Wetland Haunts: a Canal Towpath/Trail

Fertile, slow-moving waters tend to be unsightly and uninviting in summer. Annual accumulation of nutrient-rich sediments and leachates (agricultural runoff and septic systems respectively) creates eutrophic conditions that support dense mats of aquatic vegetation above and below the surface. On larger surface waters large weed harvesting machines must actually be employed to maintain access for recreational uses.

First impressions of a scene like this canal waterway, its surface covered with duckweed, can also be misleading. Sometimes it’s best to lace up your boots, grab some gear and investigate before passing judgement.

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A school of small fish find shelter under duckweed.

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A muskrat sits on a small log in the middle of the canal, literally gulping duckweed by the handful.

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The muskrat eventually disappeared in thick vegetation at water’s edge. When I stood up to resume my walk, I realized I wasn’t alone on the towpath. A doe and fawn, 70 meters ahead, had their eye on me.

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Green Herons forage along the edge of the canal, usually concealed by dense riparian vegetation. I suspect this one was hunting frogs before I unknowingly disturbed it, forcing flight to a perch on the far side of the water to get a better look at the threat.

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The Fragrant Water Lily: so common, but too photogenic to pass up.

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One drawback to linear trails is the return trip – retracing a familiar, and disturbed, corridor. This morning proved to be an exception. I had no sooner turned around to walk back to my truck when I heard a sound 70 or 80 meters ahead; a sound best described as someone heaving a 30 pound rock into the canal. In fact, my first reaction was to scan the trail for people. Nothing. No one around. Then I heard it again, then again. Getting closer: a beaver was drifting downstream, in my direction, signaling danger by slapping its broad, flat tail  against the surface of the water.

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I’ve been “tail slapped” by beavers many times, usually in late evening while fishing too close to a lodge or bank den. I don’t have the words to describe that experience, the booming explosion, in fading light and completely unexpected, but I can say it is an honest test of the strength of your heart and cardiovascular system. This image, the middle one in a 5 shot sequence, shows the full scope of a violent tail slap; the camera captured an experience that I had never actually seen, or appreciated, in full.

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“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”   – John Muir

Photos by NB Hunter.©All Rights Reserved.

Hunting Quiet Waters

Earlier this summer I was walking the towpath of a small canal, wondering what I might discover in the heat of the late morning sun.

A young couple and their dog on a seldom used section of towpath trail – one of my favorite places

Nothing caught my fancy so I plopped down on a massive stone abutment, the remains of a 19th century aqueduct. The quiet, spring-fed canal water a few feet below soon showcased some of its many treasures. Miniature predators roamed the duckweed, lily pads and surface film. The activity was unpredictable and, at times chaotic – several species flying, darting, swimming, skating and swirling in all directions, in and out of sunshine and shadow.

Bluets are “pond damsels” and are common around still, sluggish waters and wetlands. They perch horizontally and hunt on the wing. Mosquitoes are fair game.

Damselfly (Bluet) at rest on a lily pad

Damselfly (female Bluet) laying eggs on aquatic vegetation

I once discovered a Water Strider while leading a group of 4th graders on a nature walk and paused to ask if anyone knew what it was. Water Strider!!! They all knew it immediately – a large group of 10-year-old kids, common knowledge. Inhabitants of still waters throughout North America, these fascinating insects dart around on the surface film with amazing speed, feeding on tiny aquatic organisms like mosquito larvae.

Water Strider (and reflection) on the surface film

Other common names include “Skaters” and “Jesus Bugs” (of course — walk on water!).

Water Strider on the surface film in bright, reflected light – underexposed for special effects

Oval, blackish Whirligig Beetles motor around on the surface film like wind-up toys on steroids. Compound eyes allow them to see above and below the film, a nifty adaptation for finding prey and avoiding head-on collisions with obstacles.

Whirligig Beetle (bottom center) pausing briefly on the surface film above a lily pad

A whirling Whirligig Beetle causing concentric circles in the surface film

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.