Tag Archives: marsh ecosystem

No better day

It got cold enough this morning for me to awaken and pull a blanket up over me. The night was just changing from dark to gray. I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I got up, ate breakfast, and decided to go walk at Great Meadows. It was five forty-five; I kissed Carol and left.

The moon, a couple of days past full, hung bright in the blue sky. It was higher than the sun. I stood on the dike in between the mud flats and cattails and pools of water looking at the swarms of sandpipers and plovers. Everything — mud, plants, birds, trees in the distance, one small puffy cloud, moon — could be seen with utmost clarity in the early sunlight and the cool dry air. Nothing seemed far away, not even the moon, which faded and sank towards the horizon as the sun rose higher. I turned my attention only to what was there, no stray thoughts or nagging memories of things I had to do, nothing existed but for marsh and birds and sky above and trees in the distance.

By nine, other people appeared, some with binoculars and some with cameras. Two men carried big cameras mounted on tripods, with huge lenses mounted on the cameras. They stopped to photograph a snipe that was less than a hundred feet from the path, poking its long bill into the mud. I talked idly with another birder. He said he wished he had worn long pants. I said it had been downright cold when I first arrived, even when I was standing in the sun, and there had been a chilly breeze from the north-northwest.

I walked along the old railroad embankment through the woods, and heard a the plaintive whistle of a Wood-Peewee: pee-ah-wheee. Back in the sun along the mud flats and cattails, the land had warmed up enough that anything seen through binoculars at a long distance shimmered from rising heat. But it was still chilly in the shade. Birds started up and flew madly in all directions, a dark shape twisted and turned just above the tops of the cattails: a Northern Harrier cruised over the marsh, hunting for breakfast.

On the way out, I ran into Dad. We went and got sandwiches and sat outside on a bench overlooking the river to eat them. The shadows moved around us, and finally I said I had to stand up. We had been sitting and talking for the better part of two hours, not conscious of the time going by. There can be no better kind of day than that.

Day hike: Lughnasa at Great Meadows

Dad and I decided to take a walk in Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge this afternoon. We didn’t walk very far or very fast, though. The recent cold front brought a big wave of fall migrants to Massachusetts, and we spent less time walking than we did looking at sandpipers, plovers, egrets, and heron.

We strolled slowly down to the Concord River along the dike between the upper impoundment and the lower impoundment. I’m sure the slanting light of a perfect, golden summer day made the marshlands look especially beautiful, but I was too busy looking at the birds. While Dad was busy taking a photo of a Solitary Sandpiper feeding in the mud close to the trail, I watched a Spotted Sandpiper bobbing and pulling loose molting feathers out of its breast.

On the way back up the dike, a pleasant woman asked us if we would stand behind that camera over there because they were filming a segment for the Nova public television program (I had thought the two men were just another pair of wildlife photographers), or if we wanted to be in the shot when the joggers came along she’d ask us to sign releases. We stood where she told us. Dad found another bird to try to photograph. I got into an animated conversation with a woman about shorebird identification and migration. After ten minutes, all three of us forgot about the cameramen, and the nice woman from public television had to ask us again to step back, which we did. Apparently one of the joggers they were filming was some famous woman marathoner, but I never did get a firm identification on her.

Someone had a Wilson’s Snipe in his telescope, and Dad and I got a good look at it. The light was absolutely perfect, but Dad and I were getting hungry so we strolled on back to the car and went to dinner. I dropped Dad off at his condo, and as I was driving home I realized today is Lughnasa, halfway between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox, the time of year when you really start to notice that the sun is setting earlier in the evening. The excitement of watching the first big surge of the fall migration makes the loss of daylight a little easier for me to accept.

Less than a mile in two and a half hours.


Yesterday, I arranged to meet my dad at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge for some birding. While I was waiting for dad to show up, I walked out the trail over the low dike that separates the two impoundments. Because of the late flooding this year, many of the cattails are still quite short, less than four feet tall. I was looking at some of the short cattails when I heard a familiar sound, a loud abrupt “kick-it, kick-it.” It was a Virginia Rail hiding somewhere in the cattails not far from the trail. Then another one started calling on the other side of the trail.

I stopped to listen, when suddenly one of the rails walked right up on the dike about fifty feet away, looked at me, and scuttled back into the cattails. Virginia Rails are small secretive birds and they can be hard to see, but every once in a while one will pop out into the open and let you have a look at it. I was thinking how lucky I was to see a Virginia Rail in the middle of the afternoon, when I realized the other Virginia Rail I had heard calling was coming out into the open practically at my feet.

As it moved closer and closer, I trained my binoculars on it. They’re odd-looking birds: drab brown, strangely thin from side to side so they can slip through the cattails, somewhat elongated, legs placed well back on their bodies, with very long toes. But when you look closely you realize they’re quite beautiful: their reddish-orange down-curved bill contrasts well with their gray cheeks and warm brown bodies. This particular rail got so close I could see individual feathers through the binoculars, and I could make out a neat subtle pattern on its back and wings. It fluffed up its feathers, uttered a loud “kak!”, turned and kept walking towards me.

The rail got so close I could not focus the binoculars on it. I looked down at it, not six feet away, moving across the trail and out in the open now but still moving furtively: a small brown bird, a fellow living thing, looking up at me. It moved quickly across the trail, and lost itself in the weeds and cattails.

“Wow,” I said out loud, to no one in particular, for there were no other human beings in sight. I felt a little light-headed: I had just been amazingly close to an amazing animal. The light-headedness lasted for a good half hour.


Met dad at the Monsen Road unit of Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. We brought binoculars and spent some time looking for birds, but we spent far more time talking.

The Refuge staff continue to tweak their management practices in Great Meadows. This year again, both the upper and the lower impoundments have almost no water in them.

The lower impoundment (northerly, or downstream relative to the Concord River) is substantially drier right now, with the only water visible being in the ditch that leads north from the central dike. Many of the familiar plants remain despite the lack of water. The surface of the water in the ditch is covered with duckweed; cattails continue to flourish along the central dike and the east and west sides of the lower impoundment; and some purple loosestrife continues to flourish even though the water levels have been managed at least in part to try to do away with this invasive exotic. More remarkable to me was what appeared to be quite a fair amount of wild rice plants. I am not secure enough in my identification abilities to be sure it is wild rice without actually tasting the grains when they are mature. Nevertheless, I don’t remember seeing this plant before at all in the lower impoundment, and it covers a good proportion of what used to be open water in the lower impoundment. Presumably when the impoundment is flooded again, the seeds of this plant will provide another food source for migratory waterfowl. In the mean time, the growth of the wild rice (or whatever it is) makes the area look far more like a meadow than a drained pool.

The upper impoundment still looks like a drained pool. The cattails fringing the central dike and the east and west borders, and the mass of cattails in the southern half (or upstream half relative to the Concord River) retain their familiar boundaries. A few scraggly loosestrife have sprung up in the middle of the open area, the now-dry pool. We could see the leaves of pond lilies far out in the middle of the open area, where there was still a sheen of water on the mudflats — along with scores of shorebirds and a flock of Cedar Waxwings just visible in the binoculars. I saw some water chestnut floating in the central ditch — an invasive pest on which the current water management practices seem to have made substantial impact. A Great Blue Heron stalked the margins of the central ditch, thus provingsome small fish still haunted its waters.

We walked up the dike between the river and the upper impoundment, towards Borden’s Ponds, and saw pond lilies in beautiful butter-yellow bloom in the mud flats of the impoundment. Along the river, we saw lots of cardinal flowers, now in their glory. Dad took a number of photographs of cardinal flowers, and of the Great Blue Heron when we were returning. To be honest, though, we didn’t spend much time looking at either plants or birds; mostly we had a good long talk.

On August 22, 1854, Henry Thoreau took a walk in Great Meadows. This was 3 days after Ticknor and Fields published his book Walden. He wrote in his journal:

Pm. to Great Meadows on foot along bank….

This was a prairial walk. I went along the river & meadows from the first–crossing the red bridge road to the Battle Ground…. There are 3 or 4 haymakers still at work in the great meadows–though but very few acres are left uncut. Was suprised to hear a phoebe’s pewet-pewee & see it. I perceive a dead mole in the path halfway down the meadow. At the lower end of these meadows–between the river & the firm land are a number of shallow muddy pools or pond holes where the yellow lily and pontederia–Lysimachia stricta–Ludwigia spaerocarpa &c. &c. grow where apparently the surface of the meadow was floated off some srping–& so a permanent pond hole was formed in which even in this dry season [there was a serious drought in the summer of 1854] there is considerable water left…. In one little muddy basin where there was hardly a quart of water caught hald a dozen little breams and pickerel only an inch long as perfectly distinct as full grown….

Saw a blue heron–(apparently a young bird–of a brownish blue) fly up from one of these pools–and a stake driver [bittern?] from another–& also saw their great tracks on the mud & the feathers they had shed. Some of the long narrow white neck feathers of the heron. The tracks of the heron were about six inches long.

Here was a rare chance for the herons to transfix the imprisoned fish. It is a wonder that any have escaped. I was surprised that any dead were left on the mud but I judge from what the book says that they do not touch dead fish. To these remote shallow & muddy pools–usually surrounded by reeds & sedge–far amid the wet meadows–to these then the blue heron resorts for its food.

This is a description of the results of landscape management in 1854, a century and a half ago. There were no dikes in Great Meadows then, and no attempt to provide open water as resting places for migratory waterfowl in spring and fall; instead the land was managed to produce hay for livestock. In 1854, there was no need to manage the landscape in order to minimize the incursions of invasive exotic plants such as purple loosestrife and water chestnut — those plants have only come to the Great Meadows in destructive numbers within the past thirty or forty years. The Great Blue Heron and the yellow pond lilies and the shallow pools filled with small fish remain constant.

And human beings continue to spend time in the Great Meadows. Dad and I didn’t see any hay makers, of course, but we passed four young people, summer employees of the Refuge, and their pickup truck on the central dike. One of them scanned the upper impoundment with binoculars while the other three talked, and today I found myself more in sympathy with the conversation than the observation.