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The Wonder of the Rushes
Exploring a wet and wild ecosystem
We struggle to find a way through the solid green wall of rushes four to five feet tall. We paddle along and scan for a channel wide enough for our canoe but find none. Finally, we discover an area with fewer rushes. Through and beyond them we spot a small but inviting area of open water that might connect to narrow channels along which we can investigate within these acres of rushes and their inhabitants. We turn the canoe and push gently into the thin round stalks that gracefully bend to either side, hiss as they rub against the canoe, and allow us entry into a special world.
Once through the gateway and into the rushes we’re happy to discover a narrow channel. We maneuver into it and follow it to a small oval of rush-free water. We stop paddling and sit quietly. The morning sun warms our faces as we wait patiently for the rushes’ residents to accept our presence and return to their normal morning activities.
Soon Mary spots a Western Painted Turtle plodding across a mat of fallen golden rushes that have collected in a small U-shaped indentation in the standing green rushes. When the turtle cranes its head to look back at us with tiny eyes intent, I grab my camera and zoom the telephoto. I discover small blades of grass protruding from its mouth. As I photograph, the turtle continues eating, and I’m relieved that our presence is not changing its behavior. We leave the turtle to its breakfast and paddle on. Ahead and to the right, a muskrat dives into the water so quickly that its body is just a narrow brown streak.
We enter another narrow channel that leads to a patch of open water as wide as our 18-foot canoe is long. We can’t see any birds but we listen to them fluttering and calling within the surrounding rushes. A dragonfly, buzzing wings glowing in the morning sun, hovers for a moment just above us.
Then a yellow-headed blackbird swoops in and perches on a rush. How, I wonder, does that tiny stalk support its weight? The bird sits for a moment glancing left and right and up and down before it launches and disappears.
Mary spots a bird nest concealed within the rushes. About two feet above the water, the builders—perhaps marsh wrens or red-winged blackbirds—have woven dried rushes and grasses around a number of standing rushes and built a cone shaped nest. We can’t see the builders but we hear some nearby birds emitting what sound like alarm calls. We paddle quietly away and leave them in peace.
This small lake is manmade and fills a valley behind a wide, curving earthen dam. I’m told that the reservoir was created in the 1930s for watering crops and livestock down the valley. Water enters from a surprisingly tiny stream on the side of the lake opposite the dam. Over the years, silt has collected near the dam. As we push through rushes to try and get closer to the dam, the water grows shallower until there’s less than a foot of water above the silt. I dip my paddle into the silt and bring some out of the water. It’s fine grained and black and fills the air with a pleasing earthy aroma. That silt has nurtured these rushes. And these rushes, in turn, have created an ecosystem that supports diverse wildlife.
As we exit the rushes and reenter the open lake, we are greeted by a wind strong enough to push our canoe to the side. Yet we did not feel the wind while paddling within the rushes. I marvel that the birds were intelligent enough to put their nests in such a protected area.
As we turn to head across the lake and back to camp, a shadow crosses the water and then our canoe. We look up and spot an osprey flying toward the open part of the lake with a fish dangling from its claws. Wow! Behind and above the osprey flies a larger bald eagle, white head and tail flashing in the morning sun. Wow! Wow! When the osprey banks to the right so does the eagle. Though the eagle tracks, it does not attack. As the osprey banks to the left, the fish slips from the its claws and drops to the water. Surprisingly, neither bird dives to retrieve the meal. The osprey veers right, the eagle left. The fish disappears into the lake.
We paddle on to camp and disembark. There’s hours left to sit and watch grebes, coots, and ruddy ducks interact on the open lake. There’s the afternoon’s ever-changing sky and cloud show to marvel at. Then sunset, a good night’s sleep, and another visit tomorrow morning into the wonder of the rushes.
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I write and photograph to protect wildlife and preserve wild lands.
My bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed. My books are also available on Amazon unsigned or as eBook or audiobook.
Image Credits: Photos by Rick Lamplugh