thought to myself, this may also be the last day I could even consider working in a t-shirt. And just a few hours earlier, I had been wishing I had a winter hat.

We'll see though. "Normal" in terms of weather is hard to define anymore. While I really don't want to be, I could be back in short-sleeves yet this month -- or even in December.

The last remaining leaves on the largest cottonwood outside the bunkhouse; note the blue sky and that this was the same
tree that housed an oriole nest that entertained me back in May and June -- when the leaves were green and new

P.S. As the winds calmed and the late afternoon sunshine finally broke through, I heard both chorus frogs and peepers in the reed canary grass off the bunkhouse. Someone needs to tell those peepers that they are Spring peepers -- and it's November!

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Deer Activity on the Rise Through a Transition on the Marsh

A mature doe ventures out along one of our property lines. Whitetail numbers are strong in the area, but deer behavior
in a marsh is unique to deer habits in a woodlot or amidst traditional agricultural land

The last week has brought much more seasonable temps (30s to 50ish) and finally a bit more pop to autumn colors that were -- until now -- pretty muted by temperatures 10-20 degrees above average. With steely skies and temperatures in the 30s, it felt like Halloween yesterday. And it certainly feels like November today.

The deer got the memo. Our motion cameras -- set-up, in part, to monitor for trespassing* -- have picked up a lot more four-legged traffic these last couple weeks. And if history is any guide, the rut (the annual pursuit of does by bucks) should be in full swing in the next week or so. I, along with a few close friends and family members, do archery hunt the property. But I've found there is a whole new learning curve when hunting in and around an expansive marsh. There are plenty of places to hide . . . and deer have no hesitation swimming to seclusion. In fact, it's somewhat of a rarity that we even see deer during much of the season. And when we do, it's just as apt to be in the water. I've even had them wade right through my decoys during a duck hunt. Pretty surreal.

I watched four mature bucks pursue a solitary doe on my drive home from dropping my son at school this morning. Now that duck season is temporarily closed (as of this past Sunday night and until November 11), I can shift my pursuits. I hope to "get in the tree" (into my tree stand) over the next few days.

The "break" or the "split" between open waterfowl seasons gives us a chance to fine-tune our water levels and take care of a few odds and ends. But the field season is largely winding down. Today, I worked on cataloging my regular photo-documentation efforts -- literally thousands of individual frames (see examples below). I will take my monthly monitoring photos the next time the sun shines (maybe Friday), and continue to transition toward inside work and winter pursuits (planning, design, grant writing, etc.). As with nature, our efforts are seasonal and cyclical.

The eastern end of the "Center Unit" of the East Marsh that we just sold to the neighbors, pre-restoration -- October 2016

One year later: a comparable perspective, after strategic water level manipulation -- October 2017;
the resulting diversity and quality of the vegetation in this area surpassed our expectations

* NOTE: I mention trespassing above. Fortunately, we have not had to deal with too much in terms of unwelcome (human) guests, at least on the majority of the property. We are dealing with a chronic littering/dumping issue on an isolated area near the village (but just outside village limits). We have frequent visits from shoreline fisherman along the roadways. Most probably just assume that the water is owned by the State. And we have had some issues with illegal ATV access. But again, this has been isolated to a specific portion of the property, and I think we have now sent the message that the property is private and that they are to stay out. I will likely speak more on this topic in the future, but suffice it to say, its a challenge. How do you keep a large site visually unaltered without running the risk of a small sub-set of the population taking advantage? All we can do is stay vigilant, be firm if we confront a trespasser, and continue to try to educate.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Power of Passion: Thank You Dave Brunkhorst

This family just knows how to smile; here are a few of the subsequent
generations who will be carrying on Dave's legacy in the marsh

The entire Lake Erie marsh community, waterfowling, and Standing Rush recently lost a very dear friend. Dave Brunkhorst was not just a neighbor. He was a perennial smiling face, a regular visitor, a helping hand, a tireless cheerleader, a modest mentor, a great story teller, an unbelievable shot, and one hell of a duck hunter . . . just to hit a few high points! I encourage you to read more on Dave's many accomplishments and life experiences, but to me, Dave will stand as a testament to the power of a passion.

Dave Brunkhorst
Dave LOVED duck hunting. He loved duck camp. He loved duck trips. He loved the feel of a shotgun in his hand. He loved turning clay pigeons into clay powder (like 998 out of 1000 times). But more than all that, in the relatively short time I really got to know Dave, I could tell that what he really loved was combining his passion for the outdoors with his passion for being with people.

Roy has known Dave for decades. I first met him about 12 years ago. At that time, he was the County Engineer for Ottawa County, and I was a young snot courting him on a new engineering product. I wrote him a letter and asked if I could come into his office and introduce the technology that I was working on. He could have taken that as "this guy wants to pitch me a product," and simply ignored the letter. But instead, he invited me to the office -- and ultimately to his marsh . . . which I realized about a day into learning about this Bay View adventure, was right next door to the marsh that (a decade later) I was trying to buy.

A further skeptic could say Dave was just accommodating because I had a potential solution to one of his marsh problems (e.g. muskrat holes). That may have contributed, I'll concede, but Dave was just the kind of guy who would hear you out. We hit it off right from the start, and I was fortunate enough to get to know he and his long-time friend and conservationist, Ed Moxley, based on that initial marsh tour.

[As an aside: Dave and Ed leased our far east unit, the "Dinky Track," the first year we owned it. I always marveled when I'd hear no more than a few shots at a time coming from their blind. The reason: "Dr. Death" and "Mr. Doom" never missed. If you were a duck flying over their blind, you were a dead duck. Now Dave's nephew carries on that tradition as a leaseholder -- and also as a hell of a shot, I might add.]

The world lost this particular waterfowler too early. But Dave has family ready to continue to carry the torch. And we will do all that we can to be there to help. Thanks, Dave, for all that you brought to the world.

Dave (far left), perhaps the way he liked it best: with family, ducks, and a dog
(special thanks to the Brunkhorst family for permission to use these great photos)

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Another Waterfowl Species in the Marsh: A Goose of the Sea

An adult Brant, distinguished from a juvenile by the white comma behind its head, winters by the tens of thousands
on the Atlantic Coast; we are lucky to see a handful in Ohio each year
Photo courtesy of the The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

We picked up another bird species on the official site-specific tally this week, and fittingly considering the season, it was a waterfowl species. I have to admit though, I've never "added" a species to a property total quite so literally. (Usually the verification comes by way of binocular or camera lenses -- not shotgun shell.)

Tuesday morning, one of our West Marsh blinds harvested a Brant, a small goose most at home on the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines. Noticeably smaller than a Canada goose but larger than a mallard (one of our biggest common ducks), this gray-tone fowl had the guys scratching their heads a bit. The solitary bird passed low over the decoys, and ultimately presented well enough to justify a shot.

While abundant -- even to the point of approaching nuisance levels -- in their traditional ranges, Brant are categorized by the Ohio Division of Wildlife as "rare to uncommon." They are one of 94 bird species that the ODNR identifies as historically present within its borders, but they are asterisked in that they "may not occur annually."

Adult Brant (Atlantic variety)
Photo courtesy of the The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The Brant breeds in the high Arctic tundra and those that make their way past us are en route to winter grounds along the Atlantic Coast. (Pacific fliers were once thought to be a separate species, but near as I can tell, they are still considered one taxonomically.)  Independent of the coastline, they are definitely birds of the sea, so any observation inland is a temporary stop-over. Virtually all Ohio records are from the shoreline of Lake Erie.

Brant typically occur regionally as single birds or very small groups. Our experience this week fit that description. The guys were pretty sure they saw a second individual later in the morning, feeding in the open water a couple hundred yards from the blind. To make it very clear, harvesting Brant is completely legal. In fact, they are managed just as Canada geese are in the Buckeye State. Seasons mirror each other, as does the daily bag (three birds per hunter).

While the beauty of a bird is seldom captured too long after the shot, there is some discussion of having this
specimen mounted to help replicate its handsome look on the wing -- it's pretty unlikely the hunter will shoot another one . . .
at least in Ohio

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Combating an Aerial Assault: Phragmites Seed

A sea of Phragmites (about 20 acres worth) beneath an awe-inspiring blue October sky;
plants propagate quickly by rhizome (rooted expansion), but the broom-like seed heads also set new pioneers by wind

With raindrops steadily falling for the second day in a row, winds howling, temperatures nose-diving, and the possibility of snow showers in the extended forecast for the first time this season, I thought an image of last week's blue sky might be warranted. But for as beautiful as the top of the image above feels, the bottom is pretty ugly. This is an overview taken from the south side of one of our outlying parcels ("Parcel 2") facing northwest toward Sandusky Bay (which is just beyond the cottonwoods in the middle of the image).

Late last week, Phrag seed literally blanketed much of the
downwind vegetation; this dogwood is hardly recognizable
(click to enlarge)
The view encompasses about 20 acres (~20 football fields), but there isn't much visible other than the highly invasive thorn in the marsh community's proverbial side: Phragmites australis. I've spoken on this subject plenty already, but this plant truly is a menace. It can grow from nothing to 16' tall in a single season. It can produce an astounding 200 discrete stems in ONE SQUARE YARD! And as the image above demonstrates, it can make a monoculture out of a marsh in no time flat.

Dry conditions a year ago literally about sucked the life out of this stand. As of last fall, only a few smaller pockets of lush green sustained the dwindling Phrag, and it looked like more upland competition might actually win out. This is not something we are used to seeing. It looked like good fortune.

But note that I said the dry conditions about sucked the life out of the stand. This year's historically high water levels in the lake and bay meant an influx of new moisture, and the Phragmites got the upper hand . . . and then some.

This is our largest wetland area where we do NOT have the ability to manipulate water levels. If the water goes way down, a more upland mix may take root. If the water level goes up, a sea of Phragmites ensues.

Parking lot planter
This is a case not just for the ongoing funding of the aerial Phragmites spraying program (which we participated in back in 2015 but regionally lost funding for in 2017). It is also a case for the merits of marsh management within an earthen levy system (aka diked marshes). Water drives all life; and even an inch or two can make the difference between rich habitat and a virtual vegetative dessert in a wetland setting.

Seed dispersal like we are seeing at present at the marsh is disheartening on one hand, but the good news is we have learned how to minimize the negative impacts by keeping high water on adjacent habitats at this time of year and during the early couple months of next spring/summer. But make no mistake, as the photo-op from a recent visit to a Detroit Airport parking lot makes clear (see right), even the slightest opportunity can be made good by a strategically placed, opportunistic Phragmites seed. Like it or not (and I don't), it's one amazing plant.

[I have consciously decided not to include images taken off-site of the marsh, but this one was just too good -- or bad -- to pass up. Be sure to click to enlarge.]

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Treework, Field Mowing & Indian Summer

At about the size of a dime, this Eastern Tailed Blue is the smallest
and most common blue butterfly found in Ohio -- it had me on the move trying
to capture its exquisite detail on another Indian Summer afternoon

The days are definitely getting shorter -- and fast -- but with nearly an entire week with afternoon highs in the seventies, it's truly hard to believe that November is right around the corner. I spent most of my last day at the marsh (last Thursday) sweating through a couple t-shirts. It hardly felt like the second half of October . . .

Roy and I spent the majority of that day clearing "debris" in preparation for a "field mow." I put both terms in quotations because the "field" is actually the ~six-acre former woodlot that we concentrated on back in the spring. [You can read about our initial efforts through some of my earlier posts: Step 1 of a Woodlot Restoration and Step 1 of a Woodland Restoration, continued . . .]

And the "debris" is a broad term -- it consisted mostly of smaller chunks of wood (mainly pieces of trunks, stumps, and roots). But it also included (1) a few newly fallen trees (four of the ~65 large specimens that we salvaged that didn't quite make it through the season's winds) and (2) dozens of thick necks of wine bottles cast into the thick understory years ago. This jagged green glassware has a story worth retelling (probably best for its own post), but suffice it to say the sharpened ends would make fast work of an unsuspecting tractor tire sidewall. So they had to be picked up before Roy could get going on the mower.

BEFORE: The "Tower Woods" restoration site just after noon on Thursday -- a complete hodgepodge of annuals
(mostly ag weeds) has taken over much of the understory since the removal of invasive bush honeysuckle and dead ash
trees last March; after a few hours on foot, things were picked up just enough that Roy could get underway with the mower

AFTER: The Tower Woods from a similar vantage point just before 5:00 Thursday afternoon;
what a difference a few hours makes with a brush hog mower and chainsaw!

Between bouncing around on the tractor (Roy) and lugging a chainsaw and downed limbs (me), both of us were pretty well ready to tag out by late in the afternoon. We probably have another 6-8 hours of tag-teaming left to ready the site for the transition to winter -- and eventually spring . . . when we will be planting 1,100 new tree seedlings on the site. Now that we know we can handle it with a tractor/mower, our management options expand for weed management after tree planting. It's going to be a lot of work, and (unlike marsh management) a lot of time. But eventually, we look forward to a new crop of woody habitat to infill among the towering canopy of hackberry, locust, maple, and other tree survivors.

I'll end this post the way I started: with a cool insect -- this Autumn Meadowhawk (see p. 61) is a classic
holdout for the late season bliss of Indian Summer
Sunny sumac leaves were lousy with these little predators (I watched them zero in on a handful of mosquitoes and midges
while I changed out of my work boots); but just because there were lots of them, it doesn't mean they were easy to
capture in a clear frame!

This particular male was the most cooperative, but I still wish I could have better captured the brilliance of his
red coloration -- autumn just seems to know how to bring out the reds!

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A Successful First Weekend

While I wasn't able to be at the marsh for opening weekend this year, I still really enjoyed getting the intermittent updates from happy hunters and satisfied punters. Despite a warm weekend with plenty of swirling southerly winds, many limits were taken. And yet again, my phone was barraged with encouraging texts and photos with full grins.

The daily bag is six birds per hunter, but as the smiling faces above demonstrate, it's not about the numbers. The only number important to these three hunters was one -- as in the first. Two of these three are lease holders, a father/son duo who have plenty of history with our specific marsh; the third -- their 11-year old son/grandson -- was just indoctrinated with his first duck (or ducks, to be more accurate). Cool to have three generations in one photo; even cooler to know that if the stars align they could have four generations hunting together this year.

We ask each lease holder to inventory what was harvested with each hunt -- e.g. species, gender, and quantity -- on what we call our Waterfowl Volunteer Survey. We fully understand that this information gathering is biased and incomplete, but it at least offers us a snap shot.

While I haven't seen much of the data yet, my hunch is that most of the weekend harvest was made up of mallards, blue-winged teal, wood ducks, and maybe a few of a few other species (e.g. pintail, green wings, wigeon, and gadwall).
A pretty solid weather front Sunday afternoon has ushered in cool, dry air with overnight lows these last couple nights flirty with 40 degrees. This is the coldest weather we've seen this season, so it will be interesting to see and hear how that alters what's flying.

A couple more happy hunters (and limits); one of the things I love most
about waterfowl hunting is that it brings friends and family together outside

Friday, October 13, 2017

Opener Eve

Weathered but ready for action: a punt boat full of decoys seemed like the perfect still life primer for the
excitement and enthusiasm that goes into duck hunting preparation

I don't feel like I'm a procrastinator, and Roy and I pride ourselves on planning ahead. But somehow, the last few days before the main duck season opens always feels like I'm running with my hair on fire. Tomorrow's the day.

The reality is we are and have been in pretty good shape. All of our major projects should be behind us -- barring something truly unforeseen. Roy is a master at anticipating the unexpected. He's been down this road a few times.

And the punters (particularly Jimmy) really make preparation for hunting itself pretty painless for the rest of us. He handles all the eager phone calls from adrenaline-infused lease holders on the West Marsh. And my guys leasing the East are very self-sufficient. Once we get the water levels where they need to be -- to facilitate access by both the hunters and the ducks, a task that is now just about complete -- punters and hunters put the finishing touches on blinds, insure access lanes are trimmed, and get the dogs and decoys ready. It's quite a ritual. But after decades and decades of fine-tuning, it's a pretty well-oiled (albeit unconventional) machine. People know what they need to do. And some of the fun of pushing finishing touches to the end is that it just builds excitement. For an avid duck hunter, the year really boils down to these few months.

The table is set. All we need now is for the weather -- and the birds -- to cooperate. Should be fun.

Much of yesterday was spent installing this 20' dock in the access to the Tower Marsh; I rebuilt itin two sections a year ago,
so I've been waiting a while to get this photo -- project completed

Our pedestaled boat blind as it is getting "grassed" (camouflaged with clumps of Phragmites and willow limbs);
the beauty of this system is the combination of mobility (it floats and pulls easily) and stability (the corner posts drop to
the bottom and make it as fixed as walking in your living room) -- it is as comfortable as anything I've ever duck hunted in 

"New #16" -- a modest 2-3 person fixed blind, now in place and ready to go near the footprint of its legendary predecessor
("Old #16"); the colors will blend as the temps drop and the surrounding vegetation continues to brown 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Walking the West Marsh

Grasshoppers, crickets, katydids, and others with six legs continue to be having a field day with these prolonged warm temps;
I don't know my insects very well, so I could use some help on this ID -- seemed to be a cricket (making noise with its legs
rather than wings, as hoppers do), probably 1-1/4" long, big jumper
With the sun shining (for a few hours at least) yesterday, I took the opportunity to photo monitor the West side of the property. I'm taking over 120 landscape images (monthly) for historical reference over there, but again, I could't resist capturing critters as they presented themselves. I thought I'd share a few of my favorite photos from the day.

We've had nearly four inches of rain in under a week with more unseasonably warm weather, so duck activity is still modest at best. But winds just shifted northeast, and we are supposed to cool off quite a bit -- at least for a day or two. By the time I drove home, the cloud cover had built up again and the temps were dropping. Afternoon highs reached the low to mid-seventies, but it was probably more like 62 by the time I got home about 6:00 last evening. That should usher some new birds down. And that's a good thing; the natives (duck hunters) are getting restless -- Opener is Saturday!

This parent trumpeter and its mate were accompanying four cygnets (young) through our newly emerging cattails in what
was millet last year; they were a ways away (~75 yards) when I took this shot, but both adults kept standing up
on muskrat hutches to keep an eye on me (Note the capture of water droplets from its bill . . . at 75+ yards!)

I like this photo because it shows several steps in restoration progress; from left to right: the water is up against the newly
installed stone protection in preparation for duck season; the middle of the image not only shows the heart of the new dike
(last year's effort), but newly emerging grass -- finally popping after all this water; and the right side shows the reds of a
bumper crop of smartweed -- a fowl-friendly food source that pioneered after the millet and will further 
encourage the proliferation of sustaining perennials like bulrush and cattail

Friday, October 6, 2017

Sights and Sounds of the Season

Two of the eleven trumpeter swans I got to watch as I worked my way around our eastern-most unit yesterday
(click to enlarge and enjoy the detail)

I love days like yesterday. After I assisted with the breakfast and day prep routine, my wife and kids were on the road to school. I got through my emails, ran through the snail mail, paid a couple bills, and was out the door not long after. A couple quick errands (to buy grass seed and pick up a trimmer part) prolonged my commute to work by a few minutes each, but by just after 9:00, I was at our field office.

The color pallet of sumac is typically an early indicator that more
leaf change is not far off
The day started with a Mule tour on the west side. I was pleased because I was finally able to show a friend from our church around the property a bit. Our schedules kept conflicting, so it was good to make it happen. While the cloud cover held on longer than had been forecast, and despite the fact that wildlife viewing was very modest (because we had punters prepping duck blinds in the marsh), he really seemed to enjoy himself.

After a little tire kicking around the bunkhouse, he was on his way home, and I was on to an afternoon of photodocumentation on the East Marsh. Besides the primary objective of gathering regular reference photos from the exact same vantage points and orientations at dozens of locations around the property, this discipline also affords me the unique opportunity to walk portions of the marsh with a camera in my hand -- and if I'm lucky, with very little distraction.

Black-legged Meadow Katydid;
sound familiar?
The photos included here were all taken as part of my broader efforts with the camera. So in addition to gathering great reference imagery on a landscape scale (for comparison through time as the habitat evolves), this monthly exercise has served as an informal way to build a timely photo journal.

From the changing leaves of staghorn sumac (above) to the intricate detail and familiar sounds of autumn insects (left and below), there is no doubt that we are once again in the midst of a major transition. Temperatures (70s and even 80s) have been summer-like, but the evidence of a new season is everywhere.

An additional fringe benefit of a few dedicated hours with a camera is that I can take reference photos of native plants. This time of year, I'm particularly interested in those that flower -- and eventually go to seed. If the plant is something that we see benefit in having more of on the property, I will often capture a GPS location of larger stands (both on-site and at other locations regionally). Assuming permission, I can then come back and collect seed that can be redistributed for our project.

The asters below are good examples both of a sign of the times (flowering asters in Ohio = autumn) and of native species that are desirable -- in this case, in the sense that they attract pollinators (not to mention they are beautiful). SIDEBARS: (1) I love how I can be taking a closeup photo of a plant or animal, and then find that I was inadvertently capturing other plants or animals in the frame (see below); (2) Asters can actually get pretty aggressive/invasive, so introduce them into a landscape with caution.

This image is like a Where's Waldo for insects -- can you find three?
Click to enlarge for a closer look

This little pollinator, which I believe is some type of hover fly, was kind
enough to pose again on a choice backdrop

I'll close this post with a vibrant image of a Differential Grasshopper -- a common species that was literally about
everywhere in the tall grasses yesterday; per usual, I love how this camera can capture the detail -- in this case,
not just of the insect, but also of the burdock leaf he is loafing on