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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

It's Only Natural!

On the Water

By Tamia Nelson

June 11, 2002

You've got your kit. You've got your journal. You're all set to get out and "do" natural history. But what comes next? Where do you go, and what do you do when you get there?

Here's the good news. Natural history is everywhere. So begin with the waters you paddle most often, or those closest to your home. It doesn't matter where you go. Seashore, lake, pond, bog, stream, river, marsh—it's all water, and it all supports life.

Once you've got a destination, what next? It's your choice. Whatever tickles your fancy. Are you having a hard time making up your mind? No problem. Here are a few broad themes that may kick-start your imagination.

Wildlife Watching

Water is like a magnet for wildlife. Even urban lakes and "industrial" rivers will draw birds, mammals, turtles, and other wild creatures. And a canoe or kayak is a great platform for any water-borne naturalist. Taking notes, making sketches, or snapping photos—they're all a piece of cake for a competent paddler.

Begin by asking questions. What species of animals and birds live in, on, or near your chosen waterway? When and where do you see them? Do they favor particular hot spots, or are they wide-ranging?

Then write down what you learn. Each time you go afloat, note which birds and animals you see. Be sure to mention the time of day, the weather conditions, and the locations. Often you'll find it helpful to make a map and annotate it. You can either draw a sketch map or photocopy the topographic map which shows your "project area." Either way, make at least two copies: one for use in the field, and another—the "clean" copy—for your files.

Make lists. Compile a life-list of every creature you see. Or specialize, concentrating on one particular group—mammals, say, or waterfowl, songbirds, or turtles. Or follow particular individuals through the year. Keep tabs on a family of beavers, for instance. See if you can distinguish individuals. When do the young kits emerge in the spring? When do the two-year-old offspring strike out on their own? The questions never stop.

Of course some animals and birds are secretive. Then you'll have to rely on signs, rather than sightings. Here are a few things to look for:

  • Scat (that's naturalist talk for turds)
  • Tracks
  • Shredded or chewed twigs
  • Holes in the ground, banks, or trees
  • Nests or lodges
  • Scrapes and scent mounds
  • Dams
  • Trails
  • Middens (mounds) of food and food-scraps

A word about scat: It's not everyone's favorite topic, but scat is very important. Many animals leave their scat in prominent places, where it functions as either a calling card or a boundary marker. Waterside rocks, partially-submerged stumps, and stranded logs are favorite sites. (CAUTION! Never collect or handle scat. It may contain infectious cysts or other disease organisms. Make sketches or shoot photos, instead—and don't forget to include something for scale. Then, when you get home, consult a good field guide to figure out what you've found. I'll list some recommend guide-books in a later article.)

Whatever you do, keep your wildlife watching simple, at least at first. A pair of binoculars and a hand lens will broaden your horizons enormously, but you don't need a closet full of specialized gear. Still, if you love gadgets and if your bank balance will permit it, there's no limit to the possible: an amplified microphone, for example, or even night vision goggles. Anything, in short, that extends the reach of your senses.

Boating Botany

You could spend a lifetime getting to know the plants that live in water, at the water's edge, or in moist ground. What kinds of flowers grow in each environment? Why? When do they emerge, and when do they die back? Are certain plants only found in association with other plants? Which plants are native, and which are "accidental" or introduced species? How do the introduced plants alter the ecosystem?

The questions never end. Beginners can start by learning to recognize the common trees and wildflowers that "like to get their feet wet." Once you've done that, specialize. Choose one kind of plant—wildflowers, trees, ferns, or fungi (strictly speaking, fungi aren't plants, but they're close enough)—and bring an appropriate field guide along with you on every trip. Then, whenever you feel like taking a break from paddling, set about identifying every wildflower, tree, or mushroom you can find, making sketches and notes as needed.

If the kids are along, try making bark rubbings. You'll need a supply of strong, thin white paper and a wax crayon. Just place a sheet of paper against a tree trunk, hold it with one hand, and rub the side of the crayon across the paper with a top-to-bottom motion. Leave a white boarder along the edges. When you've filled the sheet, you're done. Now you've got a sample of bark without harming the tree. On the margin of your rubbing, note the species of tree (if you know it), where you found it, and exactly where on the tree you took the rubbing—chest high on the trunk, for instance—along with any other observations you think could come in handy. You might also want to take another rubbing at a different place on the same tree, since the texture of the bark frequently differs from one place to another. Do this often enough, adding sketches of leaves, flowers, and any fruit or nuts, and you'll soon have an invaluable reference guide to the trees along your favorite waterway.

Shallow Water Wonders

What exactly is in your water? We've all seen tadpoles—the bulbous, darting swimmers which grow up to become adult frogs or toads. But what about dragonfly nymphs? Or mosquito larvae? Or leeches, water boatmen, and scuds? (Not to mention freshwater sponges.) And let's not forget plants: algae and duckweed both have their place in the watery world.

Scoop up a sample of water in the shallows and take a look at what's in it. Use your hand lens. Healthy water's a happening place. Both fresh and salt waters play host to a wide array of living things. What kinds of creatures live in streams? In rivers? In salt marshes, or on rocky seashores, or in lakes? Reach into the shallows and pull out a stone. (Replace it—gently—when you're done.) Is there anything clinging to it? Look at the stalks of submerged plants. Who's hanging out there? Look and see.

Many of the insects darting about the shoreline or dancing over the water started life as aquatic larvae. Mayflies, caddisflies, dragonflies, damselflies, mosquitos, and blackflies—all begin as eggs laid in the water. These eggs developed into larvae, little (or sometimes big) wrigglers that are often quite startling in appearance and very different from the adults they will ultimately become. Some larvae even build carry-along homes which are marvels of engineering design. Take caddisflies, for example. Their larvae construct lovely tubes out of grains of silt and lengths of vegetation.

Want a front-row seat for the underwater drama? Pick up an inexpensive diver's mask at the local discount house. Then wear it when you go swimming and see what you've been missing. (If you're not into swimming, just hold the mask's faceplate underwater and look through it while you wade or lean over the gunwales of your boat. Warn your partner first, though—and be sure he's got a good brace. If you don't, you may go swimming after all!)

Or maybe you'd like to dig in. Buy a soup-strainer at the supermarket, and take it and a shallow, light-colored plastic bowl along on your next trip. Then put some water into the bowl and scoop a small sample of sediment from the bottom of a pond or stream. Now dump the sediment into the bowl and use your hand lens to see what you've got. Make notes and sketches, or shoot photos with a macro lens. When you've finished, return your "guests" to their watery home, pick a different spot, and repeat. (Be sure to swirl the strainer through any submerged vegetation to get a sample of any clinging insects.)

And don't neglect the night shift. After dark, aim the beam of a strong flashlight into the water along shore. Don't be surprised if you see the amber eyes of a crayfish looking back at you, or a school of fingerlings darting away.

Is That All?

No! Nearly three-quarters of our planet is water, and your voyage of discovery through the natural world is limited only by your imagination. As your experience grows, so too will your ambition. Get together with others. Take on a long-term project. Monitor a recreational waterway for shoreline erosion. Map nesting waterfowl nest sites. (But keep your distance from the nesting birds!) Or get technical and do a water chemistry profile of your favorite lake or river. You may be surprised at what you find. In fact, only one thing's certain—beaver pond or ocean margin, once you're on the water, the questions (and the surprises) never end.

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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