Musings of a roaming nature nerd

The Intensives… C

The marsh. I always feel a sense of guilty pleasure as I slip the kayak into the river and let the morning chorus envelop me; gliding by, enchanted and focused on deciphering each voice in the cacophony. Am I really working?! The marsh changes constantly. The birds, muskrats, beaver, fish, insects and I all share borrowed water. Unnatural releases and holds on water slated for downstream irrigation mean tiny channels for paddling one day and wide open water the next. When the water is low and there appears to be more territory to go around, the birds somehow seem to tolerate each other less. They sing and defend their territories aggressively. With high water and less space, rather than creating competition, everything quiets. Birds seem to abandon the marsh completely rather than fighting for what is left. But the ones that remain loudly keep up the chattering, warbling chorus, perhaps in some way sensing how fortunate they are to still have nests in tact and food to be found.

A recent high water day exposed three American Coot nests, which are otherwise buried deep within the bull rush. With everything flooded, I could paddle into areas formerly inaccessible and discovered the nests. Two contained carefully guarded eggs (the parents splashing around and calling nearby to distract me away from the nests) and the third housed two fuzzy chicks. Still too hidden to photograph, I watched through binoculars as mama nuzzled and preened her babies and they climbed all over her and the grassy nest!

Secretive marsh birds, such as the Least Bittern, Sora and Yuma Clapper Rail creep about amongst the vegetation and occasionally reveal themselves in awkward moments teetering between bravery and foolishness. As I pulled my kayak out of the water the other day to survey the fields which make up part of my plot, a Clapper Rail watched me for several minutes before ducking into the grass never to be seen again!

The recent wildfire scorched the land to within 200 meters of the edge of the marsh, but fortunately didn’t make the jump across the fields to impact the marsh itself. While I surveyed, three coyotes watched me very warily as they trotted along through the burned trees. Through much of the west, coyotes are considered vermin due to their portrayal as livestock killers. If unlucky enough to cross property boundaries¬†they are often shot on sight.¬†Despite being one of the only large predators left, (most of their prey being mice, rabbits, quail and the occasional small deer) their key role in the ecosystem is overlooked due to this reputation. These coyotes had every reason to watch me cautiously as they skirted the now open territory between cultivated fields and charred cottonwood groves. They have learned over time what the presence of humans can mean.

Every survey site I visit offers something unique and special, but getting to know this particular plot has been a real joy. Next week I will glide through the channels, walk the fields, and get algae and wet bull rush slopped across my clothes for the last time. And when I paddle the somewhat grueling 364 strokes up the Colorado to my take out point I will undoubtedly feel melancholy, but also so fortunate to have been part of this amazing habitat and witness to its changes over the weeks and months.

The marsh during high water


Water level changes of almost a meter are common


Least Bittern making a quick flight between patches of bull rush


American Coot nest and eggs


Not the best photo of a Yuma Clapper Rail


Agricultural fields


Fire damage across the ag. fields


As this map of Marsh Wren territories shows, boundaries can be confusing week to week!

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